The Cost of the Toxic Workplace - And What To Do About It

I was having an interesting conversation the other day about toxic cultures, and the conclusion was that most toxic workplaces are toxic and they just don’t care. In other words, that’s how it is and they’re not looking to change.

But I went away thinking – what if you didn’t even know? What if you thought you were a great employer but your employees were leaving because of you? What if there were things you’re doing that you thought were essential but were, in essence, driving people out.

It was the case of the mouse jigglers that made me think that perhaps more workplaces are toxic without knowing it than those that do.

Signs of toxicity

For those unaware, the mouse jiggler is a piece of kit that you can use to simulate the movement of your mouse or tracker pad. Why would anyone do this, you might be wondering.

They’d be doing it if they thought their employer might be monitoring their mouse movements.

Because, of course, an idle mouse is an idle employee.

I once had a colleague who was clever enough to programme a one-pixel-wide red frame around his screen as he knew that would block his employer from seeing what was on the rest of the screen. Aside from the fact that this is genius, what must he have thought about our employer that led him to create such a programme?

That same employer also manipulated the working hours directive so that employee lunchtimes were one hour and eighteen minutes long, and enforced a series of measures to ensure that nobody took a minute longer. The result was an average tenure of just under one year and a constant chatter at the lunch table of how to ‘swipe’ each other in without the bosses noticing.

Signs of toxicity can seem harmless at first. A joke. Oh, you’re using a mouse jiggler, how quaint. Oh, you’re swiping your colleagues in after lunch? Jolly japes.

And yet they’re a result of a total lack of trust from the top that results in a total lack of trust going upwards, and ultimately…

Results of toxicity

… people leave. Or worse, they do what LinkedIn likes to call ‘quiet quitting’ where they stay on your payroll, doing the bare minimum and buying mouse jigglers from Amazon so that when they do less than the bare minimum, you’re led to believe they’re working.

Indeed, those that have left are doing toxic employers a favour. Those that remain are the ones on the payroll achieving relatively little when, with a little more enlightened approach, they could be trusted and therefore, they could be productive.

And toxicity spreads. In the business I mentioned above, there was a sub-culture of long-term employees who almost had Stockholm Syndrome, sniping at meetings, bitching on the walk to the train station about how awful management is, how the pay is never quite good enough for what you’re expected to do and how so-and-so is definitely leaving. For new employees entering the business, the toxicity goes back home and they’re left wondering – what have I entered? The number of people who leave businesses like this before their probation ends is ridiculously high.

Toxicity damages the business from within, and in these more sharing times, it damages from without as well. Glassdoor reviews can be the most compelling reason for a candidate turning down a job role, and indeed can provide a compelling reason to accept one. The negativity spreads online. One famous employer has a series of negative reviews that include advice to management to stop micro-managing and shouting at people, while sarcastically praising the business for having a toaster and ‘ample parking’.

The result is that those reviews are shared beyond Glassdoor and the company gains a reputation as an awful employer. Toxicity spreads further than you can know.

Micro-signs of toxicity

That toxicity can manifest itself in so many ways, not just in people bitching behind the boss’ back, but you can see it in how the business operates.

A “my way or the highway” approach can result in creativity being stifled, and the output reduced as a result. The low morale that results from this can be seen in a confused, dysfunctional workplace where KPIs are uncertain or vague, and few people even care about them anyway. Management often absents itself from the day-to-day, preferring to stay in a corner office and then makes commands by email, resulting in disaffection as orders are proclaimed from above.

Toxic workplaces don’t always start off toxic, but rot from the inside as vague leadership and uncertainty foster the feeling that employees don’t matter.

Am I a toxic employer?

If you’re seriously asking yourself this question, then perhaps you are not. You’ve developed a level of self-awareness that implies you care.

However, the micro-signs of toxicity may be staring you in the face, and it’s always worth some reflection. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long are people staying on average? If you have a high turnover, don’t blame your industry, do some exit interviews and ask people why they’re leaving. It could be as simple as salary or progression, but it could be something more insidious.
  • Are you monitoring your employees? If you are, they know. If you’re reading their instant messaging or their e-mails, they know. It’s not normal to do this.
  • Have you ever said “this is the way it’s always been done?”
  • Are you holding regular 1 to 1 meetings and are your people genuinely interested in them? If not, they may have lost interest in working for you.
  • Do you believe that people should be grateful to you for employing them? If so, you probably need to step back.
  • Have any of your employees been signed off for stress or burnout? This may be your fault.

A toxic workplace hits employers in the pocket more than it hits employees. People can move along to the next workplace, but the employer is left there counting the cost. The average cost of replacing an employee is around £35,000 according to research – from the lack of productivity in a notice period to the cost of recruitment and the cost of on-boarding – it’s a significant sum. It’s far better to use a tenth of that budget in establishing retention programmes that would have far greater impact on productivity.

But toxic workplaces can be identified, and they can be resolved. With the identification and removal of managers who are causing this culture, businesses can often take a significant first step to a better environment, but it has to be from within and it has to be inclusive. It has to be acknowledged, and clear, precise steps have to be communicated to everyone about how the business is going to tackle toxicity. 

And with that, there would be the resulting upturn in profitability and prosperity for the business.

At IPI Academy, we run a range of courses for employers in Employment Law, including our course on how to avoid unconscious bias in the workplace. To find out more about these courses, visit our Employment Law page here.



Published on Sep 21, 2022 by Gareth Cartman