Toxic Workplaces, the Harm they do, and how Organizations can Avoid Becoming One

What are Toxic Workplaces and what Characterizes Them?

Workplace culture is very important for organizations to bring the best out of their employees. Workplace culture is also important for employee engagement and employee productivity.

Indeed, without an enabling workplace culture, employees would be demoralized and demotivated to work and this results in organizational atrophy and decline. Thus, it is important for all organizations to strive to make their workplace culture a positive one.

In this context, it is worth noting that Toxic Workplace cultures or those organizations where the overall atmosphere is negative must be avoided at any cost.

Toxic Workplaces are those where managers and employees are bitter towards each other as well as the senior leadership being vindictive and narrow minded.

In addition, toxicity in the workplace can be built up by a culture of backstabbing, backbiting, and settling scores where the employees are more interested in settling scores rather than work towards organizational benefit.

Toxic workplaces are characterized by extreme instances of harassment and discrimination and where cover-ups and scams and scandals are the order of the day.

Indeed, in recent years, there has been much interest among organizational behavioural experts about how to avoid toxicity building up in the workplace and how business leaders and HR professionals can ensure a healthy organizational culture.

Do Organizations become Toxic by Design or by Accident?

So, are organizations prone to becoming toxic over time or there are some aspects that make them so? The answer to this question lies in the way organizations evolve over time and how organizational entropy leads to organizational atrophy.

For instance, it is not common for even the well established and long running firms to become toxic as when the senior leadership starts to devote more time to power centres and the politics and the agendas behind them rather than pay attention to employee wellbeing.

In addition, workplaces turn toxic due to organizational inertia and organizational atrophy stemming from lack of focus on what makes such organizations tick.

Indeed, more often than not, workplaces become toxic due to financial losses and the resultant demoralization of the workplace that leads to finger pointing and blame games.

Apart from this, toxicity in the workplace is also a result of factional squabbling with each power centre playing the employees against the others and hence, the result being that organizations lose sight of their purpose and the means to actualize organizational objectives.

Is Workplace Toxicity Inevitable in the Current Business Climate?

Having said that, it is definitely not the case that the organizational atrophy and organizational toxicity are inherent and inevitable. Indeed, more often than not, it is easier to remain healthy than fall sick and in the same manner in which toxins build up in the human body due to lack of discipline and self control, organizations also become toxic when the leaders in charge of steering the ship fall asleep at the wheel.

At the same time, there can be also be instances of lone wolf individuals contributing to organizational toxicity and this is where a vigilant HR or Human Resource Function plays an important role in preventing the slide towards toxicity.

For instance, if the HR and the Senior Leadership is On the Same Page, it is pretty easy for them to recognize and prevent symptoms of toxicity from becoming a disease.

In addition, if the senior leadership is united and there are charismatic leaders in charge, they can ensure that their diktats and the orders are obeyed and there is harmony within the organization. On the other hand, once toxicity sets in, it becomes difficult to stem the rot and hence, our argument is that prevention is better than cure.

Some Real World Examples

In recent months, there have been several instances of how even the market leaders and pioneers such as Google becoming toxic workplaces.

For instance, there was a widely reported news item about how some employees were taking their biases and prejudices to the extreme by penning letters and exchanging mails in the Bulletin Board about both gender bias and gender favouritism.

Moreover, there were several scandals in Silicon Valley firms as well as in ride sharing firms such as Uber where the cleanup after the scandal broke about widespread toxicity was very difficult.

As mentioned earlier, the uber competitive (literally as well as figuratively) business landscape makes it very difficult for organizations to be harmonious.

As the external competition heats up, there is pressure on the internal structure and the employees to perform and exceed expectations with the result that humane values are often forgotten and it becomes a Dog Eat Dog culture.

This is the reason why some experts believe that there are no easy solutions to prevent workplace toxicity in the present times and hence, the best option would be to manage the situation rather than preaching and sermonizing about how to be healthy and fair.


Lastly, as we have argued so far, organizational toxicity is neither inevitable nor a by product of our times.

On the other hand, there cannot be a fully ideal workplace like the Garden of Heaven. Thus, to find a balance between the Utopia of Heaven and the Anarchy of Hell is the choice before organizations and we believe that being competitive need to make the workplace toxic and at the same time, harmonious workplaces are more myth than reality.

To conclude, the middle of the road approach that we advocate can be actualized and it is the responsibility of the stakeholders in any organization to ensure this outcome.

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