Happy, healthy, productive workforce? How can you be sure? Anne Payne, Executive Director of The Validium Group, outlines how to diagnose and treat a ‘toxic workplace’.
Blame games, simmering resentments, careless attitudes, deteriorating customer service and an absence of team spirit are just some of the symptoms conspiring to threaten, contaminate or destroy workplaces. No-one is immune. Multinationals with benevolent senior executives may harbour toxic elements in teams, departments or branches. Entrepreneurial SME leaders may be blinded by their own ambition to poisonous behaviours flourishing right before their eyes. And while a heady concoction of these ingredients might wreak havoc amongst previously happy, productive workforces, even a single lethal dose can quickly go viral. To HR professionals, toxic workplaces are nothing new. But a long-overdue awareness of their causes and cures is emerging.
The speed of recession revealed shortcomings in organisational approaches to staff wellbeing. Staff and managers alike suddenly struggled to handle volatile workloads. And just as everyone needed to be firing on all cylinders, their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing nosedived, impacting adversely on team spirit, customer relationships and ultimately, financial performance. Yet many organisations manage to prevent or contain toxicity, allowing them to protect existing business and capitalise on new opportunities. What are they doing that’s so effective?
“Blame games, simmering resentments, careless attitudes, deteriorating customer service and an absence of team spirit are just some of the symptoms conspiring to threaten, contaminate or destroy workplaces. No-one is immune”
There are few workplaces which have become so dire that it’s not worth trying to fix them. But early identification of toxic factors is critical to minimise disruption and restore harmony. These might include; Noxious in-crowds: Unreasonable or personal criticism of colleagues, and obvious, insensitive sidelining of certain individuals by cliques at the water-cooler, in desk conversations or at lunch; Contaminated attitudes: Lack of care towards work, and dismissive responses when poor results, mistakes or missed deadlines are pointed out; Unhealthy corporate disloyalty: Nonchalance (or even pleasure) when business is lost, contracts cancelled or branches closed; nine to five syndrome: An unexplained surge in staff ‘running a bit late’, clock-watching, taking their full lunch hour and no longer popping for a drink after work; Hidden infections: A growing sense of secretiveness and foreboding, with colleagues no longer confiding in each other or management, or neglecting to step in to help others needing practical or moral support.
Classic toxic workplaces might typically feature a widespread cynicism amongst staff (including team leaders and line managers). There’s often a sense that no-one wants to be there or make more than the bare minimum of effort. Communication breakdowns, rising absenteeism and high staff turnover are common indicators. Toxicity isn’t always visible or audible; grumbles may need to be prised out of those on the front line. But while some employees might be nervous about airing their grievances, regardless of reassurances of confidentiality, the dialogue might be even more uncomfortable for senior management. The job of HR leaders often starts with convincing those at the top that action is required, a proposition that might not be universally welcomed in the boardroom.
Senior HR directors and CEOs suspecting a malaise may be reluctant to delve down, fearful of what they might discover and worried it will only spread and ferment. But doing nothing is never a sensible option.
There’s no one-size-fits-all plan to root out and resolve the problems lurking beneath the surface. Consider how you might adapt these steps; Delegate ownership; Everyone has a stake in ridding the workplace of toxicity, but give careful consideration to who should champion the project; if findings are to be reported at board level, identify someone (or a small team) with the credibility and confidence to deliver unwelcome truths and make sound remedial recommendations; Provide support: People already worried about their job security may be understandably reticent to voice negative opinions ‘officially’, however outspoken they are in the staff kitchen or the pub after work; tasking non-partisan managers or external consultants (such as EAP providers or whistle-blowing helplines) will reinforce anonymity; Make a visible commitment: You’ll generate more candid, meaningful and constructive intelligence if objectives are clearly communicated ; Ask the right questions: Use open-ended prompts, exploring not just issues pertinent to your business activity but also factors such as perceived levels of job satisfaction, trust, support, reward, security, management empathy and development opportunities
Senior management and directors must be open-minded and broad-shouldered. It’s not a witch-hunt; everyone stands to gain from managers and workers alike being more self-aware, or simply more appreciative of how they slot in with wider organisational objectives. In other words, unless you have evidence of significant data error (or sabotage), trust your findings. More importantly, share what you’ve learned, and what you propose to do next, and when. Even if you only report results on a macro level, a commitment to specific actions demonstrates that you mean business. But above all, stick to those commitments and keep communicating. The workplace that hasn’t been fully eradicated of toxins may seem cheerful, purposeful and industrious. But as few HR professionals will need reminding, nothing comes undone at the speed of disappointed workers’ faith in their employer.