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How to recognize and treat an emerging toxic culture

Many organisations strive to have a great customer focus, but forget to look after their employees in the process.

Published on
September 11, 2019

Many organisations strive to have a great customer focus, but forget to look after their employees in the process. Left unchecked, this lack of concern for employees can create a toxic work culture. But what exactly does it mean for a culture to be often described as ‘toxic’?

When and how can your culture become toxic?

‘Toxic culture’ is created over time from a complex web of contributing factors.

Determining exactly when a company culture turns toxic isn’t easy. Often by the time you realise something is wrong, issues in the way you operate are already ingrained and may require significant effort, time and money to resolve.


How can you tell when your organisational culture is becoming toxic?

There are multiple signs that you might have an emerging toxic culture on your hands. These symptoms negatively impact your employees, customers and the reputation of your business.


Why is toxic culture so hard to fix?

Organisations are generally aware of the risk that their culture could be toxic. Despite this, these risks often become reality. While this is sometimes due to the difficulty in diagnosing a truly toxic culture, it's also because it’s slow and hard to fix once it’s already deeply ingrained. Even when companies do recognise there is an issue, there are two pitfalls they often fall into.

  • They point fingers and play ‘the blame game’, rather than understanding the root causes and working together to fix them.
  • It’s often only addressed by one part of the business, such as human resources, resulting in a lack of buy-in (especially from leadership). This lack of buy in mirrors a lack of capability and budget to create meaningful and actionable change across the organisation.

Working across different industries at CEC we have seen this problem happen many times. Commonly we have seen organisations approach employee experience and culture with ‘expert’ led studies or research. Although this approach does show organisations areas to focus on and will usually tell them where and why toxic culture is happening, they come unstuck when they go to fix it and lack the actionable steps to change behaviours.

As an example we worked with an organisation where the simple act of not saying goodbye when an employee left the organisation led to long term feelings of animosity towards their former employer. Companies like Glassdoor are built on these seemingly insignificant oversights by employers, and their proliferation shows that more employees are visiting these sites when considering a prospective employer. This is significant, as public reviews like this can have a direct impact on recruitment, and brand reputation in the marketplace.

How can human centred design help cure the root cause?

HCD can help identify what factors are contributing to your toxic culture, through empathetic research with your employees. By mapping their experience, you can begin to understand the underlying (and usually complex) web of causes and symptoms.

When you understand the real problem, human centred design tools can help you create alignment across the organisation. Journey maps for instance, give you a visual representation of the effect one department’s process may have on another, and how this can create a negative outcome for both employees and customers.

Journey maps help you understand your employees needs and how you can influence their experience in your organisation to:

  • Create a case for change, through first hand data of experiences and perspectives.
  • Break down insights into actions that can be prioritised through an understanding of what will provide the greatest value to your employees.

Customer centricity is a difficult transformation that takes a committed effort from your entire organisation. Key to this are your employees. If you're starting to see symptoms of a toxic culture, maybe it's time you got a check up?

Speak with an expert

Lauren Terry
Head of Design
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