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Cultivating a positive work environment: A manager’s guide to preventing toxicity

If you are a manager, how should you ensure that you’re doing everything you can to protect your workplace and workforce?

Traders are now awaiting the European Central Bank's meeting, where it is expected to hike rates
Traders are now awaiting the European Central Bank's meeting, where it is expected to hike rates - Copyright AFP ANDRE PAIN
Traders are now awaiting the European Central Bank's meeting, where it is expected to hike rates - Copyright AFP ANDRE PAIN

Toxicity in the workplace comes in many different shapes and sizes but, with a number of high-profile claims appearing in the news in recent months, managers should act to prevent a toxic work culture from forming.

If you are a manager, how should you ensure that you’re doing everything you can to protect your workplace and workforce? Lisa Branker, Head of Employment and HR at specialist employment solicitors Beecham Peacock, has told Digital Journal about some of the best ways you can discourage toxic behaviour and ensure that your employees feel valued.

This comes from the perspective of UK employment law. Recent events suggest that action is needed and Branker’s advice is timely. For example, at the end of December 2023, 60 senior women at the Ministry of Justice complained of a “hostile” and “toxic” environment. 

In addition, 44 percent of respondents to a survey of the UK astronomy sector had suffered workplace bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months. Also, in November 2023, a BBC investigation into McDonald’s found that the fast food chain experienced an average of one or two sexual harassment claims every week.

Are toxic workplaces becoming more common?

Part of the issue with referring to workplaces as toxic, notes Branker, is that the word “toxic” is such a loose definition. “In recent years,” Branker explains, “such a wide variety of workplace offences have been referred to as toxic, that it has become difficult to quantify which behaviours fall into that bracket.”

The UK government defines toxicity in the workplace as “workplace bullying and harassment”. However, other definitions, Branker says, have also been applied typically pointing to some combination of “negativity, discouragement and disrespect.”

Branker notes that many workers are unaware of the “protections in place for people dealing with discrimination and harassment at work.” The onus to protect employees must lie with a company’s management team, who should be doing everything in their power to ensure that toxicity is not allowed to thrive in the workplace.

Allow room for mistakes

In any workplace with a human workforce mistakes are inevitably made at some point or another. Giving your team room to make mistakes can help reduce the likelihood of toxicity arising. When an employer is overly harsh or punitive in dealing with their employees’ mistakes, tension surrounding day-to-day tasks increases.

“Give your team the chance to make a mistake in the first instance – this is how people learn” says Branker. “Repeated mistakes mean sloppy work, which requires a separate conversation. But excessive punishment for first-time mistakes means employees will be walking on eggshells from the start.”

Set healthy boundaries

Workplaces where employees have to work excessively long hours – and particularly hours outside of their standard working hours – commonly fall into the “toxic” bracket. Management may be consistently asking employees to work more hours than they should, or to be prepared to respond to client enquiries on evenings or weekends.

Branker also draws on other findings: 32 percent of respondents to an Oak Engage report on toxicity reported that they had experienced toxic workplace behaviour in the form of being forced to work long hours.

Healthy habits from the top down

Additionally, 33 percent of UK respondents to the same Oak Engage report that had experienced a toxic workplace culture found that it was middle managers perpetuating the toxicity, rather than top-level management executives. Similarly, 34% of respondents felt that their business’s working culture was not aligned with how the company would like to represent themselves.

This disconnect highlights the importance of implementing proper working practices at all levels of the company. “Management must be trained on how to properly interact with the workforce and handle issues properly when they arise,” says Branker.

Branker also considers the 12 percent of respondents to the CIPD’s People Management and Productivity Survey who said their managers had received no training on managing people. This occurs most often in smaller workplaces, rather than larger companies.

Upper management must take an active interest in the company’s people policies and culture and implement training to ensure positive values are passed on. As such, the results can trickle down through all areas of the company.

Celebrate successes

Though much of toxic workplace culture is rooted in negative attitudes and responses to negative events, failure to recognise positive performance can be another indicator of toxicity.

One commonly held gripe arises when employees feel their work is not recognised by management. Often, there’s a significant disjoint between how well managers feel they are rewarding their team and how well their employees feel that they are being rewarded. In fact, 80 percent of managers believe they provide good recognition to their staff, while just 40 percent of employees feel they are adequately recognised for their hard work.

Hold people accountable

In certain workplaces, the culture of toxicity may not be created by management but will be tolerated by them. It’s important, Branker observes, that you and the rest of your management team hold other members of the team responsible for their actions and their conduct. This approach will establish an understanding that these issues will not be tolerated.

Spotting these indiscretions and failing to take action gives the offender confidence that their behaviour is fine or can be tolerated – leading to the worsening of workplace bullying.

“Lead by example,” comments Branker, “and the overall culture will benefit. Speak up when you see bad behaviour taking place without intervention. It’s important that any other members of the team who have witnessed the harassment taking place understand that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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