The Return to Office (RTO) is in full swing … and the toxic culture is sliding in right behind it.
Three-quarters of Fortune 500 company leaders want employees back in the office at least three days a week by the end of this year, according to a Fortune poll.
With that, corporate culture is changing again — and not necessarily for the better.
Some employees come back with a chip on their shoulder about having to be there. And they find colleagues to commiserate with, spreading their disenchantment. Others might have forgotten onsite etiquette and are pissing off their co-workers already.
Toxic cultures overlooked
What’s worse, HR pros and managers buried in their work might not see it. At first.
“Often, HR and management are the last to know about toxic employees,” says Josh Merrill, Co-founder and CEO of Confirm. “Colleagues often don’t want to initiate a discussion with their manager about it, and managers don’t know enough to ask.”
But you can be sure it’s festering with the rise in office occupancy rates that Kastle Systems has reported.
Here are six strategies:
Know the enemy within
There are plenty of types of toxic employees. But three rise to the top of toxicity in the workplace, Merrill says. They’re the type you want to identify and whose behaviors you’ll have to address:
- Mike The Manage-Upper. He excels at managing his manager — doing and saying everything right when the boss is around. But he has sharp elbows — showing his true colors by doing and saying negative things when colleagues are around. The manager loves him, while his coworkers feel the opposite.
- Bernice The Bully. She uses intimidation, belittlement, and aggression to control discussions and get her way. She’ll do it in front of or behind the boss. But it flows out of her so easily, most people aren’t ready to respond and rebound immediately.
- Calvin the Complainer. He would rather complain about a problem than actually solve it. His negativity affects co-workers, workflows and overall morale.
Try a different perspective
Leaders will hear about employees who are outright bad eggs. Others will report inappropriate behaviors or the boss will witness it.
But the most under-mining toxic behaviors usually come from below the surface, and it’s harder to identify. But you can dig it up.
“Traditional performance reviews don’t tend to surface this type of info, because the reviews reflect primarily the opinions of direct managers,” says Merrill. “So toxic employees could be receiving positive performance reviews, and that makes it harder to manage them out later. It’s a cycle.”
To surface potentially toxic team members, Merrill suggests an Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) — a more structured way to visualize how communication, information and decisions flow through an organization — in regular one-on-ones or in short, quarterly surveys. Questions include:
- Who do you go to for help and advice?
- Who energizes you?
- Who do you consider to be a “Gold Star” contributor?
- Who do you believe needs additional support or attention?
Get the view up, too
HR might want to use ONAs — or prescribe skip-level conversations — so employees can help identify anyone in management who might be affecting the toxicity level. (On the positive side, ONAs can also help you identify unsung heroes and rising super bosses.)
“I would ask an upward question … for example, ‘On a scale of 1-5, how likely would you recommend your manager to others?'” says Merrill. “This identifies the best and worst managers in a company. Any manager who isn’t getting a four or five would be a problematic manager. There’s a reason why they’re getting a low rating.”
Apply to hybrid, remote
It’s equally — if not more — important to do regular litmus tests with hybrid or remote employees. They sometimes don’t realize they’re in a toxic culture because they don’t have the outlets to discuss their experiences with other employees who may be having the same experience.
So you might even consider getting ONA feedback from them more often.
Consider the feedback
With regular, graded feedback, you can likely identify some toxic sources in the workplace.
ONA data helps HR and other leaders pinpoint who is contributing toward a toxic work culture and how, based on what the network says. The key here is that it can help identify employees who perform well but make the culture an unpleasant place for others to work.
“When multiple staff members identify a colleague as falling short, managers can then dig in to find out why — and if that person is contributing to a toxic workplace,” says Merrill.
Look for employees who others say contribute to or are often involved in bottlenecks, conflict or other issues.
“This is different from an engagement survey. While those can identify toxicity at an organization, ONA draws it out at the individual level,” says Merrill. “Managers will learn who they need to talk with directly to make real change.”
Look for the bright side
When trying to weed out toxicity in the workplace — and possibly the people who cause it — you’ll likely find some diamonds in the rough. These might be the people who meet expectations, but their colleagues say their attitude or behavior contribute to other successes.
“This highlights the power of networks in revealing hidden aspects of employee behavior and interactions that may go unnoticed by managers,” says Merrill.
Either way — finding toxicity or sunshine — you’ll likely get information that can help managers coach all employees.
For instance, Joe Bast, VP of People & Operations at Thoropass, shares this: “We are primarily focused on identifying our most valuable and impactful people, so we can focus on retention efforts. But occasionally ONA also points us to people who either need help or need to be managed out. In either case, we’re collecting valuable data that was not being surfaced elsewhere.”