What Is a “Toxic Work Environment”?
“Toxic Work Environment” is a phrase that evolved into a buzzword notably fast; while the business world at large is quick to use this phrase as a catchall for any kind of “bad” workplace, toxic work environments have very specific warning signs that, if understood by managers, owners, and supervisors, can then be more mindfully weeded out. Toxic working environments are, in essence, a workplace marred by significant and distracting interpersonal conflicts between employees which eventually can affect employees’ wellbeing and mental health.
What is especially troublesome about toxic work environments is that they frequently appear normal from the outside, and often are normal for some other employees. Silent frustrations brew in the staff members who feel as though they aren’t considered, and managers likely don’t know that certain staff feel that way since the cycle is inward. It is exceptionally difficult to diagnose a toxic workplace because even if asked directly, staff who are suffering toxic thinking likely wouldn’t admit it. It is, then, a worthy exercise for small business owners to assume and predict the ways their workplace may be considered toxic to root out toxicity that may already be in your workplace, silently building employee distrust and eventual resignation.
Tips to Prevent
Keep Inter-Staff Communication Frequent
Toxicity grows slowly over long periods of time. As employees feel their input isn’t heard or their opinions don’t matter, they’ll slowly become sardonic. To help alleviate the feeling that employees work in their own bubbles, and that their work isn’t important, schedule regular meetings that allow staff to communicate more freely. Put managers in a room with their staff. Put supervisors in the same rooms as managers. Do everything you can to burst bubbles and break barriers; toxic work environments thrive as well because the humanity of the coworker or manager they view as “toxic” is devalued; those “toxic” employees become caricatures of their reality in the gossips and snide remarks that fly behind their backs. Even if you don’t know who is viewed as “toxic” among your staff, take it upon yourself to give space for everyone to speak to, and even more importantly get to know the people they work with.
Recognition and Accountability
Work environments become toxic when employees feel their actions go unnoticed. This, however, goes in both directions. If an employee is excelling but feels ignored, they will often store those feelings inside and turn them around, becoming cynical of the business itself. Just as well, if certain staff are underperforming or acting out of order and seeing no meaningful repercussions, this can be a morale hit of the century for all of your staff. If you are avoiding confrontation or withholding praise for your employees, let me tell you: they know.
The most meaningful way to address both extremes of positive recognition and reasonable accountability is the same response: speak to your staff. Go out of your way to recognize excelling staff and do not be afraid to hold staff (or, and most especially, yourself) accountable when things go wrong.
Ask Managers and Supervisors to Regularly Review Performance of their Direct Staff
One of the most common dynamics of toxicity brews between managers and their direct staff. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to direct managers. While you can’t be everywhere at once, a great first step to alleviate potential toxicity between staff and their managers is to require those managers to regularly evaluate the performance of their direct staff. As to whether they should report the performance directly to you or simply share it with the staff member in a one-on-one discussion, that will likely depend on your current structure. Find a system that doesn’t impede your managers’ time or become a chore (or dread) for your staff.
Employees in an environment they already view as toxic are unlikely to speak out. Little innocuous choices like scheduling for shifts has the potential to only add to the stress and discomfort of your staff. When making schedules for your managers and staff, step into their minds for a moment and trace any frustration that may come from the schedule you are drafting. A classic scheduling choice that can build employee frustration is “clopening” shifts where employees work a third shift immediately followed by a first. Especially if this lands on a Sunday night and Monday morning, this is an easy headache to avoid for your staff.
The basis of mindful scheduling, however, is to more fully understand your employees and managers’ needs when making their hours. For that to happen, employees and managers need to be confident enough to even speak to you about these matters in the first place. Either through your new, regular meetings with staff or new dedicated times/avenues, invest thought and effort into giving your staff the space to build schedules that reduce toxicity and stress.
Avoid Nepotism and Hiring Friends at All Costs
This is another seemingly obvious tip, but one that bears infinite repeating. Sniffs and hints of nepotism will have blowbacks no matter what industry or business size. This is both dangerous for the reputation of yourself, the business owner, and the friend or family member who you bring on board. Friends or family hired even through entirely legitimate procedures will near-always be seen as having received special treatment; the trick is, just about no employee or manager would feel comfortable saying this outright. This means that the gossip culture that breeds toxicity will only be exacerbated as a result of hiring a family member or friend.
Be an Example for Your Staff
It is well documented that change comes best from the top down in companies. If you want your staff to act and feel happy at work, you ought to do the same. Sit down and genuinely consider how you, the business owner, act in your workplace. Another business trope easy to fall into is the ghostly owner: owners who don’t spend very much time with their staff (even for legitimate reasons) risk becoming the catchall of things gone wrong in a toxic work environment. For the same reason that regular meetings are important, it is essential that owners are regularly present and available for staff and managers. Owners aren’t kings and ought not rule their businesses like one. Defeat the image of hierarchy by being open and transparent with your staff. Be present during the workday; simple tricks like knowing the names and hobbies of your staff are more than enough to help you lead by example.
Don’t Get Tied Up Trying to Change Yourself
Just as well as it is important to lead by example, don’t lead by fake example. Your employees and managers are smart enough to know when you aren’t being genuinely yourself. If you truly want to weed out a toxic work environment, your heart must be in it as well as your mind.
Don’t put on a fake version of yourself to please staff; they’ll know. Don’t put on appearances that you care about your staff without backing it up; they’ll know. Worse than a ghostly owner is a fake owner. Don’t put on a new face before you walk into your workplace, put on your best face. Your staff won’t take well to the feeling they are being patronized or treated like variables. Curing a toxic work environment comes not to those who see the productivity advantages of alleviating one but rather to those who understand the importance of the mental health and happiness of their staff.
Know the Signs and Run Your Business
Not every business is toxic, and not every business is healthy. Being that toxic thoughts are rooted deep in the subconscious of your staff, it’s not as simple as reading a label to see if your business is “toxic or “nontoxic.” You must then operate on the mindset that your business can always be run better. And that, perhaps, you can run your business better. You can always be more mindful of your staffs’ needs. The businesses least likely to become toxic, however, are those who know the signs and meaningfully implement countermeasures. If the entire concept of toxicity were a spell with a magic word to underdo the curse, that word would be “communication.” At the root of every one of these tips is the guiding light that you must speak candidly and regularly with your staff. As departments become more distant and staff begin to spread into cliques, it is up to owners and managers to break the trend and reintroduce open, healthy communication.