Beginning in early 2021, economists noticed a growing trend in which a large number of employees were voluntarily leaving their jobs, with 4.53 million United States workers leaving their jobs in March 2022 alone. They named this phenomenon The Great Resignation, and since it came to light, employers have been trying to figure out what’s behind the mass quitting and how to keep their employees happy. While low pay is definitely a contributing factor, toxic behaviors in the workplace are actually 10.4 times more likely to drive away employees.
But what constitutes toxic behavior in the workplace? And how can managers and executives identify it and address it before it’s too late?
In this article...
What Constitutes a Toxic Work Environment?
A study by MIT Sloan identified three main elements of a toxic culture in the workplace:
- Failure to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I)
- Unethical behavior, especially from management
- Workers not feeling respected
While some signs of a toxic work environment are obvious (e.g. sexual harassment or verbal abuse), others are more subtle. A pattern of disrespect between managers and associates, for example, may take a long time for employees to pick up, but it’s no less damaging to the corporate culture. Additionally, failure to promote DE&I makes those in the minority feel out of place and unlikely to stay for the long term.
A toxic workplace can also come from the business owner or executive team putting their wants above the needs of their workers. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, toxic workplace culture is rearing its ugly head in new ways. For example, employers that are forcing their employees to return to the office, despite productivity remaining the same or increasing during remote work, and against the wishes of the employees, are creating a toxic environment.
Even more recently, we’re seeing a slew of layoffs among high-profile companies, like Netflix and Coinbase. While layoffs aren’t toxic in and of themselves and are an unfortunate reality of the business world, the way they’re handled can be a clear indicator of cultural problems throughout the company. Dishonesty about the state of the company doesn’t help anyone. It simply worsens the fallout and makes future job-seekers wary of joining those companies when they start hiring again.
Find out how to improve your Company Culture During Periods of High Turnover.
Consequences of Toxic Behavior in the Workplace
Leaders need to realize that employees aren’t the only ones who suffer in a toxic workplace. The business suffers, and often, customers do, as well. Here are a few of the consequences business leaders can expect if they have a toxic environment on their hands.
High Employee Turnover
High turnover rates are a clear indicator of toxic workplace culture. Employees don’t want to work in a toxic environment, and after the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, more employees are prioritizing their mental health than ever before. Over 81 percent of workers feel more comfortable holding their employers accountable for improving the workplace, and 56 percent of those employees would only wait 1-2 months for changes to take effect before leaving.
“60 percent of leadership fail to take action when toxicity occurs, decreasing internal company morale.”Ty Smith, Founder of CommSafe AI
Before turnover happens, though, employers are likely to get signs that it’s coming. Ty Smith, founder of CommSafe AI, explains that “toxic workplace behavior can be dire in the fact that it leads to absenteeism and negative stress which increases negativity in work culture by 54 percent.” Unfortunately, leaders often ignore the warning signs. “In fact,” Smith says, “60 percent of leadership fail to take action when toxicity occurs, decreasing internal company morale.”
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Physical Security Issues
To make matters worse, a toxic work environment threatens employees’ physical health as well as their mental health. Assault is the fourth leading cause of workplace death with worker-on-worker violence listed as one of the four categories the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines.
If employees are constantly worried that they’ll be attacked at work, that increases their stress levels and makes them less productive. Businesses need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence and develop a safety plan to protect their employees.
In March of 2022, President Biden signed the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act into law, giving sexual assault or harassment victims the choice regarding how they want to seek justice. Rather than forcing survivors to go through an arbitration process, employers have to allow them to file the claim in court if they choose.
Because of this new legislation, Smith predicts “a massive spike in sexual harassment/assault claims in the enterprise soon”. If employees believe their claims are less likely to get swept under the rug by company leadership, they’re more likely to report abuse.
How Companies Can Address a Toxic Work Culture
Truthfully, most leaders don’t want a toxic workplace culture, but they don’t know how to fix them. Here are a few ways companies can address and prevent toxic work cultures.
DE&I & Management Training
Ignorance does not excuse a toxic workplace, but it can cause one. DE&I training can improve cultural competency and interpersonal relationships among employees. And improved diversity also increases profits. Organizations with diverse executive teams were 21 percent more likely to see higher profits than other companies in their industry.
Additionally, employees that get promoted to management may not have the people skills needed to effectively manage a team. Companies should offer management training to recently promoted employees to prevent toxic behaviors before they can take root.
Using AI to Monitor Workplace Communications
Should you spy on your employees’ internal communications? Absolutely not. However, you can use an artificial intelligence (AI) platform to monitor them for potentially harmful behavior, including racial or gendered slurs, threats, and similar language. These AI monitoring tools scan workplace communications and only save messages that are flagged as harmful, protecting both your employees’ privacy and your intellectual property.
Taking Disciplinary Action
If people get away with bad behavior once, they’re going to keep doing it. And workers who don’t engage in bad behavior are going to get frustrated with the lack of consequences. A single toxic employee allowed to run wild will poison the environment for the rest of the workforce, causing good employees to leave and new employees to adopt the behavior in an attempt to fit in. Only appropriate disciplinary action can stop this behavior before it takes over the culture.
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Squashing Toxic Behavior Is the Best Way to Keep Employees
Employees are finally realizing that they don’t have to accept toxic behavior in the workplace. Whether they’re holding employers accountable or simply taking their talents elsewhere, workers are telling employers en masse (via the Great Resignation) that something has to change. Until organizations can squash toxic behavior in the workplace, they’ll continue to lose employees at a high rate.
Learn more about The Great Resignation & What Your Company Can Do To Retain Employees.