Even if your company is performing better than last year by the numbers, the signs of a toxic workplace may lie hidden. Like a rotten apple, it may look good on the outside, but rotten at the core. Why does this happen? How can you prevent it? The answer is to start with your employees: listen to them, give them autonomy and show them they are a respected part of the company.
How does a company grow a toxic workplace? While it can be several things, most of the time it comes from pressure to do more with less. As the pressure increases to do more with less by cutting costs, removing benefits and increasing workloads without leadership explaining the situation and showing the path forward, it is not hard to find disgruntled employees everywhere. One day, short-term productivity gains can plateau and then start to decline as managers quit, entry level employees leave in waves, and the strategic direction starts to suffer.
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The Risks of a Toxic Workplace
It should not be news that a happier workforce is a more profitable workforce. However, often when a company faces pressure from shareholders, the workforce is the first place to make cuts. Chances are, your employees can handle a bit of pressure for a short amount of time. People can work harder, deal with cutbacks, and increase their output. But sustained overload will eventually result in employee burnout.
Once employees start to feel like management does not listen to their needs, respect their time, or care about how they are doing, productivity starts to decline as employees stop being committed to the organization’s success and start focusing on personal survival. People are calling in sick, quitting, not doing their job well, treating others poorly (and causing them to call in sick, take leave, or quit), and generally destroying the company culture. Getting a reputation as a toxic workplace can take years to recover from.
How to Avoid a Toxic Workplace
Avoiding a toxic culture from taking hold is much easier than fixing it later, so if you know that some belt-tightening will be required, you will want to also think of a strategy to help employees during this change.
1. Ensure Employees Feel Listened To
Communication is key, and employees just want to be heard. Make sure there is a strategy in place for ensuring everyone from frontline employees, to middle management and leadership has open communication with the decision-makers. You can do this with annual, semi-annual or quarterly surveys. Town halls are another way to communicate change and have time for questions and answers. You can also create a human resources inbox where employees can submit questions anonymously if they need answers.
Lastly, empower your managers to have team meetings, an open-door policy, and empower them to bring employees’ concerns to their management team. Implement the small, doable fixes where you can and address employees’ questions. Often “being heard” costs nothing, so make sure that is the least that your company is doing.
2. Don’t Cut Employee Benefits
It may seem like cutting benefits or changing to a cheaper program will give you some of those cost savings your company needs in tight times, but it may not be worth the cost to morale. Your employees rely on vacation, health insurance, pension programs, etc. to survive and provide for their families. Arbitrary changes can motivate the best employees to begin looking for opportunities elsewhere as they endure the faults of a toxic workplace.
Reductions in this area will also make recruiting new employees more difficult.
3. Continue to Provide Autonomy for Your Employees
Empower your employees to make decisions within their area of expertise according to overall company rules and policy. Flexibility in working hours and location can go a long way to giving employees the opportunity to meet their work goals in a way that can be adapted to their lifestyle. Some constraints are necessary, but a level of trust (which must continue to be earned through employees not abusing that trust) will go a long way towards avoiding a toxic workplace culture.
4. Recognize Your Employees for Their Efforts
Recognizing employees and teams for their hard work goes a long way, and costs little to nothing. Whether it is celebrating a team at a company meeting or hosting a thank you breakfast for a high performing team, the small things matter. It can even be as easy as company-wide emails recognizing people for their hard work or sending a thank you note to someone’s office. Small things make the world of a difference.
5. Continue to Foster Team Get-Togethers
Things like a company summer party or holiday party do not need to be fancy to do the trick. Bringing your employees together for a potluck vs. renting out an entire flashy conference centre for a holiday party can be just as effective. When times get tough, companies sometimes start to cut out things like team gatherings. Employees notice these things and will start to feel unappreciated. You can explain to employees that budgets are tight, but you are still making time for everyone to take an afternoon, day, or evening to get together to say thanks.
Being Cheap vs. Cost Savings
All companies will likely have to go through lean times, but there are companies that withstand these times and companies that ruin their workforce during these times. Reducing head count is one of the most effective ways of reducing costs and is far preferable to a general grinding down on the entire workforce. By trimming your organization with a scalpel, focusing on the least productive employees and areas of activity that can be eliminated, you can reduce costs without impacting the valued employees who you want to keep and encourage and reduce the chances of a toxic workplace.
Listening is Free
The key is to communicate and listen to your workforce. This way, you can hear when things are starting to go downhill, and you can make changes as quickly as possible before the culture completely goes south.
The benefits of listening go both ways, they make your employees feel valued and hopeful, and they give you and your leadership team a way of knowing what to do to help your teams succeed.
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