Chances are, you already know what a toxic or hostile workplace culture is without ever reading a formal definition. Toxic work culture is an umbrella term that encompasses many negative, undesirable, and often harmful characteristics. It might mean a culture that is overtly or subtly exclusionary, unfair or inequitable, creates high levels of burnout, and so forth.
According to FlexJobs, “toxic work culture” is the #1 reason workers are quitting their jobs this year. Skim the comments on any employee review website, and you’ll see plenty of examples of how a toxic work culture makes life stressful, frustrating, or even downright difficult for people in the workplace. And it’s not just a corporate problem. Numerous professional sports teams (like the Phoenix Suns and the Las Vegas Raiders) have faced criticism, investigations, and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar fines for having toxic work cultures.
Your organization may not be subject to steep fines for culture problems, but a toxic work culture — and its negative business outcomes — can still cost you big time. Toxic culture can have a huge impact, making it harder to retain employees, attract new talent, and can even limit productivity and profitability.
This article outlines a plan you can follow to evaluate your organizational culture, identify opportunities for improvement, and make meaningful progress toward a healthier work environment and employee experience for everyone.
Revisit your Mission/Vision/Values
The first step to repairing a toxic culture is to identify the type of desired culture you want to build. Often, this is as simple as getting back in touch with your organization’s mission, vision, and values.
Review your company values. Do they still resonate? Are they for lip service only? If they need to be updated to reflect the time we’re living in now, and the organization as it operates today, do it. Or perhaps they still feel true but just don’t align with what’s currently happening in your culture. We suspect many organizations have strayed from their values to some degree or another amid the chaos of the pandemic. There’s no time like the present to get back to them.
Part Ways with Toxic Influences
Organizational culture is built largely on behavior — and if you’re struggling with a toxic workplace, you probably have some toxic team members on the payroll. And, more than likely, you already know who those toxic people are. Get them on PIPs (Performance Improvement Plans) and if they fail to improve, it’s time to part ways. There is nothing worse for employees than seeing their toxic peers continue their egregious, unethical behavior and not be held accountable.
Simultaneously, reward ambassadors of the positive, healthy culture you strive for. These are the brand champions who forge ahead, continuing to perform and innovate (which inspires others to follow suit). Make sure your employee recognition program honors those individuals who embody your organizational values. Behavior that is rewarded tends to be repeated.
Communicate Widely and Clearly
Once leadership has gotten clear on the company values and goals for cultural changes, it’s time to recruit help. As Harvard Business Review (and countless other organizational culture experts) notes, “company culture is everyone’s responsibility.”
Everyone should be on the same page about what behaviors are encouraged and which are not in alignment with the organizational values. Spotlights, within the Inspirus Connects employee engagement platform, are a great way to disseminate messaging, strategies, and plans across your workforce.
These messages need to come from leadership and have an emotional connection. And employees need to see executives leading by example. Your leaders need to live in accordance with those values so that employees can model them. This helps give employees a sense of purpose and feel that they are contributing to the greater good. But this only works with clear, open communication about what is expected.
Leadership Must Be Accountable
Leaders must set an example by taking responsibility. Acknowledge that toxic culture happened, and pledge to use the company’s mission, vision, and values to forge a new path. Encourage every single employee to be onboard and involved. It may feel a little cliché but empowering your employees to help you take advantage of a new start, change the narrative, and write a better story can help you encourage the change you hope to see.
To be effective in getting employees’ buy-in, your leadership must work to create a psychologically safe workplace where people can come forward and speak up, and where they feel they can be genuine and honest. One example of how to do this is to foster an entrepreneurial spirit within your organization, where there are no bad ideas and mistakes are accepted as part of the process because that is how we learn and make progress. The general idea is that “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” (Many people, from billionaire Elon Musk to actor Denzel Washington to fitness trainer Jillian Michaels have said some version of this and it will never cease to be true.)
Use Feedback to Drive Decision-making
There is no better way to understand where an organization stands regarding its cultural health than by asking the employees! Employee Voice offers employees an “always on” tool where they can anonymously voice their thoughts and feelings, 24/7. Anonymity is key to receiving real, valuable insights.
Then you must act on what you learn. When employees see the direct consequences of their feedback, they feel valued, they are happier, and work culture improves.
Detoxing Culture Takes Time
Transforming your toxic work culture is a process — and it’s often not a linear one. To improve employee engagement, allow room for setbacks and mistakes, while keeping your eye on the prize. Be consistent in your efforts to move forward, while holding accountable those who are not working toward the same goals. Building a healthy, inclusive work culture is not only an employee engagement strategy, but also a type of growth, and can evolve and become stronger alongside your other business goals.