5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Workplace and How to Avoid It

Eric Mochnacz
August 3, 2020

In late July, Ellen DeGeneres and her titular talk show began to dominate headlines – for all the wrong reasons.  Current and former staffers spoke out about a pervasive toxic work environment, which is at odds with DeGeneres’s “be kind” mantra and overall perception of the host and movie star.  Soon after these allegations, additional employees came forward with allegations of a work environment rife with sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation tactics at the hands of the show’s producers.  The public reaction has been swift, and although it’s easy to put the responsibility on the shoulders of the producers and managers, numerous people have pointed out that it’s Ellen’s brand and show; she isn’t blameless in the cultivation of such a work culture.  The consensus is she needs to be held responsible for a workplace culture that seems misaligned with everything she purportedly stood for.  

Everyone within an organization is responsible for cultivating company culture, but it needs to come from the top down.  The allegations from Ellen’s employees only demonstrate the importance of hiring the right people who can manage your organization when as the leader you can’t be involved in the day to day operations of your business.  In fact, in her response, Ellen acknowledges that as her business grew, she couldn’t be involved in the everyday operation, and therefore wasn’t aware this behavior was occurring.  This further supports the importance of hiring the right people to build your culture, rather than hiring those who can destroy it by engaging in behavior that creates a toxic work environment.  

Toxic work environments don’t happen overnight.  They are a result of continuous negative workplace behavior that has a detrimental effect on employees and the environment and is never adequately addressed or corrected.  In work environments such as these, toxic behaviors may be accepted and encouraged.  Employees may be groomed to engage in similar behaviors in order to avoid discipline or advance in the organization.  However, the employees who recognize the unacceptable behavior are forced to suffer in the toxic organization, knowing if they speak up, they may face retribution, including losing their job.  It takes active engagement by leadership and managers to know the signs of a toxic work culture and be able to proactively address it before the company and its people face irreparable damage.  

1. Poor Communication and Leadership

Effective managers provide autonomy to their direct reports while knowing what their team is doing.  They allow their teams to work independently but know when to intervene when things are starting to critically escalate.  If you have qualified leaders, they address toxic behaviors when they are occurring because they strive to build a positive work culture and ensure a safe and secure environment for their workers.

One of the main criticisms levied against DeGeneres is she seems to have no knowledge of  the workplace environment behind the scenes of her talk show.  Managers should be in a position to own the behavior of their teams, both positive and negative.  If your organization has “hands off” managers who can’t speak to what their team is doing, it’s possible their employees don’t feel supported.  If the manager isn’t engaged in their team’s dynamic, toxic behavior may be going on without the manager knowing.  This is incredibly problematic and demonstrates poor communication throughout your organization.  If, by chance, a manager is truly unaware of bullying, intimidation or sexual harassment – when they hear of it, they should move quickly and appropriately to address it.  Employees need to know toxic behavior will be addressed, see repercussions for the perpetrator, and witness changed behavior for them to believe they work in an environment that won’t support behaviors that make work unbearable for others.  

So, how does a company make sure this doesn’t happen among their management team?  Hire for culture.  If your company has identified core values, and you expect your employees to demonstrate them in their work, develop behavioral interviewing questions that help you determine if interviewees are prepared to add to the company’s culture.  The organization should also have clearly outlined expectations and KPIs for managers that address communication with their direct reports.  Staffers from DeGeneres’s show indicate the producers bungled communication regarding their employment status and pay in response to COVID.  Clear communication and communication planning is essential to an open workplace culture where all employees feel supported, heard and essential to the business’s operation.  

Additionally, your company should have clear policies that outline the company’s zero tolerance for any time of toxic behavior, including bullying, intimidation, and sexual harassment, and how manager’s are to report it to the appropriate individuals in the organization (most likely Human Resources) so it can be addressed.

2. High Turnover

Perhaps you’re a manager or an HR staff member in your organization, and despite your best employment engagement initiatives, you can’t seem to retain employees.  Generally speaking, people choose to join a company because they see long-term potential with the organization.  Workers actually favor company culture over high pay.  If you’re not able to consistently keep new hires for long periods of time, then there may be a company-wide culture problem, especially if you pay well, offer expansive benefits, offer generous PTO and provide for remote work.  Those are perks that employees want – and if your benefits package is one of the best in the industry, but employees are still quick to leave – it’s probably the right time to take a look at the work environment, how employees are treated, and perceptions of the workplace culture.  One other indicator of a potential shift to a toxic work environment is if there is a measurable spike in departures by seasoned employees, especially if they started working for a newly hired or reassigned manager.  

In situations like this, it’s important to ascertain why people are leaving and providing a safe space for them to be honest about their reasons for departure.  If there isn’t an exit process in place already, employees should be provided the opportunity to engage in an exit interview with a confidential source, potentially Human Resources or an external HR consulting firm.  The only way a company will be able to get honest feedback and address any potentially serious workplace culture issues is if the individual managing the exit interview is a trusted professional – not someone who the employee perceives contributes to (or outright ignores) the toxic culture that is forcing the employee to leave in the first place.  Also, the information gleaned from the exit interviews should be used to make actionable change to improve the employee experience and the workplace culture.  

