In today’s #MeToo era, ensuring a safe, harassment-free workplace for all employees is one of the top challenges facing HR professionals. Bad behavior left unchecked increases the risk of harassment and discrimination lawsuits and creates a toxic workplace culture that hurts morale and productivity, recruiting and retention and the physical and emotional health of employees.
Some recent data underscores the health risks of a toxic workplace:
– A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that exposure to “everyday discrimination” may contribute to elevated blood pressure and a greater risk for cardiovascular disease over time in US women.
– An article in the American Psychological Association reports on decades of research showing the health effects of sexual harassment on its targets, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress.
– A 2017 national survey on workplace bullying by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 40% of respondents believe that targets of bullying suffer adverse health effects.
And in an interview in Human Resource Executive, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and author of Dying for a Paycheck, said, “To the extent that we can, we have to make workplaces less discriminatory, less harassing, less bullying, less dangerous—physically and psychologically — and people will have less stress and better health outcomes. Any move to curtail sexual harassment will be helpful for people’s health.”
What is a toxic workplace?
There isn’t an official definition, however, there are many red flags that indicate a toxic workplace culture. Among the warning signs are bullying, gossiping, cliques, verbal and physical threats and incivility, such as offensive comments and rude interruptions. Other signals of an unhealthy work environment are managers who talk down to and belittle individuals and employees who don’t speak up for fear of retaliation.
While workplace incivility and illegal harassment are not the same, there is a connection. Chai Feldblum, commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said, “We know that workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment.”
However, to qualify as unlawful harassment, unwelcome conduct must be based on a protected category under Title VII, such as race, sex, age, national origin or disability. It can also be unlawful harassment if the conduct violates state or city anti-harassment laws. As for bullying, while there are currently no federal laws against it, 30 states have introduced anti-bullying laws, according to the Healthy Workplace Campaign. Regardless of whether it’s called harassment or bullying, abusive behavior perpetuates an unhealthy work environment that affects the whole organization.
Creating a respectful workplace
Among the first steps organizations can take to change a toxic culture into a respectful one is to raise awareness of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and set expectations for ethical conduct. Policies, procedures and training are effective ways to communicate the standards of behavior the organization expects of employees and managers. However, organizational culture starts at the top and the tone set by the CEO and senior management is critical to engaging employees at all levels. Leaders must demonstrate in their words and actions the organization’s values and commitment to a respectful workplace and culture of inclusion.
Training can help drive positive cultural change by first covering the essentials −preventing discrimination and harassment − and then expanding to other related topics, such as diversity and inclusion, bystander intervention, unconscious bias and avoiding retaliation. Effective training should focus on behavior, provide realistic examples, and prepare employees to make the right decisions when confronting unacceptable behavior. A strong training program is a critical part of a holistic approach to improving workplace culture and preventing all forms of misconduct.
One of many outcomes of a toxic workplace culture is the toll it takes on employee health. It affects more than the mental and physical health of it targets –everyone in the organization suffers. With the commitment and active support of the CEO, HR professionals can help transform an unhealthy culture with a prescription that includes clearly written policies that are enforced, a complaint process offering employees options for reporting incidents of misconduct, interactive training that engages a modern workforce and regular communication that promotes respect, civility and collaboration.