How Best to Avoid Toxic Workplaces!

6 Sep

I have never worked in an organization that is dominantly toxic, but my experience includes handling many toxic “pockets” within large organizations. Many times, trying to resolve has involved sitting down with a group of employees and their supervisor (accused of being abusive) and letting employees have their say. Before the meeting, I would spend considerable time with the supervisor trying to reach agreement on the best way he/she should handle the meeting. Usually, when the discord reaches this level, the situation is so serious that employees set aside some of their fear as continuing to work in such an abusive environment is not acceptable.

The employees usually make their concerns known collectively, often by reporting them to HR and sometimes in a jointly signed complaint or petition. Some hesitant “meeting of the minds” may be achieved at a meeting (if reconciliation seems possible) but in most cases, it would not last and the supervisor would ultimately be removed from the job. The whole process can be protracted and when the supervisor is at fault, significantly affect the lives of the employees and workplace efficiency.

How can we avoid festering of these toxic pockets? Why does it usually take so long to resolve – if ever? These are some of the main reasons I am familiar with:

  • The supervisor’s boss does not recognize there is a problem and refuses to get involved
  • The supervisor’s boss backs up the supervisor, even without knowing what is going on
  • The supervisor and his/her boss blame the employees and may focus on disciplining and terminating “bad attitude” employees. “Bad attitude” can include employees with medical problems or disability – anything that gets in the way of the work!
  • HR does not get involved early enough – probably should have been aware earlier and taken a stand, assuming an appropriate level of HR expertise and empowerment
  • There is no effective dispute resolution process, with teeth, in place
  • The supervisor is not competent to supervise employees and, probably, his/her boss also

Could the problem be because we are hiring the wrong type of employees? Have we been hiring troublemakers who conjure up complaints and stir up ill will against the supervisor? I think that is unlikely. The players (supervisor and employees) are generally good people. Often the supervisor was an excellent employee in a non-supervisory role, but totally unsuited to be a supervisor.

We can hire the greatest new employees, enthusiastic and with great skills, but once they enter the “zoo”, they quickly become demoralized and either leave or play along, keeping out of trouble the best they can. We may seek great employees outside, but it may mean little if we do not have an environment that supports having the best and meeting their expectations

Another major problem, common in many companies, is that supervisors and managers do not receive appropriate training, their bosses are similarly lacking in leadership and management skills and in the absence of role models the players resort to being “tough guys”, often overreacting and being more notable as bullies than benevolent bosses.

What is the Solution?

The real life toxic management situations I have described above are the ones that have deteriorated the most. At the same time, there may be many more developing problems and examples of management ineffectiveness throughout the organization. They are all affecting business results and need to be addressed.   In so many organizations, ineffective managers are empowered with hiring decisions, required to conduct performance appraisals and directed (often by HR) to implement employee engagement strategies. To ensure basic organizational effectiveness, I believe the following requirements must be met:

  • Effective dispute resolution processes are in place and experienced HR specialists empowered with overall responsibility
  • All managers/supervisors should receive appropriate management training and be assessed as competent to fulfill basic job requirements e.g. employee relations, dispute resolution, performance evaluation of reports and making hiring decisions
  • HR would have overall responsibility for management training and for follow up to ensure continuing HR related effectiveness of new managers
  • Managers/supervisors who do not achieve an acceptable level of competence would not be allowed to continue in their management position

What do you think? If more emphasis is placed on the competence of management, toxic situations should be minimized, employees will be more motivated and the best are more likely to stay and be committed. Do you think management competence is a major problem in many organizations? Do you agree that unless managers are competent, particularly in people management, we cannot hope to move towards achieving employee engagement and true employee development? Can we realistically hope to be productively working together rather than constantly dealing with various levels of conflict and the related inefficiency?

Thank you for your interest. I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.




7 Responses to “How Best to Avoid Toxic Workplaces!”

  1. Pat West September 7, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as if the entire planet has become toxic. What then??

    • ianclive September 7, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

      Hi Pat,

      I read your opening summaries and look forward to reading more. If the entire world (including corporations) has become toxic, then social change is inevitable.

      Change is more likely when toxicity has reached an unacceptable level e.g. employees in an organization bringing in a union and reporting legal violations to the government. Before that level of toxicity is reached, people are more likely to convince themselves that their imperfect world is “normal” and be ready to comprise and desensitize on many fronts.

      If people become self-enlightened, then their values may change (be less superficial) but their greater understanding is unlikely to give them the “fire” to fight for the whole world, particularly if their enlightenment is channeled and expressed in their own secure environment.

