Baby, Can’t You See: A Guide to Identifying and Correcting a Toxic Workplace
Disclaimer: This is the story about a girl named Lucky (kidding). This is our second blog in a special Employee Behavior series inspired by our / the Netchex Marketing team’s group Halloween costume: the Life Stages of Britney Spears. We hope you enjoy.
We agree, Britney. A guy (or girl) like you should wear a warning. But unfortunately, those toxic employees who can negatively impact your organization’s culture don’t come with warning labels. For HR, managers and business owners, it’s important to identify the signs early on – and act quickly – to stop one bad apple from spoiling the bunch.
Here, we’ll talk about how to identify negative employees, but more importantly, how to ensure that you have the right hiring practices and culture infrastructure in place to prevent a toxic workplace from taking over.
There are key behaviors that should set off the warning bells for HR and organizational leaders when it comes to noxious employees. Some of the main toxic behaviors are:
- Gossip or social cliques
- Bullying or harassment
- Excessive absenteeism or passivity
- Frequent complaining
- Little or strained communication between the employee and management
While these indicators can be easy to spot at an individual employee level, what can be harder to face or recognize is if your organization has toxic leaders or a culture that creates systemic negativity. Here’s what to look for:
- Toxic leaders – Ever heard of the “kiss up and kick down” tactic? It’s what makes toxic leaders hard to spot. Toxic leaders are able to charm and manipulate their supervisors while being highly critical of, and aggressive toward, their employees. Pushing employees past their limits, taking credit for their work, blaming them for mistakes and not listening to ideas are signs of a narcissistic leader. These leaders won’t be mentors to their teams and will create climates of intimidation, anxiety and fear.
- Toxic workplace culture – Negative behavior can’t be sustained without a foundation of bad practices at an organization to support it or allow it to continue. For HR professionals, it’s important to examine your company’s values to look for issues. Some red flags are discriminatory beliefs, lack of appreciation of employees’ work, no transparency or accountability, poor communication, and treating employees like expendable commodities. Surveying your employees is a great way to uncover some of these issues you might be missing.
So you’ve assessed your company’s culture and come to the hard realization that there are toxic employees and practices. Now what?
- Increase transparency and communication – Too often, companies have top-down communication, but even then, don’t relay what’s important to their employees. Make sure you bring in employees to help with decisions that impact them. Encourage departments to have all-hands meetings regularly and do the same company-wide at least annually. Make sure employees know the mission of the company, and the why behind the work.
- Improve recognition – Recognition should be genuine and personal, and it needs to come from every tier of the company. Top leadership needs to acknowledge the individual contributions that make their company stand out, while managers and peers should also be encouraged to do the same. When people feel valued, their morale, productivity and attitudes will show it.
- Promote inspiring leaders – While technical skills and experience are important traits in a leader, they’re not the core traits of a good leader. Ensure the leadership of your company respects each and every member of his or her team, knows how to encourage and mentor, and keeps open and positive communication channels flowing.
For individual toxic employees, there are some methods to eliminate the issues.
- Empower managers and coworkers to confront or report bad behavior. Often, managers of toxic employees feel uncomfortable with confrontation, and coworkers who notice or are victims of toxic employees fear retaliation. Holding trainings and reminding your staff that the office has a zero-tolerance policy can help with these apprehensions.
- Include behavior in performance reviews. Those regularly scheduled reviews (or ongoing feedback sessions) shouldn’t just be about work output – an employee’s behavior is just as important. Include line items to review and rank how well the employee works with others and their attitude, and consider peer reviews as part of the process. Also, for new hires, ensure you’re reviewing early and often to catch the behavior before it worsens.
- The best correction is obviously prevention. Keeping toxic employees from joining the ranks helps maintain a positive work environment. Check references thoroughly, use self-assessment tools and invest in an applicant tracking system that prioritizes hiring for culture.
Sometimes, good employees can go bad as a product of their environment. However, if you see real changes happening at the company level and still have issues with toxic employees, it could be time to let them go.
Every person in a company contributes to its culture. It’s essential that leaders set a good example, employees are kept well-informed, and the organization as a whole stays committed to the mission. Fixing a toxic workplace won’t happen overnight, but the effort is well worth it.