insight magazine

6 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and How to Clean it Up

Here are six examples of toxic trouble and what you can do about the causes of discord that lead to poor performance. By Chris Dyer | Digital Exclusive - 2019

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Have you ever had a bad roommate? Whether they scoffed at house rules or crossed your personal boundaries, the situation hurt you daily — and you couldn’t escape. A toxic work environment is just as bad. People have to be there, they’re trying to do good work, but they’re fighting headwinds.

If you’re a business leader, any obstacle to your employees’ success is a drag. You might not hear an exchange with a dissatisfied customer that access to the right information could have solved. You might not hear people grumbling that they never get credit for what they do. How can you clean house before the poisonous atmosphere causes your best talent and clientele to flee?

Here are six examples of toxic trouble and what you can do about the causes of discord that lead to poor performance.


#1: “I don’t know.”


Problem: When customers or clients call with questions or coworkers need information, the last thing they want to hear is, “I don’t know.” That’s a toxic lack of transparency. Customers and clients either get the runaround or their concerns are not addressed. Coworkers’ efficiency or accuracy is compromised. Either way, the company’s bottom line suffers.

Solution: Be transparent! Best practices make crucial information available to those authorized to handle it. Post frequently asked questions and answers for customers’ and clients’ convenience. Create a central database of facts and figures that employees need to know, and keep it updated. The more informed your people are, the better their abilities will be to make decisions and satisfy your business’ demands.


#2: “It’s not my job.”


Problem: Accountability for achieving business objectives belongs to every member of the team — except for employees who like to do less. When they fall short of goals or make mistakes, they don’t accept the blame, and everyone else suffers. Passing the buck is a major gripe of hard workers who pick up the slack for those who are less driven.

Solution: Write accountability into your company values and make collaboration the cornerstone of your operations. If you want every employee to be responsible for customer service, put that in your mission or value statement. If you want team players, say so in your job ads and employee handbook. Go a step farther: suggest that employees take the initiative to help others when possible, so that solving problems and meeting market demands become “everyone’s job.”


#3: “I don’t fit in.”


Problem: Worker isolation threatens performance and retention. While one instance may point to a poor hiring choice or process, multiple instances may mean a weak team structure or social policy. Beware that isolation isn’t something that people tend to talk about and may be hidden from management.

Solution: Review your on-boarding methods to standardize the process for every status of employee — full-time, part-time, contractor, intern, etc. Organizations need to make all employees feel like part of the team by finding ways to encourage team identity and collaboration. Try scheduling targeted social gatherings and brainstorming sessions and building teamwork into operational design and mentioning it prominently in your value statement.


#4: “I’m way too busy.”


Problem: Workers who are overextended in their job duties or their personal obligations can’t stay on task. They can’t fully address customer, client, or colleague concerns. They can’t meet deadlines or take on new projects. The physical stress may affect their attendance, and the mental wear and tear eventually erodes their morale.

Solution: Managers should periodically review job descriptions and changing roles. If your organization has gone through cutbacks or hiring freezes, those may eventually overload employees, who simply cannot maintain quality standards when the quantity of work overwhelms them. Long or changing work hours may interfere with family life. Flexi-time and work-from-home options that relax schedules or cut commute hours can help your staff accommodate medical appointments, car repairs, or needed downtime.


#5: “I’m just not engaged.”


Problem: People who only show up to work to earn a paycheck have no reason to excel. A negative attitude brings down everyone in their orbit and may not be fully their fault. Research shows that a lack of autonomy in how employees perform their roles and a lack of recognition for their efforts contribute to weak or little engagement with work. The hallmark grumbling that indicates low morale usually happens out of earshot of company leaders.

Solution: Instead of trying to root out those “responsible” for poor team morale, satisfy employees’ basic human needs. Give them whatever measure of freedom or choice is possible in how they achieve the objectives that are set for them. If the job demands are rigid or static, consider a casual dress code or flexible scheduling. Be sure to acknowledge individual contributions toward team or departmental goals. Letting coworkers nominate peers for acknowledgement builds camaraderie.


#6: “But he said...” “But she said...”


Problem: Infighting creates interpersonal strife and cuts into performance. When the rumor mill goes into full swing, managers are often approached to handle the drama, taking them away from their tasks. But it may be too late. Employees who feel ostracized or threatened will leave and may even have legal cases.

Solution: Gossip and bullying occur in any social framework that lets instigators hide—on smoke breaks, behind social media, or in anonymous bulletin board posts. When you learn that two employees are at odds, don’t perpetuate the segmentation that allows miscommunication to go on. Get them in a room together with a respected coworker or qualified mediator and talk it out. Root out rumors by putting civility standards in company social media policies.
Chris Dyer is a recognized performance expert, speaker, and consultant. He is the founder and CEO of background check company of PeopleG2 and author of “The Power of Company Culture.”