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How to remove workplace toxins and create a healthy culture at your organization

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Anyone who’s ever worked in an office setting has likely experienced the dreaded “toxic workplace” scenario - and if you haven’t… kudos to you for being either extremely lucky or an incredibly perceptive job-seeker when it comes to recognizing healthy a office culture in a new employer.

For those of us who have had the misfortune of entering into a workplace that was already or later became toxic, you know how painful it can be. Sitting in the office, day after day, dreading any or all of the following: team meetings, one-on-ones with management, chance encounters with poisonous colleagues - all of which make your work life seem like just so much drudgery. It’s very dispiriting, to say the least.

More and more, however, HR departments and experts are finding ways to help organizations identify and then correct these environments, sweeping away the negativity and replacing it with an office culture that allows staff to thrive.

Be a “leader” in new perspective

In Vancouver, Gayle Hadfield, principal at Hadfield HR, has seen her share of this and understands there are priority measures to take that help remove workplace toxicity.

“I work with many organizations, and my first assessment is to determine the culture; if I’m doing a formal audit, when I meet with managers and leadership, I get them to identify the elements of culture that define their current reality,” she says. “This allows [for a] ‘no one gets to be wrong’ environment when we move forward and they see changes are required. Often, they were just moving along based on the past and are willing to make changes.”

That change, as noted by Hadfield, frequently begins with an in-depth, culture assessment. It is a standard practice used by HR departments, agencies and experts to gauge the temperature of a workforce inside an organization - from the C-suite on down.

Doug Lawrence, principal of TalentC People Services Inc., a Saskatchewan-based HR solutions company, has been advising leadership at organizations of all sizes for more than 30 years. Lawrence says that, in his experience, cultural assessments are usually triggered at the senior leadership level when C-suite executives begin to understand there’s been a breakdown in teamwork, team spirit, communication and execution somewhere inside the organization.

This is typically when he is engaged to advise and/or mentor leaders and HR departments who need to get their toxic work environments under control, and is also when he advises a cultural assessment.

Taking the pulse of the office

Lawrence notes that once senior management gives the go-ahead for a cultural assessment at the office, he uses a “relatively simple” process to begin the evaluation.

“They usually have an issue or challenge that they are dealing with that they are seeking some help on,” he says. One example he cites is a case he worked on where staff had lost respect for the organization’s leadership and where management could no longer communicate effectively with frontline staff, resulting in high employee turnover rates.

He says giving leaders and HR departments to tools to deal with workplace toxicity is key; and the 5-step cultural assessment process he has devised [below] has proven effective in mitigating difficult work environments:

  1. Set up an initial meeting with senior leaders to determine the issues.
  2. If it is a small organization, interview all the employees and management or do a random sample if it is a larger organization.
  3. During the interview process, develop a trusting relationship with the employee – this is part of a mentoring process, Lawrence says - and start the conversation with two questions:
    • Can you describe the culture in your organization in three words or less?
    • If you could change any five things in the organization without firing anyone what would they be?
  4. From the interviews, HR experts can generally ascertain the following:
    • some of the major issues driving the toxic work place,
    • some potential solutions
    • the core operating processes of the organization
    • a deeper understanding of the employees and their needs
    • how the toxic work environment is impacting the employees
  5. The above steps will help determine what the next steps should be.

Typically, Lawrence says, mentoring is part of the solution.

“I have also recommended ‘crucial conversation’ training,” he says. “The mentoring may involve some one-on-one mentoring or group mentoring which will help build the foundation for a formal mentoring program or a mentor culture. Organizational leadership should be thinking about mentoring right from the very start. It is recognized as a great way to enhance leadership development. It is also a great way to create a learning and development environment as well as an engaged, empowered and accountable work force.”

Getting inside the psyche of the workplace

Hadfield notes that some common causes of workplace toxicity stem from “old style” management philosophies. In one instance, she says, a global corporation she worked with had a rigid “command-and-control” environment, which caused the toxicity levels in the office to be very high.

“In that case, we brought in external business psychologists, resulting in a day-long workshop with leaders and managers, and explored challenging issues with current styles, skillfully messaging a move to hold staff accountable [while] not micro-managing or blaming staff,” she recalls.

If leadership is maintaining an “old set of values,” such as the mentality that employees “should be lucky they have a job” or leaders cling to anachronistic work practices and are afraid to let go and adapt to changing employee needs while focusing solely on business results, this can all cause workplace backlash in our modern world.

“Leaders who have achieved their roles through hard work and by adhering to the prior standards of the business may, unknowingly, be expecting the same of their current workforce,” Hadfield says. “They likely value staff, but are having a hard time letting go and adapting to the new culture and think that things may ‘fall apart’ if they allow too much empowerment or flexibility. Through understanding that they may lose staff, or have a less productive workforce if they don’t create a more agile, trusting culture, they can start taking steps to see what’s most important for staff overall and make those changes.”

She says that in today’s working world, workplace culture must be collaborative and agile, with more employee decision making/empowerment.

HR departments must maintain “an openness and pulse on the satisfaction and effectiveness level of the organization.” As issues arise, she says, HR will assess each situation and determine if they can provide some ideas/coaching for a manager to make adjustments. The HR department should be “an educator, advocate [and] influencer for the workforce, and the culture of the work environment. When raising workforce issues with leadership, align with the mission, values, deliverables and elements of a top employer.”

O’ mentor, my mentor

In Toronto, Shawn Mintz, president of MentorCity, says engaging with employees as soon as possible once a toxic workplace is identified, is crucial.

"When I worked at a prior organization, a new president had just taken the position. She called a staff retreat when she noticed the toxic environment. Being a direct leader, at the retreat she put the issue on the table right away and asked everyone to help change the culture. [Her action] created change immediately in the culture,” Mintz says. “Staff knew that there was a new culture coming and they either had to adapt or find new work.”

That forthrightness from a previous leader, who was willing to do the hard job of positively confronting and bluntly challenging staff to be part of the solution, was a winning formula for that workplace.

Cultural changes can also occur organically through organizational growth, Mintz notes.

“You can use outside consultants and receive support through HR, which can bring about new guiding principles for an organization,” he says. “My organization works with HR professionals often, because mentoring is an ingrained role for HR departments across organizations of all sizes."

Again, Mintz advises that regardless of the precise solution one chooses to address a toxic workplace, one thing is clear: engagement with leaders is needed right away.

“Toxicity spreads. One person can spread negativity across a whole organization. As a leader – whether from HR, or the C-Suite – you must both talk and listen to your staff.”

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is a professional writer living in Toronto. He can be reached at

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other web sites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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