Can you fix a bad work culture as an employee?

·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·5-min read
Shot of a young businesswoman looking stressed out while working in an office
Although there are steps that can be taken to improve a bad culture, Bullimore says, this can be a lengthy and difficult process, according to experts. Photo: Getty

From a glorification of overwork to gaslighting and a disregard for employee wellbeing, many workers have experienced life in a toxic workplace. In fact, seven in 10 (69.8%) claimed to have worked in this kind of environment at some point in their careers, according to a recent survey.

A toxic work environment is one wherein dysfunction and stress reign, which can have a seriously detrimental impact on employees. And in recent months, workers have been speaking up about their experiences publicly.

In June, an open letter from more than 60 ex-employees of the brewery and pub chain BrewDog went viral on Twitter. It accused the management of creating a “culture of fear” where “being treated like a human was sadly not always a given” — sparking a conversation about the treatment of employees in many industries.

Those who find themselves working in a toxic workplace are often told to cut their losses and find another job. In reality, however, this isn’t always an option. But is it possible to improve a company’s culture as an individual — or should workers really start looking for employment elsewhere?

What are the signs of a bad or toxic culture at work?

There are many subtle and overt signs of a bad culture in a workplace, says Judy Bullimore, dream job mentor and interview specialist. “From an operational level it can feel from a staff member's point of view that basic work practices are broken, such as things that should be simple, feel unnecessarily difficult, long-winded or nonsensical,” she explains.

Read more: How workplace stress can change your personality

“If bad practices such as strategies, policies, procedures aren’t working and are endorsed or are reinforced by managers and colleagues, this can often fuel camps of those that are ‘with’ and compliant with the poor practices, and those that resist.”

Other signs can include unfair treatment such as discrimination, preferential treatment, exclusion of certain staff, bullying and harassment. If any of these become commonplace and generally accepted as part of the job, then it signifies a worrying culture in need of change.

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What can you do as an employee?

Someone working in a toxic environment may be thinking of quitting, but with rent and bills to pay, this isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Although there are steps that can be taken to improve a bad culture, Bullimore says, this can be a lengthy and difficult process. There is always the risk it will backfire, too.

“It can often boil down to a difficult decision on the part of the individual employee in terms of how far they are willing to address the issues that they are seeing or experiencing, and whether they feel able to manage the potential consequences should the suggested improvements be negatively received,” she says.

In an ideal world, management should be receptive and willing to do what it takes to create an environment where staff feel valued, listened to, developed and respected.

“So if an employee were to make attempts to flag what might be going wrong, or suggest improvements, they could raise this with management,” advises Bullimore.

Read more: Why can too much positivity be toxic in the workplace?

“If they went down this route, I would advise that they stick to facts in terms of what they understand to be the right way, provide clear examples of where this might not be adhered to and offer practical suggestions for what could be put in place to improve it.”

It’s also important to have a written record of any points made too, for example, in an email. And if necessary, suss out other colleagues who may be happy to support you too.

“Another way an employee can contribute to an improved culture would be to address or ‘call out’ the bad practices head on, so that colleagues understand the employee’s boundaries,” says Bullimore. “This can sometimes have a domino effect in that others also notice other people no longer turning a ‘blind eye’ to certain practices, and they too may feel empowered to address it.”

However, there is no guarantee any suggestions for improvements will be acknowledged. In some cases, employees may find themselves being treated badly for standing up to their employers. This can make the situation worse — and lead people to look for other jobs.

Read more: How to encourage staff back to the office if they're reluctant

“The motivations for seeking another role is almost always to do with finding a more positive environment where they can feel free to be their true authentic selves, to not feel hindered by poor practices or management, and to make a positive impact in what they do best,” says Bullimore.

“My advice remains the same in terms of creating the ‘right’ environment that’s in alignment to personal values, and that is to build inner confidence and resilience to live and work with authenticity,” she adds. “While you might not be able to single-handedly change others behaviour, you always have the power to change your own reaction to others behaviour, and this in turn can ensure you remain grounded to your own moral compass.”

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