April 13, 2023

From Hostile to Hopeful: Exactly How to Fix a Toxic Work Environment

Two coworkers peering over their cubicles at each other

When Flavia’s dream job began to have a negative impact on her, she found herself in a sticky situation — trying to navigate a terrible, horrible, no good, very toxic workplace

From an inbox full of “urgent” weekend messages to bandaid-over-a-bullet hole solutions, the company disguised their abuse as urgency. Fake COVID tests and forced pandemic travel were just the rotten icing on the cake.

Thankfully, Flavia was able to get out of Dodge and rekindle her love for consulting with a company that valued her expertise. “There is always a way out of a toxic relationship or work environment,” she says. And trust us, she would know.

Today one in nine employees say they’ve dealt with hostility in the workplace. That’s nearly 30 million people coping with excessive work stress, abusive team members, bad leadership, crappy culture, and poorly-designed job roles.

From increased absenteeism to costly legal battles, hostile work environments have severe consequences for your people and business.

In this guide to fixing a toxic work environment, we’ll walk through both sides of the equation to help you build a more positive and productive team. No hazmat suit required.

Curing a toxic work culture

  • What are the signs of a toxic work environment?
  • Why addressing a toxic work culture is worth every effort
  • How to fix a toxic work environment to protect your people and company

What are the signs of a toxic work environment? 🚩🚩🚩

A toxic workplace is more than a job you can’t stand. It’s a workplace where people feel that negative behaviors like bullying and manipulation are baked into the culture. Favoritism, exclusion, and sky-high stress levels become the status quo.

This not only impacts an employee’s ability to work, it also drives attrition and can even lead to lawsuits. Of course, there are also the “hidden” costs, including lost productivity, decreased employee engagement and diminished returns.

So what warning signs should you be looking for?

Keep your eyes peeled for the following red flags:

  • Increased employee turnover
  • Gossip and cliquiness
  • Finger-pointing
  • Passive aggression
  • Low morale
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Lack of transparency
  • Burnout
  • Lack of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)
  • Fear-based motivation
  • Lack of recognition
  • Results over everything mentality
  • High levels of stress and anxiety
  • No work-life balance
  • Little room to grow

If you notice any signs of a toxic environment, there’s only one thing to do — take immediate action to rectify the problem. From there, you can take what you’ve learned and build a solid process to prevent it from happening again.

Why addressing a toxic work culture is worth every effort

As a leader, you know culture is critical. If you care about retaining top talent, you can’t afford to let a toxic work culture fester.

Here are just a few of the very real costs associated with an unhealthy work environment:

  • Nearly one in five workers have left their jobs due to company culture concerns. 
  • The cost of replacing an employee is nearly $4,700 per hire.
  • A toxic work culture is 10 times more likely to lead employees to quit than poor compensation.
  • Workplace stressors can manifest as physical illness, increasing an employee’s odds of suffering from a major disease by 35% to 55%.
  • 84% of workers report that their workplace conditions have contributed to one or more mental health challenges.
  • 80% of millennials value culture fit over career potential.
  • Almost 69% of candidates would not accept a job offer from a company with a bad reputation, even if it meant remaining unemployed.

If a toxic workplace culture can send your top employees and candidates running for the hills, what can a healthy culture do for your bottom line?

Here’s what you stand to gain by taking action to improve your working environment:

  • 72% of employees working in an “average” environment have thought about quitting compared to only 32% of workers in “good” workplace environments.
  • Nearly 94% of managers agree that a healthy culture creates resilient teams.
  • Employees who feel like they belong deliver a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% decrease in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days
  • Happy employees were 167% more likely to recommend their workplace to others.
  • 81% of employees will actively seek out workplaces that support mental health.

Nurturing a positive company culture is clearly the right thing to do. But did you know it can also help protect you from expensive lawsuits?

Who is liable for hostility in the workplace?

Whatever the situation, the employer is liable for harassment by a supervisor or non-supervisory employee, unless they can prove they took steps to prevent and correct the behavior.

Legally, how do you identify a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment exists if:

  1. There is discrimination against race, religion, age, origin, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or disability.
  2. A reasonable person finds the situation hostile.
  3. Ability to work has been affected. 
  4. The problem is long-lasting. 
  5. The employer failed to act.

While any questions about the legal issues that may arise out of a hostile work environment should always be directed to a trusted legal expert, we’re here to help you understand the potential ramifications of a toxic work environment so you can do everything you can to prevent it.

How to fix a toxic work environment to protect your people and company

When it comes to toxic work environments, prevention is the best cure. But if you’re already seeing signs of hostility, don’t worry.

With a clear action plan, you’ll have everything you need to change the situation and get everyone to a place where they feel safe and excited to come to work. Here are a few key steps to get you started.

Step 1. Build a positive work environment from day one

The best way to prevent a toxic work culture is to set the right expectations early on.

