Workplace Culture

Dear Workforce How Do We Curb Toxic Employee Behaviors?

By Staff Report

Aug. 29, 2011

Dear It Stinks:

The first step is to create a clear list of the exact behaviors you have in mind. Until people know what is and what isn’t OK at work, you will continue to deal with employees’ differing standards. For some, asking for a date is cute and flirtatious. For others it’s awkward and insulting. For some, words such as “stupid” are playful but others find it demeaning and unprofessional.

I once worked in a large health care system that asked several respected physicians and administrators to create a code of conduct. The team met with people who had complained of a toxic work environment and asked them to share the details of what employees were saying and doing. From these interviews they then developed a detailed list of inappropriate behaviors.

What may seem menial and rather obvious produced spectacular results. After turning the list into a formal code of conduct, they then asked each health care professional to agree to the code and then started holding people accountable to the new standard. So, start by clarifying the new rules.

At the personal level, deal with each abusive interaction as it happens. Hold what we have come to call a crucial conversation. Start by assuming the other person isn’t fully aware of the impact of their actions. Instead of becoming upset, ask yourself: “Why would reasonable, rational and decent people do what they just did?’ You won’t be angry and won’t start the discussion on the wrong foot.

Next, describe the problem, starting with the facts: Here’s what just happened as opposed to what you want to see happen. For example: “You raised your voice and called me incompetent. I was hoping we could keep our conversations free from labels or a harsh tone.” Then stop and check for the other person’s point of view. “Is that what just happened, or did I miss something?”

If the person agrees but seems unaffected, explain the consequences of his or her actions—how it made you feel and the effects on your relationship. If the person remains unaffected, explain that you’ll have to call in an authority figure. Of course, this won’t be necessary as long as you start the discussion with a clear and unemotional description of the problem. When you keep a professional tone, the other person is likely to respond in kind and you’ll engage in a healthy discussion of the problem.

You are right to be concerned about a toxic work environment. Everybody deserves a workplace filled with civility and respect.

SOURCE: Kerry Patterson, author of Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, and co-founder of VitalSmarts, Provo, Utah

LEARN MORE: Here are some ways to spot trouble signs that might be brewing in your workplace.

Workforce Management Online, August 2011Register Now!

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

Ask a Question
Dear Workforce Newsletter

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with


Join over 52,000 of your HR peers

Don't miss out on the latest tactics and insights at the forefront of HR.