Four ways HR leaders can tackle a toxic work culture

Danger zone sign, man in toxic mask
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Organisations with a ‘toxic’ culture will suffer from low employee morale and a retention problem, but what can HR leaders do to turn things around? In this article, we’ll present key strategies that can be used to achieve a full-scale cultural ‘detox’.

Working environments have never been more transparent, and public scrutiny of businesses has never been higher.  

Lately, companies regularly face backlash for nurturing cultures deemed ‘toxic’.

Toxic cultures can lead to increased incidents of sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, or other forms of unethical conduct.

While cultural issues such as low employee engagement, siloed workstreams or high turnover can have a negative impact on business performance in the short-term, a toxic culture can also damage the reputation of a brand permanently.

HR leaders are under increasing pressure to nurture a healthy working environment, but this is a challenging task when a toxic culture is ingrained deeply across the organisation.

Daunting as it may seem, ‘detoxifying’ a culture is one of the most constructive things an HR leader can achieve, both for individual employees and business performance. Below, we’ll outline some strategies HR leaders can use to transform a toxic workplace.

1. Expect emotional responses

If a toxic office culture has been allowed to manifest within an organisation, there is a good chance that you’ll encounter a number of highly emotional employees.

By highlighting the issues within the company, you risk sparking a negative reaction from both the people causing the problems and the people suffering the effects of them.

Creating an effective culture change strategy involves building support and charging leaders with flushing out cases of unsavory behavior.

It may also be the case that issues have been circulating for a long period of time, and that there have been unsuccessful attempts in the past to solve them.

As a general rule, HR leaders should listen and validate emotions, and take an objective and transparent approach.

Finding a genuine and consistent vocabulary that remains calm and positive, along with realistic expectations of outcomes will continue to build trust and relationships.  

2. Quantify the culture

When attempting to inspire change within an organisation, you are almost certain to be met with opposition. There will be people who are comfortable within the company and see change as a threat.

When you raise the issue of a toxic culture, you will be met with an inevitable question – what proof do you have?

Aggregating organisational assessments such employee engagement and turnover can be helpful, but they don’t necessarily indicate that an environment is harmful.

Case examples of employee experiences can help identify a particular form of toxicity and make a case for addressing it.

Even one specific example can reveal significant reputational or even legal risk for an organisation that can convince senior leaders to act.

3. Build leadership support

Once you have identified and started to quantify the problems in the business, you will need to create a path forward.

Creating an effective culture change strategy involves building support and charging leaders with flushing out cases of unsavory behavior.

To achieve this, HR leaders will need to raise current culture issues with members of the leadership team and start to find allies.

It’s possible there are others who would like to move on culture change and just needed a catalyst.

At very few organisations (19%) do leaders consistently manage business processes based on the desired culture.

These individuals may also be more familiar with some of the root causes of the current toxic culture – and be in a strong position to influence change.

During this process, HR needs to demonstrate the business benefits of a positive working environment, including increased productivity and an easier time recruiting and retaining talent.

What should be done if the leadership team is not very receptive or is instead actively contributing to the problem, however?

In this case, HR leaders should consider if there is anyone else who has credibility at the organisation who would agree to a change and help you formulate and advocate solutions.

4. Transform the values

As hard as it is to bring individuals and senior leaders on board to define and communicate cultural values and goals, realising those aspirations means changing the fundamental system.

To enable a culture to perform, leaders must build it in, providing business-unit leaders with support and resources to do the same.  

Senior leaders at the vast majority of organisations (83% in our research sample) consistently communicate the importance of culture. In fewer organisations (29%), leaders consistently behave in a way that’s aligned with the culture.

At very few organisations (19%) do leaders consistently manage business processes based on the desired culture.

The above suggestions can carry both personal and career risk for HR leaders.

It is understandable that many HR leaders, when presented with a toxic culture, act with their feet and find work elsewhere.  

It’s also important, however, that as a function, we act courageously and work towards change.

While challenging, being able to turn around a toxic work environment can be incredibly rewarding and certainly worth the risk.  

Interested in this topic? Read How to navigate toxic behaviours during conflict.

About Lauren Romansky

Lauren Romansky Gartner

Lauren Romansky joined Gartner as Managing Vice President of its HR practice in 2017 and works in Boston, Massachusetts. Lauren is a collaborative and entrepreneurial team leader with experience in D&I, healthcare, education, research and content.

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30th Jul 2019 07:35

Hi Lauren
They are all good points you make however culture is formed by the top team. It is their leadership style that can be the problem. A lot of them will not change, so no matter the good efforts HR make, change will not happen.

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