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How to turn a toxic workplace around

Posted by Nikky Lee - 24 March, 2020

A toxic workplace can drag on your employee experience, make your staff unproductive, unwell and headed for the door. With 300,000 Kiwi employees (11 per cent of workers) saying they have experienced discrimination, harassment or bullying at work in the last 12 months1, toxic workplaces are real and a problem in New Zealand. 

With this in mind, here are a few key ways to turn a negative workplace culture around.


Be aware of the signs

Toxic workplaces come in all shapes and sizes. Some may show the classic signs of a toxic culture—such as discrimination, harassment and bullying—while others may show subtler signs, such deliberate staff inefficiency and favouritism. Here are a few of the key ones to look out for:

  • High staff turnover.
  • High absenteeism.
  • No employee recognition.
  • Poor communication.
  • Micromanaging.
  • Employees are uncomfortable sharing their opinions.
  • Staff blaming others for shortcomings.
  • Gossip/social cliques.
  • Favouritism/treating others unfairly.
  • Employee procrastination and deliberate inefficiency. 
  • Culture of overwork.
  • Distrusting leadership. 
  • Harassment and bullying.
  • Discrimination*.

*Discrimination includes more than the often cited race, sex or orientation. It also includes employment status, marriage and family status, union involvement, and political opinion. In all, there are 11 grounds of discrimination. We recommend familiarising yourself with all of them.


Analyse the current negative culture

Ask: How did we get here? What’s driving this? Companies are particularly vulnerable to developing toxic environments when they grow. Research has found that organisations with over 100 employees are over 50 per cent more likely to experience executives with poor leadership skills, managers with unrealistic expectations and leaders who micromanage (57.9%, 52.6% and 51.1% respectively)2.

Here are a few strategies to help you assess your culture:

  • Request staff feedback—make sure it’s anonymous!
  • Look at your onboarding programme—does it include information about a code of conduct and the company’s values?
  • Observe—how do your staff interact with one another? With their managers? Do they share their ideas? Do managers argue with employees about their ideas? Does one person intimidate others? 


Re-visit your values

Leaders have a greater ability to influence others, and as such need to model the values of the company everyday. Fail to do this and your values become little more than empty words—which staff are quick to recognise.

To quote the phrase made famous by Australian Lieutenant General David Morrison in his 2016 anti-misogyny speech: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”3

In other words, letting poor behaviour pass unchecked signals to others that that behaviour is acceptable. While the statement originally referred to sexual violence, it applies to every toxic behaviour under the sun, from bullying and harassment to favouritism. 

However, while a large part of the responsibility for culture falls on the shoulders of a company’s leadership, a good chunk of it also lies with everyday staff. In short, no one person is responsible for upholding company values, everyone is. 

Lastly, if your values aren’t being exemplified in the workplace, it may be time to re-evaluate them. Companies change; they grow, shrink, branch out and refocus. Stands to reason that a company’s values should change and evolve too, which is why it is important to reassess company values from time to time to ensure they reflect the qualities that are important to you and your staff.

Tip: ask your staff what they believe the values should be. It’s a good first step to re-engage them.


Read more: The 10 Pillars of Employee Experience


Set a culture code

Toxic workplaces are not often the result of a single person, but the mindset of the whole organisation. A culture code sets expectations for behaviour—across the company, top to bottom. No one is exempt. 

Having an established culture code is also useful for managing toxic personalities who refuse to change. In the same way you might performance manage an employee who is willfully inefficient, you can refer to your company’s culture code to performance manage recurring problem behaviour.


Five steps for dealing with a toxic employee:

1. Listen. Understand where that employee is coming from, but don’t take sides. 

2. Give feedback. Do not sugar coat it or use the feedback sandwich (positive, negative, positive). Focus on the behaviour, not the individual. E.g. “You’re a negative influence on the office” versus “Your verbal abuse is a negative influence on the office.” 

3. Offer solutions. Poor employee behaviour can be due to any number of reasons. Try to resolve the cause of the behaviour. For example, if an employee is particularly stressed because they have a sick child at home, allow them to work from home. 

4. Set consequences. Be specific. Make it clear that their behaviour will not be tolerated again.

5. Document. This will help you see how your employee is doing and provide a record of what’s transpired if you need to escalate to a formal warning or further.


Upskill management

Many issues that perpetuate toxic culture concern management. Poor communication and micromanagement, for example, are often caused from a lack of skill and experience rather than behavioural issues. 

The good news is that training can help address this lack. 


Create a culture of recognition

Showing your employees that you value them and their efforts can be hugely uplifting for workplace morale and encourage staff to stay at a company longer. Moreover, personally recognising an employee when they do a great job drives them to do more great work, boosting performance. However, there’s more to creating a culture of recognition than simply saying “keep up the good work” on the way out the door. 


Tips for giving recognition:

Get specific: Keeping it generic is unlikely to get the results you’re looking for. Say a salesperson put together an excellent proposal to a new client, focus on that. Tell them how professional it looked, how confident they spoke, or how well they sold your company’s products or services. More than anything, this gives guidance to the employee about what aspect of their job they’re excelling in, and they’ll aim to reproduce that again.

Be prompt: Sitting on positive feedback won’t do you any favours. To use the same example as above, telling the salesperson “great job on that proposal to Client A” a month after the fact is more likely to come across as insincere.

From little things big things grow: Seek recognition in the little things too—something as small as a thank you to a fellow colleague who helped out your team can perpetuate the recognition culture. Also encourage your staff to recognise and thank each other rather than waiting for a manager to step in. 


Want to create an inclusive and positive workplace? Uncover the 10 Pillars of Employee Experience to engage your employees and build a healthy workplace culture.

Download now

  1. Stats NZ. One in 10 workers feels discriminated against, harassed, or bullied at work, 2019.
  2. Nurhuda S. How to identify a toxic workplace, HRD New Zealand, 2019.
  3. David Morrison, 'The standard you walk past is the standard you accept', ADF investigation - 2013, speakola.com

Topics: Employee Experience

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