Nearly 1 in 3 UK employees have taken time off work due to a toxic workplace culture, while 1 in 7 have called in sick to avoid a co-worker they don't get along with, according to a 2022 report.
For HR professionals, identifying the signs of, and taking action to address the causes of a toxic workplace are imperative. Not only are toxic work cultures harmful for employees' wellbeing, but they also lead to high turnover that costs employers billions of dollars, according to SHRM research.
Here are some of the common as well as lesser-known signs that can indicate a toxic workplace.
What do we mean by a 'toxic workplace'?
A toxic workplace or work environment is more than a single bad day at work or one particularly annoying colleague. While definitions of a toxic workplace vary and can encompass a wide range of signs and behaviours, as useful definition comes from University of Cambridge Judge Business School professor of organisational theory Thomas Roulet (via BBC Worklife):
'A toxic workplace is a context in which abusive behaviours are almost normalised [...] It’s both about how people behave poorly, and how others are affected. A toxic workplace is often also riddled with political behaviours – individuals trying to gain influence without thinking about the consequences for their collaborators.'
In a survey of American workers, respondents defined a toxic workplace as a workplace that was disrespectful (55%), abusive (34%), non-inclusive (30%), unethical (29%), or cutthroat (21%).
While toxic environments often arise in hyper-competitive industries and large, hierarchical organisations, they can also exist in smaller and less competitive organisations. They may be linked with issues such as nepotism or discrimination.
Moreover, not everyone in an organisation may experience toxicity in the workplace to the same extent – while some people may feel bullied or targeted, others may feel that the same workplace is supportive and fair to them. The latter group may choose to ignore evidence of the workplace being toxic and pass issues off as 'banter' or necessary business decisions.
With this in mind, let's now look at some of the tell-tale signs that your workplace is toxic for employees.
High levels of turnover or unexplained turnover
Some industries and organisations will naturally have high levels of turnover. Retail and hospitality companies, for example, can expect to see very high turnover of staff and this doesn't necessarily mean that the workplace is toxic.
However, turnover that increases suddenly or seems to be linked to a specific department, team, or manager can be one of the red flags of a toxic culture. Ideally, this will become clear immediately in employee exit interviews, however, employees do not always feel comfortable mentioning this to HR – either because they don't want to cause additional drama or are worried that they will not be believed.
For this reason, the detailed tracking of turnover rate and comparing it against other departments, industry benchmarks, and annual changes is key to uncovering hidden trends that may suggest a toxic work environment.
However, keep in mind that not everyone can simply quit a job because they consider it toxic. A poll of American workers found that white respondents were 10% more likely to say they had been able to leave a toxic job than Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Latino employees. Consequently, high turnover rates can't be the only item on your toxic workplace checklist.
You may also be interested in: What is 'quiet quitting' and what should HR be aware of?
Office gossip and drama
High levels of gossip or drama are another sign that your workplace may have a toxicity issue. While most of the time the occasional bit of office gossip isn't a major red flag, nobody wants drama to become a defining feature of the workplace. What may be interpreted as mild banter or joking around by the perpetrators can actually be real bullying or harassment, and it's essential that HR discipline bullies effectively in order to create a safe and happy work environment for everyone.
Office gossip may not be overt, but there are some subtle signs that HR needs to look out for. For example, high levels of gossip, drama, or competitiveness in a workplace can lower employees' feelings of psychological safety, making them less likely to share ideas or take the lead on projects. If performance reviews show that employees are failing to speak up in meetings or share their ideas, this may be a sign that office politics have led to them feeling uncomfortable doing so. Reduced collaboration and teamwork can be another indicator that office gossip and drama have made people uncomfortable working closely with other members of their team.
Less creativity and innovation
Following on from the previous point, it's clear that a working environment that is unsupportive and doesn't provide psychological safety can result in employees being unwilling to share their creative ideas. In a toxic culture, employees feel unable to fail or make mistakes, which can stifle their creativity. This can lead to a company-wide loss of creativity and decline in innovation which may be revealed in major projects and in business performance as a result.
In contrast, creating a supportive and safe environment where employees are able to try new things and learn from mistakes is key to encouraging innovation in the workplace. Again, performance reviews can reveal when this is the case; employees who are less willing to set ambitious goals and openly dread performance appraisals may be experiencing a fear of failure resulting from a toxic and unsupportive work environment.
Staff work late or through lunch
A team member working through their lunch break or staying late in the lead up to a big project deadline isn't necessarily a red flag. If it happens once or twice this can even be an indicator or a great employee who wants to go above and beyond in their role, and ideally they will receive recognition and praise for this from their manager.
