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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

How Security Managers Can Curb Toxicity and Promote a Positive Workplace Culture

As a security professional, you are a key person on your organization’s team—but have you considered your role in determining your workplace’s culture? Within the scope of securing your workplace, you also have a part to play in curbing any workplace toxicity that may exist and helping to promote a positive culture instead.

Toxic workplaces pose many challenges and can be a security risk. Disgruntled employees might be driven to harm a company by stealing or by compromising network systems or information. They also impact turnover, innovation, and productivity—which can affect your bottom line. Even worse, angry, or disenfranchised employees may even commit acts of violence. 

When managers take responsibility to change the conditions that permeate a toxic culture, they are addressing security and safety in the broadest way possible. They can make a difference in their company’s success, but more importantly, they can have the fulfilment of working for an organization that values people and their well-being.

How to Spot Workplace Toxicity?

The evidence is hard to miss. It manifests in a culture of cliques and gossip, chaos, and conflict. You may witness gameplaying, manipulation, blame, bullying, or harassment. Communication is broken, and direction is unclear as employees struggle to put out fires and accomplish tasks that aren’t properly planned for or supported. Employees may suffer from poor work–life balance because their workloads are unreasonable.

Factors contributing to toxicity include:

  • Poor leadership, including a lack of attention to the drives and needs of the team, an absence of self-awareness, and micromanagement.

  • Unaddressed pockets of toxicity, which exist when we excuse the poor behavior of someone who is otherwise performing well in their role. Think of that productive salesperson or brilliant engineer who doesn’t work well with others.

  • Discriminatory practices and harassment, including unintentional discrimination or bias or not addressing issues of harassment when detected.

  • Poor communication, such as failing to adequately prepare employees when initiating a high impact change—the resulting fear and anxiety could have been avoided with a change management process.

  • Unrealistic expectations and excessive workload. It may be very exciting to be part of a new initiative, but if people are expected to work long hours and have more on their plates than they can possibly handle, you may be on your way to creating a toxic workplace.

  • A lack of strong, well-defined, and clearly articulated core values is one of the most frequent factors underpinning workplace toxicity. Your core values are what makes your culture yours. They provide a common purpose that all employees should understand, work towards, and live by. They are the behaviors that will lead your company to success and should be alive in your workplace, not merely words on your website. If employees can’t describe their organization’s core values, employers run the risk of lacking a strong foundation to support the company’s processes, procedures, and interactions.

Toxicity Affects Employees

A toxic workplace can affect employees both mentally and physically.

In 2019, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) commissioned a study on workplace culture toxicity: The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture: How Culture Impacts the Workforce—and the Bottom Line.  Here are a few points from the study:

  • One in four people said they dread going into work.
  • Half of American workers have thought about leaving their current organization.
  • One in five have left their jobs due to the organization’s culture.
  • Six out of 10 left their jobs because of their manager.

Most people are familiar with the disruptive nature of absenteeism, but what’s even worse is the idea of presenteeism. These are the people who actually go to work, but they add little value and can contribute to a toxic atmosphere.

The video “Who’s Sinking Your Boat” explores this concept. A typical company is represented by a boat filled with 10 people. Three are rowing vigorously, five are merely viewing the scenery, and two are actually attempting to sink the boat. A well-functioning organization has everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction, at the same time, with the same level of effort.

Toxicity Affects Business

A toxic culture can have a real impact on a company’s bottom line. Employees under stress may experience a high rate of health problems, escalating the cost of health insurance. Costs related to turnover caused by a toxic culture amounted to $223 billion in the five-year period examined by SHRM. The cost of replacing an employee can be 50 percent of the worker’s salary. Unhappy employees often demonstrate lower productivity, diminished work quality, and poor customer relationships. In all ways, toxicity is just bad for business.

Turning Toxicity Into Positivity

It is doubtful that anyone intentionally sets out to create a toxic workplace. But company leaders may be too busy to observe what’s going on or they don’t realize how their behaviors—such as allowing their strong performers to treat others poorly—contribute to a toxic environment.  Here are some actions you can take to turn things around:

Address discrimination and harassment claims. If someone is upset about their work environment, get to the bottom of it. If it is found to be just a disagreement, determine how you can get the individuals involved to work better together. If it is a true harassment or discrimination case, then it must be acted upon.

Assure company communication is crystal clear. Communicate as much as you can without divulging confidential information. Be transparent so that people aren’t left to fill in the blanks on their own.

Set realistic standards. Avoid setting the productivity bar so high that you’re sacrificing people’s mental and physical health. Watch for burnout. Say “thank you.”

Have a strong set of core values. Any company can go through the exercise of asking, “What do we value as an organization? What are the acceptable norms of behavior? What behaviors are going to help us win business and drive profitability?” Business leaders then must communicate those values and hold people accountable.

If you’re in an organization that contains some level of toxicity and you are taking steps to eliminate it, there are plenty of tools and resources to help you on the road to a healthy workplace. Measure success through metrics including employee turnover, the number of discrimination cases, the number of mental-health leave requests, absenteeism rates, new-hire fail rates, changes in healthcare costs, pay equity, and customer satisfaction.

Workplace culture won’t change overnight, but it’s worth the effort to improve conditions for your employees and your organization. These simple steps don’t require much financial investment, but they can help to foster a healthy work environment. Good luck!

Elaine Palome is the director of human resources, Americas, for Axis Communications.