Even though HR professionals consistently preach the benefits of a positive organizational culture, toxic workplace culture still persists. But what makes a workplace toxic? And what can public sector organizations do to prevent or overcome a toxic workplace culture?
The word toxic is defined as harmful, noxious and poisonous. The ancient Greek word “toxon” meant “bow,” and the term “toxikon pharmakon” meant "poison for arrows." If poison has spread through your organization, how can you spot the symptoms?
A toxic work environment was cited as the number one reason driving the Great Resignation, according to research by MIT Sloan. They found that a toxic workplace culture is 10 times more likely to contribute to employee attrition than compensation. If you’re noticing high levels of employee turnover, it could be a sign of a bad workplace culture. A positive workplace culture encourages happier and more productive employees. And happy employees are less likely to resign.
In October 2022, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy highlighted the harmful effects that abusive and cutthroat workplaces have on human health. “The link between our work and our health has become more evident," he said. "And when workers’ health declines, that can affect workplace productivity and ingenuity."
Employees suffering poor mental or physical health due to a toxic work environment are more likely to be absent from work. Some may even feign illness to avoid going to work. A survey by Moneypenny found that 54% of public services and administration employees in the United States admitted to faking a sick day.
Toxic workplace signs can be blatant or subtle. It can show up in the following ways:
In a toxic culture, employees do not feel safe expressing their concerns and may fear losing their jobs if they try to address the situation.
A toxic environment can harm your organization in the following ways:
In a toxic workplace, employees may not feel safe or supported by the organization. In severe cases, they may dread or fear going to work. This type of stress can lead to anxiety, depression and physical or mental burnout. When your employees’ wellness suffers, so too does their performance. In addition, conflict or gossip among employees can spread among employees and lead to dysfunctional teams, further reducing productivity.
As a public sector organization, some of your employees may be in frontline positions serving the public. An unhappy or disengaged employee isn’t going to represent your organization well. Furthermore, if your organization suffers from high levels of employee absenteeism and attrition, this can result in a backlog of work. Having current employees pick up the slack will only cause further unhappiness among staff.
Government organizations are often at a disadvantage when competing for top talent against the private sector. If your organization develops a reputation as being a toxic employer, it can further deter candidates from applying for jobs. New employees who join and discover a toxic environment may leave soon after. You have to eradicate toxicity in your organization if you wish to become an employer of choice and attract talented individuals who will want to stay for years to come.
Toxicity in the workplace is rarely an isolated event caused by a handful of individuals. It is usually a widespread systemic problem that has become ingrained over many years. To fix it, you need a multi-faceted strategy:
A fish rots from the head down. In most cases, bad workplace culture is cultivated at the top. To change the organization’s culture, you need to change the attitudes and biases of your leaders. This may require training your leadership team to identify toxic practices and how to manage and prevent it.
Employees trapped in toxic workplaces often don’t feel supported or protected by the organization. Naturally, they will be reluctant to raise issues. You can empower your employees by providing safe methods to report incidents. These should include anonymity for whistleblowers who fear repercussions.
Conflict in the workplace is counterproductive and should be nipped in the bud. Most HR practitioners are trained in conflict resolution and can assist in resolving issues. Alternatively, you could hire an external mediator to help with more complex situations.
Most employees want to feel appreciated. Recognizing good performance in a way that’s fair and equitable and not based on favoritism helps promote healthy organizational culture. Promotions and financial rewards such as bonuses or pay increases can motivate employees to keep up the good work. Developing individualized career paths that present the opportunity for growth can also stimulate employee engagement.
Toxic workplace culture is one of the leading reasons for high staff turnover. Not only is it detrimental to employees’ health and well-being, but it can also damage your organization’s reputation and effectiveness in serving your constituents. Building a positive workplace culture requires a paradigm shift in thinking that starts at the top. CPS HR assists public sector organizations to create strategies for organizational change. For help with change management, fill out this form or call 916.263.3600 today.
CPS HR Consulting is a self-supporting public agency providing a full range of integrated HR solutions to government and nonprofit clients across the country. Our strategic approach to increasing the effectiveness of human resources results in improved organizational performance for our clients. We have a deep expertise and unmatched perspective in guiding our clients in the areas of organizational strategy, recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, and training and development.