Imagine working in a team where you are regularly humiliated by your manager or colleagues. Where people are afraid to speak up, where teams are in constant conflict and where misogyny, racism and incivility seem to be accepted cultural norms. If the headlines are to be believed, this scenario is sadly the lived experience of many people in the workplace today.  The police, health service, government departments, charities,  blue-chip companies – no sector it seems, is immune from the curse of the toxic workplace culture.

How have we arrived at such a dire situation?  What is going wrong, and what can organisations do to transform these noxious environments and create happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces where everyone can thrive?

A widespread issue

A toxic workplace culture has severe consequences for the organisation and its people. When employees are spending their working days in a climate where incivility, bullying, harassment and discrimination are rife, it has a huge impact on both their physical and mental health. Absence levels rise, employee engagement dips, and productivity suffers.

The CIPD’s latest Health and Wellbeing at Work report shows we are experiencing the highest sickness absence rate for over a decade, standing at 7.8 days per employee, per year. UK studies suggest only 45 per cent of employees are engaged at work.  Meanwhile, the charity Mental Health UK has recently warned that the UK is at the risk of becoming a burnt-out nation, with an explosion of stress, anxiety and depression among the workforce.

How toxic cultures emerge

Culture can be defined as the way that we and others behave, how we make others feel and how they make us feel.  When an organisation goes into culture shock (or what is commonly described as toxic culture) this is what happens:

Toxic cultures often start with small pockets of poor behaviours, unresolved disagreements and micro-aggressions in teams, departments and divisions.  These poor behaviours begin to combine, like a noxious gas, into a toxic team climate.  The actions, interactions and reactions (AIR) that our managers and leaders breathe out becomes the AIR that others breathe in.  This defines the nature of our relationships, and shapes our experience of the workplace. It sets the tone for workplace behaviours and provides a script or licence for the way people act, interact and react.

When these toxic climates are not addressed, they begin to combine and aggregate. The noxious fumes travel down our corridors and through our offices, wards and depots, affecting every corner of the organisation.  Before too long, they tip the organisation into culture shock, quietly and stealthily destroying its very foundations.

Missing the early warning signs

Toxic cultures often become ingrained because the early warning signs have been missed or ignored by managers, leaders and HR.

Colleagues feel unable to speak up, for fear of retaliation or career-damaging consequences.  Complex people issues are ignored, or left to line managers, who lack the skills or the necessary support to sort them out.  In many organisations, managers and leaders have not been trained to spot a toxic climate or toxic culture developing, or to intervene confidently and effectively when they do.

When situations escalate, the solution is often to go knocking on HR’s door. But unfortunately, the traditional HR policies and ER processes that organisations rely on (i.e. standard disciplinary and grievance or bullying and harassment procedures) are broken, divisive and damaging.  They are retributive and adversarial in nature, forcing people into a right/wrong, attack/defend, win-lose mindset.  As a result, they drive dogma instead of creating dialogue, and they fuel enmity rather than empathy.

These policies act as incubators for toxicity, creating fear, stress and anxiety for the people involved – and rarely solving anything.  As many forward-looking organisations are now finding, however, there is a better way.

From retributive to restorative

Shifting the organisational mindset from retributive to restorative is a great place to start when addressing culture shock.  This shift will result in a more civilised, constructive and collaborative approach to delivering accountability, restoring trust and addressing the root causes of toxicity.

In practice, this means taking a person-centred approach to resolving issues early, by encouraging adult, respectful dialogue when things start to go wrong.  It means making sure managers are equipped with the courage, confidence and competence to spot conflict and poor behaviour bubbling up, so they can nip issues in the bud before situations escalate and behaviour becomes ingrained.

Many household name organisations (Burberry, Next, the BBC, Nationwide and Aviva to name just a few) are embracing these restorative approaches and introducing over-arching Resolution Frameworks.

Resolution Frameworks offer organisations a variety of proactive and empowering approaches for securing a constructive and lasting resolution to all types of workplace conflict. These might include early, informal dialogue, facilitated conversations, mediation, team facilitation and coaching.

The ability to access more formal processes, up to and including dismissal or legal action, is retained for the rare occasions where it is identified that this is the most appropriate course of action.

