Campaign launched to shine a light on toxic workplaces
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Campaign launched to shine a light on toxic workplaces

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    Our new research reveals 75% of UK employees admit they have experienced a toxic workplace culture. What impact has this had on employees? We surveyed over 2,000 people to uncover the truth. Our research aims to shine a light on the detrimental impact of toxic workplace culture on employees’ mental and physical health. The statistics are alarming, highlighting the clear need for businesses to create healthier working environments for their people. That’s why we’ve partnered with industry experts to provide actionable recommendations, empowering businesses to address these challenges. To read our full report, download your free copy here. 

    In this blog, Business Communication Consultant and Internal Communication Specialist, Katie Marlow sheds some light on our findings, how to spot the problem early on and the key principles to keep in mind when working on your culture.

    These findings show what many of us may know already and perhaps have experienced in our working lives. Toxic workplaces are commonplace. A startling 75% of employees have admitted to experiencing a toxic workplace. 

    When asked what they had experienced, respondents talked about behaviour being out of sync with the ‘values’ their business is trying to represent. Employees experienced feeling belittled, bullied, being forced to work long hours and harassment.

    It’s no wonder some people resist going back into the office, (71%) or leave the business altogether (61%). 

    The respondents said they felt that the responsibility for these ‘toxic’ cultures lies with middle managers (33%) other employees (28%) and senior leadership (27.5%).

    When you identify toxic behaviours in your workplace you need to take swift and decisive action, making sure they are stopped and create a safe working environment where people can be themselves without fear of someone else’s behaviour towards them. 

    It’s clear we have a problem, how can we identify it early?

    The respondents to the survey had experienced discrimination in a range of ways, with age (24%), gender (21%) and race (14%) in the top three areas. 

    Beneath this discrimination there are a number of more subtle and early signs of toxic cultures to look out for: 

    • Turnover and absences are high. People leave organisations for a wide range of reasons, but some common causes relate to toxic cultures – feeling overworked and not valued, ‘atmosphere’, no care for wellbeing and lack of motivation (which could relate to the next two points).
    • Confusion about the work and responsibilities. This can lead to anxiety and a culture of blame and conflict.
    • Employees are low on morale and enthusiasm. This can be insipid, showing up in many ways and spreading among colleagues.
    • Stress. Uncertainty around roles or excessive friction can create chronic stress – this in turn can lead to burnout, absence and people leaving.
    • Lack of clear communication. When there’s confusion and conflict there’s clearly not been clear and consistent communication. And when there’s a void in communication people naturally fill the gap with their own interpretations and sometimes gossip. Gossip can build, creating cliques and even become malicious.

    Any one of these signals should be considered an early warning sign, meaning it’s time to step in before it gets worse.

    The antidote?

    It takes time and commitment to either build a great and inclusive culture or turn a toxic workplace around. It doesn’t just happen, it takes intention. So top of your list needs to be leadership buy-in and patience to make culture a priority. You’ll need the data to show the current situation and some industry statistics and evidence to show the impact of toxic culture in organisations to build your case for leaders. 

    When getting to work on your culture, keep these two principles front of mind:

    Put people first

    • Understand your people, their work and what barriers they face in getting their work done. Without them doing the work well, there is no business, so put them and their experience at the heart of your decisions.
    • Leaders need to recognise their role in setting the tone of the culture. Their own behaviour sets the standard for inclusivity and culture. Walking the talk and taking the time to connect with colleagues and create moments for genuine connection and intentional communication at work are really important to building a strong culture where people feel safe and can speak up. 
    • Recruit carefully to bring the right people into your organisation. Skills can be learned but attitudes and behaviours are hard to change. Use the values of the organisation and culture ‘playbook’ to guide the recruitment process from search through to selection, induction and beyond.
    • Recognition, thanks and celebrations. When we all know and see what behaviours and work gets celebrated and recognised, we know what the standards are. And on the flip side if your top sales person gets away with being a bully because of the revenue they bring in, that sends a message that money is more important than people and whatever your values on the wall may say.

    Crystal clear communication

    • Make your communication consistent, clear and timely so that there is absolute clarity on what matters to the organisation. People need to know and understand the purpose of the organisation, and their role within it. When it comes to the organisation’s values, are they a true description of what matters most in the organisation? How do they show up and guide us in our work, decision-making and behaviour? (and those that are unacceptable as in the toxic culture experiences). 
    • Good line management and line manager communication. We know that there is a strong connection between line managers and their teams. We also know that line managers have often increased team sizes, widened responsibilities and changed how they communicate with their teams. Communication needs to support this and give them the tools, skills and autonomy to deliver communication well, whilst allowing them to focus on supporting their teams.
    • Communication needs to be centred around people. Sent does not mean received, so make sure your communication works and people really understand what is required of them.
    • Leadership communication is vital. People want to hear from and see their leaders. They want to be able to ask them questions, share their experiences and ideas or challenges. Make time to do this well, to have intentional conversations to help both leaders and colleagues connect and build trust.

    Brilliant leaders and clear communication are key to creating great cultures and the lack of either can see cultures shift. We have to be intentional and consistent to build and maintain a strong culture.

    If you’re looking for more reading around toxic or great cultures both ‘The Fearless Organisation', by Amy Edmondson, and ‘The Culture Code’ by Daniel Coyle are a great place to start.

    Katie Marlow

    Katie is a Business Communication Consultant & Internal Communication Specialist. Katie is dedicated to employee communication, leadership and culture, to help workplaces work better for business success. She built her consultancy, Little Bird Communication, to do just that.