      With the increased toxicity today and so many people unemployed or underemployed, the predictions about the millennials (and many others) being a force for change is a real possibility. It may be similar to the sixties, but more desperate today as so many people have become rejects of capitalism and non-players in a market with limited opportunity.

      Just some thoughts,


    • Blanche Cordero March 1, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

      I unfortunately did work in a very toxic company. HR had no power. I believe the CEO sets the culture for the company. Either he is part of it or tolerates it by allowing those who may be the toxic employees to do as they please because they bring in the money with no concern to ethics. Horrible situation to be in.

  2. Roberta September 8, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    It is absolutely imperative that supervisors and managers know how to interact with people. They should possess the skills to motivate and inspire; they should know how to listen and empathize; they should be consistent in treatment of all; they should enforce policy to the same degree with each employee. Do all managers and supervisors possess these critical skills? Unfortunately, no they do not. Many times employees are promoted to the level of supervisor because they have shown great skill in job performance, and usually there is no discussion of emotional IQ.

    HR needs to have the support of all supervisors and managers as well. They need to be willing to work with the HR team in order to effectively resolve issues and avoid that “toxic environment”. How often do we (HR) find ourselves trying to put out a fire that’s been smoldering for weeks, even months, with no communication, no feedback and no documentation?

    Depending on the organization, HR may or may not be empowered to do much except advise and give counsel when it’s requested. When an employee comes to the HR office in tears because their supervisor is a bully and makes them miserable at work there is little that HR can do about it, other than report the allegation. More times than not the situation is blamed on the unhappy employee with no investigation whatsoever. When this happens time and again the workplace is indeed toxic and employees feel they have no recourse but to seek employment elsewhere.

    Training programs for managers and supervisors need to be endorsed by executives; it needs to be a priority. Supervisors must be held accountable for their action, or inaction.

    • ianclive September 9, 2014 at 3:22 am #

      Hi Roberta,

      Thank you for your excellent and very helpful comments. I agree with all your points and particularly that training programs need to be endorsed (and equally followed) by executives. There has to be a process to reinforce online and external training, otherwise it will remain superficial theory.

      If there is a formal dispute resolution process ( particularly bullying and harassment), we can counsel the crying employee how to best approach the manager and advise him/her that such behaviors are unwelcome and please stop. It is tough, but necessary if the complaint becomes formal (legally required in some cases) and the records kept by HR and the employee may be critical, to protect the employee from backlash and the blame you describe.

      Thank you so much, Roberta, for your great insight and expanding on this subject in such a helpful way.

      Very best wishes,


  3. Alexis Kingsbury (@Alexiskingsbury) September 11, 2014 at 5:46 am #

    Great post Ian.

    Fortunately I’ve not worked in a toxic workplace, but when I worked as a consultant I definitely saw some examples within clients.

    In one case there was a senior manager of a business support function who had some very strong views on how things should be done. I was brought in to help the team improve the service that they provided to the rest of their business. I collected views form internal customers to help identify how to do this, including some requests from VPs for improved reporting.

    The senior manager outwardly rejected the views of these customers in front of her team, saying “At the moment, we give them the data and they ignore it. If we give them better reporting, they’ll want more information, which takes more time for us to produce.” I was astounded at the lack of interest in improvement, and worse, this view was having a huge impact on the rest of her team, who’d say things like “Oh well I suppose we are busy, we probably don’t have enough time to improve what we currently provide.”

    After exhausting alternative options (coaching discussions, performance management, training etc.), the manager was relieved of her command.

    Things improved quickly. Under a new manager, the team became more dynamic, challenging themselves to improve what they provided to customers & to do so more efficiently.

    I just hope the previous manager has not gone into another role and created another toxic workplace!

    All the best,


    • ianclive September 11, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Alexis,

      Thank you for your kind words and for providing such an excellent example – the toxic attitude of a manager towards internal clients!

      Sadly, I have seen this a few times originating from the HR department. Sometimes expanding on the control aspect of HR, enjoyed by some, and sometimes a lack of respect plus some disdain for internal clients. This kind of toxic behaviour is often masked as a form of cost control and possibly supported (initially at least) by the manager’s boss.

      It is quite possible that the manager is now practising similar toxicity elsewhere. Such people can present well at interviews as “tough guys” and cost cutters and may, of course, be hired by toxic organizations where that toxic style is prevalent and promoted.

      Thank you very much, Alexis, for the insight and for reminding us about this form of toxic behaviour that can directly affect business efficiency in addition to morale implications.

      Very best wishes,


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