There is a difference between routine workplace hassles and a work environment that is so toxic it angers employees to the point of quitting.
Toxic workplaces can manifest themselves in many ways — unfairness and/or inconsistency in following policies, no concern for employees’ work-life balance, internal competition among employees, micromanaging and abusive bosses, and illegal activities that include discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation.
These last examples include a hostile work environment caused by pervasive unwelcome sexual advances, routine lewd, racist or sexist jokes, or using sexual favors to get ahead at work.
The recent allegations that producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted multiple female employees led to the resignation of four members of his company’s all-male board of directors and to his firing from the company. Allegations also assert that other managers knew and condoned Weinstein’s behavior, even though they had a legal duty to investigate and remedy the behavior.
The Weinstein Co. said last week it would file for bankruptcy after negotiations for a sale collapsed.
These allegations follow a year of stories claiming sexual misconduct by other powerful public figures, including Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. In April 2017, O’Reilly, a host at Fox News, was forced to resign after it was discovered that Fox paid five women millions of dollars in exchange for their silence relating to accusations of sexual harassment.
Ailes, the former head of Fox News, resigned last July 2016 after he was accused by multiple employees of sexual harassment.
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These allegations highlight the extreme aspects of a toxic workplace due to sexual harassment. Another aspect is poisonous co-workers who gossip, play workplace politics, fail to carry their own weight, miss deadlines, interrupt others’ work and so on. Management that tolerates such conduct does not promote a healthy culture.
Aside from encouraging employees to either confront such conduct politely and/or report it to human resources, what are other management strategies to deal with such toxic conduct?
One important strategy is to include behaviors such as respect and teamwork in your employee performance evaluation planning and measurements. Encourage employees to communicate positive messages to co-workers.
Management also should refrain from focusing solely on what employees are doing wrong, and instead provide positive feedback for what is going right. As every employer knows, performance evaluations, if done well, provide a way for managers to give employees meaningful feedback to improve their performance.
Properly documented performance evaluations also build paper trails that favor employers in defending against lawsuits.
Conversely, written comments that are too general, taken out of context, too charitable or suddenly very hostile, not only will undermine subsequent discipline of a poor performer but also serve as ammunition for a disgruntled former employee’s lawsuit against the employer.
Remember, a paper trail does not appear overnight — an employer has to build it over time.
Finally, employers must train managers to understand essential criteria in the performance evaluation, and invest in coaching for them to in turn properly coach the employees they supervise.
If these steps do not work and you still have a disruptive or poor performing employee, managers must take those employees head on, demand a change including implementing and following through on a performance improvement plan, and if the employee cannot change or improve, his or her employment should be terminated.
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This sends a message to the rest of the workforce that such toxic or unproductive behavior will not be tolerated.
l Wilford H. Stone is a lawyer with Lynch Dallas in Cedar Rapids.