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Fixing a Toxic Work Environment and Getting Back on Track

Human Resources

Some signs of a toxic work environment can be pretty hard to miss:

  • Fear-based leadership
  • Unproductive and demoralized employees
  • An atmosphere of gossip and rumors
  • A lack of transparency from the top down
  • Stress and uncertainty about the future
  • A sense of "it's us against them" or "it's everyone for themselves"

Clearly, none of these conditions epitomize a healthy workplace. Put them all together and your business may be in danger of collapsing from within. In these circumstances, it's imperative that the CEO or business owner acknowledge what's going on and quickly take action to remedy the situation.

Here are some actions you can take in order to begin repairing the damage of a toxic work environment and to help demonstrate to employees that you truly intend to turn things around.

Get a Sense of What's Gone Wrong 
It's one thing to guess the source of the problem, but a more effective approach involves hearing from employees themselves. Conduct a survey to assess performance-related issues. The Gallup Q12 Index, designed to highlight key aspects of employee performance, is a good model to work from. (It might be advantageous to conduct such a survey anonymously in order to get a more truthful response.) The goal is to clearly understand what employees see as the worst parts of the current culture, and then build a plan to address them.

In the same vein, start conducting "stay interviews" with your best employees in an effort to rectify issues before they choose to find new jobs elsewhere. A stay interview "can encompass current working conditions as well as candid employee feedback about the company's culture and other conditions that either help or hinder job performance." It's an exercise rich with potentially valuable insights.

Share Responses with Employees 
Turning around a toxic culture begins with open discussions about the internal problems your business faces. Employees will hopefully be persuaded of your good intentions if you schedule a meeting (or series of meetings) to review and discuss the findings of your survey. You can invite them to offer solutions, while emphasizing there is absolutely no penalty for being honest or for suggesting out-of-the-box ideas. Then if you implement new programs based on employee feedback, they may be far more likely to accept those programs.

Strive for Transparency 
Many dysfunctional cultures grow out of a lack of transparency on the part of the leadership team. Look for opportunities to share more information about how strategic decisions are made, the company's financial well-being, etc. Secrecy can breed worry and negative speculation. Being open about business operations can make employees feel that they're being treated as genuine members of the team.

Recognize and Reward Achievement 
Employees are more motivated to do outstanding work if they know the company will formally acknowledge and reward those efforts. Bonuses, raises, or promotions can be the clearest examples of a business rewarding its top performers, but there are many non-monetary ways to thank your employees as well. The alternative is a workforce that may feel there's no good reason to do anything but the basic functions of their jobs.

Get Help for your Overworked Team 
If there's been a steady exodus of employees from your business, those people who are still left may have taken on an enormous additional work burden. Hiring new, qualified replacement employees is one option for relief, but this process takes time and money. In the meantime, consider giving existing employees "more resources and less pressures to happily get the job done," says author and executive coach Devin C. Hughes.

Look at your Culture as an "Internal Product" 
Your business's primary objective is attracting and converting new customers. But isn't it equally important to attract and retain the best employees you can find? By adopting a perspective that regards your company culture as an "internal product" aimed at effective recruitment and retention, "the path forward in terms of what you want to create and how to do so becomes much clearer," notes business writer Sujan Patel.

Fixing a toxic work environment won't happen overnight. Communicate to your employees how this is a key objective and manage their expectations about how the process will look. You may be pleasantly surprised at the change you see in your business environment once employees understand you're genuinely intent on improving the culture in which they work.


This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.
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