Toxic Work Environments: How Bad Behavior Impacts Bottom Lines

September 15, 2023 • Missouri Employers Mutual

It’s no secret that employees’ mental health can affect how safe a workplace is. Multiple factors can impact a person’s mental health. Most exist outside of the workplace. But some factors can cause undue stress on the job. Where is the line between naturally occurring differences and something more hazardous? What are the hallmarks of a toxic work environment?

In this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Jessica Childress. She is an award-winning employment attorney who focuses on workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Childress offers training on anti-harassment, diversity, equity and inclusion, and anti-discrimination.

First, we’ll explain what a toxic work environment is. Then, we’ll share the difference between workplace disagreements and toxic behavior. Finally, we’ll talk about how employers can help create the respectful work environment employees need.

Listen to this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast or read the show notes below.

What is a toxic work environment?

A toxic work environment can take many different forms. According to Childress, it can be one where employees suffer from bullying or intimidation. They may be micromanaged by a supervisor, or encounter micro- or macroaggressions. She also points to another term that employee may be familiar with: a hostile work environment.

Hostile and toxic work environments are recognized in slightly different ways. “For a workplace to be a hostile work environment under the law, you have to be discriminated against or harassed on the basis of a legally protected class,” she explained. “Those protected classes are supplied by federal and local law.” For example, employees are protected from discrimination based on their:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Race, color, and nationality
  • Sex, including gender identity and pregnancy

Toxic work environments have issues such as bullying or harassment, but those behaviors aren’t tied to an employee or employee group belonging to a protected class. Although the two are different, Childress highlights that they are both equally damaging. “A toxic work environment can quickly transform into a legally hostile work environment if the right element or elements that the law would consider to be hostile are in existence.”

Signs of a toxic workplace environment

A toxic work environment can manifest in the smallest ways. For instance, being left off of team emails or being spoken down to. Withholding resources or information is another way employees are made to suffer. Without the right support, it becomes difficult to do their jobs correctly As a result, their performance plummets.

“These are all small things that, over the course of time, can lead to an environment where someone’s psychological safety is at risk,” Childress shared. These behaviors often exist in a gray area – they aren’t technically illegal, but still harmful.

Natural conflict vs. organizational issue

Businesses are full of different personalities. Each person has a different background, level of experience, and opinions. These can naturally lead to conflict.

Natural conflict and toxic work environments diverge depending on how deep the issues are embedded in the organization. A disagreement between two people may be a simple difference of opinion. Toxic work environments result from poor behavior being present at every level of the company.

“Toxic work environments are pretty systemic,” Childress described. “They are they really infiltrate the entire organization. There’s an institutional piece of toxicity that goes along with creating a toxic work environment. So a toxic work environment is one in which I think the cultural norms of the organization are not well-defined.” What does this look like in action? The signs may include:

  • Poorly informed leadership. Lead team members may ignore bad behavior or be altogether unaware of it happening.
  • Consistent and tolerated disrespect. In situations where a serious conflict appears, a visit to leadership or Human Resources is a common next step. But when that step doesn’t result in any further action, employees come to understand their concerns don’t matter and won’t be addressed.

“Interpersonal conflict certainly will inevitably exist within a work environment,” she explained. Those who have experienced it, or witnessed it, know how uncomfortable it can be to work amongst people who aren’t getting along. In healthier workplaces, its addressed with one-on-one conversations, mediation, or workshops. However, when it is never addressed, never spoken of, toxic work environments are born. 

The impact of a toxic work environment on employees

Toxic work environments don’t just affect team dynamic. They affect an employee’s ability to feel safe on the job. For example, Childress points to the 2018 #MeToo movement, where women began reporting sexual harassment in their workplaces nationwide. Although the reports were necessary to spark change, employees felt unsafe doing so. Sexual harassment often involves physical and psychological misconduct. Consequently, Childress highlights it as one of the most difficult toxic behaviors to report.

Whether on a construction site or in a retail store, employees facing a toxic environment will focus on their safety first – not the job. “We all go to work to produce. You know, we have a sense of purpose going to work and we are proud of our work,” she explained. “If employers are not protecting and keeping their work environment safe, that is going to inevitably result in a lack of productivity.” Toxic work environments impact:

  • Productivity
  • Employee morale and well-being
  • Employers’ bottom lines

Creating a respectful work environment

“This is a baseline: employers are obligated to provide a safe workplace,” Childress underscored. “There are federal laws that require employers to provide a safe workplace.” She highlights three essential steps that employers must take at a minimum.

First and foremost, employees must be educated in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment practices. Managers should check in with their teams to ensure these trainings are completed. Second, a reporting policy needs to be put in place that everyone in the organization is familiar with.

Third, it’s critical to create a respectful environment. “We have to create cultures of respect at work, and so I give a training called the Intro[re]spection™ training.” It focuses on building respectful workplace cultures. The training calls on employees to think about workplace treatment.

Recognizing toxicity

It can be difficult for employees to recognize a toxic work environment. Childress suggests journaling as a way to organize thoughts and feelings. Her latest book, Peace: Leaving a Toxic Workplace on Your Own Terms, allows employees to answer prompts and assess their workplace experience.

How to respond to complaints

Employees don’t always formally complain about workplace toxicity. The first signs may appear in a casual conversation. In other cases, they appear when employees witness an uncomfortable situation or interaction. It’s important that employers address these these issues correctly, the first time.

Human Resources professionals should always connect with others when receiving a complaint. This includes Legal teams, relevant leaders, and in serious cases, law enforcement. “Employers have a legal obligation to make sure that their workplaces are safe, so you can’t just take a complaint and sit on it,” Childress emphasized. “You have to investigate. You have to know how to conduct an investigation.”

Hiring an external investigator is an option for smaller HR teams. “Employers really need to understand how to conduct an investigation, because botched investigations can lead to legal liability.”

Employers can’t solve a toxic work environment without attacking it at the root. Taking conflict seriously – and mediating the issue – prevents problems from rising to toxic levels.  “When you don’t feel like your well-being is protected, you’re not going to produce at the optimal level,” Childress shared. “It really behooves both employees and employers to ensure that they are being intentional – and constantly being intentional – in creating processes that protect everyone at work.”

September 15, 2023
Missouri Employers Mutual
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