Toxic workplaces may be on the rise. According to a 2022 American Psychological Association survey, 30% of over 2,000 U.S. workers reported experiencing workplace harassment, verbal abuse, and even physical violence by someone inside their organization or outside of it.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a recent report about the health hazards of toxic workplaces, which can result in chronic stress, putting people at risk for diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Murphy outlined a framework for employers of any size and across any industry to create workplace mental health and well-being.
A toxic work environment can make or break a small business. Toxicity at work can be particularly harmful to employees' mental health. When workers' mental health suffers, so does workplace productivity, creativity, and retention.
Employee turnover is especially difficult for small businesses competing with larger companies to attract and retain talent. Researchers at MIT Sloane Management Review analyzed more than 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews and the impact of more than 170 cultural topics on employee attrition from April 2021 through September 2021. They found that a toxic work environment is 10.4 times more likely to lead to an employee leaving.
Defining a Toxic Culture
Simply put, "toxic culture" refers to a disrespectful environment characterized by significant personal conflicts among workers. It's a working environment that fosters fierce internal strife and competition. Toxicity builds up gradually, creating stress, frustration, and anxiety. What starts as an annoyance or anger can escalate into an employee resignation.
What Are the Indicators of a Toxic Culture?
A 2022 MIT study, Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture, identified "The Toxic Five Culture Attributes" that poison employees' perceptions of corporate culture:
- Disrespectful (lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity for others)
- Nonexclusive (inequity in a variety of areas, e.g., sexual orientation, disability, race, and age)
- Unethical (dishonesty, making false promises)
- Cutthroat (backstabbing, ruthless competition)
- Abusive (bullying, harassment, and hostility)
The research is based on more than 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews from U.S. employees, focusing on their negative comments on 128 topics.
As a time-strapped small-business owner, you may have to pay more attention to the warning signs of toxicity in your company. Company policies and practices may also unwittingly contribute to creating a toxic culture.
It's critical to recognize these signs of a toxic culture in order to change it and create an enjoyable working environment where people are happy to do their jobs. This is especially important in a small business with fewer employees, where pockets of toxicity can impact the well-being of everyone who works there.
How Can You Detoxify a Workplace Culture?
The first step in fixing a toxic culture is admitting that it exists. Start paying attention if you spot subtle disrespectful behaviors of some employees.
There is much you can do as a small-business owner to address toxic behavior as it arises to help you turn a toxic culture around. Here are a few concrete steps to consider:
1. Implement a zero-tolerance policy for bullying.
Bullying is commonly associated with overt physical or verbal abuse, but it can also assume a covert guise, such as psychological, emotional, or non-verbal abuse. For example, blatantly and consistently ignoring a person's comments in meetings and ostracizing them is emotional abuse that can be as painful as physical abuse.
Make sure you clearly define what constitutes bullying and distribute the policy widely and regularly. Provide examples of bullying, such as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating others and making racist, homophobic, or sexist remarks.
Toxicity at work can be particularly harmful to employees' mental health. When workers' mental health suffers, so does workplace productivity, creativity, and retention.
Consider spelling out your company's stance against cyberbullying of colleagues after hours and employees expressing offensive sexist, racial, or homophobic remarks on social media channels which would inevitably contribute to a hostile work environment.
2. Make people feel respected.
According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, one of the leading reasons U.S. employees quit their jobs is feeling disrespected at work. The survey was based on responses from over 9,000 American Trends Panelists.
Disrespect is the denial of someone's dignity. Some employees can exhibit subtle forms of disrespect when a colleague is talking, such as frequently interrupting, having side conversations, turning their back on the person, or looking at others in the room while rolling their eyes. Another typical disrespectful behavior that is all too common is a leader ignoring a person's comments, only to pick them up when another team member, often a man, offers the same suggestion a few minutes later.
Meetings are cauldrons of emotion. If you notice workers disrespecting others in the group, coach them to have respectful interactions. The message needs to be consistently repeated.
3. Avoid favoritism with employees.
Favoritism is the practice of unfairly favoring one person at the expense of another. It's a key contributor to workplace toxicity.
It's natural to prefer some people over others, but showing favoritism in the workplace is a surefire way to demotivate people and increase resentment, all contributing to creating a toxic work environment. To stop favoritism:
- Start by noticing if there is blatant favoritism of some employees. For example:
- Do rules seem to apply to only a few?
- Are some employees seen to be granted more favors or resources than others?
- Do managers or supervisors spend more time interacting informally with certain employees (e.g., joking, having non-work-related conversations?)
- Develop and improve personal relationships with all your employees, especially those you may not particularly like.
- Make it a practice to acknowledge every employee's outstanding work regularly. In meetings, be inclusive. Pay attention to everyone and consider everyone's input.
- Be especially vigilant of proximity bias that can lead to accidental favoritism. Proximity bias refers to how people in positions of authority preferentially treat workers who are physically closer to them. A 2021 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey reveals that 42% of supervisors sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks. Moreover, 29% of remote workers believe they will have fewer developmental opportunities while working remotely. (The survey included 800 supervisors and over 3,800 U.S. remote workers.)
- Set up a hybrid policy or presence equity policy to ensure that all workers – whether working from home or the office – are on a level playing field regarding collaboration, contributions, developmental and other opportunities.
4. Keep an eye on cliques.
Making friends at work and collaborating is a part of a healthy work environment. But what happens when these turn into bad cliques operating on exclusivity? Cliques prevent employees from having a positive sense of belonging and can generate toxicity in the workplace. They are damaging and demoralizing when they alienate and exclude others. They may also be intimidating to new or introverted workers.
Breaking up a clique may be a mistake because employees can form new ones later. Instead, tackle the clique's exclusionary behaviors before they spiral.
A clique usually has a leader or two. Identify who they are and have a one-on-one conversation with them. You should also formally address your entire group so that everyone understands that cliquish behaviors are harmful and run counter to a positive workplace where everyone feels they belong.
5. Stop the gossip mill.
A little hearsay is to be expected in any organization, but mean-spirited gossip demoralizes employees. Rampant gossip and backstabbing are the hallmarks of toxic work environments.
Do you frequently hear destructive comments about others? Stand up for those who are not present. Clear the air by directly confronting workers who spread misinformation and gossip.
It's also essential to set a good example by avoiding gossiping yourself. Leading by example is the best way to keep a few bad apples from spoiling the bunch.
If toxicity in your company has spiraled, there's still time to turn things around. By addressing all the manifestations of toxicity head-on, you show employees that you care. Build psychological safety by teaching all your workers civility in their interactions. Be sure you model anything you teach. Going forward, rethink your hiring process. Take your time to look for candidates who fit your culture and your core values. These strategies will go a long way to help ensure that your company is a good place to work.
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