Toxic Workplace Checklist: Identify and Resolve Conflicts

This comprehensive toxic workplace checklist will help you to identify, manage, and transform a negative work environment into a healthy workplace.

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Toxic Workplace Checklist: Identify and Resolve Conflicts

Here's what you need to know:

  • A toxic workplace is when the work environment encourages negative behaviors such as bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, gaslighting, and manipulation
  • One out of 5 employees will leave their workplace due to negative workplace culture
  • Toxic workplaces cost businesses not just money but also lost productivity and innovation
  • For HR teams and People Ops, however, toxic workplace behaviors can be overcome or avoided

One out of 5 employees will leave their workplace due to negative workplace culture, and 25% don’t feel safe voicing their opinions. Toxic workplaces cost businesses not just money (but, for the record, turnover for 2021 cost $2.4 trillion) but also lost productivity and innovation.

And while 75% of employees have reported that the most stressful aspect of their job is their boss, a toxic culture doesn’t just stem from poor leadership or manipulative employees. Negative company culture is intrinsically linked to lax or underdeveloped processes and communication channels, many of which were designed for ‘performance’ and not people.

In other words, a toxic manager may believe that stress is the only way to force results out of workers. But in the end, it hinders real performance, burns out staff, results in high turnover, and damages brand reputation.

For HR teams and People Ops, however, toxic workplace behaviors can be overcome or avoided. As a key department for sharing company culture, a team that can identify an unhealthy work environment can also take steps to reverse it. Or, at least, minimize the damage.

A toxic workplace starts with the system

A toxic workplace is when the work environment encourages negative behaviors such as bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, gaslighting, and manipulation. While the signs may seem obvious in print, in practice, it’s often difficult to identify a toxic workplace for many new employees who simply want to fit in.

Toxic individuals tend to conflate their behavior with light hazing, friendly banter, or success, even though these environments increase turnover, reduce productivity, and essentially eliminate collaboration.

This is more than a general culture mismatch or personal conflict. A toxic workplace is a system where employees cannot voice their opinions, report harassment, or work safely. Even if there’s no physical harassment or abuse, toxic workplace behaviors cause workers to feel that their psychological safety is compromised.

Toxic individuals tend to conflate their behavior with light hazing, friendly banter, or success, even though these environments increase turnover, reduce productivity, and essentially eliminate collaboration.

And the source of a toxic office can come from anyone: poor leadership, managers, and even employees.

A hostile work environment does not fix itself. Everyone needs to take part in improving the overall culture. But human resources is positioned to be the catalyst.

Dedicated HR teams, along with leadership buy-in, can help to reform the system. However, it can take time to weed out toxic influences and reinforce new, healthier behaviors.

Use this toxic workplace checklist to assess your company

For human resources, it’s important to have a checklist for identifying and managing a toxic workplace. But it can also help to have a conflict resolution checklist, as you may have to disentangle unhealthy interpersonal relationships and help employees set boundaries.

Is your workplace toxic?

  • Employees are afraid to file reports with HR, even when an HR professional witnesses an incident.
  • Supervisors micromanage employees.
  • Managers hover over employees as they work.
  • Managers do not allow employees the agency to make decisions.
  • Team meetings are less about collaboration and more about delegating tasks.
  • Managers and employees make snide remarks or microaggressions against coworkers.
  • Workers and managers from different racial, ethnic, religious, and other backgrounds are openly referred to as “diversity hires.”
  • Promotions are based on personal relationships with the leadership team.
  • New ideas are stalled or frowned upon.
  • Management is not transparent about changes.
  • Leaders and managers use language to belittle, offend, or dismiss employee concerns.
  • Performance reviews are expected to be negative, even for top performers.
  • Leaders prevent human resources from creating positive changes to reduce workplace hostility.
  • Employees are punished for mistakes, no matter how small.
  • Employees are overly competitive and often willing to bully or undercut their coworkers.
  • There is no teamwork or communication.

Managing a toxic work culture

  • Address the toxic behaviors with the perpetrator(s).
  • Map an improvement plan.
  • Implement anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training.
  • Ensure that all workers know that human resources is a safe space to report toxic behavior.
  • Write thorough reports of each claim.
  • Create and follow a process for investigating each claim.
  • Remind employees that negative behaviors will not be tolerated.
  • Define specific zero-tolerance behaviors in your employee handbook.
  • Add in employee feedback to create a healthier work environment.
  • Determine whether you need to terminate an individual who refuses to let go of toxic behaviors.
  • Implement team-building activities.
  • Review progress toward a healthy workplace regularly.

Steps for conflict resolution

  • Keep an open mind and an open line of communication.
  • Don’t avoid conflict. Otherwise, it will fester.
  • Schedule a meeting with everyone involved.
  • Ask each person to describe the problem.
  • Clarify the root cause.
  • Work together to identify a solution.
  • Remove options that don’t work for everyone.
  • Summarize conflict resolution options.
  • Ask all parties to commit to an option.
  • Agree on a review date.

How to identify and foster a healthy workplace

Ideally, creating clear-cut processes and policies, as well as adding training and positive team-building exercises, will eventually reduce workplace hostility and give rise to a healthier environment. But how do you know if you’ve succeeded?

A healthy workplace is where:

  • Employees feel that people value them
  • Coworkers set boundaries assertively and without aggression
  • Workers can make decisions regarding their career
  • Managers and employees trust each other to complete tasks
  • People take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them
  • There’s no or minimal politics and gossip
  • Employees do not belittle each other
  • Staff frequently collaborate and communicate about projects
  • Promotions are based on merit, not personal relationships
  • Turnover is at an industry benchmark or below
  • Employees leave the organization on good terms

It’s also critical to ensure hiring practices are in place to limit new potentially toxic hires, especially for manager roles. According to a Gallup survey, a talented manager can reduce turnover by 10%, has 25% fewer unscheduled absences, and demonstrates 30% higher profitability for their organization.

So, what qualities make a good manager?

The same study shows that top-tier managers:

  1. Motivate employees and help staff to see the overarching vision
  2. Are assertive and resilient in spite of challenges
  3. Make decisions based on merit, not politics or relationships
  4. Foster a culture of accountability
  5. Build workplace relationships with transparency

In other words, a sound manager should act in the exact opposite way as a toxic one. To avoid hiring a toxic manager and tap into hidden talent, follow these best practices:

  • Always follow up on past references
  • Ask candidates to describe negative events, such as how they deal with stress and failure
  • Pay attention to how candidates refer to past employers and coworkers. Are they negative? Positive?
  • Do they take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, or do they shift the blame on customers or former employers?

Turning a toxic office into a healthy one doesn’t happen overnight. But over time, it’s possible to transform a negative work environment into a productive one through relentless investment in transparent policies and processes.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

The importance of a people-first work culture

One of the common reasons that a workplace can become toxic is the misconception that human resources is there as a paperwork formality. In reality, HR is the front line of ensuring employee well-being and productivity.

A people-first approach to the workplace is often the first step to combatting toxic and hostile behaviors. Centering staff over results doesn’t mean throwing performance metrics away. Instead, HR ensures that employees bring their best selves to work daily, thus moving the company forward.

That said, shifting to People Operations (POPS) can be a mindset shift. But this transformation can help you take your organization to the next level. To get started, we have an in-depth e-book to help you transition your traditional HR practices to People Ops.

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