Signs of a Toxic Work Environment (Employers Guide)

Toxicity in the workplace is a topic that isn’t openly discussed, but it’s something companies need to speak about more. As an HR manager, the wellbeing and happiness of your employees are critical to maintaining a healthy working environment. Being able to recognize a toxic work environment, acknowledge and make changes before the workplace becomes too toxic, is one of the main responsibilities of the HR department, yet it is often overlooked.

So much of what you’ll read online about workplace toxicity speaks to the employee, but what about those who are responsible for implementing change? There’s rarely enough support for the members of the HR department. Most likely, by the time you’ve sat down to focus on whether or not there is a negative work environment that needs fixing, it’s often too late. The challenging part is that your role often requires you to ping-pong between workplace logistics, hiring, and more. It’s no wonder why many human resources decision-makers are left with little time to ask the most important questions. 

Toxic Workplace – Is there an Epidemic? 

The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) conducted a study, looking at the financial effects of toxic work culture. What they found was astonishing. The cost of turnover due to toxic workplace culture cost American companies roughly $223 billion. Aside from the financial costs, a company experiences other losses too. Before we get into what those are, let’s first get clear and define what workplace toxicity is, how to spot it, and what you, as a member of the HR department can do about it. 

Defining a Toxic Work Environment

A toxic environment can be attributed to a single factor such as an abusive boss, or a compilation of many things, including a poor workspace atmosphere, unfriendly staff, or anything that causes dissatisfaction or unalignment within the team.

Most often than not, employees who find themselves in a toxic work environment, tend to display low morale and fall sick often. Workplace toxicity is a powerful cause of illness to one’s physical and mental health. If you are responsible for the employees in the company, you first need to be able to recognize the signs of a toxic workplace. Secondly, you need to know how to implement positive change to shift the environment. The business depends on it!

Signs Your Company has a Toxic Work Culture

As HR, it’s your duty to tune in and be aware of what are the signs of a toxic work environment. The most valuable indicator of whether your workspace is toxic or not is by observing your employees. Three of the clearest signs of toxicity are:

  • Physical/Mental Discomfort 

Employee Burnout is a serious result of the oxidative stress your body experiences after extended mental and physical symptoms of fatigue. Your employees may not be able to communicate the discomfort they feel, but intuitively you can come to your own conclusions. How? By looking into the worker’s productivity, asking them the right questions, and monitoring the number of sick days they have taken. If you don’t already have a system to track this information, it’s worth considering investing in HR software to help manage employee leaves. The data you collect provides valuable information, which can help you make better company decisions in the future. 

hr software

  • Lack of Enthusiasm & Poor Communication 

The way your employees interact with each other gives you a massive insight into how healthy is the workspace. The next time you overhear your employees, observe their expressions, and in particular, pay attention to the tone of their voice. Even without knowing the context of the conversation, you’ll be able to intuitively know what they’re feeing, most of the time. A single toxic employee who displays a lack of communication provides a clear sign there is some sort of workplace conflict taking place. 

  • Power Struggle

If you start to notice that managers and supervisors are bulldozing over their teams, it’s time to raise the red flag. Good leadership doesn’t involve a force of power or oppression. When senior members of staff appear to be abusing their power, it may be time for a performance review. As a part of the human resources department, the wellbeing of the employees is something you need to worry about.

Effects of Toxicity in the Workplace

  • Workplace Division 

Is everyone working together or working against each other to satisfy their own interests? If you start to notice even the slightest sign of workplace bullying, it´s time to jump in. Co-workers don’t have to be best buds, but they should be contributing to a collaborative and supportive environment. Within the role of an HR manager, creating the conditions for your employees to connect and collaborate is the best way to harbor a positive work environment. 

  • High Turnover Rate 

If you start to notice that your company turnover is higher than normal, it’s time to stop and take note. A high rate of turnover is often a strong indicator there is something lacking in the environment. 

  • Decreased Productivity

The hamster wheel of constant go go go leads to overload, overwhelm, and quickly to burnout. An employee who begins to feel this way is often less productive and carries a shorter fuse (ie.patience runs thin and anger is triggered easier).

  • Lack of Ownership 

When a work environment becomes toxic, many people fail to leave. Although the conditions aren’t favorable, they are still receiving a salary and this brings them a sense of comfort. These employees continue to show up, but begin to adopt a ‘that’s not my job’ way of thinking, and won’t go outside the duties of their role. Doing less becomes a part of their routine.

Workspace Detox – Changing the Environment 

More and more companies are focusing their attention on the wellness of their employees. It’s for this reason that during their annual hr audit, they make sure to spend time analyzing workplace satisfaction. 

Related: Creating a Healthy Work Environment

Whether you like it or not, employees come to you to fix workplace-related toxicity. It’s for this reason, you better be prepared when these situations arise. The best way to handle them is to first be able to recognize them. Now that you know the signs (if you forget them already, head back to the start of the post), it’s time to identify some tips to help you manage them. 

How can you help detox the workspace? 

First and foremost, you’ll want to follow these initial steps:

  1. Acknowledge any unacceptable behavior
  2. Submit an incident reports
  3. Document everything 

Once you’ve taken the initial steps to acknowledge and document the situation based on your perspective, it’s time to dive deeper into changing the atmosphere in the workspace. It’s important to encourage employees to speak up by providing them a safe space to do so. Lack of effective communication can intensify the toxicity, and that’s the last thing you need. 

Next, it’s important to set clear boundaries and make sure that all employees are playing by the same rules. Ask yourself, is there one set of rules for one person, while the others are expected to follow something different? If the answer to this is yes, it’s time to re-evaluate some things.

Legalities Around a Toxic Workplace

Let’s look at the example of verbal or sexual abuse. Many countries have strict laws against this type of behavior. As a part of the HR team, you must be aware of the legalities when it comes to these things so you can take the proper action required by law.

The incorrect management of the following situations could result in a breach of law. 

  1. Discrimination (gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability). 
  2. Sexual harassment (man/women, women/women, man/man)
  3. Failure to address discrimination or sexual harassment. 

Whether a toxic work environment is due to physical causes such as small spaces or bad ventilation, emotional (verbal abuse), or organizational (lack of transparency or management issue), what’s important is knowing how to recognize these issues when they arise and take immediate action to ensure they don’t escalate.

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