How To Transform Your Workplace Culture From Toxic to Terrific

By | 2017-01-13T13:41:53+00:00 February 4th, 2015|Categories: Our Favorite Posts, Respectful Workplace|Tags: , |5 Comments

Editor’s note: this post originally published February 17, 2011.

No one sets out to create a toxic environment. Yet when a workplace culture evolves on its own with little attention given to relationships and employees aren’t held accountable for rudeness or disrespect, the mood at any organization can turn poisonous. The results: loss of productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and high turnover. Don’t miss the signs. Is your workplace in danger?

Take this quiz and see.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

  1. “Sure, we tell some off colour-jokes, but everyone laughs, so I know there’s no problem. We need to have some fun at work” (agree/disagree).
  2. “The best way to improve people’s performance is to point out mistakes” (agree/disagree).
  3. “I know we don’t have much conflict because I never hear about it” (agree/disagree).
  4. “I keep conversations with staff members short and to the point. I tell them what they need to know and make sure they do what they’re supposed to” (agree/disagree).
  5. “Every workplace has gossip. Everyone loves to gossip, and it can spice up the workplace. Besides, you really can’t stop it” (agree/disagree).
  6. “Everyone has bad days sometimes. When I have one, I shouldn’t have to pretend otherwise” (agree/disagree).
  7. “People whine and complain. Some people are just negative, it’s best just to tune it out” (agree/disagree).
  8. “Around here, profits (or results) are most important. It doesn’t matter so much how you get them” (agree/disagree).

If you agreed with three or fewer of these statements, toxicity probably hasn’t become a problem at your organization, but you can still make some improvements. If you agreed with four or more, conditions are ripe for your workplace to become toxic.

Getting it Right

  1. Use appropriate humor.

    The fact that everyone’s laughing doesn’t necessarily mean people find a joke funny. Out of pressure to fit in, most of us sometimes laugh at disrespectful talk. Jokes or remarks with racist or sexist overtones can expose businesses to costly and damaging human-rights complaints. People work best when they’re comfortable. Create fun that’s respectful to everyone. Make sure people feel empowered and safe to speak up when they witness offensive behaviour.

  2. Recognize achievement.

    All too often, we point out people’s mistakes but forget to pat them on the back for doing well. If they only hear about what they’re doing wrong, pretty soon they’ll stop wanting to do anything. Public criticism, sarcasm and joking about mistakes will improve neither your employees’ performance nor your relationship with them. Such powerbased “feedback” is associated with bullying and will turn your environment toxic. Instead, talk to employees about their performance consistently and respectfully so that they’ll want to improve and don’t feel diminished or inadequate.

  3. Solve conflicts proactively.

    The vast majority of employees keep quiet about problems. Why? They worry that things will get worse if they speak up, they don’t know to whom to talk, or they don’t think they can change anything. Moreover, harassment and bullying produce fear-based workplaces where putting up and shutting up become the norm. Don’t wait for your employees to approach you. Ask questions about how things are going at work. Early intervention is the best way to resolve conflicts.

  4. Foster partnerships.

    One of the greatest causes of toxicity is the stress workers undergo when they lack control over their work. Bosses who use power for control harm employees, teams and the bottom line. Respectful leaders empower teams with information and dialogue, rather than stifling communication. Treat your employees as partners rather than as subordinates. Make inquiries, listen to the answers and use that information to develop your relationships with employees.

  5. Stop gossip.

    Any malicious, insulting, maligning or unsubstantiated rumour about a co-worker or the organization is a form of workplace gossip. And gossip alone can create a toxic workplace. Indeed, it’s a type of workplace bullying. The best way to counter it is to talk about it. Speak to employees about the harm and destruction it causes the workplace. Introduce practical strategies for dealing with it. For example, tell an employee that what he or she is doing is gossiping and that you don’t want to participate. Refuse to pass the rumours on, and walk away.

  6. Manage anger.

    Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” A leader who yells, screams, throws things or announces, “I’m in a bad mood, and everyone just better stay out of my way” sends employees the message that rudeness and intimidation are okay. We’re all obligated to apply emotional discipline and manage our emotions at work. If you’re susceptible, anger-management strategies such as breathing or positive self-talk can help. When you’re angry, focus on something positive to keep your mood from infecting your workplace.

  7. Cut out the whining.

    Negativity spreads like wildfire, creating unrest, conflict and apathy. Co-workers will start missing work just to get away from it. Make sure employees understand that whining and complaining benefit no one. The best approach, both for you and for them, is to take action, speak up and do something about workplace problems and concerns. If you have employees who are consistently negative, sit down with them individually, give examples of their behaviour and let them know how it affects you and others. If there’s a work related reason for the behaviour, try to resolve that underlying issue.

  8. Value everyone.

    Every organization has to be concerned with the bottom line, but if you teach employees to get results at any cost, no matter whom they need to step on or discredit, you’ll create a culture in which cut-throat competition and mistrust predominate. Ensure that every employee feels valued and motivated to do the best possible job. Sit down with your team, set realistic goals and support employees to help them succeed. Hold everyone accountable for contributing. Then celebrate success together.

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About the Author:

Erica Pinsky

Erica Pinsky, B.A., M.Sc, CHRP, is an engaging and inspirational speaker, author and consultant working with organizations to build respectful and inclusive workplace cultures that attract and retain quality employees. Erica’s book, Road to Respect, Path to Profit gives companies a road map to success in today’s challenging business climate. For more information, visit


  1. Chris Young February 20, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Great post Erica! It can be incredibly difficult, but turning around a toxic culture is possible. I’ve found question 7 to be key to this turnaround. If you can adjust people’s attitudes towards the workplace, incredible change can happen.

    I’ve included your post in my Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week (found here: to share your tips for cultural turnaround with my readers.

    Be well!

  2. erica pinsky February 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks so much for your comment and reposting the article Chris. I agree that attitude is key, and my experience is that creating an environment where people feel respected and valued provides the foundation from which to foster the kind of attitude the promotes success. Too often the culture determines that attitude and even those that tend to be positive become infected by negativity, particularly when it starts at the top. GReat to have found you and your site, a great resource, warm regards, Erica

  3. RL September 8, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for this post… it would make a great opening tool for a management team or training!

    • Erica Pinsky February 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm

      Hey RL, I think this will set a new world record for slowest responses. I must apologize. I rarely if ever remember to see if anyone comments on these posts.

      It may be 2 years later, however I would be pleased for you to use this in any way that will support your team/organzation. warm regards, Erica

  4. Clayton January 3, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Dear Erica,
    When I read your quiz at the beginning of your post I was sadly not very surprised at how much of it reflects the culture of my current workplace. I have done workshops in dealing with gossip in the workplace in other jobs and found them useful. I have been in my current position for 9 years, and on numerous occasions I have suggested to members of the management team that they try some kind of workshop like this. Recently, we have had very large numbers of senior staff leave because they are frustrated with the toxic environment. While the new staff are welcome due to lack of experience they don’t understand their role in creating a culture of respect.

    Since I am relatively junior it is very difficult for me to persuade management to try something like this.

    Any suggestions on how I can breach the subject with them?


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