Creating a pleasant work environment is vital for employee well-being and productivity. On the other hand, toxic behavior at work can have far-reaching consequences for both individuals and the organization as a whole. When I consult with organizations and point out elements that could be signs of a toxic workplace, I sometimes feel that management has trouble understanding the severity of not addressing that with the utmost urgency. Let me shed light on what constitutes a toxic workplace, why it is critical to address such issues, and the risks managers face if they fail to address reports of toxic behavior.
It is increasingly important to understand what behavior is perceived as toxic in the modern workplace, where there is often more physical and emotional distance between team members and between teams and management. Because of the lack of proximity, it can be difficult to detect subtle signs of toxicity, making it critical for managers and coworkers to be vigilant in identifying and reporting concerning behaviors.
Managers can help foster a healthy work environment by actively observing and addressing toxic behavior. They should foster an open and welcoming culture in which employees feel comfortable reporting instances of toxicity. Coworkers should also support one another by recognizing signs of toxic behavior and speaking up when they see or experience it. Managers and coworkers can contribute to a positive workplace by taking collective responsibility for identifying and addressing toxic behavior.
Understanding a Toxic Workplace
To fully grasp the concept of a toxic workplace, it is necessary to investigate the characteristics and manifestations of negative behaviors contributing to its toxicity. Here’s an explanation of the elements that make up a toxic workplace:
- Bullying undermines an employee’s self-esteem and fosters a hostile work environment. Bullying is typical in a toxic workplace, where individuals are subjected to intentional, repeated, and abusive treatment. Examples are verbal attacks, intimidation, humiliation, or undermining of a person’s skills and contributions.
- Harassment is unwanted behavior based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, age, or disability. Offensive remarks, derogatory jokes, unwanted advances, or any other behavior that creates a hostile or intimidating work environment are examples of workplace harassment. Harassment violates an individual’s rights and can result in emotional distress and poor job performance.
- Discrimination is individuals’ unfair and disparate treatment based on their protected characteristics. It undermines equality and fosters an atmosphere of injustice and resentment. Discrimination can occur in a toxic workplace through biased decision-making, unequal opportunities, or exclusionary practices.
- While some stress levels are normal in any workplace, excessive and prolonged stress can be harmful. A toxic workplace frequently fosters a culture of constant pressure, unrealistic expectations, and overwhelming workloads. Chronic stress can cause physical and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and burnout.
- A lack of support from coworkers and supervisors distinguishes toxic workplaces. Employees may lack the necessary guidance, resources, or encouragement to carry out their responsibilities effectively. This lack of support fosters feelings of frustration, disengagement, and undervaluation.
- Toxic workplaces foster hostility by fostering negativity and conflict. Employees may encounter hostility through aggressive communication, disparaging remarks, or a general lack of civility among coworkers. This hostility impedes collaboration, teamwork, and individuals’ overall well-being.
- Using derogatory language, shouting, insults, or demeaning comments directed at employees constitutes verbal abuse. Such conduct lowers self-esteem, harms morale, and contributes to a toxic work environment.
- Employees may be mistreated in a toxic workplace, with behaviors such as favoritism or biased decision-making. Unfair treatment can breed resentment, erode trust, and undermine a fair and equitable workplace perception.
- Micromanagement is an overbearing style of supervision in which managers excessively control and scrutinize their employees’ work. This lack of autonomy can result in feelings of disempowerment, decreased creativity, and hampered professional development.
- Toxic workplaces frequently overlook the importance of work-life balance. This imbalance can result from chronic stress, strained relationships, and decreased overall well-being. Employees may be subjected to unreasonable demands, long working hours, and a lack of flexibility.
Recognizing and addressing toxic behavior manifestations is critical for professionals and managers who want to foster a healthy, supportive, and productive work environment.
The Importance of Dealing with Toxic Workplace Behavior
Addressing toxic workplace behavior is critical from an HR standpoint for several reasons:
- Employee well-being should be an essential aspect of managing a workforce. Toxic workplaces are harmful to employees’ mental and physical health. They can increase stress, anxiety, burnout, and decreased job satisfaction, harming productivity and employee retention.
- Organizations are required by law to provide a safe and respectful workplace for their employees. Failure to address toxic behavior may result in legal consequences such as lawsuits, regulatory penalties, and reputational harm to the company.
- Toxic behavior has the potential to spread like wildfire and contaminate the overall organizational culture. It undermines trust, collaboration, and teamwork, stifling innovation and productivity. To foster a positive and inclusive work environment, toxic behavior must be addressed.
Employers have a legal obligation to prevent and address toxic workplace behavior:
- Employers must follow anti-discrimination laws, prohibiting discriminatory practices based on race, gender, age, religion, or disability. Failure to address complaints of discrimination may expose the organization to legal liability.
- Harassment based on protected characteristics, such as sexual harassment, is illegal, as is creating a hostile work environment. Employers should conduct an immediate investigation and appropriately address such behavior.
- Businesses are required by law to provide a safe and healthy work environment. These requirements can be violated by toxic behavior that causes physical or psychological harm.
Managers who fail to respond to reports of toxic workplace behavior put themselves and their organizations at risk:
- Managers may be held personally liable for their inaction in cases of harassment, discrimination, or failure to provide a safe working environment. This includes the possibility of legal action and financial penalties.
- Reputational Harm: Managers who ignore toxic behavior risk tarnishing the organization’s reputation. Negative media coverage and a poor employer brand can stymie talent acquisition, employee morale, and client relationships.
- Employee Morale and Retention: When toxic behavior is not addressed, trust in leadership erodes. Employee disengagement can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover rates.
HR professionals and managers must address toxic workplace behavior. Organizations can protect their employees, ensure legal compliance, and foster a culture of respect, trust, and productivity by creating a positive work environment and responding quickly to reports of toxic behavior. Managers who fail to address these issues expose themselves and their organizations to legal liability, reputational harm, and lower employee morale. Building a healthy and thriving workplace requires proactive intervention.
Koen Blanquart is an author, keynote speaker, and strategy consultant. Being a digital nomad, Koen operates worldwide, while he considers New York his home base. In his most recent book, Koen gathered tips and methods of digital nomads to manage a remote workforce and hybrid work. Koen explains how asynchronous and remote work is critical in creating a high-performance workforce in his most recent book. Whenever Koen finds a chance, he’s out and about with his camera.