However, if working through the lunch break becomes a common practice or even expectation, this can be a sign of a toxic culture. There are a range of reasons for this. Perhaps employees have too high a workload and are afraid of the consequences of falling behind. Maybe there's a pressure from managers for employees to always look busy which makes workers feel anxious about taking their breaks. Or possibly employees are worried about judgement from toxic colleagues who may accuse them of not working hard enough if they take their breaks. Even worse, employees may have previously experienced harassment or bullying in the break room, making them reluctant to stray from their desks afterwards.
These are all concerning possibilities. Of course, it may simply be that your office cafeteria food is somewhat uninspiring, but it's important to investigate the reasons that employees don't want to take their lunch breaks and work towards resolving the issue nonetheless. After all, studies have shown that employees who take breaks show higher levels of productivity and are less likely to suffer from burnout.
Bad Glassdoor reviews
One of the most obvious indicators of a toxic work culture is the reviews that employees and ex-employees leave of your organisation on sites such as Glassdoor. These negative reviews may initially seem unfair or unfounded but it's important to take any allegations about the work culture very seriously. Sure, former team members may have an axe to grind if they have been recently let go, but they may also be making valid points about issues that need to be addressed in your company culture.
A set of bad reviews on a site like Glassdoor can do major damage to your employer brand, reducing the likelihood that future job seekers will want to work for your organisation and possibly also leading to a loss of business. If your organisation receives these kinds of reviews of your company culture, it's key that you take the accusations seriously and investigate their claims.
You may also be interested in: 5 ways to rebuild company culture
Dealing with a toxic workplace: HR's role
If HR identifies any of these tell-tale signs of a toxic work environment within a particular team or department, taking action is essential. Human resources professionals have a crucial role to play in addressing both the causes and impacts of these issues, so an air-tight strategy is key. Here are some of the steps HR professionals can take to deal with a toxic work environment.
Develop procedures and policies to deal with toxic behaviour and make these clear and accessible to all
One of the first steps in addressing a toxic work environment is to create clear policies and procedures to deal with problem behaviour. For example, this might include publishing an anti-harassment policy and code of conduct which all employees are expected to follow. Human resources teams should also create and publicise a process by which employees can raise complaints about toxic work environments or individuals.
To do this effectively, employee relationship management software can be useful. Keeping all information about anti-harassment policies in one easy-to-access internal dashboard ensures that employees always know where to find the information they need. This can easily be integrated with employee onboarding which also uses the HR software, creating clarity from day one and ensuring employees feel confident and comfortable with all policies.
Offer training to address causes of workplace toxicity
Sometimes a toxic company culture can result from a lack of training or key interpersonal skills; HR teams can implement useful training and development opportunities to ensure that all team members and especially management level employees have the necessary skills. Using human resources software with built-in training and development tools, HR can create, manage, and enrol employees in eLearning courses to develop their communication skills, conflict resolution abilities, or undertake inclusion and diversity training. With intuitive software and easy-to-use courses that help improve employee relations, HR can help tackle causes of toxic work environments at the source.
Keep an eye on the data and a finger on the pulse
As we've already explained, early identification of the signs of a toxic work culture is key to addressing the issues successfully. For this, the human resources team needs to be able to track the right HR metrics and gain vital insights into trends such as turnover, employee engagement, and absenteeism that might reveal a toxicity problem. Software with powerful reporting and analytics capabilities is key for HR to be able to track these revealing metrics and quickly identify problems.
Moreover, for strategic HR, it's important not just to track the data about what's already going on in your organisation, but also use the data at your fingertips to look to the future. AI-powered predictive analytics software supports human capital management and allows for the identification of potential future problems, for example aiding with succession planning by ensuring that future leaders get the training and development opportunities they require today to ensure that they can lead teams in a healthy and effective manner in the future.
Ensure that HR can address any issues immediately
Finally, to be able to address a toxic work environment, busy HR teams need to have the breathing room to act quickly and effectively whenever an interpersonal conflict, grievance, or need for discipline arises. Failure to address these issues straight away can lead to the problem snowballing. Therefore, human resources staff need to find ways to work more effectively by streamlining existing processes.
Powerful HR and payroll software is essential for freeing HR employees from repetitive and time-consuming admin and allowing them to focus on important and time-sensitive tasks. Software with key employee relations features such as intuitive self-service portals and workflow automation has the two-fold benefit of empowering employees to take control of their HR processes while also freeing up time for HR staff. This is key to the better management of toxicity in the workplace and better employee relations (between employees and their peers as well as with management) for all.
To summarise, identifying and managing the early warning signs of a toxic work culture is essential to ensure a happy, healthy, and productive work environment for all. Employees have a right to a good work environment where they do not have to deal with unreasonable stress, drama, or even discrimination, so taking swift and effective action is necessary when any of these signs in the toxic workplace checklist arise.
Are you looking for ways to enhance the effectiveness of your HR team? XCD HR and payroll software can help. Offering powerful employee relations features as well as AI-driven reporting and analytics, XCD software is built to help HR teams be more effective in their roles.
Book a demo of XCD HR and payroll software today to find out more.