Toxic Workplaces: The Good, The Bad, and The Very, Very Ugly. Part 1

Recognizing the Importance of Company Culture

It’s no secret that building a thriving company goes hand-in-hand with creating a positive workplace culture. What steps do you need to take as a leader to achieve that? It’s not like any HR professional, CEO, or Founder can wave a magic wand and create a positive workplace culture without effort (if only it were that easy!)

Building a business that prides itself on company culture takes effort and many more mistakes. I am grateful to say that ReEmployAbility now has a thriving workplace culture. It truly is the best it’s ever been, and I’m so thankful for the growth that we’ve made in this regard. However, it wasn’t always like this; ReEmployAbility has had its fair share of growing pains, just like any company, and we have learned hard lessons to get where we are today.

When Employees Create a Toxic Workplace

An integral part of overcoming a toxic workplace is surrounding yourself with leaders with strong professional business ethics. In the past, ReEmployAbility dealt with long-term employees creating inappropriate personal friendships with subordinates, creating a “clique” environment within the office. Some of the ways this came out were certain employees receiving “preferential treatment” due to a personal friendship and bullying and ostracization of those not in the “in-group.” Members of mid-management would spend time after work with only certain employees, muddling a professional relationship and allowing that to dictate their managerial decisions. Not only was this wholly unprofessional, but it also permeated throughout the rest of the organization, sowing distrust.

For a certain group of managers, a clear “us vs. them” mentality seeded conflict across the organization. Employees didn’t know who to trust or where to go to resolve issues. Needless to say, this dynamic was incredibly toxic to the organization and left many questioning my leadership. The truth is that I fully saw the extent of the damage only after we dealt with the situation since employees did not feel supported in speaking openly.

At first, I attempted to coach through this misaligned management style. Still, due to a consistent lack of accountability from these employees, I ultimately needed to make the tough choice to let go of employees who were deliberately failing to follow through with directives and company initiatives, especially in terms of professional ethics. It was not something that I had confronted to that extent before.

Toxicity often finds its breeding ground in workplace cliques and negative atmospheres. Cliques can form silently, creating divisions and hindering collaboration. Fueled by gossip and exclusion, negative atmospheres cast a long shadow over employee morale. I’ve witnessed firsthand the ripple effects of these issues, affecting not only individual well-being but also a company’s overall productivity and success.

Rumors! Oh, My!

COVID only exacerbated these issues since it was such a tumultuous time for businesses. Rumors started circulating across the company with the uncertainty of what would occur with the pandemic. Multiple rumors destabilized the workforce and created uncertainty for people regarding the company’s future and their jobs.  It was certainly not the atmosphere that I wanted to inspire during such a fraught time.

I never expected a situation like that to happen, and once the dust settled, I could see the events more clearly. Afterward, multiple employees spoke to me directly about how they were afraid to speak out about the issue due to retaliation. Even more troubling was that these specific employees would use my name as a threat and twist my initiatives so employees would have a warped view of the policies I was trying to create for our company. At the bottom of it, employees were not getting the truth from mid-management.

These employees used my name to manipulate employees by lying that “Deb wouldn’t like it” if they asked questions about company processes or why decisions had been made. I resolved to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again in my business. As a leader who prides myself on my integrity (one of ReEmployAbility’s core values for a reason), I was deeply disturbed to see how this dynamic affected ReEmployAbility’s Company Culture. I was personally challenged by how quickly I saw these issues threatening to destabilize the company I had worked so hard to build.

One of the most direct ways to deal with a toxic workplace is by dealing with toxic employees. Employees with harmful behaviors usually are not aligned with the company’s standards. These behaviors can start from something as seemingly innocuous as management forming close relationships with employees but can quickly progress to actively excluding, bullying, and spreading gossip about those in the “out” group. I never wanted anyone at ReEmployAbility to feel such negativity at their workplace and was appalled to hear just how my employees were treated.

