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Types of Toxic Work Environments and How to Address Them

Workplace culture impacts all aspects of a business, from day-to-day functioning to the company's bottom line. In his book, From Bully to Bull's Eye, Andrew Faas describes three types of workplace cultures: dictatorial, disjointed, and stable.

While a stable workplace culture is ideal, many workplaces have dictatorial and disjointed cultures. Dictatorial and disjointed cultures can be toxic and hurt workplace mental health.

Dictatorial Culture: A dictatorial workplace relies on power and control. The boss is typically a bully, and bullying is encouraged as a means of advancement throughout the company. There are high levels of secrecy and jealousy, with little room for positive relationships among employees.

Disjointed Culture: As its name suggests, the disjointed workplace is lacking in core values and checks and balances on power. While it may appear hierarchical and bureaucratic, there is little enforcement and emotional reactions are common when handling conflicts. These workplaces are often filled with cronyism and nepotism and may not provide clear feedback on employee performance.

Stable Culture: The stable workplace provides clear goals, rules, and values for employees. Communication is open and clear, and conflicts are dealt with effectively, absent fear of retaliation. Employees are supported, encouraged, and rewarded based on quality of work. Everyone understands the role they play in the company and works together to ensure success for all, not just certain individuals.

In addition to threatening the long-term stability of the company, dictatorial and disjointed workplace cultures provide a space where bullying can - and often does - thrive.

Bullying at Work

Research shows that many people experience workplace bullying. Approximately two out of every five people have been bullied at work. Almost half of those targeted by bullying at work suffer stress-related health problems. The bullying can be verbal, psychological, physical, or online. It can also include blacklisting from future employment opportunities. These high-stress situations can have serious effects on an individual’s physical health, mental health, and relationships. What’s more, fear of retaliation or even job loss prevents many people from reporting abusive behavior at work. Even when the behavior is reported, employers often mishandle responses or justify bullying as a “leadership style.” 

According to a recent study based on interviews of 800 managers and employees across seventeen industries, more than half of those who experience bullying lose work time worrying and avoiding the offender, and also report declines in performance and commitment to the company. Close to half of those who experienced bullying reported intentionally decreasing work effort, time spent at work, and, for a smaller number, quality of work. The costs of workplace bullying are high for both employees and employers, so what can we do about it?

What Can I Do as an Employer? 

As employers, we can get so distracted by the bigger picture that we lose sight of the day-to-day work environment, but as the research shows, a healthy work environment can make a world of difference for your business and increase employee productivity, retention, and innovation. If you know your workplace is unhealthy or if you are interested in making it even stronger, there are several steps you can take to start out.

Review available data and current policies. Are your employees reporting high satisfaction? Do you have high rates of turnover? Does your company have a clear goal with values that are enforced and upheld in the workplace? Examine the numbers, business plan, and policies to see where your company currently stands and what the financial opportunities could be for investing further in your employees and workplace culture. It is important to emphasize not only company values and beliefs but also definitions and policies for things like workplace bullying and violence. Examine where there is need for further clarification or even new policies altogether.

Open a dialogue with current employees. Numbers can only tell you so much, and good policies are only helpful when they are put into practice. Create a safe, open space where employees can discuss their concerns and wants. This can be in the form of anonymous surveys, individual discussions, or both. Allow employees to tell you about dangerous or abusive behaviors, unhelpful practices for reporting abuse, and wherever they see room for improvement. Hearing directly from employees is the easiest way to get a glimpse into their daily lives. Be sure to listen to and seriously consider the information your employees share with you. 

Take action. After reviewing data, policies, and interviews, you may have conflicting or unclear information. You may receive complaints about individuals whom you considered your best employees or find that your mission and values as a company are not being upheld in practice. Leaders within the company must discuss these findings and determine what specifically needs to change, whether it is different hiring practices, improved policies for employee conflict, or a stronger adherence to the beliefs of the company. This also means addressing any of the toxic behaviors that had been allowed or even encouraged up until this point. While this could require large changes, creating a healthy workplace culture and having policies in place to support all employees is a smart business decision. This investment on the front end can save losses in turnover, and work productivity. 

Adjust and be flexible. A healthy workplace culture allows employees to be heard. This means being open to ongoing feedback about company policies and practices. Maintaining a healthy workplace and addressing toxic behaviors must become a priority. Make it a habit to review what is and is not strengthening your workplace and respond accordingly.

More Information:

How can we create a supportive workplace culture?

What are some mentally healthy management practices?

What is emotional intelligence and how does it apply to the workplace?


From Bully to Bull's Eye, by Andrew Faas

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