June 17, 2019

Have Toxic Workplaces Become the Norm?

Toxic behavior in the workplace seems more common than ever before. Last year, the Oxford English Dictionary famously elected “toxic” as its Word of the Year, calling out the ways that toxic behavior has infiltrated the world of business. In the last few months, numerous studies and surveys are confirming this phenomenon as well. In a recent survey of tech workers by the anonymous workplace app Blind, more than 50% of respondents said they were working in a noxious work environment. In another survey conducted by the RAND Corporation, Harvard Medical School and UCLA, nearly 20% of employees across industries said the same thing. Given that anywhere from 20-50% of employees believe they’re working in a toxic environment, is it fair to say that toxic workplaces have become the norm?

It’s certainly tempting to think so. If you subscribe to our newsletter, where we do a regular news roundup on how companies around the world are working to protect culture, you’ll find that almost every month there is yet another company in the headlines for a scandal related to toxic behavior. We’re not the only ones reporting on these phenomena either. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is now an official medical diagnosis, and that’s leading more and more people to resign themselves to toxicity as a natural state of the workplace. But in our tendency to resign ourselves, perhaps confiding in a trusted colleague or trying to leave for greener pastures, we forget that you can actually take steps to identify combat toxicity in your workplace—and the numbers prove it.

When you look past the figures on how much toxicity people are feeling and explore what the numbers have to say about who responds to HR-based interventions, you’ll see that with the problem may be far easier to deal with than you originally thought, and there are two reasons why. First, it turns out that even though many people believe they’re in a toxic work environment (and, according to our industry benchmark data, are spot on in their assessment), the individuals who might require training and intervention to change usually comprise about 10-15% of your organization. Second, the numbers show that the vast majority of employees who do exhibit toxic behaviors—up to 95% of them—can be addressed with proper identification and action.

The number of people who need specific intervention is smaller than you might think

Part of why toxic behavior seems so overwhelming is because once it occurs, it spreads like wildfire. But if you back up and look at how many people might be susceptible to engaging in toxic behaviors in the first place, the number is fairly small. In the world of sexual harassment training, for example, an estimated 85% of people don’t need any form of training to stop sexually harassing other employees. According to anti-harassment training expert Ken White, 10% of employees usually might harass a colleague but will respond to training, and only about 5% of individuals are unable to respond to training or intervention. That means that the segment of the workforce you need to address is actually quite small, making the issue far more solvable than you may have imagined.

65% to 95% of employees who exhibit toxic behaviors can be addressed without termination

Per the example above, nearly two-thirds (66%) of employees who might harass another colleague are coachable. But look more broadly at toxic behavior and the response rates to intervention are even higher. According to Jody J. Foster, an assistant dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, 75% to 80% of people can change offending behaviors when they are addressed in a kind and concise manner. 10% of people would need coaching and intervention to change their behavior, and it’s only 5-10% of people who exhibit toxic behavior simply won’t respond. That means that while toxic behavior is statistically likely to occur, anywhere from 90% to 95% of the few employees who exhibit toxic behaviors can be trained and coached towards healthy workplace behaviors.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we hear that 20-50% of people are working in a toxic environment. But once you realize that only about 15% of employees require specific training and intervention, and that 65% to 95% of those employees can be course-corrected without termination, it becomes far easier to focus your energy and create an antidote to a toxic environment by taking action.

Toxic workplaces are the new norm. But fortunately, you don’t need to let toxic employees ruin the culture you’ve worked hard to build. Instead, through proper identification and action, you can contain a small fire before it spreads and help your company root out toxic behavior in its tracks.

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