Steve Treagus

A toxic workplace is deadly for diversity and inclusion. Even when there is diversity in form, a diverse workforce that occupies only the lowest rung of the organization’s hierarchy in an otherwise homogenous work environment is identified as a risk factor for discrimination and harassment by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But even if workers are not subjected to illegal harassment, some work environments are the opposite of inclusive. The good news is that by fostering a supportive corporate culture, your organization can not only detoxify a toxic workplace, but also build a diverse and inclusive organization. 

Two Main Types of Toxic Work Environments

By “toxic,” I mean a workplace that would fall under either one or both of the following:

  1. A traditional “hostile work environment” in which employees face discrimination due to their membership in a protected class
  2. A work environment in which employees face bullying, intimidation, or abuse — even when the abusive conduct does not rise to the level of illegal harassment.

This is what workplace bullying prevention expert Professor David C. Yamada calls a “status-blind hostile work environment.”

The first kind of toxic work environment obviously impacts diversity and inclusion. Even when you have a diverse workforce, it may not stay that way if workers feel they are targeted for their protected characteristics. This is not only illegal, but counterproductive from a business standpoint.

The second kind of toxic work environment may have a less obvious impact on diversity, since discrimination is not directly implicated. But more nuanced forms of abusive conduct may still mask illegal discrimination. Bullies tend to target workers with less power, who in turn tend to be historically underrepresented workers in the workforce — e.g., women and minorities.

Even when illegal discrimination is not implicated, toxicity in the workplace is often based on rigid expectations that all workers must act and think the same, which kills diversity of thought and innovation. A climate of fear is the opposite of an environment of inclusion that welcomes dialogue and differences in point of view — often stemming from variations in life experience and culture.

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Toxic Employees Thrive in Toxic Environments

A workplace does not get toxic by itself. It’s created by “toxic” employees and a workplace culture that supports them. A workplace bully, according to a 2015 Harvard Business School (HBS) study, is “toxic” because the worker is not a problem just to the individuals they target, but to the entire workplace. And toxicity spreads.

But it’s not just employees that create a toxic environment that can erode inclusion efforts. Senior leadership plays a large role in setting tone at the top so that work culture doesn’t foster toxicity. Sometimes the worst bully is a manager, leader, or even the CEO. In the latter case, the board of directors may need to implement restraints up to and including termination.

On the other hand, numerous studies show that “establishing workplace cultures that cultivate respect and trust will elevate the standards of behavior expected, and consequently place a higher value on the health and well-being of all workers.”

Diversity and Inclusion Thrives in Supportive Workplaces

It turns out that many of the leadership and organizational culture qualities that discourage bullying also encourage inclusion. Inclusion is more than just a head-count affirming that a company is “diverse” — inclusion is creating a supportive environment that tells employees that they are valued. It’s the opposite of a toxic work environment.

According to research by the Center for Talent Innovation and summarized in the Harvard Business Review, there are “four levers” that drive inclusion:

  1. Inclusive leaders who welcome team members to express opinions and innovative ideas while still providing actionable feedback and team-oriented results
  2. Authenticity in demeanor and style (for example, no workplace advantage should accrue to workers who “act like a man,” regardless of gender, or “compromise” their ethnic identity)
  3. Networking and visibility, including sponsorship of talented employees (especially women and minorities) by senior leaders who advocate key assignments and promotions for the junior employees (the authors warn that “lack of sponsorship increases someone’s likelihood of quitting within a year”)
  4. Clear career paths that are available to everyone, so that qualified workers aren’t blocked in their tracks for inexplicable reasons, leading to suspicions of discrimination (rightly or wrongly). 


Detoxifying your work environment may not always guarantee diversity and inclusion. But striving for more than just a non-toxic environment, and going beyond that to foster a supportive and inclusive workplace, can help promote diversity in the same move. Results may not be guaranteed — but consider the alternative: a toxic environment that sticks to the very air and spreads like a virus over the organization for years to come.

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