9 Ways To Fix A Toxic Work Environment

You overheard employees talking in the break room, detailing their current job hunt. 

That was a bit upsetting, but admittedly, not surprising.

Employees have been cycling through lately. Perhaps they’re just looking for new surroundings, or are overqualified. They have big dreams and that’s just how it goes; you have to expect people to move on.

Maybe.

Or maybe there’s a toxic work environment to blame. Could you even recognize a toxic work environment if it waved at you? 

Toxicity creeps up gradually, incrementally adding stress, frustration, and other emotional baggage day after day. What was a minor annoyance can become an employee resignation in a few months.

Toxic workplaces were the fifth leading cause of death, according to research from 2018. That’s a little shocking, and seems overdramatic.

But overwork, stress, and bullying can lead to workplace violence, substance abuse, safety issues, and suicide. Throw in an awful work-life balance (a classic element in a toxic work environment) and the exhaustion that comes from it, and you’ve essentially poisoned the entire well for everyone associated with the employee trapped in the job.

Why should owners or managers care about whether or not their workplace is toxic?

If the harm it’s doing to your employees isn’t enough, consider that a positive workplace is a more productive workplace. Instead of absenteeism where employees do everything they can to avoid being at work, you get physically and mentally healthy employees who are engaged. 

That means less turnover, because they’re loyal. They have a good thing going, and they stick around.

Maybe you’re veering into the toxic realm at work, or are already solidly there. Rest assured that it’s not too late. You can turn that around and fix a toxic work environment.

What makes a work environment toxic?

You can’t fix what you don’t understand. Toxic work environments have:

  • Fear-based leadership. This type of leader motivates through fear, not reward. They may have a “do as I say not as I do” approach to heavy-handed rules.
  • No recognition of excellence. Because leadership uses fear to motivate employees, they don’t reward or recognize excellent work. After a while, they don’t get excellent work out of their employees.
  • Gossip, rumor, and speculation. This is often because information is heavily filtered and there’s a lack of transparency from managers. Employee expectations are never defined.
  • Unhealthy competition. Competition is good as a motivator, unless managers use it to pit employees against each other in negative ways. This leads to fighting, drama, and anger.
  • Favoritism. A natural outflow of unhealthy competition is favoritism in hours, wages, benefits, and overall discriminatory treatment. 

The result?

Lots of employee absenteeism, high turnover, dissatisfied customers, and a general level of high stress and unhappy people. Study after study has shown that a negative work environment destroys productivity and increases burnout.

Employees in a toxic workplace only have bad things to say about their job and their managers, damaging their employer’s reputation. They’ll do anything to get out of work. They’ll be unhealthy in every sense of the word. And, if the toxic work environment is bad enough, they might even take legal action against their employer.

How leadership can improve a toxic workplace

A toxic workplace can’t be left alone, because it won’t self-improve. It has to be fixed with purpose.

The situation didn’t become toxic overnight, and it’s going to take some time and a bit of real struggle up front to make changes. Here are a few tips on how to fix a toxic workplace:

Start communicating in meaningful ways.

Everyone talks about the importance of communication, but few rarely do it well.

Meaningful communication is about quality, not quantity. It simply means making sure your employees know what they need to know in order to:

  • Do their job well and effectively.
  • Understand situations that affect their job.
  • Know what expectations they need to meet.
  • Quell worries and rumors (e.g. layoffs).

You can communicate these things through employee meetings, handbooks, or training. You can have one-on-one sessions to help an employee who’s struggling or excelling. You can also use tools that make communication easier so that it’s timely instead of too late.

Why not communicate about shifts and schedules within your scheduling tool? Why not make it easier for your team to talk and swap shifts directly? The importance of meaningful communication is one of the reasons When I Work put team communication directly into the scheduling app. The team should talk about scheduling in the place where the scheduling is done.

It’s important to note that gossip and rumors are not meaningful communication. If you hear of this, address the issue before the whole team if appropriate, without humiliating anyone. If someone has a habit of stirring the pot, bring them in to talk one-on-one. Do not tolerate this behavior.

Start your free 14-day trial of When I Work to start using WorkChat! You’ll get access to our team messaging tool AND our powerful employee scheduling platform. Click here to start communicating with your employees today.

Know, and live by, your core values.

Do you have core values? That’s the first thing to address. Core values should be positive identifiers that a group attaches themselves to.

  • “We are a team who loves to make our customers happy.”
  • “We are a team who are the top experts in our field.”
  • “We are a team who creates positive experiences for each other.”

Core values should feed into positive outflow, not internal negative competition or eye-rolling. That means they have to be more than lip service, with an actual plan and action to back them up.

For example, you can’t be the experts if your employees aren’t trained or taking part in continuing education. You can’t make customers happy if employees aren’t empowered by management to solve problems on their own instead of being locked into a rigid system of policy do’s and don’ts.

