EVERFI Content Team

Workplace Toxicity — Why You Should Focus on This to Prevent it From Happening 

With employees experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, mental health challenges, and burnout at work over the past few years, avoiding a toxic workplace should be high on the agenda of any manager and organization. 

It’s a sad part of life that sometimes relationships go south and turn sour. Most readers have had falling outs with friends or have broken up with significant others. As painful as it may be, people can and often part ways when their personal relationships fall apart.  

But it’s a bit more complicated at work.  

When two people develop an acrimonious relationship at work, it can be very difficult for them to go their separate ways. Unless one of the parties quits, gets fired, or gets transferred, it’s pretty hard to walk away from the relationship. And workplace conflicts often involve far more than just two individuals. 

When an entire team, department, or workplace (or at least a substantial proportion) devolves into damaging, productivity-hindering personal conflict, we call this situation a “toxic workplace.”  

Workplaces are often rife with examples of toxic behavior such as:  

  • Finger-pointing. 
  • Back-stabbing. 
  • Resentment. 
  • Passive-aggressive behavior. 
  • Manipulation 
  • Overreacting to mistakes or perceived slights. 
  • Lack of trust. 
  • Bullying 
  • Mean-spiritedness 
  • Harassment 
  • Discrimination

Toxic workplaces are less productive and generally dysfunctional. Employees have lower engagement, are more prone to make mistakes, and suffer higher rates of employee attrition. They are also breeding grounds for workplace misconduct, including various forms of harassment, discrimination, retaliation, time theft, and even workplace violence. 

But toxic workplaces aren’t only bad for business. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, mental health issues are widespread in the American workforce and there is a strong link between work environment and mental health. When the U.S. Surgeon General released the “Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace,he warned, “Toxic workplaces are harmful to workers—to their mental health, and it turns out, to their physical health as well. 

The Surgeon General’s report cites several statistics illustrating the issue: 

As noted above, it’s not always possible to walk away from workplace relationships. The best available solution is to resolve the toxicity, but that’s certainly not an easy task nor a quick one. Fortunately, it is possible to address and resolve workplace toxicity. 

Research from EVERFI and the HR Research Institute helps shine some light on the crucial connection between company culture and leadership on the one hand and workplace positivity (or toxicity) on the other. Consider some of the statistics uncovered in a survey of 548 individuals (comprised mostly of HR professionals) conducted by EVERFI and’s HR Research Institute: 

  • Among factors related to all employees in an organization, the strongest correlations to a positive workplace culture are perceiving colleagues as living core organization values and supporting core organizational values. 
  • Among factors related to leaders, the factor most correlated to a positive workplace is perceiving that leaders uphold the stated values of the organization.  
  • The vast majority (84%) of respondents who report a positive workplace culture agree that behaviors and procedures of their organizations tend to be aligned with core values, while just 5% disagree. 
  • For respondents who report a negative culture, perceptions of alignment with core values are nearly the reverse of those who report a positive culture. Three-quarters (75%) disagree that behaviors and procedures of their organization tend to be aligned with core values, while only 10% agree. 

In sum, in organizations where behaviors are aligned with the company’s values, the work environments are positive and non-toxic. In those organizations where employees and leaders are not “walking the talk,” negative, toxic cultures are commonplace. 

Toxic workplaces may also be the result of gaps in critical training aimed at preventing toxic behavior. For example, survey respondents reported that in their workplaces, people are often bullied (29%), discriminated against (20%), or harassed (19%). But when asked about whether employees are given training to prevent these behaviors, 39% percent said that no training is provided on bullying, 28% said they do not deploy anti-discrimination training, and 22% are not providing training to prevent harassment issues (22%). What’s more, fully 1 in 5 (20%) respondents do not provide training in any of these three areas. 

Taken together, to combat workplace toxicity, organizations must focus their efforts on two areas:  

  1. Ensuring leaders and employees align their behaviors to organizational values 
  2. Deploying culture-building training that prevents toxic behaviors such as disrespect, harassment, and discrimination. 

Workplace toxicity is widespread among American companies. Toxic workplace culture can lead to reduced employee engagement, higher turnover, greater office conflict and just a generally more dysfunctional workplace. Fortunately, the factors that create toxic workplace cultures are well-understood. Ultimately, that struggle comes down to adjusting the company culture—a challenging and long-term challenge, but one it is certainly possible for businesses to rise to.