May 13, 2021

From Hostile to Hopeful: Exactly How to Fix a Toxic Work Environment

Two coworkers peering over their cubicles at each other

With one in five US workers experiencing hostility in the workplace, toxic work environments are way more common than you might think.

Hostile behaviors can range from the overuse of punishments to outright aggression or harassment (and unfortunately way more in between)—and the outcome can be devastating to your business. 

From increased absenteeism to employee lawsuits, hostile workplaces (and the people in them) suffer from extreme lows that have real-life consequences. 

To make sure your employees are safe, and your business is healthy, you need to identify and break down any hostile barriers yesterday.

But how can you pinpoint below the radar hostility before it erupts? And what do you do when you come across a potential workplace toxicity issue? 

In this guide to navigating a toxic work environment, we’ll take you through both the personal and business sides of the equation to help you become a stronger, more successful team.

Hostile work environments: Spot them, stop them, change them

The legal definition of a hostile work environment is a workplace where the discriminatory behavior of coworkers or managers creates an environment that others find so intimidating it impacts their ability to work. 

According to the US Equal Opportunity Commission, “To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”

It’s important to bear the legal side in mind, but remember that not all toxic actions are legally reprehensible. An unhappy workplace can be just as damaging, even if it doesn’t lead to a lawsuit. Think: employees with burnout, arguments between coworkers, or a rise in employee complaints. 

Any of these symptoms can cause a diagnosis of lost productivity, absenteeism, or increased employee turnover—not good for employees or your business.

If you notice any signs of a toxic work environment, there’s only one thing to do: take immediate action to rectify the problem and build out solid processes to prevent it from happening again (more on this in a minute).

Of course, this goes without saying—but we’re going to say it anyway: If you’re concerned about any potential legal risk to your company, seek relevant legal advice immediately.

The legal FAQ of toxic work environments

To be clear, we are not lawyers. The information you receive here should NOT be taken as legal advice. However, when talking about toxic work environments, it’s important to have some understanding of the extent of your risk, and the potential repercussions for your business.

As mentioned, if you have any questions about the legal issues that may arise out of a hostile work environment, the best course of action is to always contact your trusted legal expert.

Who is liable for hostility in the workplace?

Whatever the situation, the employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor or non-supervisory employees—unless they can prove they took steps to prevent and correct the behavior.

Legally, how do you identify a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment exists if:

  • There is discrimination against race, religion, age, origin, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or disability.
  • A reasonable person finds the situation hostile.
  • The problem is long-lasting. 
  • The employer has failed to act.
  • Ability to work has been affected. 

What causes a toxic work environment? 

Because each situation is different, the answer to this one is hugely varied—hostile environments can include anything from racist actions and physical assaults, to offensive jokes and interfering with work performance. Harassment, sexual harassment, victimization, discrimination, aggression, and violence all count towards toxic work environments. 

What else do you need to know?

Harassment can take many forms, but it’s good to know who can be affected and what to look out for.  

Here are a few examples:

  • Harassment can come from any source, including the victim’s supervisor, another supervisor, an employer’s agent, a co-worker, or a non-employee. 
  • Anyone can be affected and make a complaint about harassment, even if they weren’t the active victim. 
  • Unlawful harassment doesn’t have to include economic impact or result in the victim leaving the role. 

How to change a toxic work environment step-by-step

When it comes to toxic work environments, prevention is the best cure—but you need to be prepared to act quickly

Remember, the employer is ultimately responsible for employee safety, so it’s up to HR leaders to create a supportive culture and prevent the workplace from spiraling into hostility.

It’s a big responsibility, but with this arm-around-the-shoulder action plan, you have everything you need to do right by your employees from the get-go. 

Step #1: Build a positive work environment from day one

Before we dive into the details of how to deal with a toxic work environment, you need to know how to prevent it from happening at all.

Here’s how to build a positive work environment from your new hire’s first day: 

  • Make sure you hire the right person: Look out for hostile behavior in interviews, do thorough (and fair) background checks, and listen carefully to comments from your candidate’s referees.
  • Share anti-harassment policies from the first day: Your new hires need to know what’s expected of them. If you’re clear from day one, they have no excuse.
  • Inform new hires about the grievance procedure: Hopefully they’ll never have to use it, but new hires need to know they’ll be listened to if anything does go wrong. 

Step #2: Be clear about what unacceptable behavior actually means

Here at Breezy, we talk a lot about the importance of great communication—because the way we see it, great business is all about the human-first approach. 

Here’s how to avoid a toxic work environment through transparent communication: 

  • Be clear about your expectations: Your employees need to know what counts as appropriate and inappropriate behavior in your company. Share a list of behavioral guidelines during onboarding and make that list available at all times—you could even hang a copy by the water cooler for a constant reminder (or for remote or WFH employees, send a reminder around every couple of months).
  • Encourage employees to speak up: Management can’t be there to spot every interaction between coworkers. If hostile behavior takes place, the employee should tell the harasser that their conduct is unwelcome and has to stop, and then let management know ASAP to prevent the issue from escalating.
  • Show employees you intend to act: The key to building a supportive culture is to always act on complaints as soon as they happen (more on this later). If employees know you’ll back them up, they’re more likely to express concern early on—meaning you can deal with the issue before it spirals out of control.

Step #3: Provide anti-harassment training

The next step to get your message clear is to provide regular anti-harassment training, so employees can help build a positive work culture from the ground-up. 

To avoid a toxic work environment, your employees need to know how to: 

  • Identify hostile behaviors.
  • Approach the hostile party in the right manner.
  • Support victimized coworkers.
  • Ensure compliance with anti-harassment policies. 
  • Assess and monitor hostile situations.
  • Implement the grievance procedure. 

Step #4: Establish a solid grievance procedure

Say your employee has just experienced some form of harassment and they know they need to tell someone. But when they go to their supervisor, the process grinds to a halt—neither the employee or the supervisor knows what to do next, so nothing happens, and the harassing behavior continues.

Lucky for you, that situation is easily avoidable—so long as you set up a solid grievance process and make sure every employee knows how it works.

Here’s what a grievance procedure should look like: 

  • The victim takes their grievance to their immediate supervisor in a set amount of time after the issue occurred. 
  • The supervisor either responds with informal action, or escalates the concern to their head of department.  
  • The situation is investigated by the employer, and the offending party is offered an opportunity to have their say. 
  • Next, a grievance meeting takes place where the victim can explain their side of the story and is asked how they think it should be resolved. They should be allowed a companion to this meeting. 
  • Next comes the decision where the employer decides whether to accept or reject the grievance. This decision should be communicated in writing ASAP, with the right of appeal.
  • Finally, if the decision is rejected (or partially rejected) by the victim, the issue is escalated to an impartial manager (and a more senior employee if possible). The situation will be assessed again, as will the grievance procedure itself, and a hearing will take place followed by another written letter. 

For more info, check out the ACAS code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

From hostile to hopeful: Say goodbye to toxic work environments

Unfortunately, no matter how awesome your company culture is, hostile behavior can still take place—and that’s why you need to be prepared for the worst from day one.

Whether it’s an unhappy team or a full-on toxic work environment, the outcome can be catastrophic—for your employees and your business.

From getting clear on what unacceptable behavior actually means, to setting up a solid grievance procedure that everyone knows about, the steps to a supportive workplace are simple. And even if hostility does occur, as long as you focus on making sure employees are comfortable enough to speak up, the situation should be containable.

Once you’ve implemented these 4 steps, you’re on track for a respectful people-first work environment that promotes employee engagement, retention, and productivity in all the right ways.