Tackling toxic work environments

Thrings lawyers toxic workplace environments

Culture is often a buzzword used by companies to talk about how enjoyable it is to work there and how everyone gets on, but as shown by the recent reports of toxic work environments behind beloved daytime shows such as ITV’s This Morning, it’s not always quite as it seems.

It is important for businesses to not only address any allegations of toxicity in their culture should they arise but to take proactive steps to prevent such a culture from developing in the first place as any such claims can not only have severe reputational implications but can impact in even more tangible ways. Here’s what you need to know:

What is a toxic work environment and what does it mean for employers?

Whilst the description of a ‘toxic’ work environment doesn’t come with a strict definition, it will generally refer to a place of work that experiences significant personal conflicts between those working there. This can include infighting, bullying and intimidation, harassment (including of a sexual nature) and discrimination and exclusion.

Whilst such working conditions can sometimes be due to specific individuals, the term often carries a significant level of blame towards the employer, with the implication that they have allowed such behaviours to exist.

Such claims can see a company or product having its reputation tarnished, which has the ability to cause real damage to the business. It can also result in them subjected to expensive legal action such as employment tribunal claims and can have detrimental impacts internally to staff morale and even to staff retention if the culture forces people to leave.

Steps to prevent your workplace from becoming toxic

As well as work to create an inclusive and accepting work environment, employers should seek to protect themselves and their staff by having up-to-date comprehensive policies that lay out their expectations for all staff in regard to bullying, harassment and discrimination – as well as the ramifications of not meeting these expectations.

Such policies, as well as the organisation’s disciplinary procedure, should be easily accessible to all staff, with managers all trained on the policies. However, simply having policies is not enough. They must then be put into action through training, day-to-day management and through formal appraisals. Staff should be made to feel comfortable that, should they need to raise something, whether formally or informally, they know open lines of communication exist for them to be able to speak to someone without fear of reprisal and that their employer will take their issues seriously.

What to do if accusations are made

Should claims of the workplace being toxic, or any staff being subjected to unfair or unsolicited negative behaviour, employers need to act with suitable pace and properly investigate the merit of the claims in a fair and consistent manner.

Companies should follow their grievance and/or disciplinary policies and keep evidence of this in order to protect the business in the event either party is unhappy with the outcome. It is a balancing act to ensure that the wellbeing of the accuser with the rights of the accused are protected (they are both employees to whom the employer owes duties).

Above all else, employers should not attempt to avoid dealing with the matter as this could not only be perceived as allowing toxic behaviour to continue but could in turn deepen the cultural problem thereby making it harder to eliminate in the future. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees, contractors and job applicants and must ensure that their well-being is maintained wherever possible.

Laura Knight, solicitor in the Thrings Employment team, said: “Preventing workplaces from developing a toxic culture can be a simple process for employers if they are diligent, and are prepared to listen and invest time in their people. Investing time and resource into nurturing an open positive and respectful work culture not only demonstrates to staff that they are valued but also sets expectations against unwarranted problematic behaviour.

“Some employers may feel out of their depth or fear taking action in certain cases, for example where there are allegations of sexual harassment. However, the best course of action is to deal with any allegations efficiently, appropriately, thoroughly and discreetly. Where there is cause for concern, employers should seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity.”

What to do if it goes public

It isn’t always high-profile cases of toxic work environments that can hit the headlines and any claims of a toxic work culture (whether justified or not) may well draw media attention, even in smaller businesses with allegations able to spread on social media.

Whilst an employer may be dealing appropriately with the allegations internally through its disciplinary processes or, if it has reached that far, through an employment tribunal or a court, dealing with the media and social media attention can be very challenging, as one is then in the realm of the “court of public opinion” and an employer will have no or little control over it.

It should not be overlooked that an employer will owe duties of confidentiality, trust and confidence to its employees (including those concerned) which will limit what it is able to say publicly. It will also need to avoid saying anything that may prejudice the outcome of any internal disciplinary process or formal tribunal/court process.

Reputational management in that context is not easy, which is why you often see employers responding by asserting their values and principles whilst declining to say anything specific about the particular complaint or individuals involved. Engaging an experienced PR adviser who can assist you in navigating through it may be a sensible approach.

At the same time, an employer will need to consider what steps it should take to carefully manage and reassure its wider workforce (those not involved in the complaint) as well as its key customers, suppliers and (if relevant) regulator, all of whom may have concerns about the allegations.

Each case will be different with no “one size fits all” approach.

Alastair Govier, Partner in the Dispute Resolution team, added: “Warren Buffet once reportedly said that while it can take 20 years to build a reputation, it can only take five minutes to ruin it. Clearly, with the potential reputational fallout of a toxic work culture and increasing employee awareness and assertiveness, prevention is far better than the cure. But if you do find yourself in a media storm, you need to exercise great care in how you deal with it, taking appropriate professional advice (legal and potentially also PR), so as not to make your situation worse.”

Thrings’ Employment lawyers are experienced in dealing with business matters that affect the workforce, including workplace bullying, and has acted for both employers and employees from start-ups and SMEs all the way to multinational corporations across a wide range of employment matters. To find out how they can help strengthen your polices, and solve your disputes, please get in contact.

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