How to manage a toxic workplace

What red flags do HR leaders need to identify and what can be done to prevent them?

How to manage a toxic workplace

A toxic workplace can disrupt even the most productive employees if it’s allowed run rampant – so human resource leaders should on the lookout for potential red flags and be prepared to take quick action if needed.

But what are some of the signs HR leaders need watch out for? Below, we look at what causes a healthy workplace to turn toxic and what employers can do to prevent it.

Read more: Do financial incentives really improve performance?

Red flags of a toxic workplace

There are many signs of a toxic workplace – some more obvious than others. Below are some of the common signs of a toxic environment:

1. Weak communication

Communication is vital for any successful organization. Conflicts, misunderstandings, and poor work quality can all arise when managers and employees fail to listen and actively communicate with each other. And while it can seem obvious, smart leaders know that poor communication can snowball into a toxic workplace.

HR leaders and managers should be watch out for indications of bad communication in their work environments. Common signs include weak listening skills, passive-aggressive language between co-workers, lack of clarity around projects, and employees receiving different messages from supervisors and managers.

2. Poor leadership

Having a destructive and toxic leader can have a significant impact on employee productivity and engagement. According to research conducted by Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), six out of 10 employees point to managers as the reason they have resigned from their companies.

A toxic leader hates being wrong and tends to downplay their members’ accomplishments. They like to cause division amongst the team, play favorites, micromanage staff, disrespect members, and neglect their needs. 

3. Cliques, exclusion, and gossipy behavior

It is healthy for employees to form bonds with each other in the workplace, but creating strong knit groups to the point where other employees feel uncomfortably left out could create unnecessary division.

Employers should watch out for signs of certain groups of employees who have a general disinterest in anyone outside of their group – unless it involves gossip and rumors.

4. High employee turnover

It is normal for employees to leave their jobs in search of better career opportunities. But leaders need to be able to manage high turnover rates as it can be a sign that something is negatively affecting the workplace and its employees.

High turnover can also affects a company financially – in fact, an SHRM study found that turnover rates cost employers $223 billion from 2014 to 2019.

Read more: Employee turnover: Learn to calculate and improve yours

5. No work-life balance and burnout

Employees should be able to draw a line between work and personal time without feeling guilty. A healthy work-life balance helps employees reduce stress and helps prevent burnout in the workplace. Therefore, companies should monitor any alarming signs of individuals working too much or not working enough and encourage them to take time off work.

6. Limited career growth

Career growth is important for employees – and when employers do not provide opportunities for members to move forward in their careers, they end up with unmotivated and uninterested employees.

Ways to improve a toxic work environment

When managers identify red flags, they can take appropriate steps to mitigate toxicity in the office. Below are some concrete steps to help resolve toxic workplaces:

1. Create a network of trusted coworkers

When leaders do not trust the skills and expertise of members, it leads to micromanaging, which raises mistrust and self-doubt in employees. Conversely, when employers view employees as trustworthy, they will likely reciprocate the sentiment.

HR leaders could schedule check-in meetings once a month – or even as frequently as once a week – to effectively oversee the work of their members without suffocating them and making them feel pressured.

In addition, leaders should openly listen to employees' views regarding their work, management, and office environment. Asking for feedback is a great way to let employees voice out any of their concerns and better understand what employees need.

2. Reiterate important goals

Employees should be aligned with the company’s values and goals as they serve as employers’ expectations for individuals. The goals and values should be clear and transparent to ensure everyone is on the same path. It is also easier to form and maintain a particular company culture when clear goals are set.

Specific processes and procedures need to be aligned with the company’s goals as well. Employers should always review policies, procedures, and even benefits to see if there is any disconnection between company goals and the current state of the workplace.

3. Train leaders to be better

Great leaders should be able to guide and encourage employees to do their absolute best in their roles. A great way to make sure great leaders are present is by holding professional development courses and seminars to tackle the cause of toxic leadership. These courses can also attract aspiring leaders of the company aside from enhancing the skills of current managers.

It is also a good idea for organizations to conduct reciprocal evaluations to track managers and employees. Employees will submit evaluations of their manager’s performance and behavior, just like how managers create reviews for their employees during review sessions and quarterly appraisals.

4. Encourage work-life balance

Although employees play a part in creating a healthy work-life balance that works well for them, employers can implement some workplace practices to help encourage and support employees build the healthy boundaries they need.

Employers could provide flexible and remote working schedules to help employees work at a pace that suits them the most. HR leaders should also encourage managers to focus on productivity rather than the hours spent on a certain project. Regularly reviewing workloads and allocation of work between individuals help create balance and build teamwork within the organization.

5. Treat everyone in your organization like human beings

Employment Hero’s chief people officer Alex Hattingh told HRD it is important to have a discussion with an employee that is showing signs of toxic behavior as soon as possible. Being honest and treating them as adults throughout the process helps them understand and address their toxic attitude straight away. 

Showing employees that they are respected as people and professionals in their field helps them trust the employers and is more open to resolving whatever issue they are causing themselves, the company, and their colleagues. 

6. Increase recognition and reward programs

Monitoring employees and making sure they stay motivated and appreciated in the company is crucial. Leaders should reward and praise employees for their outstanding work with promotions, salary raises, bonuses, or additional benefits such as subsidized gym memberships, discounts, and food or petrol allowances.

Employees are more motivated to create high quality work when they know their employers formally acknowledge and reward those efforts.

Read more: 10 signs you’re about to hire a toxic candidate

When should employers let go of toxic employees?

Everyone should be given a chance to improve as an employee. So when toxic behavior is identified, it should be managed as soon as possible. If an employee refuses or fails to change, even after more severe action is taken, it may be time to consider letting them go before they cause even more harm.

Gemma Lloyd, CEO of Work180, told HRD that asking the right questions in initial interviews can help see if a potential employee will fit the company. Applicants who complain about their previous employers or bosses may be toxic employees in the future. 

Although HR leaders need to be proactive in maintaining a positive work environment, each member of the organization is responsible for keeping workplace toxicity low. Individuals at every level of an organization can easily contribute to a toxic workplace – and everyone should do their part in creating a healthy space within the company.

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