These frameworks put people before the process. They shift the dial towards adult-to-adult dialogue, allowing organisations to develop positive workplace cultures which have empathy, inclusion and wellbeing at their heart. They engender a culture of cooperation and collaboration, leading to happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces.

As Heather Palmer, Culture, Policy and Employee Relations at the BBC explained in a recent webinar, there is also a strong business case for adopting this more progressive, restorative approach: “We’ve used diagnostics to identify that moving to a Resolution Framework is not just about improving the people-centred experience in dealing with conflict resolution, but there’s a business and economic benefit in terms of the money and time that we’re spending in formal processes,” she says.

Addressing a toxic workplace culture

A decision to move away from traditional systems of retributive justice and towards the style of transformative justice outlined above is the foundation of an organisational toolkit for addressing a toxic culture.

Other actions organisations should consider include:

  • Gaining a deep understanding of the issues that have contributed to the toxic culture. This data should be gathered from across the workforce, from listening exercises, cultural audits and focus groups.


  • Recognising that to understand and address the root causes of a toxic culture, everyone, from management and HR, to employees, unions and employee representatives, needs to play their part. Only by taking an inclusive approach to driving cultural change can it lead to enduring and sustainable changes in the way that people receive and perceive the culture of the organisation.


  • Ensuring that your values are visible and become a core part of your culture. Your values are core to your organisation’s health and wellbeing.  It is vital that everyone in the organisation understands the core values, recognises their importance and lives them through their everyday interactions and behaviours.


  • Defining desirable and undesirable behaviours. Values mean nothing if they don’t’ drive the right behaviours.  It is important to set out clear expectations for how managers, leaders and employees should behave, and to link these directly to the core values of your organisation.


It is highly unlikely your corporate values will promote abuse, harm and aggression.  It is more likely they will advocate mutual respect, integrity, innovation and collaboration.  The required behaviours should be set out in a simple behavioural framework that includes clear indicators and contra indicators.  The contra indicators name the undesirable behaviours and the indicators provide a clear preference for the positive and desirable behaviours.

  • Creating an open, inclusive culture where people can speak up about their experiences. Whether it is through staff surveys regular meetings, focus groups or other methods, it is important to gather data on a regular basis about what problems people are facing and what the root causes might be.  This kind of proactive ‘problem seeking’ requires courage from an organisation, but will help to tackle issues early on.  Listening to your people and encouraging them to speak freely is important.  Employee voice is vital to the overall health and wellbeing of your organisation.  It is easy to listen to people when the tills are ringing and the organisation is performing well.  The true test of an organisation is whether it listens to its people when they have tough messages to share, and when the organisation and working relationships are under stress.


  • Offer ongoing coaching, training and support. From the moment that managers are appointed, living the values, demonstrating the right behaviours, listening to employees and handling conflict need to be part of their core competencies.  HR should play a coaching and mentoring role and should be available to support managers and assist them with the day-to-day management of the complex and diverse relationships and personalities that exist in the workplace.  Emotional Intelligence and compassion should be recognised as key managerial skills.


  • When toxicity does occur, respond robustly, swiftly and fairly. There will undoubtedly be conflicts that escalate or specific issues of bullying and harassment which require swift action to be taken.  The Resolution Framework, highlighted above, will offer a wide range of means for resolving the issues that need to be dealt with quickly and decisively.

Addressing a toxic culture needs to be treated like any other complex and critical project – with strategic planning, resources and clear terms of reference and objectives.  We need to shift the dial away from the rhetoric, handwringing and calls for retribution that we have seen in response to the headlines in recent times.

Instead, we must all focus on taking positive action to call out bad behaviour and to develop fair, just, inclusive and people-centred systems that will protect relationships and build trust.  Ultimately, if organisations are to recover from these damaging and costly toxic explosions, we all need to focus on creating cultures where dignity is preserved, diversity is celebrated and dialogue is given primacy.

David Liddle
David Liddle
CEO at The TCM Group

David Liddle is CEO and chief consultant at The TCM Group and author of Managing Conflict | Kogan Page 2nd Editon. He is the founding President of the People and Culture Association (PCA), author and speaker.