Five ways you can prevent a toxic workplace

Have you ever been part of a toxic work environment? Did you feel like your higher-ups were failing to protect staff from bullying and harassment?

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 throughout the UK must act to prevent a toxic work culture from forming.

So, how can 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, reveals some of the best ways you can discourage toxic behaviour and ensure that your employees feel valued. 

Are toxic workplaces becoming more common? 

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

Widespread cases of hostility and harassment in various sectors and international businesses have made the news in recent months. At the end of December 2023, 60 senior women at the Ministry of Justice complained of a “hostile” and “toxic” work environment.  

MPs recently also heard of the “shocking” levels of bullying and harassment present in the UK’s astronomy sector, where 44% of respondents to a workplace survey had suffered workplace bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months. 

Perhaps most high-profile of all was the BBC investigation into McDonalds’ culture of toxicity, which found that the fast food chain experienced an average of one or two sexual harassment claims every week.

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. 

Five ways you can prevent a toxic workplace

So what can you do to help prevent a toxic workplace? Here are five suggestions.

1) 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! 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.

2) 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. 

32% 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. 

3) Healthy habits from the top down 

33% 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. 

12% 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, 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. 

4) 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% of managers believe they provide good recognition to their staff, while just 40% of employees feel they are adequately recognised for their hard work. 

Gary Chapman, in his book Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment, notes that “people thrive when they feel appreciated by their colleagues and supervisors – and that means they sense the appreciation is heartfelt and authentic.” Peer recognition is 35.7% more likely to positively impact performance than recognition from management.

5) 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 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.” 

If you’re currently working in a toxic workplace with limited support from management, it’s important that you’re aware of the options and facilities available to you, as well as the legal precedent set in the event of similar events taking place.

Understanding whether you have a case against your employer, or those members of staff perpetuating your toxic working culture, is key and may require legal advice from a dedicated employment solicitor. 

Equally, if you are an employer who is concerned about toxicity in your workplace, HR support and management training from a specialist employment law and HR specialist can help to tackle and prevent such behaviour. It’s absolutely vital that employers create a culture where any workplace bullying, harassment or toxicity is not tolerated. 

Established in 1953, Beecham Peacock is one of the North East’s leading law firms with a wealth of experience in a myriad of different legal fields. Its team of expert solicitors includes specialists in wills, trusts and probate, personal injury, family law and employment law. The firm also offers a wide range of other legal services.