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

Part of the issue with referring to workplaces as toxic, says Branker, is that the word “toxic” is such a loose definition.

People on their way to work. — Image © Tim Sandle.
People on their way to work. — Image © Tim Sandle.

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.

So, how can a good manager ensure that they are doing everything they can to protect their 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 employees feel valued.

In terms of the extent of the issue, at the end of December 2023, 60 senior women at the Ministry of Justice complained of a “hostile” and “toxic” environment.  Furthermore, 44 percent of respondents to a survey of the UK astronomy sector had suffered workplace bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months.

In a different sector, 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.

32 percent of respondents to the Oak Engage report revealed that they had experienced toxic workplace behaviour in the form of being forced to work long hours. Moreover, 33 percent of respondents to the Oak Engage report found that it was middle managers perpetuating the toxicity in their workplace, rather than top-level management.

From the inner sanctum of Human Resources, 12 percent of respondents to the CIPD’s People Management and Productivity Survey said their managers had received no training on managing people. This occurs most often in smaller workplaces.

Are toxic workplaces becoming more common?

Part of the issue with referring to workplaces as toxic, says Branker, is that the word “toxic” is such a loose definition. “In recent years,” she says, “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 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.”

“Management must be trained on how to properly interact with the workforce and handle issues properly when they arise,” adds Branker, recommending that firms do more to celebrate success.

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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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