Workplace Culture

Fixing The Fruit: Diagnosing And Improving Toxic Workplace Cultures

— By Belinda Jones

There’s an old saying, “A tree is known by its fruit”. If the tree is good, it bears good fruit. Similarly, a bad tree will produce bad fruit. To discern if a company’s culture is good or bad, stakeholders need only to take a look at the “fruit”, or outcomes.

Silly? Given how much time the average Canadian spends at work, the environment at the office can have a dramatic impact on mood and well being. Because teamwork is such a valued quality in Canadian organizations, workplace culture breaks down when not everyone is engaged or feels valued. Thus, a toxic work culture can lead to serious negative trends, including the chance that the whole office must be “pruned” to prevent spreading toxicity. To prevent that, the paragraphs ahead will review how to identify and begin to change toxic cultures for the better.

Damage of A Toxic Work Culture
A toxic work culture is one in which the employee feels unwelcome or harassed. While playful teasing or office banter may be generally good-natured, when the line is crossed into abuse, discrimination, or offensive name-calling the culture is no longer conducive to healthy development. Canadian courts have awarded monetary compensation to harassed employees and held businesses responsible for the workplace environment. Even if not technically illegal, such harassment can damage employee mental health, organizational profitability, and long-term retention and recruitment efforts.

Toxic workplace culture has been shown to lead to “depression, physical disease, and even death,” according to Michael Koscec, author of Energizing Organizations: A New Method for Measuring Employee Engagement to Boost Profits and Corporate Success. Incivility in the workplace has been linked to insomnia, which has corresponding negative impacts on mood and physical health.

There is damage to the company bottom line as well. Workers with employment-related mental health issues miss work, under-perform, and rack up medical costs through prescriptions and treatments. Substance abuse issues have even been linked to workplace dynamics. Tired and stressed employees cannot be as productive if they feel unwell. Broken trust between team members reduces cooperation and coordination.

When employees are not treated well, they tend to disengage. This can be as simple as remaining silent and as serious as intentionally sabotaging a company’s goals. Workers in a toxic culture may begin discouraging peers from applying for promotions or open positions, causing problems with talent development and recruitment efforts. Replacing workers who have quit suddenly can be very costly for organizations that must be continually on-boarding new hires.

Identifying a Toxic Work Culture

A few key diagnostic questions can help to identify if a work culture has become toxic:

• Do a variety of employees regularly contribute ideas and input into corporate meetings? Or is it usually the same few, who may talk over or intimidate others?

• To what extent is innovation present and encouraged? Or are employees uninspired and fearful of taking risks?

• How much personal leave was taken by employees over the past year for mental health issues? Have healthcare costs increased?

• How does employee turnover compare to competitors and industry peers?

• How frequently is HR being asked to intervene in interpersonal conflicts? Is there a negative trend that could be indicative of underlying issues?

• Do customer satisfaction surveys reflect apathetic service?

• Does the organization struggle to attract and retain top candidates?

• Are employees encouraged and supported in taking their full vacation days? How much are employees out on leave expected to check in or return emails? What do leaders model in this regard?

Workers in a toxic culture may begin discouraging peers from applying for promotions or open positions, causing problems with talent development and recruitment efforts. Replacing workers who have quit suddenly can be very costly for organizations that must be continually onboarding new hires.
Answering yes to any of these questions could be signs of trouble… and a full harvest of cringe-worthy responses definitely indicates a toxic culture taking root.

Changing A Toxic Work Culture
If a toxic work culture has been identified, how can it be changed? It must begin at the top, with leaders and managers. Executives must understand the connections between the corporate environment and worker well being.

Emotional awareness training may be necessary, because leaders have to realize the example they set around work-life balance expectations. Managers tend to manage their employees the way that they have been taught by their bosses’ examples. The best leaders have the willingness to learn and admit mistakes. The mission of the organization needs to be clearly defined, appropriately communicated, and followed with integrity.

Building trust between employees and company leadership is absolutely essential for long-term change. Transparency around decisions, especially those with a direct impact on employee time commitments and compensation, can go a long way toward increasing trust. And when employees trust leaders, they are more creative, passionate, and able to absorb stress.

This flexibility is essential in a VUCA world, especially post-COVID. Sharing information, adequately resourcing innovation projects, and building a corporate culture that allows for failure will let employees adapt and thrive as changes come their way. When employees feel empowered to make decisions without always needing to escalate, they can adjust to new situations.

Be warned, however. Changing a workplace culture can be a long, slow process that happens over several years. Just as it takes time to work into a rut, it takes time to develop new patterns and habits. If the business is at risk of failure drastic measures should of course be taken, but otherwise, plan for incremental changes that could take a decade or more. Align all levels of leadership, beginning at the C-level and working down to middle management. It may be necessary to move employees to different teams or even accept some losses if particular individuals are contributing to the toxic culture and unwilling to change.

The good fruit of an improved company culture is well worth the effort and pruning. Strong, positive work environments lead to creative, healthy, long-term employees. Customers enjoy giving their business to such organizations, with clearly happy workers. Human resources will not need to be devoted to constantly replacing burnt out employees, but to developing the talent already present. And productivity overall, even in a constantly shifting world, will continue to rise.