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by Emily Neier
on October 9, 2018

Whether it’s one bad apple that spoils the bunch or a list of multi-dimensional causes, a toxic culture puts the whole company at risk. Low employee engagement and toxic culture in the workplace is linked to lower productivity and higher employee turnover, which are emotionally and financially costly for your organization and your employees. But cutting these costs isn’t easy. What can you do to start improving your company’s culture—and in turn save money and headaches.

What is a toxic culture?

John Kotter from Kotter International defines culture as, “group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” You are a part of many cultures, from that of the country you live in and where you are from to smaller communities like your neighborhood, family, friend groups, online communities, and workplace.

Any of these groups can become toxic. If you’ve ever witnessed something similar to the chaos that ensued from Regina George tossing up the pages of the Burn Book in the movie Mean Girls—you’ve seen the result of an unchecked toxic culture. And while it’s easy to remove toxins from some aspects of your life (perhaps a cleanse of your social media accounts), fixing a toxic company culture will take more work and perseverance than blocking some Twitter followers.

Some signs your company culture is turning toxic:

  • Aggressive behavior (passive or direct)
  • Lack of accountability
  • Poor communication
  • Consistently difficult or impossible workloads and deadlines
  • Discriminatory wage gaps and double standards
  • Gossip and strict social cliques
  • Excessive absenteeism from illness and fatigue

What a toxic culture does to your business

When your employees are stressed, burnt out, or don’t feel safe at work, your customers suffer, too. Employees who are unmotivated or unable to do their best can’t provide the best products and service, which can frustrate customers, causing your company to lose them.

One million employees in the United States miss work each day due to stress—that’s 8 million hours of work lost every day. The cost of lost productivity due to health problems, including stress and depression, totals to around $225 billion annually. While stress fluctuates over time, a company culture that causes employees so much stress they don’t want to come in to work is a cost nobody should pay for.

It should come as no shock that stressed, unhappy employees are more likely to leave a company. Organizations with high employee turnover rates spend more on advertising, interviewing, and screening processes to hire new employees as well as any onboarding or training costs. There are other downsides to high employee turnover as well, such as negative reviews on sites like Glassdoor, turning off quality candidates.

Additionally, it takes approximately 90 days for a new employee to start adding value to a company. When turnover rate is high, it’s more difficult to grow as it takes time for new employees to get the hang of things.

How to start changing company culture

Reversing a toxic company culture is no easy feat. It will take time to find where the problems are, and time to plan and enact the proper solutions. But identifying the need for change is an important first step, so if you want to do something about negativity in your company culture, you’re already making progress. Below are some tips to get you started.

1. Find where the toxicity is coming from

There could be one source (a single employee bringing the whole team down, for example), or a multitude of issues. Start by communicating with your employees about the issues they’re having with company culture. You could ask in one-on-one meetings or have a full company/department meeting. This would show your concern for their wellbeing, and your company’s, but it might not yield entirely truthful answers or a complete picture of the problem.

For the most complete, truthful answers, send out an anonymous survey. Especially if culture has become truly toxic, the option for anonymity will give those most affected or most likely to leave a safe space to express their concerns.

2. Identify solutions

Look for trends in the results of your research. Do employees feel overworked and aren’t given ample time to complete projects? Are there any departments, positions, or names that pop up consistently for causing others stress and anxiety?

You may need to adjust workloads, extend deadlines, and increase transparency in communication between departments and between supervisors with employees. If solutions are more complicated, like the root cause is specific employees who gossip, bully, or discriminate, don’t be afraid to cut ties. The loss of a few will benefit many, and show to your employees that behavior isn’t tolerated.

It might take a few tries to find the right solution for your unique company culture, and it will some time to see if a solution is working. This is where perseverance comes in—persistence to solve the problem will pay off in the end.

3. Show, don’t tell

The most important part of implementing changes to company culture is to completely embrace the changes yourself, especially if you’re a supervisor or decision maker. Others will follow along if they see leaders or influencers actively working on changes. Show the appreciation and kindness to your coworkers that you want to see from them.

This study from BCG shows that people all over the world aren’t just working for money—they want to do work they enjoy and enjoy the environment they work in. And happier employees makes for better service and happier customers.

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