Toxic Work Culture and How to Address It

You Can Deal With the Characteristics of a Toxic Work Culture

Difficult co-workers can create significant job stress.
Difficult co-workers can create significant job stress. Eric Herchaft/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Toxic work culture is a huge problem in business, and one that many choose to ignore because they feel that addressing the issue would make no difference. 

What makes a workplace toxic? Researchers Amna Anjum, Xu Ming, Ahmed Faisal Siddiqi, and Samma Faiz Rasool identified four specific characteristics: ostracism, incivility, harassment, and bullying. 

Elements That Define and Cause Toxic Work Culture

The human resources department should work to tackle toxic behavior—even if other people don't think that this does any good. Here's why you should fight against all four of these negative elements and how to do it.


Workplace ostracism is the perception that you're being left out or ignored by your peers. This doesn't have to be a literal case of your coworkers excluding you—it could simply be your perception that they are. For example, the other team members go out for drinks on Thursday nights and don't invite you. Is it because they are ostracizing you, or is it because you said you like to go straight home after work, so they believe they are kind in not inviting you?

However, in a case like this, even real, targeted ostracism is hard to identify. After all, if you say "my coworkers are ostracizing me," they can respond, "oh, we certainly didn't mean to. We thought Jane had no interest in X."

In recent years, more than 70% of people have reported experiencing ostracism. It's not a small problem.

The human resources team can tackle ostracism in several different ways. You can help people get to know each other through events like icebreakers and team-building activities. Additionally, asking managers to keep an eye out for cliques that develop within a department can help you to tackle ostracism before it starts.


While ostracism is often accidental, incivility is a deliberate attack on people. Researchers Christine Porath and Christine Pearson found that incivility breeds negativity, in some cases retaliation, along with damage to customer relationships, and even a decrease in a worker’s creativity and effort.

Incivility is destructive for businesses. Human resources team members can step in to help the company change its culture from incivility to civility. Porath and Pearson recommend that the first step is for managers to manage themselves. You can't scream at other people to get them to stop screaming. HR needs to model this behavior to managers and employees.

HR should provide feedback to managers—and managers should learn to ask for it themselves. Letting people know how their behavior impacts others can help bring civility back to the workplace, too. Importantly, you should also "hire for civility." If you look out specifically for candidates who behave correctly, politely, and respectfully, you can change the culture—just make sure these new people don't adopt any toxic behavior.


You may think of harassment as only relating to sexual harassment, but it can take on many forms. Harassment is illegal if it violates the principles in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or some other legally protected employee classification. That is, if you harass someone because of their race, sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy status, you break the law. 

Besides demoralizing the victim, this type of behavior puts the company at legal risk. People filed over 26,000 harassment claims with the EEOC in 2019. 

The human resources department needs to protect the company by putting a halt to harassment. By creating policies, training staff, and investigating all allegations, HR can reduce actual harassment and lower the risks to the company.


The other three toxic behaviors described above can all occur as a part of bullying. Anjum et. al. say bullying includes "criticism, blaming, social isolation, humiliation, joking, and excessive monitoring of an employee,” adding that it is not only limited to bosses, but peers, subordinates, and colleagues. 

How to Fix a Toxic Work Environment

You can lessen bullying and toxic behavior in general through the following actions.

Let the bully know the behavior is unwelcome.

Speak up about exactly what behavior you regard as bullying. If you don’t say anything to the bully, their actions could continue.

Report the misconduct to human resources.

If you have a human resources department, start by reporting the bullying there. Otherwise, your manager or your manager's boss is a good starting place to report the toxic environment.

Document the behavior.

Provide the names of witnesses, the dates of the toxic behavior, and descriptions of exactly what the bully did. This documentation can help create a case for HR to take on.

Consult your employer’s policies.

If the bullying is based on any protected characteristics, it is against company policy. If not, many companies have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying.

Find an ally.

You don't have to take on the bullying behavior alone. The employee relations manager or a company ombudsman is an excellent place to start to get help.

Seek medical attention.

Bullying can damage your mental and physical health, so see a doctor to determine if any treatment is needed or available. If yourorganization has an Employee Assistance Program as a benefit, you can also consider asking for their help.

The Bottom Line

Toxic workplaces can cause problems and make employees' lives miserable. Make sure to beware of the different elements that comprise it and take the appropriate measures to temper toxicity in your workplace.