Young woman at work desk looking frustrated

As soon as the initial waves of COVID-19 and its variants subsided, some company leaders began to insist that employees sent home by the pandemic return to offices and other on-site workplaces. While many businesses have taken steps to offer hybrid arrangements, in which workers mix remote and on-site days, and others continue to allow fully remote work when appropriate, nearly two-thirds of surveyed employers claim that achieving strategic goals requires their employees to work on-site.

Not surprisingly, the passage of time has seen many employees return to on-site work, whether fully or partially. Yet, new research has revealed a dark side to post-pandemic workplaces: many are harboring toxic cultures. And some employees—especially younger ones—are not only feeling the pain, they’re pushing back.

Nearly a Third of Workplaces—and Younger Workers, in Particular—Are Affected

A Resume Builder poll of more than 550 employees (of firms that shifted to remote work during the COVID outbreak and subsequently mandated returns) found one in three workers reporting toxic organizational cultures since the callback to company premises.

It is unlikely that all of those negative cultures are the result of return mandates. And, in some cases, the feelings of employees who are dissatisfied with return-to-work mandates could be influencing their perceptions and characterizations of workplace culture. The research doesn’t speak to causative factors. Rather it observes that toxic cultures were found in its very specific survey population which worked in firms with mandates.

What does that toxicity look like?

The Resume Builder survey found one in five respondents (21%) said they’d been bullied at work, and 28% reported other negative or troubling behaviors—actions or comments that caused fear or discomfort (essentially, occurrences that earmark disrespectful organizational cultures). 

When researchers analyzed results by age groups, they found that the Gen Z employees (aged 18 – 24) were more likely than their older colleagues to report problems. Thirty-eight percent said they were bullied (versus only 11% each of 45 – 54 and 55 – 64 age groups). 


Employees overall who say they've been bullied on the job


Gen Z workers who report being bullied

Further, 45% of the younger workers reported experiencing disrespectful behavior on the job (compared with 20% of the 45 – 54 group and 15% of the 55 – 64 group).

Why the response spike among Gen Z employees? Researchers theorized several reasons that might underlie the differences in perceptions of younger versus older workers. Chief among those ideas is that Gen Z individuals may simply be more aware of toxic behaviors and their potentially detrimental effects.

Of particular importance to employers, Resume Builder says that younger workers are more likely to act on discomfort they feel at work. Consequently, “While older generations were told to just deal with it and rarely went against the organization, Gen Z will leave if they aren’t treated well.”

Toxic Cultures Take a Toll on All Talent

Clearly, loss of talent (of any age) is a worrisome risk for organizations with toxic workplaces. Other well-documented consequences for companies with negative work environments are potential harm to brand and reputation, decreased performance and productivity, diminished competitive capabilities, and declines in overall business results and revenues.

What about employees who work in negative cultures?

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest Work in America Survey underscores the adverse fallout from the toxic workplaces reported by about one in five of 2,500-plus U.S. employees it polled. And it reminds HR, learning, and other talent professionals that the damage isn’t limited only to younger workers. 


Employees in toxic workplaces who say they plan to leave

Of all age groups the APA surveyed:

  • 22% of individuals working on-site report toxic work environments compared with only 13% of fully remote employees
  • 26% of frontline employees report toxic workplaces versus 21% of middle managers, and only 9% of senior leaders
  • 58% of employees in toxic workplaces say they plan to seek employment elsewhere
  • 76% of those working in toxic environments say the atmosphere negatively affects their mental health and well-being

Further amplifying the bullying that the Resume Builder research noted among younger employees, the APA found 19% of workers overall reported that they, too, were bullied on the job. One in four employees (24%) said they’d been verbally abused at work, and 22% experienced harassment.

Not surprisingly, one in five survey respondents said they felt no sense of belonging at work, and 45% of Gen Z employees said they felt unsupported because of their age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or some other aspect of their identity.

Finally, the APA found 95% of the employees they surveyed affirming the importance of feeling respected at work, an outcome that is virtually impossible to achieve in a toxic environment.


What To Do About Toxic Cultures

Whether return-to-workplace mandates or other circumstances cause organizational cultures to become toxic, it is vital that organizational leaders open their eyes to the situation and take a multi-pronged approach to culture restoration.

Here are 5 suggested actions:

  1. Periodic assessments (and reassessments) of organizational culture should be an ongoing strategy aimed at optimizing company performance and employee experience. A careful examination is particularly important when culture problems are suspected. The assessment should confirm current conditions related to organizational culture and identify the factors exerting negative influences. Once specific drivers of toxic cultures are identified, plans to address those negative influences can be made and executed. This also aids in identifying training needs.
  2. Audits of organizational practices and policies should be conducted as well to ensure that companies are not sabotaging their cultures by unintentionally creating stumbling blocks to healthy practices. For example, company communication norms may pressure employees to be accessible via email or phone during vacations or paid time off. Or bad behavior may go unaddressed because reporting procedures are lacking or ineffective. Uncovering and remedying such misalignments and disconnects can provide powerful support for positive culture change.
  3. Purposeful development of people managers that focuses on their important roles as communicators and custodians of organizational culture prepares those people leaders to identify and act on issues before they become full-blown problems. In particular, communication training that enables managers to confidently engage in constructive conversations about difficult or sensitive topics empowers them to address negative behaviors that threaten respectful workplace environments.
  4. Establish employee well-being as an organizational value and imperative. If your firm has a well-being model in place, review and refresh as needed. If no model exists, consider focusing initially on such key aspects of well-being as physical, mental, and financial health. Many employers also include career, social, community, and other aspects of well-being. In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services offers significant free resources on workplace well-being.
  5. Deliver culture-related training focused on behavior change. Because training that drives positive behavior change is a key component of repairing damaged cultures, HR and learning partnerships are ideally suited to help lead culture restorations. But the goal must be to provide a respectful workplace training solution that gets to the core of successful learning—impacting employees' beliefs and attitudes as well as desired behaviors.

    For example, consider the problem of bullying in toxic cultures that many employees experience and that heightens the likelihood that younger workers will leave their employers. Training on this topic should teach people how to stand up to bullies safely and effectively and to follow through by reporting incidents when necessary. It should also provide employees with the assurance that they will receive support for those behaviors—from both leaders and co-workers—and ensure that workers feel confident using the skills necessary to call out bullying. Otherwise, employees won’t be likely to take the desired actions.  

No single approach is likely to reshape all of the factors that drive toxicity in the workplace. Based on the drivers of an organization’s culture issues, it may be necessary to apply multiple strategies from the preceding list (and others). If your organization is struggling with a declining company culture, it will be worth the effort.

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