How to make toxic workplaces ‘so last decade’

Lisa Sterling on how to build a healthy workplace culture.

Reading time: 6 minutes.

The issue of toxic workplace culture dominated the headlines in 2019, resulting in real reputational damage for several brands.

In 2020, if companies are to avoid public and private scandals, HR professionals must make a significant and concerted effort to build a healthy workplace culture and deliver an exceptional employee experience.

Not only will this help attract and retain the best talent available, it is simply the right thing to do.

Companies today are realising the benefits gender and ethnic diversity can have on their bottom-line. A report from McKinsey showed that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on their executive teams were 35% more likely to experience above-average profitability than those in the fourth quartile.

But despite the proven boost offered by diversity and inclusion, truly inclusive workforces are still few and far between, and changing this fact has to start at the very beginning of the employee lifecycle – with the hiring process.

Workplace bias

Unconscious gender bias in the recruitment process often begins before a candidate has even applied. There are two reasons this takes place.

First, gendered or loaded language – from obvious and very avoidable gendered pronouns (“the prospective candidate will report to his line manager”), through to adjectives such as “superpower”, “ninja” and “rock stars” – expressions that, quite unfortunately, are becoming increasingly prevalent across various industries.

Research shows the use of extreme language and superlatives tend to encourage applications from men, restricting the potential for diversity and star talent by limiting the pool of candidates at the very first stage of the process.

To check job descriptions don’t fall into this trap, organisations can use a free tool like Gender Decoder.

Second, men are far more inclined to apply for a role they may not be qualified for after reading the job description. Women naturally tend to reserve submitting their interest to roles unless they are highly qualified and aligned with requirements and expectations of the role.

So, while it’s important to provide a thorough overview of the role, it’s an opportunity for talent acquisition teams to rethink the use of profiles rather than traditional job descriptions.

We all have the ability to influence the evolution of overall workplace culture

Similarly, it’s worth considering the language used when emailing around the office a social invitation or team request.

Language, here too, can contribute to how welcome people feel and how likely they are to feel the invitation applies to them. Considering these small modifications can create a far more inclusive experience for all.

When thinking about company culture it’s important to define what you actually mean. If your benchmark is having a better range of beers on tap than the company next door then that’s a superficial definition that may attract a certain type of employee.

Similarly, time spent producing glowing presentation decks lauding how and why you live a set of values could be time spent missing opportunities to solve issues affecting the team.

Performance appraisals

2020 will also see an age-old issue rising to prominence: the performance appraisal. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found 95% of employees are dissatisfied with their employer’s appraisal process.

While for most, these reviews are characterised by worry, anxiety and – for some – satisfaction. For others, arbitrary and inconsistent assessments lead to feelings of discrimination.

In 2019, a group of Facebook employees described their experiences of “micro and macro aggressions as if [they] do not belong [there].”

In the letter, allegations were made against managers who focused only on negative feedback in reviews including one where a manager actively sought out criticism from the employee’s colleagues.

The old-school approach to annual performance reviews is widely seen as unsatisfactory. A study by Adobe found 80% of employees prefer immediate feedback to annual reviews, which can help employees understand exactly how their actions impacted a specific project in real-time.

Waiting three, six or 12 months to provide feedback isn’t beneficial for individuals nor does it create opportunity for behaviour change. It’s like parenting. If you only disciplined your children once or twice a year it would be very difficult to raise children who behave appropriately.

Another study, cited in the Harvard Business Review, found seven out of 10 employees who reported receiving a form of appreciation from their line manager said they were happy with their jobs. Of those who did not receive recognition, only around four in 10 (39 %) said they were satisfied.

Gender pay

Legally, British women have been entitled to equal pay since 1970 yet pay parity in the UK is not forecasted to be achieved fully until 2069.

This issue became headline news in July 2017, when it was revealed that BBC Radio 2 presenter Chris Evans made approximately £1.75m more per year than Claudia Winkleman – the BBC’s highest-paid female presenter.

Just recently the issue came again to the top of the news agenda when journalist and presenter Samira Ahmed won her case against the BBC in her equal pay tribunal.

There is no doubt gender parity is one of the most pertinent issues in the workplace, but companies are still struggling to take acknowledge the issue and take meaningful action.

One way to foster change in your organisation and the wider community is by partnering with local organisations championing change.

Ceridian is a founding partner of the Canadian organisation and movement #movethedial. Its founder, Jodi Kovitz, has made it their mission to increase the participation and leadership of women in tech.

Similar organisations and charities exist in the UK. The Fawcett Society has been particularly vocal in calling out the UK’s gender pay gap and suggesting action companies can take.



Another way to find out just how fairly women feel they are being treated in your organisation is to engage an external company to complete an audit.

EDGE Certification for instance, is one of the leading global assessment methodologies and business certification bodies that not only rigorously measures an organisation’s current position, but also helps companies evolve their programmes and ensure progress is made.

Toxic workplace environments often develop following a significant negative event, a drastic change in senior leadership or when a series of issues slowly erode morale over time.

The results can often be devastating for an organisation, regardless of size or industry, from turnover and disengagement to a decline in productivity, ultimately impacting a company’s bottom line.

The digital-first era is leading us to rethink the norms of the traditional workplace and employee experience. Expectations around how we lead, collaborate, communicate, and give and receive feedback are changing and we have to catch up.

With the reimagining of these models and behaviours, we all have the ability to influence the evolution of overall workplace culture.

Empowering change in an organisation isn’t one person’s job or HR’s job – it’s everyone’s job.


About the author

Lisa Sterling is chief people and culture officer at Ceridian


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