How to deal with a toxic workplace

'If your employees are subjected to poisoned work environments or discrimination, you're going to lose top talent'

How to deal with a toxic workplace

A toxic environment or a poisoned workplace is something that no person wants or deserves.

To prevent this, it’s not only morally right for the employer to prevent it but legally, it’s a key part of most jurisdiction’s occupational health and safety regime, meaning organizations must eliminate this from the workplace.

So, what are the best ways of going about this?

Canadian HR Reporter recently spoke with Kathryn Bird, a partner at Ogletree Deakins in a podcast.

Policy first

It begins with having a strong policy statement addressing the issue that tells employees toxic behaviour will not be tolerated, according to an employment, human rights and labour lawyer.

“It’s not good enough just to have them tucked away in some dusty corner of your intranet. Make sure that you talk about them openly and publicly in your employee meetings,” says Bird.

“Make sure that it is well known how to make a complaint. Make sure that when you receive a complaint, you take it seriously, it’s treated confidentially, it’s treated with the respect and dignity that a complaint of this nature deserves.”

But what exactly constitutes a poisoned work environment?

“A toxic workplace is one where there are a series of incidents — both micro and macro — that occur within the workplace on a day-to-day basis that the employer is seen to or does condone,” says Bird.

“Essentially, a poisoned work environment is one where it is not a series of independent incidents by one or more employees that no one knows anything about, it’s a series of incidents by one or more employees that the employer knows about or ought to know about and doesn’t take any steps to prevent.”

What to do about complaints

To stop any of these bad behaviours from happening, employees must be aware that a process exists and that it is not simply a drop box that is ignored, says Bird.

“They’re something that the employer wants to make sure employees understand if they make complaints, they will be taken seriously, they will be protected from reprisal. They will be investigated thoroughly on a neutral basis and if there are issues in behaviours, there will be appropriate consequences.”

In some workplaces, leaders are blissfully unaware that a bad environment is present because they are not told about them by employees who believe nothing will be done. But this approach can quickly spiral out and become even worse for employees, according to an organizational behaviour expert. 

The risks for employers who ignore this could be substantial, says Byrd.

“If your employees are subjected to poisoned work environments or discrimination, harassment, you’re going to lose top talent, they’re going to leave, they’re going to vote with their feet,” she says.

“Whether you want to think about this from a legislative compliance perspective, or whether you want to think about this from a business success perspective, it is a basic thing that we should all be driven to provide for our employees in our workplaces.”

For more insights, check out the new podcast.

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