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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism

A Toxic Workplace Can Be Fixed

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it

Woman with glasses working
Photo courtesy of Anna Shvets

A toxic workplace drains you. You dread going. You’re exhausted from thinking about it. You’re on edge when you’re there. 

You might not be able to do a thing about it except to leave and find somewhere that respects you. 

But if you are in a decision-making position at the company, you can help fix a toxic workplace. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but it is necessary and extremely valuable. 

Fixing a toxic workplace: A marathon, not a sprint

To explore if it was even possible to fix a toxic workplace, we called on the experts⁠—coaches and workplace advisors who’ve witnessed all kinds of company transitions. 

First, the great news: it’s possible! The unsurprising, not-necessarily-bad news: it’s hard. 

“I believe that it’s possible for toxic work environments to be fixed, but it requires time, intentional, meaningful actions, and a deep level of leadership commitment,” says Saira Gangji, a licensed workplace investigator. She investigates allegations and complaints of discrimination, harassment, violence, misconduct, and toxic work environments. 

Toxic work environments aren’t created overnight. They are created through sustained and unrelenting disrespectful patterns of behavior. If they aren’t created overnight, they can’t be fixed overnight, either.” 

Executive leadership coach Chelsea Jay agrees that it’s doable, but difficult work. 

“It is never too late to turn things around in a toxic work environment,” Jay says. “The key ingredients when trying to change a toxic environment are accountability, follow through, and consistency. Without these, making long term and permanent fixes will be a challenge.”

Gangji has seen workplaces successfully “detoxify” through major overhauls. 

“It required major shifts in leadership and mindset. It involved investing a lot of money in experts to help guide them through the transition. It involved re-examining the organization’s values and what they stood for. It involved re-thinking who and how they hire. It involved turning over a lot of talent at all levels. It involved significant changes to policies, processes, and priorities. It involved a lot of unlearning, learning, and relearning.” 

And the change has to be supported from the top. So, what if you’re a manager, but not a CEO at a toxic workplace. What do you do when you see the problems but need help to resolve them? 

Read more: What Not To Do When You Don’t Like Your Coworkers

Calling out a toxic workplace

It’s scary, for sure, if you find yourself approaching your boss or senior management about a problem with your workplace culture. It’s not going to be a move that everyone is able to make, or one that everyone wants to get involved with. For many managers, though, it comes with the job description. 

“Once professionals step into management roles, it is their responsibility to positively contribute to the environment by providing their employees with safe and healthy work cultures,” Jay says. “I highly recommend bringing their concerns to senior management along with a suggested plan or strategies for improving the current culture.” 

Gangji agrees that there’s a responsibility to speak up and to be open and honest with your team. 

“The most significant duty that a manager has is to create a healthy, and safe work environment for their employees,” Gangji says. “In many jurisdictions, this is a legal obligation and at the very least, you have a moral obligation. The advice that I would give to a manager who is noticing toxic signs would be to take immediate action.

Speak with your employees, offer support, and try to get them to share more details about what’s going on. Take your concerns to the CEO, more senior management, or HR and ask for help.” 

Of course, you might be anxious⁠—very anxious⁠—to start this conversation, especially if you feel you’re alone. Jay says to focus on the actions to take when presenting the issue to senior leaders. 

“For managers who may be nervous, I recommend framing your concerns in a way that showcases the potential long-term harm and effects if the situation is ignored (i.e. high turnover, bad reputation, lack of productivity, etc.).”

Now that you’ve started the “we have a toxic workplace” conversation, here are the actual steps to take to improve. 

Read more: Signs of a Toxic Boss and What To Do About Them

Steps to fixing a toxic workplace

The first step to fixing a toxic workplace is acknowledging that it’s toxic, Jay says. 

“The follow-up to this is usually the hardest, but it involves taking ownership of why and how this has happened,” Jay says. “When everyone can admit that they were a part of the problem, they will begin to feel personal responsibility for turning things around.”

The next step is to recruit help in identifying why your workplace is toxic. It helps to call on the pros. 

“This can include bringing in an organizational consultant who specializes in revamping toxic environments. An outside consultant (with no previous ties) can give management a new perspective and a long list of tried and true (and the most current) best practices to fixing the environment,” Jay says. 

Gangji says you can suggest bringing in a workplace expert when you have the initial conversation about the toxic signs you’re seeing. “Suggest that the organization hire a neutral, independent third party to conduct a workplace culture assessment to determine what factors are contributing to the situation, to identify possible root causes of any workplace issues, as well as their effects, and to help carve out a path forward.” 

Next up is laying out the specific changes that need to be made, including goals and timelines and who will be accountable for making sure the company stays on the right path. This is where the company’s management can prove they are serious about ending the toxic work environment for good. 

“During this shift, it is important that the leadership team leads with open communication, transparency, humility, and flexibility,” Jay says. “Leadership will need to ‘walk the talk’ and be a shining example to employees of the behavior they want to see in the workplace moving forward.” 

Read more: Scientifically Proven Ways to Unwind After Work

Building trust while fixing a toxic workplace

If you’ve managed to help address your toxic work environment with senior leaders and you’re in the process of rebuilding, amazing! Good for you. But you might find it could be too little, too late for some of your employees.

Not everyone is going to stick around to see if the changes take. And it might be best for them to go. But if you have team members who stay, you’ll have to show them these changes are real. 

Jay says to loop in your team as much as you can on what’s being done. 

“Transparency and communication are key,” Jay says. “Managers need to let employees know what their goals are regarding the environment along with the steps they are taking to make improvements. In order to gain the buy-in from staff, it is essential that they feel included and ‘in the know’ when it comes to decision making and initiatives being implemented.”

Gangji outlined three key steps to take as a manager who’s helping to fix a toxic workplace: 

1. “Check in with employees. Ask them how they are, how they’re feeling, and how they’re coping. Ask them how you can support them. Treat and value employees with respect, care, and kindness.

2. “Next, be someone that they can trust. Be honest and transparent. Listen. Trust and empower your employees to make good decisions. Make good on commitments—consistently do what you say you’re going to do when you said you’d do it. Solicit feedback and make changes. Show appreciation and say thank you. Create a safe and inclusive environment where people can bring their whole selves to work.

3. “Act. If you see something that seems off or smells rotten in the state of Denmark, intervene. Inquire. Do something—even if it’s messy, clunky, or imperfect—because doing nothing makes you part of the problem.”

Read more: The 50 Best Companies to Work For As Rated By the Women Who Work There

About our sources

Chelsea Jay is an executive leadership coach, career coach, and organizational development consultant who “dishes out uncomfortable truths to build better leaders.” She works with companies to create exciting, engaging, and safe workplaces. She holds workshops and coaches emerging leaders on self-advocacy, promotion preparation, and the pillars of bold and impactful leadership. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and at Chelsea Jay Consulting.

Saira Gangji (she/her), is an independent licensed workplace investigator. She investigates allegations and complaints of discrimination, harassment, violence, misconduct, and toxic work environments. Saira has a Master of Industrial Relations and Human Resources Management from the University of Toronto, 20+ years of HR experience, and 100+ workplace investigations under her belt. She believes in conducting investigations the right way - fairly, thoughtfully, thoroughly, and compassionately. Empathy is her superpower, relationships are her jam, and sneakers are her shoe of choice. Saira recently launched The Workplace Investigation Bootcamp™, a step-by-step, self-paced, online course for HR professionals who are ready to conduct workplace investigations with confidence, ease, and integrity.

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