If you don’t have core values, create them. And then, make sure your managers actually manage by them. 

Deal with employee absenteeism.

Toxic workplaces feed absenteeism, which feeds burnout on the employees who have to pick up the slack, which feeds the toxic workplace, which…feeds absenteeism.

Absenteeism is both a problem and a symptom. 

The fix starts with managers being prompt themselves, modeling the behavior. Then, you have to keep an eye out for who, when, and where absenteeism happens.

Scheduling software, like When I Work, makes it easier to spot patterns of absenteeism, tardiness, or juggling shifts for personal advantage. 

If you find a problem, talk to the employee, or use your HR department to help you out. Approach it from a place of goodwill, not in anger or with threats. Show you care about your employees. Find out why they don’t want to show up to work. Come up with a solution or workable plan and end the meeting on a positive note with actionable items for improvement.

Deal with employee turnover.

Like absenteeism, turnover can be both a problem and symptom. The constant churn of employees is hard on those who stick around, though. They’re always dealing with newbies and having to patiently pick up the slack.

Why are employees leaving? Do you have exit interviews? Do you spot a problem before they leave and talk to them? Is it pay? Benefits? Scheduling issues? A particular manager?

Just about everything in that list could be fixed. Don’t look at employee turnover as simply getting rid of the “bad apples.” It’s a waste of your time and money to hire repeatedly, and it hurts the team. Deal with employee turnover as soon as you see the pattern.

Great employee retention means reducing employee pain, and encouraging every avenue of employee engagement.

Make work a safe place.

58% of people trust strangers more than they trust their own boss.

Why? Because trust is about an underlying sense of safety. And toxic workplaces are anything but safe. You want to create a safe environment for your employees:

Safe from bullying.

Safe from mockery.

Safe from fear-fueled leadership.

Safe to voice ideas.

Safe to voice concerns.

Safe to both excel and fail.

Safe and fully confident.

What’s your system for employees safely expressing concerns without fear of reprisal? What if they’re about you? What’s your system for encouraging (and rewarding) ideas? How do you handle a situation where an employee is bullied or made to feel unsafe by others on the team? Do you even have a system to find out that’s happening? How do you handle someone who is too-easily offended and always feeling unsafe?

HR will be your friend in all of this. But remember, words aren’t enough to combat actual toxic situations. Whether it’s anonymous polls, suggestion boxes, team-building events, or regular one-on-one meetings, a feedback culture is part of a safe culture.

Safety isn’t just hard hats and first aid kits. When people feel emotionally unsafe, that’s a fast road to toxicity.

Find out what others are saying.

Finally, if you’re not sure if you have a toxic culture or not, start reading reviews. Anonymous online reviews of company culture require a thick skin, but if you have them, you should read them.

Sure, some parts of the reviews might be spiteful or unfair, but you can get an unfiltered sense of what employees experienced. And you might spot a pattern of a problem that all of the employees, in some manner, experienced.

How to prevent toxic behaviors in the future

The best way to prevent building toxicity is to plan and be purposeful going forward.

Rethink how you hire.

Hire for more than just the skillset. Make character and attitude just as important. You bring in someone toxic, they make everything around them toxic.

Use hypothetical scenarios during the job interview, and ask them how they’d respond.

Remember, skills can be learned. You can’t train for a great attitude. You might be desperate to fill an opening, but if the new hire poisons your culture, that’s costly.

Walk the talk.

At risk of too much repetition, we can’t say enough that leadership has to follow the same rules and culture.

You want kind employees? Have kind managers.

You want respectful employees? Have respectful managers.

Remember that people follow as they’re led. Leadership needs to be trained and held accountable to what’s expected of employees.

Celebrate diversity.

Diversity can be a bit of a buzzword. Celebrating diversity doesn’t mean forcing it. Instead, it means understanding that every individual person has unique qualities.

Their culture, their ideas, their strengths, their weaknesses, their personalities—do you celebrate and find ways to weave these things in, or do you try to wrangle everyone into a manageable mold? Are you open to moving a person to a new position once you discover qualities that make them a better fit elsewhere? Or do you ignore it and press down to make them fit where you put them?

Value your employees.

Your employees are your most valuable asset. Replacing them costs time and money, but even more than that, when they leave they take something unique with them.

Your team, including yourself, your managers, and your employees, are all human beings. Everyone has off days, hard days, great days, frustrating failure, and incredible success. If your workplace culture allows room for it all while fostering growth, without being punitive or systematizing negativity, that’s a win.

Are you a brand your employees are proud to be a part of, or are you just a paycheck until something better comes along? Create a positive workplace culture and watch what happens when people feel like they matter.

People who know they’re valued work harder. They stick around. They tell their friends. They are productive. They want to contribute and make the team proud.