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How to find and fix toxicity in the workplace

Lack of trust, misleading management and a collective bill totalling billions. What defines a toxic workplace and how can business leaders tackle it once and for all?

Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

A toxic workplace is responsible for almost a third of UK workers leaving their jobs, according to data from human resources tech provider Breathe. That’s a sharp rise from last year’s 21%, with poor company culture and everything from bullying to burnout costing the economy an estimated £20bn annually. 

But how can toxicity be identified and staff retained? “A toxic organisation exhibits low levels of trust, has misaligned systems and incapable line managers who work hard to preserve their status at all costs,” says Clive Lewis, author of Toxic.

Such line managers lack the competence required for their role and are often characterised by a “demonstrable lack of regard and compassion for the wellbeing of team members”, he says. Toxic employees, meanwhile, are prone to sow discord and division. They can be “characteristically uncivil and are likely to pursue retribution rather than offer forgiveness”, Lewis adds. 

Coronavirus has exacerbated deep-rooted issues in these organisations, for both remote teams and in person. Lewis suggests that toxic-free businesses have retained their status due to their culture and behaviour being “closely linked irrespective of the external environment”. 

Tell-tale team traits to be aware of

A range of clues can suggest a workplace is in need of a toxicity turnaround, although executives might not spot them “if they aren’t spending enough time speaking to and building relationships with their people’, warns executive coach Kelly Swingler.

That said, there are several indicators to look out for. A leadership team that fails to make quick decisions, for example, could hint at poor communication, contributing towards a “them and us” culture. Repeated mistakes is another red flag. 

“In organisations where learning from errors and collaborative work to fix issues is common, mistakes rarely happen,” says Swingler. “When blame and disciplinary action are the only way they’re dealt with, these mistakes will continue because nobody is taking the time to get to the root of the issue.”

We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, so businesses have a responsibility to look after employees’ psychological wellbeing

A high staff turnover is also symptomatic, with declined exit interviews hinting at exasperated employees. “If nobody listened while they were working with you, why would they bother speaking up now?” notes Swingler.

And why does looking out for these traits matter now? “We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, so businesses have a responsibility to look after employees’ psychological wellbeing,” says Calvin Benton, founder of Spill, which offers mental health support to companies including Huel, Depop and Beauty Pie. 

“This has become more prevalent since the start of the pandemic, when our work and home lives merged into one. An always-on mindset has seen burnout levels rise. As well as the emotional distress, the business impact is high; over 40% of sick days in the UK are due to burnout, adding up to billions in lost productivity every year.”

Toxicity, trust and transparency

As a senior IT consultant, Sonya Barlow encountered workplace bullying that ranged from being called “stupid” to having her name repeatedly mispronounced by management. 

“My accent was made fun of and I was asked to disclose personal health issues on a work call,” she adds. “I saw women being shot down in meetings. Diversity and inclusion initiatives were dismissed; they didn’t generate revenue and weren’t deemed necessary.”

These “small but distressing” incidents impacted her mental health and she complained to HR. “Nothing was done and as a result I was forced to leave.”

Barlow launched the Like Minded Females (LMF) Network, a social enterprise built on trust, the five-letter antithesis of the “toxic” situation she’d previously encountered. 

“I took my experiences and decided to do the opposite,” she explains. “For example, toxic organisations tend to have overworked, burnt-out staff. At LMF, we work remotely and as long as the work is done, I’m happy for my team to work on the days and times best for them.”

Swingler agrees with this anti-presenteeism approach, which is an antidote to the constantly accessible state remote working has created for many. “In toxic workplaces, the focus is on the time people spend at desks, sending emails, rather than on productivity,” she says. “If you’re not ‘seen to be working’, the assumption is you’re lazy or underperforming.”

Honesty is key, says Barlow: “We’re very transparent about what we’re doing: new projects, budgets, finances.” And it goes both ways, with staff encouraged to return communication. “My team know they can call me to discuss work or personal issues, with no judgment,” she says.

Defining workplace culture

For Michael Alexis, chief executive of Team Building, which has organised virtual events for more than 15,000 businesses, including Apple, Google and Nasa, experience has shown every employee has a role to play.

“Years ago, I joined a tech startup with a very problematic culture,” he explains. “The owner would make racist and misogynistic comments, and was a caricature of a bad boss.”

At the time, Alexis attributed the environment to the leadership. “But the reality is more nuanced,” he says. “Everyone on the team plays a part. If you hear inappropriate comments and don’t rebut them, or worse laugh it off, the toxicity may continue.”

At Team Building, a range of collaborative techniques create a positive atmosphere for the 100-plus workforce, ranging from a #You-Are-Awesome Slack channel for peer-to-peer praise to Feedback First, which encourages employees to acknowledge and learn from mistakes.

And yes, team-building is also involved, creating friendships and helping to “combat toxicity by improving engagement and communication across the board”, says Alexis.

So where should a chief executive begin? “The first thing any business leader can do to make change is to prioritise it,” says Spill’s Benton. “Ensure part of your budget is going towards mental health support and quarterly objectives include wellbeing measures.”

Getting your team on board is crucial, as is patience. “Leaders who want to tackle a toxic culture should set an objective for doing so and ensure all members of the leadership team are aligned to uproot dysfunctional behaviour and systems,” says Lewis. 

“Measures should be put in place to track progress. There are no overnight fixes; be prepared for the long haul.”

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