Toxic workplaces: Three warning signs for HR

Do any of these red flags feel familiar?

Toxic workplaces: Three warning signs for HR

It goes without saying, toxic workplaces are bad for business. Regardless of whether you have a star salesman or a talented media manager, if the workforce as a whole is suffering then things need to change.

Speaking to HRD, Saranne Segal, workplace conflict resolution expert & MD of Segal Conflict Solutions, said the issue of toxic workplaces has only gotten worse since the pandemic began.

“People often think Covid would have lessened bullying because of the shift to remote working but it's really the opposite,” she said. “Cyber bullying is not a new thing, but now even more people are able to hide behind a screen.”

Segal said many of the complaints now centre around people being excluded from virtual meetings or chats, which then spirals into bullying. The vast amount of time being spent behind a computer, rather than face-to-face, is also blurring the boundaries of what is acceptable.

As coworkers become more casual with each other, they’re more likely to cross the line and say something that they wouldn’t if the person was sat across from them. Segal’s research found 48% of the 300+ bullying victims surveyed said instances of bullying had increased since the advent of the pandemic. Yet only 1/3 of victims felt they could talk to HR about the issue.

Read more: Bullying executives could now face jail time

How to spot a toxic workplace

Some of the signs are glaringly obvious, Segal said, likening it to a sickness that is visibly affecting most of the office.

“Toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout and fatigue, mental, physical illness due to high levels of stress and employee absenteeism is obviously a big red flag,” she said. “You can feel an underlying toxicity. There’s no energy, no-one is smiling, there's no camaraderie or chatting between colleagues, it's all heads down, and that is a really strong indicator I think of a toxic workplace.”

Another sign is a high level of bullying complaint, because in a toxic work environment, bullying if often rife. Segal said sometimes it’s even used as a tactic by managers, in a misplaced effort to dominate their employees and create a culture of fear. On the other hand, bullying from the top is not always so overt. Sly comments, eye-rolling and passive aggressive digs all contribute to a toxic manager whose behaviour flows down into the rest of the organisation.

“Another very common symptom is poor communication,” Segal said. “It can be when information vital to doing the job is being withheld from someone or when employees are getting little to no feedback at all.”

Research has shown that on the whole employees crave feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. Employers that regularly ask employees for their opinion foster a collaborative workforce, and one that’s far less likely to be plagued by bullying.

Read more: Calls to tackle New Zealand’s workplace bullying problem

For HRDs, it can be incredibly difficult to shift the dial on bullying if it’s coming from the top. But a willingness to act, even if it involved the company’s star player, is key, Segal said. It's an issue we’ve seen play out in Parliament House over the past month as allegations of sexual harassment and abuse among senior staffers came to light.

But there are measures HR can take to improve the workplace experience for staff. Culture surveys are an effective measure to gauge how the workforce is feeling and where the problem areas lie. Allowing for anonymous feedback is another tool, particularly powerful in an organisation suffering from a lack of trust between its staff and HR. HRDs should also be looking at absenteeism rates and any areas of the business where turnover is particularly high.

Underpinning it all should be a clear process of how to deal with bullying complaints in an unbiased way. Employees need to feel confident in the way HR deals with complaints, regardless of whether it involves the CEO or the latest graduate. Without that key component, Segal warns HR is facing a losing battle when it comes to reforming a toxic workplace.

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