In a March 2019 Fast Company article, “How to rebuild trust in a toxic workplace,” Gwen Moran interviewed various business professionals to discover how to make a toxic workplace run effectively again. If you think having a toxic workplace could never happen to you, reconsider. Your business is just as immune to becoming a toxic environment than any other. There are several business owners that say they never thought it could happen to them. Toxicity is insidious – and if you are not fully aware of the communication (or lack thereof) at your company, or the pathology that exists therein, you are at risk. What if you are a company that has discovered they have been operating a toxic work environment? How do you start to rebuild, and most importantly, regain your employees’ trust? It is a long road.
The following six steps, found in numerous industrial psychology studies and used by therapists when consulted in rebuilding fractured businesses, can help you rebuild the trust of your employees. It will not be easy—in fact, it may be one of the hardest things you do as a business owner. But your employees have faced much harder difficulties by being an employee at your company. Success in repairing your workplace environment is definitely not guaranteed. Keep in mind that some companies are past the point of repair.
Thoroughly Remove the Toxic Elements
First, there must be a swift removal of the toxic element or elements that created divisiveness in the workplace. If you’re fortunate, you have one employee or supervisor that made life miserable for everyone. However, if you are like most businesses, there was a culture of toxicity. In root cause analysis, the root cause is usually a systemic problem. This creates a conundrum—who do you remove when a majority of your board knew the workplace was unhealthy but did nothing about it? Do you remove everyone? The CEO? This takes a lot of soul-searching and consultation with in-house counsel. If you are having difficulty identifying the toxic elements of your workplace, consider consulting with an organizational psychologist. An organizational psychologist can conduct a thorough assessment of your workplace, and make recommendations to bring your workplace back to functioning order. In addition, it also shows you took an active role in trying to rectify wrongs.
Find Out Where You Went Wrong
Toxic workplaces include ostracizing, uncivil behavior, harassment, and bullying (Anjum, et al. 2018). Did you ignore the signs of a toxic workplace for too long? Were some of your upper management waiting for someone else to say something? Did management feel powerless to take action? Or was it simply easier to look away? If you had no idea that your workplace was toxic until a crisis, that in itself is an issue. Are you not “on the ground” in your company? Do you not only welcome feedback from employees and management, but also take action on that feedback? Identify your role in the toxicity getting to this point. Again, this is an area where an organizational psychologist can help you discover leaderships’ role or lack thereof in the toxicity.
Admit the Problem to Your Employees
Part of the healing process is admitting to employees that you did not intervene when it was necessary. Also name the toxicity in the workplace. Did you allow harassment to continue, even after being notified of it? Did you not have a set policy for handling workplace bullying? Admit your fault and name it, for it is the first step towards earning your employees’ trust back. Ask your employees what you can do to make things right – then follow through on their answers. Have a mediator or other neutral facilitator for a discussion between you, your management, and your employees. One road to healing is restorative justice – involving everyone in the process of determining how this toxic behavior will not happen again (Moran, 2019).
Get Continual Employee Feedback
Part of healing a toxic workplace is being open to receiving employee feedback—and then doing something with that feedback. This feedback should be a continual loop. A toxic workplace blooms in silence. If you weren’t even aware there were issues until they reached a crisis point, consider that you may have sent out the message, either directly or indirectly, that employee feedback was not welcome or needed When you open communication with employees, you will hear things that may irritate, confound, or even astonish you. This is a good thing—it means your employees are feeling they can trust you again. Take their feedback seriously, and let them know what changes will result from that feedback. In addition to employee feedback, seek feedback from mentors and peers to help you stay on track in your leadership role (Weberg & Fuller, 2019).
Have Consistent Trainings
Specific trainings plus detailed and implemented anti-bullying practices help reduce the chances of bullying in your workplace (McCabe, et al., 2018). When employees feel that these anti-bullying programs are being followed, employee moral starts to improve. It sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? Create a plan, continue education, and it leads to building trust again. And by continuing education through trainings, this means that management completes trainings. It should be made transparent to employees that management will be attending the same trainings as employees regarding preventing a toxic work environment, plus management will attend additional trainings. Include trainings on how to identify narcissists, gaslighters, and other toxic personalities in the workplace, so you can avoid hiring them in the future and can identify them quickly if they are on board (Fahy, 2017)
Create New Guidelines
It’s not enough to promise employees that this type of behavior will not be tolerated again—you need to put it in writing. Revise your bylaws, guidelines, and employee manual—any documentation that defines what constitutes an unsafe working environment, and list specific steps for rectifying any toxic behavior in the workplace. If you didn’t have guidelines for the prevention of toxic behavior before, it is time to create them. Consult with a company that has a healthy work environment and set anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies similar to theirs. Consult with an organizational psychologist and an attorney. They can help you devise a set of policies and checks and balances for preventing toxic behavior in the future. Most importantly, take into account your employees’ feedback when creating these policies. Treat these new policies as a living document—one that can be revised continually based on employee feedback.