How to tackle toxic workplace culture

Nobody wants to work in a “toxic” office. Can HR overturn a negative work environment and retain staff?

How to tackle toxic workplace culture

Nobody wants to work in a place with a “toxic” culture. Besides higher turnover rates, the company may face lower productivity levels and in extreme cases, costly legal battles, all of which will eventually hurt the business bottom line.

A toxic culture can manifest in many forms and the size of the company does not dictate whether the workplace will remain free of negative practices. Big names like Uber, Google and Volkswagen are just three mega companies that have made headlines for their toxic culture.

Words like bullying, discriminatory, harassment and dictatorial have all been used to describe the allegedly unhealthy workplaces at the three industry giants. Those words were used not just to refer to management practices at the top but sometimes even among employees.

Uber faced accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment, while Volkswagen’s ongoing emissions scandal has been linked to an alleged “dictatorial” culture.

Uber attempted to overturn its toxic workplace culture through internal investigations, multiple firings as well as a change in CEO. The situation remains dire and recently it faced a new probe by a US government agency.

At VW, the decision to cheat on emissions testing was deliberate but employees were afraid of speaking up against management. The stifling environment was allegedly created by former CEO Ferdinand Piech who frequently dropped threats of firing people for underperforming.

As for Google, despite claiming various awards for having the ‘best company culture’, it was recently revealed through internal surveys that its employee communication platforms were rife with bullying and harassment.

Uber and Volkswagen continue to deal with hefty legal battles despite its best efforts. Google however introduced a new HR policy in July to improve the way employees communicated with each other.

Spotting the signs
Why does toxic culture happen in an organisation and how can HR spot the signs and nip the problem in the bud?

In ‘Culling Culturitis’, a book by author, speaker and business transformation architect, Ashok Miranda wrote how companies can get rid of toxic culture and build a winning one. He outlined 11 tell-tale signs of a toxic workplace culture – or as he calls it, culturitis.

Here are three typical features highlighted by Miranda:

  1. The “heads down” culture

Employees ignore everyone around them and are too “busy doing their own thing” to care about their surroundings

  1. A “morgue”-like office vibe

The atmosphere is overly formal and employees interact only on a need-to basis. Miranda wrote, “no one talks, jokes or says much”

  1. The “rumour mill” effect

Office gossip and negative “corridor whispers” are a main feature of the workplace

“What happens is most companies leave culture to chance,” Miranda told HRD. “They don’t make it a priority and they don’t have a process where they nurture and build their culture. Left to chance, [toxic culture] happens.

“New employees come in, cliques form and the culture happens by chance…Every organisation has a culture – it’s whether it’s weak or strong. If you don’t manage the processes and don’t have a culture code in the company, there is a danger that it can take a life of its own.”

In the book, he wrote that most companies are not even aware that they’re suffering from a toxic culture as it has become “a way of life” and the negative practices are “deeply ingrained in the people”. Such an environment is only obvious to people “on the outside”.

However, he added that there is hope yet – leaders can get a feel of the office culture by scanning sites like Glassdoor or conversations on social media platforms, in addition to doing employee surveys.

Better yet, leaders can simply talk to employees one-on-one regularly to develop trust or maximise exit interviews to get an honest review of his/her experiences at the organisation.

As the adage goes, knowing the problem is half the battle won. Leaders can then start the real work and tackle any pitfalls within the company culture.

The remedy
Miranda shared with HRD that although overturning a toxic work environment requires a lot of effort, leaders can start by following a process he developed called ADCOE. By adopting the ADCOE process, companies can create a strong culture code from then on out.

ADCOE stands for:

  • Assessment: Evaluate the current culture
  • DNA: Determine the company purpose, vision and mission
  • Company codes: Define company values, how employees should act, the ideal product and what customers can expect from the organisation
  • Evangelise: Evangelise the new culture throughout the company

Leaders already have a lot on their plate on a day-to-day basis, so how can HR take on this massive task of setting the right culture code?

“The day-to-day running of businesses is hard today. Everyone’s putting out fires all the time,” Miranda said. “But you need to step back and say, ‘okay why are we doing this? We need to set a priority for our business’. You need to make culture a priority.”

He added that if organisations want long-term sustainable success, they need to take a step back and understand that a company’s culture underlies almost every part of the business. Simply put, a strong positive culture will have an aligned organisation that works towards the same goals and mission.

“It’s the responsibility of the leadership team and HR to create the culture playbook and align people to it,” Miranda said.

“When I speak to companies and ask about how they would have done things differently, most would say they would have dealt with culture at the start and set a culture code when they were employee number 20, instead of when the company is at a headcount of 60 or 100. It’s much easier to fix it earlier than later.”



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