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How to Fix a Negative Work Environment

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 01/19/2021

employee in a negative work environment
Managing a toxic work environment can be a difficult task for any employer or employee. Learn strategies to identify and repair a toxic work culture.

Table of Contents

Many factors may contribute to a negative work environment, but one thing is certain: a business cannot expect to perform at its best under such conditions.

A business with a bad work culture can be headed for serious problems. If there are signs of employee mistrust, isolation, and poor leadership, the result may be lowered morale and productivity, culminating in increased levels of employee disengagement.

As Paychex has noted before, many factors can influence disengagement, "such as systematically undercompensating workers, a toxic culture, or disengaged leadership. Yet there are factors that can also disenfranchise specific employees, such as unclear expectations or a lack of communication."

Turning around a toxic work environment should be among every business leader's top priorities, as over time it may be costly to employee morale and the company's bottom line. Here are some ways you can start the healing process.

How do you know if you have a toxic work culture?

Sometimes, a workplace culture can slowly transform into a negative environment, without senior leadership immediately grasping the situation. Certain telltale signs may appear, ranging from a significant exodus of disgruntled staff to a marked decline in morale and productivity throughout the organization. Other toxic work culture consequences may include consistently poor employee performance evaluations, a distinct rise in HR-related issues.

Signs of a toxic workplace

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

  1. Fear-based leadership
  2. Unproductive and demoralized employees
  3. An atmosphere of gossip and rumors
  4. A lack of transparency from the top down
  5. Stress and uncertainty about the future
  6. A sense of "it's us against them" or "it's everyone for themselves"
  7. Significant instances of absenteeism or employees calling in sick
  8. Workaholic behavior and a lack of healthy work/life balance
  9. Unclear employer expectations across all levels of management
  10. Favoritism, wage gaps, or discriminatory policies

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

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

How to change a toxic work environment

While company leaders could guess the source of the problem, a more effective approach involves hearing from employees themselves. Consider conducting a survey to assess performance-related issues. (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 negative parts of the current culture, and then build a plan to address them.

A well-crafted employee survey can help company leaders assess employees' intention to stay with the company long-term, their willingness to recommend the company to others, and the level of their overall pride in the company. A comprehensive employee survey generates valuable insights for the company and demonstrate to employees a genuine interest in their feedback.

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 openness

In some businesses, information concerning hiring policies, financial and related data are held "close to the vest" by senior leadership. This may have worked in the past, but in a digital era--where all sorts of information can be discovered online--it's potentially detrimental to leadership. Presumably you've hired employees for their intelligence and willingness to contribute to business growth. They're unlikely to appreciate being kept out of the loop.

When it comes to company transparency, sharing information can lead to a stronger, more cohesive team, facilitate goal setting, and flatten company hierarchy, as well as make employees happier.

Consider holding more one-on-one employee and/or company-wide meetings, with presentations by your financial officers and others that provide a clear picture of what's happening with the business. Confidential or sensitive information must certainly be withheld (and employees will understand this), but giving people a chance to ask questions can help boost employee engagement.

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.

Look into employee concerns

A toxic work environment can grow from a lack of attention given to employee concerns. Look into conducting a brief engagement survey that focuses on specific areas of improvement. Invite an unbiased observer (either from elsewhere within the organization or a third-party individual) who can spend a little time in the workplace and offer a fresh perspective.

When you pinpoint "the gap in expectations with unhappy employees and look for overall trends that could be contributing to this issue, you'll be well on your way to getting things back on track."

Increase recognition and reward programs

If your hardworking employees aren't perceiving any benefits from their output in the form of company-wide recognition or advancement opportunities down the road, a toxic or dysfunctional work environment might take hold. Whenever feasible, look to reward your superstar employees with a raise in salary, additional benefits, and/or performance-specific bonuses.

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.

Other employee recognition programs "that offer awards, VIP parking spaces, small gifts, and other public acknowledgments of a job well done may also have a positive effect on employee retention."

Offer support for an overworked staff

Whether it's from employees leaving, company layoffs, or simply unrealistic workflows, workers may feel the stress of heavy workloads when they may already have more than enough on their plates. An atmosphere in which people feel steadily drained of energy or a sense of achievement can contribute to a stressful work environment.

One way to assist your overworked employees is by prioritizing the tasks and projects they are responsible for. Work with staff to arrange tasks by degree of importance—items or tasks that must be addressed ASAP. Then also go through the list of items and tasks that can be addressed either later in the same day or during that week. This helps employees determine where to put their energies in order to maximize productivity.

Examine leadership's role in fixing a toxic work culture

As in many other cases, a company's leadership plays an essential role in determining the relative health (or lack thereof) of the organization. When effective leadership is missing, the following results can be commonly observed:

  1. Obvious favoritism towards specific employees
  2. A mindset that regards employees as the company's property, rather than as contributors to the business
  3. An underlying belief that employees are inherently under-motivated or easily dispensed with
  4. A lack of accountability at the highest levels of the organization

Any or all of the above contribute to an environment where employees sense that they are undervalued and/or operate in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Improve your leadership communication skills

A leader leads through his or her words and actions. In the hectic pace of day-to-day life, business owners can sometimes forget that employees are watching them and how they behave; employees may even adapt their own behaviors to conform to how they perceive the owners want them to act. If an owner or manager is out of touch with staff or remains sequestered in a private office all day, the result may be a workforce that becomes disengaged from the work that they are doing or the company they work for.

Focus on improving your abilities to communicate and inspire others. Consider implementing a regular communications schedule that stresses ongoing contact with employees and giving them a stronger sense of the value they bring to the organization.

What comes next after implementing your action plan

Recognizing that a toxic work culture is a reality is the crucial first step in fixing the problem. After you put together an action plan that incorporates some or all of the above suggestions, what happens next?

The important thing to remember is that change for the better may not occur immediately. Improvements in the work environment may occur gradually, but by addressing the problem, you will likely see tangible results within the near future. Additional steps to take include:

  1. Conduct brief surveys on a regular basis to assess the level of employee enthusiasm towards the new initiative.
  2. Maintain open communications and support an atmosphere of transparency that keeps progress moving forward.
  3. If the toxic environment still needs fixing after your action plan is implemented, start thinking about addressing deeper organizational barriers.
  4. Do everything you can to help employees see that the changes you're striving towards will result in a more positive, employee-friendly, and productive work environment.

Fixing a negative 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.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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