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Legal ease: Prevent toxic cultures by acting early

The causes of toxic culture are often trivial, but the effects are not. Early intervention is key, and managers must not be reluctant to grasp the nettle if the situation is to be resolved.

Toxicity at work is frequently in the headlines, with allegations of abuses of power, intimidation and fear.

Employment lawyers routinely encounter allegations of a toxic workplace culture but the reality tends to be less headline grabbing.

A toxic workplace culture is relatively rarely caused by the stereotype of misguided banter, boozy lunches and open expressions of outdated discriminatory behaviours in the workplace.

Although such incidents do still occur, most employers understand that running a workplace like an episode of a 1970s sitcom creates legal risks.

Well-established policies setting clear expectations about acceptable behaviour are widely understood by most employees and are often easier for employers to enforce than to ignore.

A toxic workplace is usually driven by a breakdown in workplace relationships and yet there is often little focus on resolving conflict by repairing relationships.

Read more: How to have positive conflict at work

The causes are often trivial, but the effects are not and the longer they are allowed to simmer, the more they infect the perceptions of both protagonists and those around them.

In the early stages, most people want to be listened to and hope for resolution, but the longer these issues are left, the more entrenched and difficult to resolve they become.

Therefore, early intervention is key.

Unfortunately, managers are often reluctant to intervene in workplace conflicts at an early stage.

Getting into the middle of these situations can be awkward, challenging and most managers have not been trained to do so.

Employers also tend to be suspicious of embracing workplace mediation and conflict resolution strategies. They are not fully understood and there is also comfort in relying on familiar HR processes.

The result is when the issue can no longer be ignored, the focus is on conduct and responsibility rather than the relationships that are at the heart of the problem.

Employers often intervene in workplace conflicts only once they have become HR and/or employment law issues. Formal HR processes such as grievances and disciplinaries allow employees to be heard, but, by their nature, tend to lead to outcomes with winners and losers.

Such processes may be effective in managing the potential legal risks that arise from workplace conflicts, but they are rarely helpful in resolving the underlying relationship problems which cause them.

Indeed, grievance and disciplinary processes often leave employers with an even more complex aftermath to navigate.

Focusing on workplace mediation and conflict resolution will not always work, but when it does, it can both resolve conflict and repair relationships. There are also some consequential benefits of such an approach.

Encouraging open and non-confrontational communication about issues which can damage working relationships is not only a means to an end, but an end in itself.

Employees may also feel more willing to raise issues at an early stage if the initial focus is on resolution rather than triggering a process designed to apportion blame.

With appropriate training, managers are likely to find it easier to intervene in difficult workplace relationships in a collaborative rather than adversarial way.

At the very least, equipping HR and managers to resolve conflict rather than simply manage it, would provide a further useful tool to help in creating and protecting a healthy workplace culture.


Daniel Peyton is an employment partner and the managing at international law firm McGuireWoods.

This article appears in the November/December 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.