Evidence of a Toxic Workplace: 7 Things to Keep an Eye Out For

Evidence of a Toxic Workplace: 7 Things to Keep an Eye Out For

As the saying goes: a happy worklife equals a happy life

July 8, 2022

7 min read


Edward Gonzalez

Edward Gonzalez

Founder at Buildr

We can't let one introductory paragraph go by without first addressing the header photo of this blog. Prologue "thing" to keep an eye on: don't tie up your coworkers with old boat rope. Anywho.

"Toxicity" isn't hyperbole

A tight labor market, endless work opportunities, and increasing costs all mean that you need to focus on your workplace health if you want to keep your best employees around.

For many general contractors, it's nearly impossible to get enough stellar folks on the job to operate at their very best across every role. That's where settling for subpar staff and/or forcing your best workers to wear multiple hats comes into play. Neither is ideal, especially the latter which has the underlying potential to burn out your best.

One core problem of maintaining an attractive work environment is the arising of the toxic workplace; a space where people feel unsafe, discriminated against, or otherwise don't feel as though they are valued. While this typically develops over a period of time, it's something that needs to be addressed immediately, enabling people to get the help and support they need right away.

The reason why a bad workplace is labeled "toxic" isn't at all hyperbolic. The vibe of a workplace can slowly devolve into being socially poisonous; somewhere employees deep down dread stepping foot into. It seeps in and can never really go away without a complete management overhaul. Even if some bad eggs are let go and some new staff are tagged in, they can usually sense it. Many of us have either taken on new roles and sensed toxicity immediately, or sensed the toxicity at the interview stage and opted not to move forward because of it.

Not only is dealing with a toxic workplace necessary to retain current employees, but it's also necessary to maintain a good brand image for future ones. Today’s employee who's switching jobs or working to apply to their next advancement wants to know how well an employer is going to fit their needs, and not just monetarily. They also need to trust that the company creates a safe and positive place for its employees.

Knowing the risks, the question may be, "how do you know how to develop a safe workplace that creates a positive environment?" There are generally a few key things you need to look out for before you miss the key signs of a problem.

1. Eradicate cruelty in all its forms

There needs to be a strong and clear message made that makes any type of bullying or demeaning behavior a no-go. That includes belittling people one-on-one (and especially in a group), not showing enough respect, and in extreme cases, using derogatory language or slurs. While you may think these "no-go's" are obvious and don't need to be stated, many times this sort of behavior pervades exactly because it was never addressed point-blank.

Start by creating some formal interactional rules. Use clear examples to show what you mean, even if they're "obvious." Then work to ensure that everyone commits to abide by those rules. That doesn't just apply to employee-to-employee issues but also employer-to-employee. Management needs to abide by the same standards everyone else does in large part because behavior expectation inequality is toxic workplace "gateway drug."

2. Get a temperature read every now and then

One of the most important steps you can take to truly understand your workplace culture is to conduct anonymous polls at every level of your organization. The core goal here is to ensure that there is ample insight available to help you know what's really happening. Remember, as an owner or manager, you could not possibly know what's actually happening because your subordinates adhere to acting a certain way around you specifically.

Surveys and polls allow you to ensure everyone is actually happy. This may allow you to deal with problems before they become true concerns. In many ways, this is a straightforward way for you to keep your ear to the ground.

3. Practice transparency

Managers need to take an active role in ensuring their employees are fully able to come to them to discuss a problem. Be positive and encouraging, no matter how innocuous the problem actually is.

At the same time, don’t assume they'll automatically come to you. Instead, be proactive. When you see something that violates company policy, take action right away to nip it in the bud. Doing this provides your employees with a clear understanding that toxic behaviors will not be a part of the workplace and there are consequences to them. But before that, always be probing to address problems before they've officially arisen.

4. Work to build conflict resolution

People don't always get along, and there is no way to make some personalities mesh. Workplace conflict is an inevitability. Often, you may find yourself in a situation where two people are wrong and cannot maintain a good working relationship. Having built-in conflict resolution solutions in place may help you.

There are multiple tools available to help you. The key here is to make interpersonal conflict resolution a core component of managing your employees. It may be easy enough to simply diffuse a situation and walk away, but that does not solve the underlying problem that can lead to long-term results.

5. Stay attuned to company-wide pessimism

As an owner or manager producing multi-million dollar projects, it can be hard for employee unhappiness to pop up on your radar. Yet, when there is company-wide evidence pessimism, it can create long-term problems that are much more difficult to deal with over time.

The better option is to address it. Polls and surveys can help to show what is occurring with a bit more clarity. It may also be possible to bring people together to talk and share their ideas, concerns, and needs. Host events where people can come together outside of work to learn and grow while also ensuring that your company is doing its best to meet their needs. 

6. Manage the gossip machine

Let's be real: everyone likes a little gossip. Ironically, there's a level of gossip that could be considered "healthy" for a work culture since forced discretion can feel prison-like. Sometimes well-placed gossip can help you get an idea of what your employees would think about a new product, service, benefit, or other tools. The key here is to recognize that too much gossip within the company is a problem and can cause numerous limitations for your business.

Take the time to consider what gossip is occurring and why. Then, work to improve the situation. This could mean more conflict resolution. It could also mean bringing people in to talk to them about whether they are working to build up the team or holding it back.

Real team players respect each other. Those that are unable to do that may find themselves unable to be a part of the company. For the more extreme gossip fix, there's always Love Island.

7. Look in the mirror every so often

As a business owner or manager, there's no doubt that the way you interact with others is a big part of the process of creating a healthy workplace. Are you the type of manager that doesn't allow for flexibility? Do you follow the same general gossip principles you hope to instill? Most of the time, there’s a middle ground that needs to be met.

Take a look at your own behavior and attitude. Evaluate yourself based on the way you interact with people, what you talk about, and how you treat others. Give yourself a score at the end of the day. Are you setting the example that you want each one of your employees to have? We look to leaders to emulate proper behavior and respect breeds respect.

Keep a focus and take action

It's always wise to focus on what you're seeing happening within your organization and take action to fix that problem if it doesn't create the type of long-term results you desire. Are you noticing your team is burning out, and there’s a lack of work-life balance? Do you find yourself seeing subtle signs of sexism or racism? Do you find that your employees are not getting the encouragement and knowledge they need to excel?

No matter what's occurring within your business today, without your people, you cannot be successful. For that reason, it's worth spending the time necessary to create a healthy non-toxic workplace. And to be extra safe, don't have any old boat rope on the premises.

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