HR and Recruiting

How HR can partner with managers to fix a toxic work culture

Written by Kate Lopaze

Few things are as damaging to a company’s productivity than a toxic culture. If people are unhappy and stressed at work, you’re likely to see an exodus of talent and low morale among the ones who stay. Toxic work culture impacts people at every level, from the C-Suite to the interns. And if you’re looking for results, that means working with employees in every corner of the organization to make your company a better place to work.

The first step is learning to recognize what’s toxic in a workplace—and what you can do to make it healthier.

Bad leadership sets the tone for the entire organization

Any company’s culture—good or bad—starts at the top of the org chart. Those at the top are the ones modeling what’s acceptable for everyone else. If they encourage (or overlook) poor behavior or dangerous standards, that’s just as influential as supporting healthier dynamics. For example, if the executives are working around the clock, berating employees, or setting unrealistic expectations, that will have a ripple effect. Other managers will think it’s okay to yell at colleagues to get results and make impractical demands to get what they want.

A good leader doesn’t just say what the standards are but lives them. A leader who’s respectful of reasonable business hours and schedules shows that in their own work. Talking to people respectfully at all times sets a standard.

Bad apples are left alone – or even rewarded

Any workplace is going to have a mix of personalities. And on a team of many people, it can be easy to say, “Well, X is super negative and a bit much, but at least he gets results.” In reality, X’s unpleasant behavior is likely creating resentment among his “nicer” colleagues, and shouldn’t have his behavior excused because he produces on the bottom line. Employees should be evaluated in a more holistic way—what they achieve and what they bring as a teammate.

This doesn’t mean you fire all the X’s in your organization before giving them a chance to change. The first step is talking to them (privately) about their behavior, and the team dynamic, and having an open-ended conversation about standards and expectations. As HR, you can help facilitate that with X’s manager, or directly with X. By talking to the employee, you might also learn about why they behave the way they do—and ways you can better support a more positive culture.

Nobody is taking owernship of the culture

If you’re trying to repair a not-great office atmosphere, nothing will be helped in the long term if you’re not brutally honest about what’s wrong, and what the role is for every single person in the organization. For leadership, that means owning what the culture is and being clear about what’s being done to change it. For employees, it’s about giving honest feedback when asked and making sure they too meet those positive standards. For HR, it means communicating openly to people at all levels and being ready to take feedback about what you (collectively) can do better.

If you find your organization struggling to identify what and how to change, maybe it’s time to bring in a consultant or a coach to help identify problem areas and solutions that have worked for other organizations.

People don’t trust that they can report problems

If you’re already dealing with a toxic environment, people may not feel like they can safely report issues or ask for help. According to a recent survey of tech workers by Team Blind (a community workplace app), an alarming 70% of employees didn’t trust their HR departments to handle complaints or workplace harassment reports. That gap means HR departments have some work to do to make sure that employees see HR as a safe, accountable space where they can speak honestly and get results. Make sure you’re messaging your confidential, retaliation-free processes for reporting workplace issues to employees.

A more open, supportive culture will mean better communication at all levels. If people think they can’t speak out, they won’t—and that toxicity will continue to build, whether you see it or not.

Results, not people, are the core value

Every organization wants results. However, it is possible to be too results-oriented. If employees feel like their output is more valuable than their overall skills, work, and experience, that imbalance can tip you into toxic territory.  Emotional intelligence becomes crucial here, particularly in executives and managers. Employees need to feel valued as members of a team, not just cogs. Employees who feel valued and supported are less likely to burn out, and more likely to have long-term success with the company.

Whether your organization feels like it’s moving into toxic territory, or if you’re already struggling with ways to get to a healthier place, the most important starting point is trying to understand what toxic behavior is already happening. Better communication and open support for a more positive environment are actions you can take right now to help your organization avoid the consequences of negative culture.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.