How to Recognize and Prevent Toxic Work Environments

UPDATED: June 2, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 23, 2023
Manager talking to employee to prevent toxic work environment

Company culture matters. In fact, it’s one of the most significant factors that younger generations consider when deciding to stay at or apply for a job.

Unfortunately, it’s also something managers may neglect until it starts to cause problems. If their approach centers around pain points, issues are likely addressed as they arise, while their causes are ignored. Doing so may create a cycle of recurring crises that scare away applicants and wear down existing employees, ultimately harming retention and productivity.

These conditions favor the development of a toxic work environment, which can seriously undermine your company’s success. Many employees won’t tolerate these environments for long: Data from MIT Sloan Management Review indicates that “a toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation.”

Why toxic work environments are bad

It’s no surprise that toxicity often leads to worse financial performance, lower engagement and employee attrition. Additionally, creativity and innovation may suffer because employees feel compelled to play it safe, which means they are playing it small.

At the very worst, a toxic work environment can harm your mental and physical health, potentially increasing the likelihood of depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and a host of other conditions.

A toxic work environment is damaging to every facet of your company’s operations. When you deliberately cultivate a positive workplace culture, you prevent it from forming. However, the problem is whether we struggle to recognize our own culture and understand how it affects everyone else.

The signs of a toxic work environment

Because a toxic culture emerges from unaddressed instances of toxicity, its presence isn’t always obvious. Actions become habits, and roles inherit routines. When egregious behavior draws everyone’s attention to flaws in the company culture, the ensuing efforts to correct them may be too little, too late, particularly if the human elements of bad culture—declining engagement and effort—continue to be ignored.

So, how can you recognize a workplace culture in decline? Awareness is key. When you have regular check-ins with your team, you’re more likely to identify culture shifts. Is everyone engaged? Are only some employees engaged? Are they talking about projects and sharing ideas, or are they zoning out and doing the bare minimum?

Healthy workplace cultures are vibrant, collaborative and bold. By contrast, toxic work environments are stifling, atomized and meek. Employees in these work cultures tend to be less engaged and have smaller impacts.

How managers can prevent work environment toxicity

It’s easy for most people to recognize obvious manifestations of toxicity. But how can you identify the less noticeable—but still extremely harmful—elements of toxic work environments?

While everyone in an organization contributes to its workplace culture, managers play a significant part in keeping them positive. Because your decisions can have profound effects on the day-to-day operations and engagement of your team, you can more effectively improve the culture of your workplace with deliberate actions.

Here are some steps you can take to make your company culture more positive:

1. Get to know your team better.

When you take a real interest in people, you can gain the knowledge and insight which is helpful to building and strengthening relationships—but to do that, your employees have to be willing to speak about their concerns and themselves, and you have to be willing to listen. Getting to know your team on a personal level may also give you insight into the purpose that drives them. Purpose is more and more important to people today as it helps achieve a sense of belonging and meaning at work.

To help figure out cultural norms, ask questions such as these:

  • What energizes you at work? What brings you joy at work?
  • What energizes you outside of work? What brings you joy outside of work?
  • How could we incorporate that more at work?

2. Actively seek culture ideas to prevent a toxic work environment.

Be diligent in seeking input from your team. They offer a wealth of knowledge, ideas, creativity and innovation, so take advantage of it. When you give employees the chance to critique their workplace culture, they may feel more connected to it because they’re responsible for shaping it. Just remember—if you’re going to use an engagement survey, which has a variety of potential flaws, make sure your employees trust you enough to answer honestly, and avoid betraying that trust by making sure to discuss and/or act on the complaints.

3. Expect more.

You can make your toxic work environment healthier by reaching out across management to raise expectations for all leaders—including yourself. Managers should be responsible for more than merely supervising work and productivity. Instead, they can benefit the workplace by engaging in culturally important activities such as inspiring, mentoring and developing a cohesive and collaborative team.

Instead of believing that we’ve cured work environments of all toxic traits and pernicious behaviors, we must acknowledge that culture will remain an issue. We must always keep in mind that workplace culture isn’t delimited by the workplace itself: It responds to outside influences and evolves with the times.

The business world has been changing rapidly, and it shows no signs of stopping. Right now, culture is more important than ever. It’s time to give it the attention it deserves.

Photo by Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

Gloria St. Martin-Lawry

Gloria St. Martin-Lowry is the president of HPWP Group, a company that promotes leadership and organizational development through positivity, coaching and problem-solving. HPWP is driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members.