Career,  Life

7 steps to heal a Toxic Workplace

Toxic Workplaces are all the rage and so are Toxic Leaders. Just open any publication, website or newspaper (yes those still exist) and you are sure to come across some story of harassment, stamping on equality of rights, people being bullied in the workplace or discriminated against. This is great – as the more exposure the Toxic Workplace and Toxic Leaders get, the more Corporate Boards will be pushing for reviews and digging deeper into workplace practices to ensure their houses are in order. The more inflammatory scandals that break, the more panicked CEOs will be putting task forces in place to do reviews to understand where they sit in relation to the rest of the market.

However just identifying Toxic Workplaces and practices isn’t enough. The hard part is starting to change it.


Culture change is a hard process and requires critical technical skills to get it right. And most Human Resource departments are not well equipped to take on the task. They’re probably drowning in headcount reporting, dealing with salary increases and appraisal reviews. Sound familiar?

Corporate leadership need to tackle the change head on if they want to come out the other side alive, as they know it.

Yet knowing it is just the tip of the iceberg.

The difference being knowing something and knowing what to do about it are two very different things.


Like anything that isn’t working the first way to tackle it is to start talking about what the future looks like. Leaders need to first start depicting the future in a positive way if they want to earn back the trust of disillusioned employees.

I worked in toxic workplaces and I’ve worked for toxic bosses. They are different beasts and can be mutually exclusive, however one usually comes with the other.

Want to know how to deal with that toxic boss if yours? Click here.

Want to know how to start fixing that Toxic Workplace of yours? Read on


The 6 steps to healing your Toxic Workplace

1. Paint the Picture of the Future


How do you make someone change? Transformations can be broad and they can be narrow. They can also focus on one person or many. However, the one thing they all have in common is The Story.

When you wake up in the morning, you know what you need to do. You need to get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, have breakfast and get out the door to head to work. It is usually a combination of those things and you may need to throw in some children duties or some spouse duties as well.

In any case, the actual things aren’t important.

At work, people search for pretty much the same thing. They turn on their computers, put on their uniforms, start their cars, or whatever for the simple reason to do their jobs.

And every job has a reason for it being there in the first place.

What is important, is that you know what you are doing and why you are doing it.


In Toxic Workplaces the WHY often gets lost very quickly and is replaced by the Toxic practices.

The first port of call to healing the Toxic Workplace is getting really clear about what it is you are trying to do as a company. Why you all get out of bed in the morning (why you all did, maybe) and why you all should still get out of bed in the morning.

You’re changing the world, making it a better place, providing the best quality diapers for families or making paper sustainable.

Whatever it is, it needs to be captivating and it needs to make your employees want to stay and want to believe that things are going to get better.

And as you elaborate on the WHY you need to start telling The Story about what working in the company will be like in the future as you all embark on the journey to make it a reality.

However, as you paint the picture of the future, make sure you acknowledge today.

2. Make sure everyone knows what’s going on and that it isn’t right


You already did the assessment to confirm the Workplace is Toxic, so don’t hide from it. Share it and talk about it. Get down deep into what isn’t working and get people talking about it.

Getting Toxic practices out into the open shines a light on them and helps people identify them. You’ll be surprised how many people use discriminatory language without realizing it is discriminatory. We pick up cues from our environment and we repeat them. It helps us fit in.


It takes an exceptionally strong individual to not fall into line when it comes to corporate culture and the same can be said for the weaker toxic practices.


Encourage Ethics. Talk about what right looks like. Do workshops. Print posters. Talk and talk some more about ethical behavior, not being discriminatory, inclusive workplaces. Get help from people who do this for a living.

It sometimes helps if outsiders can come in and share how things can be fixed.

And remember that the assessment needs to keep happening, even after things get better and you need to keep on sharing it and reacting to it.


3. Break the silos.


Silos are prone to isolated behavior typologies.  Silos breed off their leader and their style. Silos take that leadership (or lack thereof) and cram it down the silo, augmenting it.

Break the silos and leadership becomes a group. The teams get broader and bigger and people can share outside their silo. Solutions come when people share, talk together and surface issues.

Breaking the silos is important if you want to make progress. Move people around. Create rotational job moves. Shake up the divisional cultures.


4. Create a shared sense of the organization’s legacy


Do you know what you stand for? Do you know what your organization stands for?

No, then create it. Tell your employees what you stand for. What you’ll accept, what your lines in the sand are and what the organization’s lines in the sand are.


Define what you will accept as tolerable and intolerable.


Define what you want the organization’s legacy to be and ensure people know it and share it.

When you embody are organization with a sense of what it is and verbalize that it is easier for people to say, “well XYZ corporation doesn’t stand for that and so we won’t cross that line”.

Legacy also helps bolster sense of purpose and the more ethical the legacy the more the sense of purpose will feel right.

5. Make sure you have Empathy


Take your key stewards of the culture and leadership you want and move them around to critical areas of your business. Help them help you instill what it is your organization stands for and make sure they take Empathy with them.


What is empathy you may ask?

“the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”


Without Empathy, you can’t stop an environment becoming Toxic. Make sure all your leaders have this critical skill.

6. Acknowledge that the road to recovery will take time and be bumpy


Don’t promise everything will be great in a month and then it will be back to business.

Be authentic and tell everyone you know it is not going to be an easy road and things might regress at times.

But be firm that the road you are on is the road on which you’ll stay until the Story your told and the future you painted become today’s reality.

People intrinsically know that every journey takes time and they’ll never believe the snake oil salesman for long.

7. Do everything you can to foster Trust


Trust is broken in a second and can take a lifetime to regain.


Trust is such a precious substance and organizations can move mountains when there is enough of it, yet we so often squander it.

Don’t squander it. Take care of it like a precious plant you are trying to grow. And once it grows, make sure it continues to live and blossom.


Trust is your number one ally.


Make sure you build it, keep it and use it.

Do everything you can to foster trust throughout your organization.



Toxic workplaces can appear in an instant. It can just take one bad hire to kick off a series of events and interactions for a toxic environment to take root.

As a leader your job is to make sure it never takes root.


But if it does, make sure you follow the above steps to get rid of it once and for all.



One Comment

  • Caroline at Costa Rica FIRE

    It’s also worth considering what to do in a toxic workplace when you’re not the leader — if you’re a junior person or a freelancer coming in from the outside. It depends on the circumstance, but I have seen people successfully make change by leading by example or by enrolling multiple people to lobby for change. Or sometimes the best course of action is to learn how to not let the situation affect you negatively — setting boundaries to leave work at work, taking frequent breaks, finding privacy spaces if it’s an open environment.

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