The Toxic Workplace—What a Waste!
Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Toxic workplaces—where employees are abused, bullied, harassed, or threatened—are more prevalent than you may think. Not surprising, such environments lower retention and productivity. A new UNC Executive Development whitepaper, How to Cleanse a Toxic Workplace, by program director Kirk Lawrence offers a three-prong approach on how to prevent toxic behaviors.  

But first, an organization needs to be able to identify toxic behaviors, such as tearing others down, passive aggressive leadership, destructive gossip, devious politics, and a lot of negativity. Here are some warning signs to watch for:

  • The boss is a known bully.
  • Co-workers frequently gang up on each other.
  • Bosses or co-workers frequently take credit for the work of others.
  • Employees are insubordinate.
  • Office gossip and false accusations run rampant.
  • The boss is ineffective or absentee.
  • Everyone operates under different rules.
  • Supervisors don’t communicate expectations well or at all.

Clearly, though, the best way to stop the development of a toxic workplace is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Lawrence refers to this as “primary prevention.” The whitepaper references advice from the 2013 Fast Company article, “How to Overcome the 6 Most Toxic Employee Behaviors,” by Baird Brightman:  Talent development professionals can use the selection process to identify potentially toxic employees, and self-assessments and 360-degree observer ratings to detect toxic behaviors. According to Lawrence, these approaches work better at identifying toxic behaviors than interviews or reference checks.


A “Secondary Prevention” phase attempts to detect toxic behaviors early on in an employee’s tenure. Brightman suggests that leaders direct talent managers to use education and coaching about toxic behavior during the first few weeks of employment. Coaching also can be used to help employees identify toxic personality types—such as backstabbers, hyper-sensitives, hyper-criticals, know-it-alls, credit-takers, and bullies—entrenched in the organization and the actions they can take to defuse them.

Finally, if screening and coaching fails, leaders must rely on “Tertiary Prevention”: dismissal of the toxic employee. Brightman explains that the key to this phase is documenting any counsel or steps taken to address toxic behavior and communication between the manager and employee about how to improve the toxic person’s conduct and performance.

Bottom line: Toxic workplaces drain employees and lower productivity. Lawerence warns organizations that “if these behaviors are not checked, the workplace can easily drift into a hostile workplace environment with very real legal implications.”

To learn more, download the UNC Executive Development whitepaper, How to Cleanse a Toxic Workplace.

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About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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