How to identify a toxic workplace

Toxicity may be silently killing your organisation – can you spot the signs early?

How to identify a toxic workplace

The definition of a toxic work environment is so vague that plenty of organisations can easily be found guilty of harbouring it in some way or another. Are you savvy enough to spot the signs?

Three researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia tried to narrow it down by stating that “an organization can be considered toxic if it is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees”. This means it’s detrimental to the business bottom line as well as overall well-being.

Toxicity can manifest in employees as well as leaders. Regardless of the source, it’s really up to the top rank to nip it in the bud and avoid any further issues of disengagement, attrition – or worse, legal trouble.

What does a toxic workplace look like?
Some of the world’s top organisations have been found to be toxic. For Amnesty International, a champion of human rights issues, leaders of all ranks were allegedly perpetuating a highly stressful environment.

The situation was so severe that it allegedly led to two employee suicides in 2018. It took the two tragedies to push the organisation to “wake up”, with five senior leaders taking responsibility and resigning after a damning independent report called Amnesty “toxic”.

READ MORE: How to handle a toxic boss

Some alarming points identified in the report include:

  • Staff don’t feel valued, protected, or treated with respect and dignity
  • Rampant discrimination and harassment
  • Leaders using bullying and public humiliation as management tools
  • Highly secretive and mistrustful leaders, resulting in an “us versus them” dynamic
  • A culture of overwork that’s “very isolating”, “where people barely talk to each other”

Amnesty’s case zoomed in on leadership’s failure to get a hold of things.

“The lion’s share of current staff well-being issues at Amnesty are not isolated to staff members’ routine exposure to suffering, abuse, and trauma,” wrote the report.

“Instead, the adversarial culture of the workplace, failures in management and People & Organisational Development (OD) functioning, and pressures related to workload are the most significant contributors to current well-being challenges.”

Besides the alleged apparent leadership problems, the report found that Amnesty’s HR was largely ineffective across the global organisation. While there were many hardworking and dedicated HR professionals, the investigation concluded that “the overall system is broken”.

They included instances where the people and OD function often failed to play a meaningful role in any grievance processes and to manage information as there was no accurate and timely communication.

Toxic culture in the digital age
While Amnesty’s case focused on the leadership side of things, Google’s toxic culture allegedly involved complaints about co-workers harassing and trolling others online.

READ MORE: How to handle a toxic employee

An internal survey conducted in 2018 found Google employees saying that the level of respect in company-wide discussions had declined and that incivility on internal communication platforms was on the rise.

CEO Sundar Pichai responded by announcing a new HR policy and guidelines for internal communications to address employees’ concerns oven workplace harassment. In a company-wide email, Pichai stressed that the company will continue to maintain its open culture but needed to enforce respectful communication among employees.

For Google, the toxicity was bred through internal employee mailing lists and messaging platforms that were hotbeds for harassment, particularly in discussions about diversity in the tech industry. The infamous case of the anti-diversity engineer started on those mailing lists.

But there were also reported cases of doxing, a form of online bullying where perpetrators anonymously distribute the victim’s personal information, such as contact details and home address, across the internet to embarrass or invite others to harass the victim.

Google’s case of toxicity looks worlds apart from Amnesty’s, but it nonetheless led to high-profile lawsuits from former employees alleging discrimination. What’s worse, Google was even investigated by the US Department of Labour for alleged pay discrimination.

Is your workplace toxic?
While both Amnesty and Google had distinct toxic cultures, they raised frustration levels across the organisation all the same. These are two highly successful international organisations with strong employer brands. If business success can’t safeguard an organisation from toxicity, what should HR look out for to ensure its well-being?

One thing that could help is this: a recent study by Paychex discovered that as an organisation grows, it becomes more susceptible to toxic behaviour. At crucial growth stages, leaders should thus consider keeping a closer ear to the ground.

The study found that companies with 500 or more employees have:

  • 70.8% likelihood of having staff spread gossip about each other
  • 70.3% likelihood of having poor communication between departments and workers
  • 70% likelihood of employees feeling overworked

One possible explanation for this trend is that as the number of employees increases, the more likely it is for different personalities to clash, the study noted.

READ MORE: How to resolve conflicts in a ‘toxic’ workplace

Additionally, it found that companies often lose track of their foundational values faster as the business expands.

Leaders in larger organisations are also more prone to toxic behaviours. Companies with 100 or more employees have:

  • 57.9% likelihood of executives showing poor leadership skills
  • 52.6% likelihood of managers setting unrealistic expectations
  • 51.1% likelihood of leaders micromanaging their workers

How to combat toxic workplace culture
To combat toxicity, two industry experts suggested that leaders stay acutely aware of the work environment and take better control of the situation.

“Toxicity in the workplace is costly,” Brigette Hyacinth, author and international keynote speaker on leadership and HR wrote on Linkedin. “Unhappy or disengaged employees cost companies billions of dollars each year in lost revenues, settlements and other damages.

“Once you identify the major problems by gathering information, develop a plan and follow through. It may mean training, moving or simply getting rid of bad bosses who are the root cause of toxicity in the workplace.

“Show employees you care and are committed to improving their workplace environment. Your employees can be your greatest asset, but it all depends on how you treat them.”

Ashok Miranda, author, speaker and business transformation architect shared the same sentiment around leadership’s role in setting the company culture.

“The day-to-day running of businesses is hard today. Everyone’s putting out fires all the time,” he told HRD. “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 believes it is the responsibility of the leadership team and HR to create the culture playbook and align people to it.

“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,” he said.

“It’s much easier to fix it earlier than later.”

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