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HRM Debate: What are the best ways to fight toxic workplace culture?

It’s an issue that everyone has an opinion on, it seems. So we asked our readers to weigh in with their experiences of toxic workplace culture.

“Does each company have at least one toxic worker who poisons the air for everyone? I suggest nine out of 10 people would say ‘yes’.”

This quote, pulled from the article ‘7 signs of a toxic workplace culture and what to do when you see them’ shows just how pervasive negative workplace cultures are – and it would seem that our audience of HR professionals agrees.

Last year’s article by contributor Friska Wirya elicited some of our highest reader engagement, as members of our HR community shared their experiences and gave advice; both in the comments section and on the AHRI LinkedIn discussion page.

From these discussions, it’s clear that identifying the signs that you’re working in a toxic environment is only the beginning; enacting culture change for the better is where things get difficult.

So what are the key areas where toxicity can seep under the door and into workplaces? And, given the wealth of advice out there, are there some initiatives to counter toxic workplace culture that work better than others?

Toxic individuals

“Everything rises and falls on leadership,” wrote Jessica van der Walt, talent team leader at Employsure and HRMonline contributor. “True transformation and change cannot happen unless leadership are humble and take responsibility for a toxic situation.”

HR business consultant Jo Gazzola agrees. “Leadership change is needed to understand the effects of toxic workplaces have on their employees and take ownership for the solution.”

But how to do so? Dealing with difficult leaders takes expert communication skills. If you need a starting point, read our case study on best practice approaches to dealing with an unpopular CEO or our guide to deploying EQ when arguing with your boss.

As for toxic individuals more generally, Mark Shaw, CEO at employee training and conflict resolution organisation NEOS HR, works closely with companies to find solutions for problem employees – and has some insights.

“The approach that has worked very well for me for many years is to focus on the management problem caused by the toxic employee’s behaviour.”

“For many managers, tackling the issue of a toxic employee is indeed uncomfortable and requires a difficult conversation. Not only that, but it is generally a high risk scenario that if you get it wrong has major consequences.”

However, this is where he suggests HR practitioners have a great opportunity to “step up to the mark.” Shaw suggests using this chance to help managers articulate the workplace issue caused by the toxic employee, then script the ‘difficult conversation’ “so that the risk of bad outcome is minimised and the problem is actually resolved.”

Joanna Bryant, a business leadership professional, sees things much the same way, suggesting that while there are a small percentage of people who will never change, she believes that “most people start a new role wanting to make a positive contribution” and therefore will be open to finding a solution if the opportunity arises.

A study by GloboForce and SHRM found that 85% of businesses surveyed saw a definitive positive impact when spending as little as 1% of the payroll on employee recognition. Even if you can’t remove the toxic manager or employee, ensuring that your organisation has a strong recognition program in place helps employees see their value.

When an entire organisation sees this system in action, writes workplace culture consultant Devin C. Hughes, normally toxic employees will be more inclined to work towards the same goals.

Toxic Culture

Toxic workplace culture, or ‘vulture culture’ is defined by bad practices that go beyond one single person or team, explains organisational psychologist and principal of Brash Consulting, Leanne Faraday-Brash.

In such environments, the toxicity is self-perpetuating. If people in an organisation are prepared to put up with bad behaviour, she explains, it will continue to occur.

In this case, “a change in the fundamental contract is required” writes Adam Thomson, member of the AHRI Organisational Design and Development Network. He explains that, “management and those that aren’t in management [are] inadvertently complicit in an arrangement of dominance (usually coercion by caring) and dependence (refusal to take accountability for my own situation because it’s someone else’s fault). Any actions of leadership by management that don’t bring this to light will reinforce the dynamic.”

If there’s a toxic workplace culture issue that has been on the back burner, the new year is a great opportunity to approach the situation with fresh eyes.

Bring your HR discussions into the real world this year by attending a networking event. Share your experiences, network with fellow HR professionals and hear from thought leaders and experts.

Learn about the latest in HR at AHRI’s national and state events in 2017, and network with your peers at your local network forum.

You can also hone your professional skills and advance your HR career in the new year, with the 2017 AHRI Training Directory.


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Not a direct response to the article, but a sideline issue that I’ve noticed very clearly in the past few years is that there is a very differing opinion on what HR is in Australia as opposed to the rest of the world, and I think that this is having a huge negative impact on Australian businesses that report to an International HQ/HO. It seems that the rest of the world seem to think HR is merely recording data, doing reports, and rolling out “new and improved” systems and procedures. Hey let’s do another employee survey and analyse the data… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Mark Shaw

Sharon, after over 30 years in HR I agree that HR’s reputation is tarnished. I have argued for a long time that the HR processes and practices we use are a main cause for this reputation. Consider toxic employees. The conventional HR process and practice is to expect the line manager to conduct a ‘difficult conversation’ and create a performance improvement plan. The evidence is clear this is not a very effective process. In the article above I suggest an alternative; focus on the management problem caused by the toxic employee’s behaviour. This process does not blame the toxic employee… Read more »

Sandra Booth
Sandra Booth

Toxicity in a workplace is the result of miscommunication. A common situation is where there was miscommunication about the role at the point of hire leading to differences in expectations. Not completing good screening can also allow people to be hired that don’t fit the culture. At any event leaders need to be able to have the difficult conversation with the toxic employee. This is a skill many leaders shy away from. Not because they don’t want to do it but more likely they don’t know how to do it properly. A well executed conversation where the intention is to… Read more »

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