When Toxicity Topples An Empire

In researching this article, I came across the curious story of the Lisa Frank company. In the 90s, Lisa Frank was synonymous with bright, psychedelic girly stationary that every elementary-age girl aspired to acquire. It seemed like Lisa Frank’s folders, pencils, and notebooks would take over the world, as they were on every store shelf come back-to-school time. Surprisingly, almost as soon as the Lisa Frank craze reached its height, the company crumbled- and even 20+ years later, it has yet to achieve its previous success.

Only later did the public learn that the entire company fell due to severe retaliation issues, a hostile work environment, discriminatory practices, and an unsafe environment (Jezebel). Creating and maintaining a positive workplace is paramount when building a growing company, as we’ve seen time and time again what happens with toxic companies. Toxicity within a company can lead to irreparable damage, tarnishing a company’s reputation and undoing years of hard work.

All it takes is one person to change the entire team dynamic, which bleeds into the whole company. It’s crucial to know how your team members contribute to the company culture and immediately address any rumors or negativity. A communication breakdown can quickly lead to distrust in your employees and create rumors beyond your control. Openness in communication is not only important, it is crucial.

A toxic workplace isn’t just an unfortunate state of affairs; it’s a ticking time bomb with far-reaching consequences. Morale takes a nosedive, dragging down productivity and stifling innovation. As a leader, witnessing the toll this can take on a company’s growth and success is disheartening. The toxic undercurrents can erode the very foundation of what you’ve worked tirelessly to build.

Facilitating Communication for a Positive Company Culture

A direct way to stay ahead of any negativity in a workplace is to facilitate clear and direct communication between all company levels. Upper Management should share as much as they can to create an environment of openness. Likewise, all levels of the organization should feel psychologically safe enough to discuss any issues or problems with any company member.  By keeping communication open, any concerns can be easily discussed and addressed, making all members of the workplace feel supported and heard.

One way to facilitate this open communication is to allow employees to participate in weekly surveys and follow up with them during company meetings. At ReEmployAbility, we have an open-door policy for all members of senior leadership, including our HR department. Without free and open communication, it is easy for minor problems to escalate to even more significant issues. Before you know it, you’ll have to deal with a much more substantial concern than what was originally the issue.

Without clear communication of values, initiatives, policies, and goals, it is incredibly easy for companies to be sidelined by employees who may behave with unethical behavior. The disinfectant for toxicity is open communication.

A Learning Experience

One of the lessons I learned through this experience was to pay attention to how long-term employees react to changes and growth. Resistance can fester across your mid-management if they feel entitled to dictate the company’s future even without your direction. Because there was so much confusion and entitlement, many employees felt uncomfortable growing with ReEmployAbility and had reached, at the time, their professional threshold with the company. One of the things that we needed to implement as a company was to create secure checks and balances across the company so that all employees were heard and that any problems could quickly be managed.

To tackle the issue, we must understand the nuances contributing to a toxic workplace. It’s not merely about identifying the symptoms but recognizing the root causes and addressing them head-on. From interpersonal conflicts to leadership blind spots, each element requires careful consideration and strategic intervention.

Now that you know how toxic ReEmployAbility was several years ago, I’ll let you know what we did to fix the situation to become the thriving company workplace it is now. As of 2023, ReEmployAbility was named one of the top Workplaces in Insurance by Business Insurance, A Top Place to Work by Tampa Bay Times, and won a 2023 reward for one of the Healthiest Employers in Central Florida.

Navigating the shadows of toxic workplaces is a challenge every leader must confront. The next installment will explore the essential skills needed to transform a hostile workplace into a thriving, supportive environment. Stay tuned as we explore practical steps and leadership strategies to rescue a company from toxicity.

Have you encountered challenges in your workplace culture? Share your insights in the comments below. Let’s foster a community where leaders learn from each other and strive to create environments where success and positivity can flourish.

#ToxicWorkplace #Leadership #CompanyCulture #BusinessSuccess #WorkplaceWellbeing


Jezebel. (2013, August 28). Inside the Rainbow Gulag: The Technicolor Rise and Fall. Jezebel.