How a toxic company culture can impact your bottom line, and what to do about it

Is your workplace toxic? The question might sound like it’s coming from Captain Obvious, but a culture breakdown can sneak up on you, little by little, until it begins to feel normal.

But it isn’t. A nest of weeds can sprout from a garden like that, and those weeds can grow to choke your company’s bottom line. A toxic culture causes poor morale and drooping employee satisfaction. When everyone is miserable, how will they possibly give 100 percent to their jobs? A toxic culture gives your company a revolving door, causing headaches for HR and lost productivity for everyone else. Top people will be out like a shot. It can even tarnish your company’s brand if exiting employees talk loudly enough about the reasons why.

Here are a few signs that your workplace culture is toxic:

  • The rumor mill is the best way to find out what’s going on. There’s the gossip, cliques, and clannish behavior, all insidious in their own right. But pair that with a culture of non-transparency, where the top brass talk in hushed tones behind closed doors, rarely communicate with workers, and nobody quite knows what’s going on, and that’s a recipe for creating a suspicion-and-rumor cocktail that disempowers everyone.
  • Employees aren’t supportive of one another. Competition is one thing. Sabotage is another. Backstabbing, manipulation, back-door scheming, office politics, favoritism … they’re all toxic to your workplace.
  • You can’t fail. In healthy organizations, employees are encouraged to stretch, take risks, and try to reach for new heights. These efforts don’t always meet with success, but when they do, they advance the whole
    organization. Employees won’t push their own boundaries if failure is not an option.
  • People are walking on eggshells. If a manager has a short fuse, publicly criticizes or humiliates employees, loses his or her temper often, and throws tantrums regularly, it poisons the whole department. It also creates the fear of speaking up.
  • There’s only one way to get the job done. If you’re constantly hearing “We’ve always done it this way,” it’s a good sign that people are resistant to change. It means there’s no room for new ideas, innovation, or growth. This also covers an overabundance of rules, regulations, and hierarchy. It’s about control, hostility to new ways or ideas, and keeping a firm grip on both employees and the status quo.

How HR can turn it around

HR is in a prime position to do something about a workplace culture that has broken down. We’re about people, so this is our problem to tackle. Here are a few ideas:

Identify the problem. Figure out what, exactly, is wrong. Listen to people, and urge honesty and anonymity. One way to do this is with an anonymous employee survey. This serves two purposes. It gives people a forum to speak their minds, and it’s hard evidence for you to show the top brass.

Share the results with the entire staff. Take the first steps into transparency. Get everyone on the same page, and let people who are perpetrating the toxic culture know that their time is up.

Follow through. Don’t stop there. Make a concrete plan to fix whatever it is that’s wrong. You don’t have to reinvent your entire workplace in a day. Pick a common pain point that you can do something about and start there. If people are feeling overworked, for example, see if there’s room in the budget to hire temp workers.

If there’s an elephant in the room, HR needs to be the one to talk about it. Who else will?

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