13 steps HR leaders can take to tackle a toxic work culture

Charlotte Nicol
Published on 8th July 2020
4 min read

Unfortunately, many of us know what it’s like to have worked in a toxic organization.

Some of the tell-tale signs can be when employees only seem to care about their own status within the company. They could even be dissenting, ignoring instructions while trying to find ways to shift the buck onto others. Perhaps they gossip or demean other members of staff.

These traits are certainly detrimental to employees’ wellbeing, which can cause talent to fly out the door and Glassdoor ratings to plummet.

As an HR and People leader, it’s up to you to identify the symptoms of toxicity in the workplace and root them out, in collaboration with the leadership team.

Is the challenge one to embrace?

Let’s be honest, it’s not an easy task to eliminate toxicity, particularly if you have many employees now working outside of the office environment. Yet, as daunting as it may seem, it’s likely to be one of the most rewarding projects of your career.

As anxiety and stress are increasing as a result of the changes happening in the world of work due to the global pandemic, there’s never been a more important time to tackle a toxic environment. You could be turning your organization around to become not only a vastly improved environment for your employees but a prime destination for talent. What a transformation that would be.

However, you’ll need the support of the CEO or board to implement the changes you want to make – and what if they themselves are a cause of negativity in the organization?

In the process, be mindful of your own health and wellbeing and take care of yourself, as you may have to have some difficult conversations along the way. 

The benefits could become apparent sooner than you think

Ultimately, tackling a toxic culture isn’t a short-term fix, but a long-term task. Yet, that doesn’t mean you won’t see some benefit almost right away.

Removing toxicity can be better for employees’ stress, health and wellbeing at work but it goes far further than that.

In fact, research has shown that removing toxic influences from the workplace increases the general level of productivity and improves talent retention.

We believe there are 13 steps to removing toxicity in the workplace. Let’s go through them…

1. Be prepared for the challenge ahead

Getting ahead is vital to tackling a toxic culture. You’ll need to confront difficult people and introduce changes that not everyone will like.

Employees in your company may try to push back against your changes so you’ll need to have planned out your strategy ahead of time and be prepared for any eventuality.

2. Be transparent

The key to tackling toxicity is to be open, communicative and to work collaboratively with your employees.

Make sure you talk to them at every checkpoint – letting them know what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it and why it’s important.

3. Involve your employees

What do your employees think? They may reveal aspects of the culture you weren’t aware of. They may also have their own ideas for how to change things.

Getting them involved at an early stage will help to convince them that the changes you’re making are for the best.

4. Identify – and record – problematic behaviors

While speaking to employees, make a note of their experiences.

As a sensitive subject, employees may prefer to do this via an anonymous online survey and could give you far more information than you’d glean face-to-face.

This data will come in useful when tackling the toxicity, and you can use it again in the future to measure the success of your changes.

5. Analyze the data

Looking at data from your interviews and surveys (perhaps even from other sources in your archives, such as exit interviews), try to identify key trends.

For instance, is there a higher rate of employee turnover in one particular team? Or do employees in one department report unusually low satisfaction scores? These trends could help you to identify the causes and effects of toxicity in your organization.

6. Seek buy-in from senior stakeholders

Tackling toxicity is by no means an easy or fast process.

Therefore, you’ll need to inform senior stakeholders of your intentions and ensure they’re ready to give you the resources you need to create change. Having gathered data to prove the prevalence of toxicity, it may help to build a business case to show the long-term value of your plan in terms of productivity and talent retention.

7. Update (or reiterate) your employee guidelines

If your employee guidelines don’t contain clear policies relating to the types of toxicity you know are prevalent in your organization, this is your opportunity to update them.

Remember to circulate your new guidelines, or re-circulate existing ones, and ask employees to agree to them. That way, if employees do exhibit toxic behavior, you have the ability to have a conversation about it.

8. Consider your company’s mission statement

Does your mission statement reflect the positive environment you’re trying to create?

If your company is steered by a strong ethos, you could try re-aligning staff with this guiding principle. If you feel the organization’s philosophy is not clear, especially when it comes to challenging toxicity, it may be time to re-visit it.

9. Tackle unacceptable behavior immediately

Where employees have clearly broken the rules, it’s up to you to take the appropriate action.

Deal with these cases quickly and professionally, following your company’s policies. This will set a clear precedent that the company takes a zero-tolerance approach to poor and harmful behavior.

10. Recognize your top employees

They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Therefore, by publicly recognizing employees who go out of their way to make the company a better place to work, you can help to positively influence other employees and give them role models for good behavior.

Try establishing an internal award program or ask the CEO to send regular ‘thank you’ emails. After all, toxic cultures don’t stem from every employee. Those who go above and beyond for the company to try to make it a great place to work should be rewarded for it.

11. Build emotional intelligence across the organization

Emotional intelligence – which among other things measures an employee’s ability to recognize, interpret and respond appropriately to other’s emotions – is an increasingly popular metric within global organizations.

Not only can it help to eliminate toxicity in the workplace, Inc reported that companies with high levels of emotional intelligence see increased sales and productivity too, so there are plenty of reasons to build it within your company.

12. Provide training for managers

Stopping toxicity, especially in a large organization, is by no means a job for one person.

Therefore, you should attempt to train your business’s managers to identify it and stop it themselves, so they can root it out within their own teams. Whether you choose to hire an external consultant or provide the training yourself, make sure managers learn how to spot the signs, approach employees suffering in silence, and escalate issues to HR.

13. Be the change you want to see

Ultimately, as an HR and People leader, the buck must stop with you.

Setting a positive example to the rest of your organization and helping them to understand the value of eliminating toxicity will be vital to tackling it. Show that you follow the rules to the letter and be a benchmark for other staff to strive towards.

Eliminating toxicity is one way to improve productivity and wellbeing in your workplace. Get up to speed on the latest developments in HR by downloading our research report, The Changing Face of HR, today.

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