3. Exclusion and Gossip

In reading the reports about the toxic environment at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, one former staffer alleges when she attempted to address her concerns about the toxic work environment and racism at the workplace, it had a negative impact on her employment.  She was not provided access to sponsor perks or career opportunities, whereas employees who were complicit with the toxic behaviors were.  Exclusionary tactics like this are detrimental to employee mental health and well-being.  When there is a clear division between employee groups, and managers often target specific employees with negative feedback while consistently lauding others, it’s likely there is a divisive culture permeating your organization.

Additionally, gossip exists in any organization, even if you’ve managed to build a strong company culture.  If you’re an organization leader, and you hear regular gossip about employees feeling excluded or managerial behavior that seems discordant with what you expect of your people – listen.  Employees will vent occasionally, and sometimes a disgruntled ex-employee will post a harsh review on Glassdoor, but if employees consistently express concern about their manager or co-workers behavior, you need to address it.  

How do you create an inclusive environment where all employees feel welcomed and heard?  That’s a nuanced answer, and companies are all reconsidering their approach to inclusion initiatives.  A company can start by enacting and supporting inclusive policies where employees feel they can be their authentic selves at their place of work.  Ellen staffers allege they were treated differently with some released from their contracts, as a result of requesting medical leave for personal medical reasons.  It is essential that your business abide by all federal and state laws that support employees’ rights, while developing and implementing internal policies that support a positive work culture that are informed by employment best practices.  People want to be supported at work, not marginalized, and an employee-centered approach to policy creation and enforcement is the first step to creating a positive work environment.

4. Unmotivated Coworkers

How an employee engages with their manager and other co-workers is a good indicator on whether they feel connected to the business and if the environment is one in which they can thrive.  If an employee isolates themselves and doesn’t actively engage with their colleagues, it could indicate poor treatment by other employees, which is a sign of a toxic work culture.  Although workers may set clear boundaries between their personal and professional life while in the office, people are social creatures by nature and want to feel acknowledged and included at work.  If they don’t feel connected to the people with whom they are supposed to work because of poor treatment, they likely won’t engage in the work they are doing.  If coming to work every day causes stress and unhappiness, the employee isn’t connected to the long-term success of the business.  They may even be planning their exit strategy with one foot out the door.  Having a disengaged workforce, which leads to high turnover (mentioned above), is detrimental to the company’s morale and reputation and has an impact on the company’s bottom line.

Effective managers recognize that workplace culture starts at the top.  In situations where members of their staff are isolated, they take it upon themselves to fix it.  They actively engage with disengaged workers and take the appropriate steps, with HR if needed, to address the workplace issues that come from the manager’s due diligence.  Everyone deserves the opportunity to feel connected to their workplace and their colleagues, and sometimes the manager needs to be the advocate for an employee who feels unheard.  As a manager, be responsible for the culture that exists among your team and be the leader in cultivating a positive employee culture, even if it seems others around you aren’t willing to do the same.

5. Trust Your Gut

If you are a leader within your organization, you have a responsibility to be finely attuned to the dynamics and relationships that exist among your workforce.  If you have worked tirelessly to cultivate your workplace culture, but are observing high turnover, lack of employee engagement, and situations where employees seem excluded – then that may be the call to action to do something about it.  If your gut is telling you that something isn’t working, it’s probably right.  Taking definitive action to address a toxic work culture puts you in a better position than those who engage in toxic behavior, or through their inaction, allow a toxic environment to flourish.  The employer brand of The Ellen DeGeneres Show is now forever tarnished by the reports of those who experienced the toxic work environment.  You want your company to receive publicity for being an amazing place to work, not for where employee mistreatment runs rampant.  

How Red Clover Can Help

As a culture-driven company, Red Clover’s skilled consultants operate with our core values at the forefront.  With that knowledge, we can help your growing business identify your core values and begin cultivating a workplace culture where all employees can thrive.  To be proactive in addressing harassment in the workplace, we have a vetted EEO training partner who can provide online harassment prevention training to your workforce.  This training is compliant with federal and state regulations.  We are also equipped to implement a recruitment process, focusing on behavioral interviewing, to educate your managers on how to identify candidates who will add to the culture you’ve striven to build.  If you find yourself with an untenable situation, where the lion’s share of your managerial staff are contributing to the toxic work environment, Red Clover is equipped to respond rapidly to your managerial challenges and reposition your business. We can guide you to focus on employee experience and reconfigure your leadership to contribute to a positive work environment, rather than a toxic one.

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A commercial roofing contractor was in hyper growth mode. They had goals to increase their field workforce to expand their service area to additional states and geographical locations. If they were to grow their field workforce, they would also need to increase their administrative, operational and sales headcount to support the additional workload created by increased field work. Additionally, they were challenged in workforce retention and development, experiencing high turnover, and did not have a dedicated Human Resources professional to manage employee relations and compliance issues that come with trying to scale a business.

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