Toxic work culture

David Price – CEO of Health Assured

September 03 2018

Sometimes, employees are put into situations which are rife with negativity and pessimism.

When a workplace hosts toxic cultures, you risk affecting staff members, customers, and companies as a whole.

Every employer has a legal responsibility to host a friendly and comfortable work environment. Employees should feel safe and secure during their workdays–free from negative behaviour.

Failing to deal with bad cultures can lead to a breakdown in employee relations and brand reputation.

In this guide, we’ll look at what a toxic work culture is, how they occur, and ways to eliminate them within a business.

What is a toxic work culture?

A toxic work culture is formed when people present negative behaviour or a toxic environment in the workplace.

This type of behaviour can come from management or the workers themselves. And it can root from bad company policies, ethics, and practices.

When a company allows a negative work environment to fester, everyone suffers. Interaction breaks down, followed by motivation and effort. In the end, lost productivity and income can result in companies suffering overall.

A toxic work culture with two employees.

What causes toxic workplace cultures?

It’s hard to pinpoint what specifically causes a toxic work environment. However, it derives from human interaction and perception.

These traditions and behaviours can root from how managers treat subordinates; or how workers are allowed to behave.

Any variation of bad work ethics can create a lack of trust, broken communication, and power struggles.

That’s why it’s important to promote healthy and happy workplaces and not just one that’s non-toxic.

A woman suffering from a  toxic work culture.

What are common warning signs of toxic behaviour in the workplace?

Business leaders create a company’s culture based on their practices and traditions. That’s why there are so many examples of negative behaviours found in workplaces.

Some of the most common warning signs of a toxic culture include:


  • Broken communication.
  • Regular miscommunication.
  • Argumentative attitudes.


  • Unreasonable targets and objectives.
  • Feeling unvalued and unappreciated.
  • Insufficient leadership.
  • Evidence of office gossip or ‘cliquey’
  • High employee turnover and low retention.

Mental health

  • Signs of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Bullying or harassment.
  • Lack of motivation and low morale.
  • Causing employees to feel burnout through overtime.

Unhappy employees may have experienced any number of these–and at any level. But ultimately, they all lead to negative impacts on workplace morale and retaining talent.

A woman dealing with a toxic work culture.

How to deal with a toxic workplace culture

As an employer, it might seem daunting having to deal with the entire company culture or practice.

However, it’s your legal duty to build a workspace where workers feel safe and comfortable to thrive. That way, employees can experience positive relations, which solidifies employee retention and productivity.

Here are different ways to eliminate negative workplace cultures:

  • Pinpoint the bad and prepare for change.
  • Speak to your employees about their concerns.
  • Present awards and consequences for behaviour.
  • Set a good example through management.

Pinpoint the bad and prepare for change

Often, workplace toxicity is hard to identify and even more difficult to fully uproot.

That’s why it’s crucial for employees to prepare for change. All employees must be aware of what type of behaviour or actions will be considered unacceptable in your workplace culture.

Ensure sufficient change and tackle any uncomfortable challenges as soon as possible.

Bear in mind, some employees might be reluctant in taking risks; and others might be uncooperative. Whatever their reasons may be, present these changes as beneficial for their own sakes and the company’s.

Speak to your employees about their concerns

Most of the time, a toxic work culture or behaviour derives from neglected places. Employees may be suffering alone, or managers may need help on dealing with problems beyond their understanding.

So, have open discussions and speak to employees about any concerns they have. By asking directly, you can identify problems head-on and eliminate them in due course.

Some employees will prefer in-person, direct interaction. Others may prefer sharing their views confidentially. So, offer both methods and take on as many concerns as you reasonably can (before they get worse).

Present awards and consequences for behaviour

One of the most effective ways to manage a bad office culture is through presenting rewards and consequences.

If an employee has gone beyond their remit of presentable behaviour, or they’ve recently performed well, offer incentives, rewards, or even bonuses. By recognising good behaviour, colleagues will similarly strive for the same goals.

And on the other side, hold zero tolerance for bad behaviour. Make sure all employees are aware of the consequences of negative or hostile attitudes. Deal with this type of behaviour immediately and follow through with the right disciplinary action.

Set a good example through management

The standards and ethics of company culture are based on its managerial representatives. 

By taking a proactive approach to eliminating negative work behaviour, they can set a good example for the rest of the company. Highlight your pledges or regulations through your company’s policies.

Another approach to take is offering emotional intelligence and empathy training. Offer the training to anyone in a leadership position. Managers will be able to spot a warning sign during work and deal with them in the best manner.

A woman looking at results on a whiteboard.

What are the UK laws on toxicity in the workplace?

In the UK, there is no specific laws on dealing with toxicity in the workplace. However, there are relevant legislations which relate to these matters.

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to create a healthy and safe work environment. This should be applied throughout an employee’s entire career. From their initial onboarding stages, right through to their last days of employment.

Can toxic behaviours be discriminatory?

Under the Equality Act 2010, every employee is protected from discrimination, harassment, and victimisation. You cannot discriminate against anyone based on nine protected characteristics:

An employee could raise a grievance if they believed they have been discriminated against

Discrimination claims are often resolved in tribunal courts, and both parties may need to attend further employment tribunal hearings.

If a judicial court finds the employer guilty, they could be asked to pay compensation, along with legal fees from both parties. It’s an expensive and damaging process–and in the end, the whole company suffers from such mistakes.

A wooden hammer on a mallet.

Get expert advice on dealing with a toxic culture at work

All leaders hold a duty to build a company that’s free from toxic environments. Remember, if you neglect these sorts of behaviours, the consequences could affect staff wellbeing, as well as your brand reputation.

Peninsula offers expert advice on dealing with a toxic work culture. Our clients get 24/7 HR advice that’s available 365 days a year; with multi-lingual support and fully trained counsellors ready to help.

Want to find out more? Book a free chat with one of our HR consultants. For further information, call 0800 028 2420.

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