Ideal Outcomes

Bring Your “A” Game to Correct a Toxic Workplace Culture

by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

As head of human resources at a major company, a good friend told me recently how she had to handle a tricky situation involving a high-ranking executive accused of serious sexual harassment. The evidence was clear, but the man was such a top producer that the board dithered for months even as other unethical behavior was uncovered. Fortunately, the CEO was a principled man who interrupted a lengthy debate with the simple question, “Does this man support our values?” He obviously did not and was fired the next day.

Another colleague worked at a privately-held firm where employees were paid much more than similar companies and enjoyed many fringe benefits. But a dark shadow hung over the business. The autocratic owner liked to shake things up with mass firings, that often seemed unjustified. And as every Friday rolled around many lived in fear that it would be their last day at work.
Both stories are examples of toxic work cultures where financial rewards either for the company or the individual were at the forefront instead of a healthy and inspiring environment where people worked collaboratively for a greater purpose.
It’s a subject that requires serious attention since a toxic company culture is the number one reason people quit their job—62% according to a FlexJobs survey. And 68% of those who resign are so desperate to leave that they walk out the door without having another job lined up.
What can you do to steer your business away from toxicity believed to be behind as much as 25% of corporate turnover? Here are five “A’s” to do just that.

What can you do to steer your business away from toxicity believed to be behind as much as 25% of corporate turnover? Here are five “A’s” to do just that.


First, managers need to look at themselves. Could you be the reason for employee disengagement?

It’s quite possible as a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey showed that almost two-thirds of people say they have worked in a toxic workplace and 58% who resigned blamed their managers.
Acknowledging one’s own failings is not easy to do but if a company is experiencing a high turnover it’s essential to find the root cause. And look to oneself before looking to blame others.


Accepting responsibility is a good first step, and then action is required. A common employee complaint is that while they make the time and effort to provide feedback in engagement surveys, pulse surveys, 360-degree reviews and so forth, leadership fails to respond. This is worse than if they’d never been asked for their input in the first place.

Research supports what I’ve witnessed. A recent Microsoft study, for instance, found that 57% of companies rarely, if ever, ask about their employees’ experience while 87% of workers in an Oracle and Workplace Intelligence study of almost 15,000 people said their company should be doing more to listen to their needs.
Anecdotally, one of my colleagues worked for years at a company that had an extremely toxic culture. A major cause of friction was that executives were constantly put in charge of projects, even though they’d repeatedly failed. Unsurprisingly, surveys revealed low engagement scores again and again. Leadership’s solution when leadership was the problem was to ask employees to fix problems that were out of their control. Which leads to my next “A”—Autonomy.


Give employees more control over their projects—and make sure it is genuine control. Allow them to make decisions. Don’t micromanage and stifle their creativity.

A review of studies assessing toxic workplace cultures found that giving workers autonomy went a long way towards reducing the negative environment. One note of caution: don’t increase the workload of those eager to have more say in their projects.


Are you for real? Perhaps more than anything else employees respond positively when they feel that their leadership is genuine about initiating culture change and not paying lip service.

Researchers Donald Sull and Charles Sull writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review, express it well: “Employees look to leaders for guidance on culture, but they tend to discount lofty statements about abstract values. When leaders act consistently with core values, however, it is one of the most powerful predictors of how positively employees rate their corporate culture.”
In other words, a fancily-written mission statement on the corporate website or poster slogan prominently displayed in the lobby is not going to cut it—unless leadership believes in it and exhibits it.


Communication is essential, and especially when you’re trying to transform a toxic culture. When you need to rebuild—or establish—trust you have to be open and transparent. Advertise to your employees all the steps you are taking and explain the rationale. Let them see inside the decision-making process. This kind of openness will pay dividends since employees will feel appreciated and respected.

Toxic culture develops over time. It’s epitomized by management turning a blind eye or willfully neglecting ongoing challenges. Tasks aren’t completed on time. The rumor mill goes wild. Employees take too many sick days. The signs are obvious—and can be corrected. These five “A’s” provide a good starting point.