Creating Unfriendly Fires That Are Easy to Ignite, Yet Difficult to Put Out

By: Jeff Nazzaro

The idea of toxic workplace culture has taken on even greater significance in the COVID-fueled work-from-home push, and the accompanying Great Resignation. When forced to stay home, so many employees realized what it was they didn’t miss about their toxic office, so there was bound to be a large percentage who simply refused to ever go back.

Workplace toxicity, which often manifests from the top down but can also spread through a workforce or team via even a single noxious underling, is said to stem from three main sources: the well-documented toxic masculinity, the lesser-known toxic femininity, and the oxymoronic-sounding toxic positivity.

“Any person at any level can initiate toxic behavior.”

UCR University Extension instructor Jonnetta Thomas-Chambers, who holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership, is a recognized human resources expert and business consultant. Below, she offers her insights into toxic workplace culture, its causes, and how businesses can avoid creating and fostering such an environment.

UCR University Extension Instructor Jonnetta Thomas Chambers “Thank you for inviting me to share some of the latest information and perspectives addressing a healthy workplace. As we promote workplace environments to continually build safe, healthy, and inclusive workplace cultures, where effective engagement and a sense of belonging occurs, taking steps to avoid toxic behavior is essential. Any person at any level within an organization can initiate toxic behavior. The actions of a toxic person can be subtle or flagrant, and is generally represented by:

  • microaggressions based on underlying biases connected to gender, age, race/ethnicity/color, sex, religion, national origin, socioeconomic status, disability, or genetic information;
  • harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, domination, the need to win, ignoring or silencing others, taking credit for others’ work, or undervaluing others’ achievements;
  • an overuse of toxic positivity, often avoiding constructive criticism, promoting superficial relationships, lacking healthy communication, and missing out on a diverse pool of innovative ideas and solutions.

This behavior, whether conscious or unconscious, creates unfriendly fires for businesses that are easy to ignite yet difficult to extinguish. The problem is that toxic environments cripple workplace cultures. It is one of the reasons remote and hybrid work have gained popularity. Capterra’s recent survey of HR Managers reveals a 70 percent drop in ‘complaints of toxic behavior since transitioning to hybrid or remote work.’

“If organizations want to keep their employees from leaving, then giving them a safe, healthy, and inclusive work environment must be a priority.”

In fact, according to MIT Sloan Researchers, ‘A toxic work culture is a primary driver of the Great Resignation.’ We work in a competitive employee market, and retention is essential. If organizations want to keep their employees from leaving, then giving them a safe, healthy, and inclusive work environment must be a priority.

According to the Society of Human Resources and Management, ‘Turnover due to culture may have cost organizations as much as $223 billion over the past five years.’ Some factors in quantifying the cost of a toxic environment include:

  • brand and reputation damage
  • bad employee reviews via social media and word of mouth
  • a decrease in job performance—quantity and quality of work
  • an increase in employee absences for mental, physical, and emotional support, either in retaliation or to look for another job
  • administrative hours of reporting and tracking issues of this nature
  • legal costs to respond to federal, state, or local agencies’ inquiries or lawsuits
  • cost to replace employees who leave

Equally, if not more important, employees are put into the care of the organizations they work to support. Toxic environments can damage people mentally, physically, and emotionally, both short- and long-term. As Hippocrates says, ‘Do no harm!’ People are assets, not commodities, and organizational leaders must take great care to avoid allowing a toxic (abusive) workplace environment.

“Toxic environments can damage people mentally, physically, and emotionally, both short- and long-term.”

The best way to maintain a safe, healthy, and inclusive work environment and eradicate toxic behavior when it rears its head is to address it, minimize, and eliminate it. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • If your organization has had legal issues, and you do not have a retained attorney, get one or hire a Senior HR Consultant to support you with a transition strategy to get from where you are to the place you need to be in building a safe, healthy, and inclusive workplace culture.
  • From an organizational strategy perspective, a safe, healthy, and inclusive culture must be defined—what it is and is not—then used to hire, promote, and retain employees at all levels.
  • Employees at all levels must receive training, including refreshers, to build and maintain a healthy work culture. Multiple courses and certificate programs discuss all the topics mentioned in this article. Key topics to seek out in courses and programs may include (though is not limited to): overcoming bias, effective communication, team-building, change, diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, emotional intelligence, supervision, leadership, and managing human resources.
  • Clear examples of what a healthy work culture looks like during training must be a priority, and employees should be given tips on how they can support others in building or maintaining a healthy culture. In addition, examples must be given as to what is not supportive and considered acceptable behavior.
  • Maintain an open-door policy where employees are encouraged to speak up when questions or issues arise. Define what they can say or do to be seen and heard, who they might speak with, and the recommended process to follow. Ensure avoidance is not an acceptable response and there is no retaliation whatsoever.
  • Day-to-day activities should include formal and informal appreciation. Let employees know you see and value them. Genuine eye contact, a small virtual or phone chat, or small gestures (a meal or treats) make a difference!
  • Keep in mind that a safe, healthy, and inclusive environment where employees thrive gives them room to ask questions; make some decisions about their work; provide respectful, constructive criticism; and grow!
  • Ambiance is important—does the work environment look as if leadership cares? Is it clean and welcoming or does it look like a hellhole? What visual reminders are in the workspace that describe the safe, healthy, and inclusive work culture everyone should aspire to maintain? If remote, is this translated in meetings and visuals in virtual rooms?
  • When communicating, do leaders’ behavior represent what a safe, healthy, and inclusive work culture looks like in word choice, tone, facial expression, body language, emails, and texts?
  • Leadership must buy into the priority of building and maintaining a safe, healthy, and inclusive work culture. This includes leading by example and displaying a genuine care for the well-being of their employees.

Organizational leaders are not alone as they build safe, healthy, and inclusive work cultures. UCR University Extension has a team of professional experts to support the needs of for-profit and nonprofit organizations of all sizes and industries.

We can partner with you to provide just-in-time training to support you in educating your employees with practical, ready-to-use skills and competencies to improve your workplace experiences,” concludes Dr. Thomas-Chambers.

Check out UCR University Extension’s extensive custom training options, all of which can be delivered in your workplace, or completed at your team’s own pace, online.