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Contributor - Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Writer, Culture Amp

At many companies, the workplace culture is becoming increasingly toxic, and recent layoffs in the tech industry only worsen the problem. 45% of employees agree that recent layoffs have intensified a climate of toxicity across companies, according to a new research report on toxic workplace culture by TalentLMS and Culture Amp. But what exactly leads to the development of a toxic workplace culture – and what can be done to address the toxicity?

In this article, we’ll unpack some of the findings of the report and share:

  • What constitutes a toxic workplace environment
  • How to address a toxic work culture
  • The main drivers that lead to a toxic workplace

What is a toxic workplace environment?

Many of us feel frustrated or stressed at work from time to time, but there’s a difference between a frustrating work environment and a toxic one. “Toxic” is a powerful word, but it’s also ambiguous, so we’ll start by defining what we mean by a toxic workplace.

The new report, which surveyed 1,000 employees across U.S. tech companies who self-identified as working in a toxic workplace, leverages MIT Sloan’s “The Toxic Five” framework. This framework examines a toxic workplace through the eyes of employees working at a toxic company.

While each company has its own set of unique challenges, MIT found that these five culture attributes have by far the largest negative impact on how employees rate their company culture: disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive.

In the survey, we asked questions that touched on these attributes and found that employees who believe they work in a toxic environment also agree that their organization is:

  1. Disrespectful: Employees want – and need – respect from their managers and peers. 42% of respondents experiencing toxic culture at work agree that managers are often disrespectful to employees.
  2. Noninclusive: Even in 2023, inclusivity is still a challenge. 40% of respondents who work in a toxic workplace state that there are still barriers to overcome due to workplace discrimination. Whether it’s on the basis of age, race, gender, or something else, discrimination is commonplace in toxic work environments.
  3. Unethical: Ethics and trust go hand in hand, and in an unethical workplace, a lack of trust surfaces. 43% of those surveyed agree they’re expected to work outside of what they’re recognized – or contracted – for. When consistently treated unethically, employees are far more likely to criticize the culture and eventually leave the company.
  4. Cutthroat: Throwing a colleague under the bus, stealing credit, and refusing to collaborate are all indicators of a cutthroat, competitive environment. 44% of respondents working in a toxic workplace agree that it is common for employees at their company to be left out of key projects, calls, and decisions.
  5. Abusive: More than 60% of survey respondents claim that abuse at work happens regularly or sometimes.

What’s even more confronting is that 49% of those surveyed in our new report say they don’t really say or do anything when falling victim to toxic behaviors – and 29% say it’s because they don’t believe it will make any real difference.

How to address toxic work culture

Your corporate culture is the heart of your organization. A toxic culture will only yield dire outcomes, so it’s important to take proactive steps to identify, address, and mitigate any signs of toxicity at work.

Dr. Joel Davies, a Senior People Scientist at Culture Amp, elaborates, “It is important to recognize that the toxic behaviors described in this research can have serious negative impacts on both employees and organizations. In their most extreme form, they can put the mental health of employees seriously at risk. But even moderate levels of these toxic behaviors can severely impact organizational performance by undermining employee motivation, diminishing the strength of the employer brand, and increasing regrettable attrition.”

The best way to address a toxic work culture is to start at the top – with leadership.

The role of leadership

Leadership plays a critical role in shaping culture at work. Leaders have a considerable influence over employees, as they are responsible for cascading desired behaviors or decisions across the company. When leaders are honest, accountable, kind, and considerate, employees will strive to embody those characteristics. But unfortunately, the survey found that:

  • 43% of survey respondents feel that leaders are turning a blind eye to toxic behaviors
  • 45% believe executive-level leaders promote unhealthy competition among their workforce
  • 47% agree that there’s a lack of leadership and accountability within their company

When leaders lack accountability, aren’t considerate of employees, or exhibit distasteful behaviors, employees will amplify these actions across the organization.

“Senior leaders are role models, whether they like it or not,” explains Joel. “The way they behave at work creates powerful social norms that can impact how the rest of the organization behaves. Additionally, their decisions can lead to the creation of structures and incentives that result in (often unintended) harmful consequences to employees.”

However, simply replacing a leader (even the CEO) isn't enough to undo a toxic workplace culture. Starting over and building a healthy culture takes a lot more than just removing a single person; it requires genuine investment across all levels of the organization.

Taking action

Fixing a toxic work environment requires leadership to reverse toxicity intentionally. In other words, to develop a healthy workplace culture, they need to model healthy behaviors. However, toxic behaviors and norms can be hard to unlearn, especially if they’ve become ingrained in the wider culture.

That’s where training can help. Employees upskill and develop as part of their roles, and many expect leaders to do the same. As a matter of fact, 43% of survey respondents agree that training specific to managers and leaders would effectively combat toxicity, which could potentially inspire other employees to change behaviors, too – leading to a company-wide transformation. For example, Skills Coach is a tool for daily coaching that uses behavioral science to drive real change by helping managers create new habits. Managers often have busy schedules, so Skills Coach embeds short, daily exercises into existing workflows (like Slack or email) to make learning a daily practice.

The culprits of a toxic culture

We’ve explored what a toxic workplace looks like and how leaders can step up to address toxicity at work – but what causes this toxicity? With 46% of software industry employees suffering burnout due to a toxic work environment, it’s critical to understand how toxicity surfaces. Understanding what leads to a toxic work culture is crucial to preserving your bottom line, keeping employees engaged, and retaining your best talent.

Although toxicity emerges in different ways and from different places depending on the organization, our research found that the most common drivers are:

  1. Off-the-clock work: Work-life balance is crucial to employee wellbeing, and when employees are expected to be available at all hours, their trust and motivation diminish. They feel like their humanity isn’t being recognized, and stress begins to mount. Without the ability to truly disconnect from work, employees’ behavior and mindset will likely become more negative. This negativity slowly grows and spreads, creating a toxic environment.
  2. Poor leadership communication: Respondents say a highly toxic environment is created when leaders withhold information. Without transparency around the business, employees may become anxious and lose direction and trust in the company. They feel like important decisions are being made without considering their viewpoint, which can leave a big divide between employees and leaders.
  3. A lack of consideration for colleagues: When employees feel that colleagues aren’t considering their feelings, the work environment can quickly turn toxic. A lack of empathy in interactions can translate into dismissive or rude behaviors, leading to animosity among employees.

All this said, the best way to take action and identify the drivers of toxicity in your organization is to survey your employees. The only people who can tell you how your employees feel are the employees themselves. When provided a channel for feedback, employees are more likely to share candid thoughts about their experience at your organization. If toxicity is brewing in certain areas, a survey with open-ended questions and free response fields can be a safe space for employees to let you know what’s going on – beyond the simple ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ that most surveys offer.

Facing toxicity head on

Culture is key to employee satisfaction and engagement. But when toxicity takes root at work, it becomes much more challenging for the organization to achieve its goals and retain high-performing employees. While weeding out toxic behaviors won’t happen overnight, you’ll see results faster if you start from the top down. Encourage leaders and managers to foster an environment of communication and transparency so that employees feel safe sharing their thoughts and feelings. This avoids any potential friction that could lead to increased toxicity.

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Root out toxicity with a healthy workplace culture

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