Here are some key areas to introduce into your employee onboarding process:

  • Share anti-harassment policies from the first day - New hires need to know what’s expected of them. Be crystal clear from day one to get everyone on the same page.
  • Inform new hires about the grievance procedure - Hopefully, they’ll never have to use it, but new hires need to know they’ll be heard if anything does go wrong.
  • Put your best foot forward with strong employer branding. Before an employee even becomes an employee, your company culture speaks volumes. Communicate a healthy culture, and the right people will follow.

With the right employer branding in place, you’ll have a pool of positive applicants to choose from. Make sure you also have systems in place to identify the candidates from that pool.

For example, you can use tools like candidate questionnaires, video responses, and even personality assessments to get to know your top candidates better. Always make sure you conduct fair and thorough background checks, and listen carefully to comments from your candidate’s referees.

Step 2. Be clear about what unacceptable behavior looks like

When it comes to nurturing a healthy working culture, an HR communication strategy is key.

Embracing transparency at the management and leadership level is a great way to prevent small grievances from spiraling into big problems. Which also makes it one of the most powerful tools for preventing a toxic work environment.

Here are a few ways to communicate your position on respect and conduct in the workplace:

  • Be clear about your expectations - Your employees need to know what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior in your company. Share a list of behavioral guidelines during onboarding and make that list available at all times. 
  • Encourage employees to speak up - Management can’t be there to spot every interaction between coworkers. If hostile behavior takes place, employees should feel empowered to speak up.
  • Show you mean it - The key to a supportive culture is to act on complaints of a toxic job or coworker as soon as they happen. If employees know you’ll back them up, they’ll be more likely to express concern early.

You could even take extra steps to consistently communicate your expectations so everyone stays on the same page. 

For example, hanging a copy of your code of conduct where everyone can see it, sending periodic reminders for remote or WFH employees, and actively acknowledging employees who speak up are all great ways to maintain, or even reset, expectations across the organization.

Step 3. Provide the right training

Regular training can help you build a positive work culture by enlisting the help of a trained professional to diffuse the situation and find a productive way forward.

To avoid a toxic work environment, your employees need to know how to: 

  • Identify hostile behaviors
  • Approach the hostile party in the right manner
  • Support victimized coworkers
  • Ensure compliance with anti-harassment policies
  • Assess and monitor hostile situations
  • Implement the grievance procedure

Anti-harassment training gives employees information, resources and perspective they may not have had before. And by introducing a neutral third party into the conversation, employees often feel more comfortable voicing their concerns or asking questions they may not have felt comfortable asking their coworkers.

Step 4. Establish a solid grievance procedure

Let’s say an employee has just experienced some form of harassment and they know they need to tell someone. But when they go to their supervisor, the process grinds to a halt. 

Neither the employee nor the supervisor knows what to do next, so nothing gets done. The harassing behavior continues and slowly but surely, your turnover rate increases. 

Situations like this are why every business needs a clear grievance procedure. Here’s what a typical procedure could look like: 

  1. The victim takes their grievance to their immediate supervisor within a set amount of time after the issue occurred. 
  2. The supervisor either responds with informal action or escalates the concern to the head of department.
  3. The situation is investigated by the employer and the offending party is offered an opportunity to respond.
  4. Next, a grievance meeting takes place where the victim can explain their side of the story and is asked how they think it should be resolved. They should be allowed a companion to this meeting.
  5. The employer decides whether to accept or reject the grievance. This decision should be communicated in writing ASAP, with the right of appeal.
  6. If the decision is rejected (or partially rejected) by the victim, the issue is escalated to an impartial manager (and a more senior employee if possible). The situation will be assessed again, as will the grievance procedure itself, and a hearing will take place followed by a written letter.

For more information, you can refer to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) code of practice or the US code on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Step 5. Embrace DEI

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is central to a thriving work culture. But too often, employees of color are disproportionately impacted by toxic workplace conditions. And according to Greg Fontus, the Lead DEI Consultant at Proactive Talent, somethings gotta give.

“[Candidates] want to see DEI as something that isn’t performative, and instead embedded as a core value throughout the organization. No longer can companies go through a hiring cycle without showcasing the importance of diversity to candidates.” 

In other words? Build a truly inclusive post-pandemic work environment.

Here’s how to create a culture of inclusion that’s anything but toxic:

  1. Conduct a culture assessment to pinpoint areas for improvement.
  2. Diversify your hiring network and incorporate diversity messaging in your employer branding.
  3. Implement blind hiring to remove potential bias triggers from the hiring process.
  4. Create a safe work environment where diverse employees can grow.

Bad working environments don’t have to be business as usual

No matter how awesome your company is, hostile behavior can happen. And the outcome can be damaging to your people and your business.

From getting clear on what unacceptable behavior actually looks like to setting up a solid grievance procedure that everyone knows about, the right steps can help you get back on track.

When you’re ready to attract the right people for your team, Breezy is here to help. With automated candidate questionnaires, assessment integrations and background checks, it’s easy to connect with the right candidates faster.