Small Business Guide to Avoiding a Toxic Workplace

A toxic workplace can make or break your small business. Here are some signs of trouble to look for and ways to change course.

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Although no company intentionally creates a toxic workplace for its employees, leadership is often guilty of ignoring the warning signs for too long. Poor leadership itself can be the reason for the toxic work environment in the first place. Knowing how to spot bad communication, cliques, inefficiency, and other toxic behavior is the first step in improving the wellbeing of employees and increasing productivity.

The fact is, your workplace environment can make or break your business. In one survey, 58% of employees stated they left because of poor management. And 25% of them don’t feel like they can discuss their opinions openly at work.

But what causes toxicity in the workplace? In this article, we list signs to look for, identify what employees want and discuss key areas where decisive steps can help to create a more inclusive and healthy work environment.

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace is an environment that encourages in-fighting and internal competition. This destructive atmosphere often results in low morale, plummeting productivity, and mistrust among colleagues and management.

Several signs point to a toxic workplace or indicate that an environment is becoming toxic. Some of those are:

  • Poor communication
  • Passive-aggressive responses
  • Cliques and gossip
  • Micromanagement
  • Burnout among employees and management
  • Few or no advancement opportunities
  • High turnover or absenteeism
  • No work-life balance
  • Poor feedback loops
  • Employee discrimination

Poor communication is a hallmark of toxic work environments

Healthy work environments have several characteristics in common when it comes to how managers and team members communicate with each other. Meetings take place on a consistent schedule and written communication is clear and precise. Coworkers generally get along well and treat each other with respect. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is true in a toxic work environment, where bad communication is the norm.

Secret keeping is one of the most obvious signs of a toxic environment. Managers and coworkers hide important details from each other, making those who need the information feel frustrated and angry. Office gossip and low morale are also common. When employees don’t understand what management expects, it can affect their mental health. That, in turn, causes them to make more mistakes in their work.

Recognizing these toxic behaviors is not enough to bring about change. Management must address rumors and gossip head-on and set the record straight. They also need to set a good example by never gossiping themselves, or even listen to it. They must communicate in a clear, articulate fashion when speaking and writing. Employees should receive explicit instructions and objectives and have the resources they need to do their jobs well.

Recognizing these toxic behaviors is not enough to bring about change. Management must address rumors and gossip head-on and set the record straight.

What do employees want from their workplace?

Ultimately, employees want a workplace that is inclusive, collaborative, and communicative. They want chances to advance or grow professionally. And more often than not, employees want their company to take a stand on critical issues — including racism and discrimination.

Reviewing policies and procedures can help to understand what employees want more than anything else. And the list is fairly simple:

  • Respect
  • Regular feedback     
  • Trust and responsibility
  • Clear expectations
  • Opportunities for learning and growth
  • Recognition for good work

These are simple concepts but sometimes difficult to enact. Generally, you’ll want to structure your organization so that feedback is regular, communication is direct and clear, and that growth opportunities are accessible to everyone.

Eliminate harassment and discrimination

Even a healthy workplace can receive an occasional complaint about harassment or discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, pregnancy status, or physical disability. However, the incidence of such complaints is much higher in toxic work environments. Not only is this behavior illegal, but it can lead to low morale, absenteeism, poor work performance, and high turnover.

Management should bring complaints of harassment or discrimination to the HR department for further guidance. Both the person who filed the complaint and the alleged offender need to know that the organization has no tolerance for this behavior. The person committing the offense must face consequences and understand that continuing the offensive behavior could lead to termination.

People with toxic personalities do not always display overt discriminatory behavior. They often attempt to maintain their sense of control in more subtle ways, like leaving certain people out of social invitations or destroying the reputations of others by spreading incorrect information about them behind their backs.

Part of managing toxic personalities is learning to spot subtle signs of disrespect and manipulation and addressing them as they occur. Once people know they will not get away with treating their co workers unprofessionally, the behavior will either stop or they will create an exit plan for themselves and seek another job.

Work-life balance is essential

Burnout is inevitable when management demands that people work excessive hours and then do not appreciate their efforts. The expectation that employees should have no personal life can quickly turn agreeable people into toxic people, not to mention the toll it can take on their mental and physical health.

While there is nothing wrong with asking employees to work overtime occasionally, management should balance that request by promoting a healthy work-life balance. They should ensure that employees use all paid time off and encourage them to leave work behind at the end of the day. Implementing programs such as sick childcare benefits and flexible work hours helps employees achieve better work-life balance while also sending the message that the company cares about their wellbeing.

Creating a healthy workplace is intentional

Ignoring the obvious warning signs of a toxic work environment hoping it will improve on its own will only make matters worse. Chronic absenteeism, bad communication, frequent conflict between coworkers, and a culture of gossip and exclusion do not just happen in a vacuum. Below are a few more suggestions for actions businesses can take to convert a toxic work environment to a healthy one.

Show appreciation regularly

People who feel that their work is important and appreciated often do more than what management expects of them. Recognizing the unique skills and contributions of each team member with a small token of appreciation is a simple and inexpensive way to boost employee morale.

Never play favorites

Managers are human and will enjoy some people’s personalities more than others. However, they must put these preferences aside when directing workflow and responding to suggestions from employees. The morale of an entire department can suffer when employees detect favoritism. A common example is team members observing the manager’s favorites receiving exclusive access to their time while other employees must schedule an appointment just to bring up a minor concern.

Pay attention to onboarding practices

Many problems that develop in a toxic workplace are avoidable with a thorough training and onboarding process. New employees understand employer expectations from the start and know who to contact if they feel uncertain about anything. The training team also establishes a baseline for clear and professional communication for the new employee to emulate.

How to avoid a toxic workplace

Indeed, there are many everyday strategies you can implement to avoid creating a toxic workplace. And you can use the same approaches to correct issues if you have noticed a problem.

Some other common ways to reduce toxicity in the workplace are:

  • Encourage team mentorship
  • Create regular feedback loops
  • Provide employees a chance to share ideas without penalizing them
  • Ensure everyone has access to learning materials
  • Set up clear communication channels
  • Create a thorough onboarding and training process for new hires
  • Review your hiring and recruitment strategies to weed out potentially harmful influences
  • Invest in team building activities
  • Help employees set a work-life balance
  • Offer benefits that can help employees improve their quality of life
  • Include a non-discrimination policy in the employee handbook and follow it

Overall, you want to be sure that your employees feel comfortable being themselves at work. That way, they can focus on improving their own performance and build long-lasting relationships with their colleagues.

Learn more about creating an inclusive workplace

Creating an inclusive and non-toxic workplace can take some time, but it’s worth the effort. To learn more about handling challenges like discrimination and other social issues, check out our free HR Guide to Addressing Social Issues and Racism.

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