toxic-240px-57570966Business owners can easily get so caught up in leading their organization that they lose sight of what’s going with other employees. Sometimes there is frustration and dysfunction among lower level employees, but the owner only hears upbeat reports.

Managers might be surprised to find out that some employees feel like the workplace is a hostile environment, or that management lacks communication skills. On employee review sites like, there’s always a chance that a disgruntled former employee may be trashing a company online. But if many negative reports begin to appear, it could indicate a deeper problem. At the very least it could prevent could people from applying for work at the company.

Defining Toxicity

What exactly is a toxic workplace? It’s a workplace where productivity is hindered by significant infighting, over-the-top drama and other personal battles among employees.

What causes this? Sometimes employees who are only focused on personal gain use questionable tactics that are mean-spirited, unethical, or even illegal to annoy and manipulate their coworkers. This results in a polluted workplace environment.

Often these employees become toxic due to factors way beyond their employer’s control, such as unresolved personal issues. It’s critical for business owners and managers to recognize the signs of a toxic workplace and detox it quickly. Here are some signs to look for:

Company social events are not well attended. This could point to lack of friendships among employees.

The boss-is-always-right syndrome. Employees might not voice opinions that are contrary to that of the most senior person in the room because they probably fear negative repercussions. This kind of feeling demoralizes employees and greatly restricts the organizations.

There is a large sick day count. High stress (possibly from the work environment) can cause both emotional and physical problems. Obviously physical illnesses aren’t always caused by stress so, but if this seems like a problem in the company, the owner may want to investigate further.

Employees usually seem grumpy. A business owner should observe the general demeanor of their employees, and if they don’t seem happy and energized, it could point to a problem with the work environment.

Many discussions are taken “offline.” It’s true that not every issue can be discussed openly. But when managers in staff meetings frequently decide that a topic must be addressed in private by a smaller group, this could indicate an excessive level of secrecy and distrust.

Mistakes aren’t discussed. Everyone makes mistakes, and if the company takes a hit because of a bad decision and aren’t open and honest about it, employees can feel as though they’re being treated like children.

High turnover. Sometimes high turnover happens in non-toxic work environments. But an unhealthy work environment could also be the culprit, the resulting diminished workforce is bad for business.

Fixing the Problem

There’s no quick fix for removing the toxicity from a work environment. The process begins by being brutally honest and trying to uncover why the toxic environment was allowed to develop in the first place. Consider these questions:

  • Were there policies and procedures that should have been established and enforced that would’ve nipped the toxicity in the bud?

For example, a rigorous performance review system can help prevent toxic environments from developing. A business owner should carefully examine heads of departments that seem to be suffering from problems that could be due to poor personnel management. Take a look at the manager’s reviews of his or her own direct reports to see whether there’s evidence of substandard supervision practices.

  • Have is it been a high priority to hire managers with a verifiable successful track record ?

A common pattern that leads to trouble is the promotion of good workers to management positions without assessing whether they have the relevant skills and training to be managers. Remember, the world’s best employee won’t necessarily be a good supervisor, especially if no management training is provided. That doesn’t mean that person will develop a toxic personality, but dysfunction resulting from poor leadership can have the same effect.

If a business owner is thinking about promoting an employee into a management role, they should first find out if the employee is even interested. While they might be flattered, they might also feel obligated, while knowing that it’s the wrong move for them. It could be best to let them return to their former role. Alternatively the person could be given more training and mentoring.

Don’t Leave Issues Unresolved

Sometimes company owners may need to go outside the workplace and have an employee polling survey done. These surveys are generally confidential, which could be the key to uncovering problems that need to be addressed. Finding and fixing those hidden issues could allow for a new beginning and a positive, energized workplace.

A toxic work environment is a challenging problem for sure, but it is usually solvable, as long a small business owner is willing to tackle it.