Detoxifying the office: How to create healthy and secure workspaces

By CPABC in Focus
May 11, 2022
Photo credit: YakobchukOlena/iStock/Getty Images

Strengthening connections, walking the talk on inclusion, ensuring that company values resonate… these and other targeted efforts to attract and retain today’s workers will mean little if leaders don’t also identify and root out toxic behaviour.

Melanie Pump, CPA, CGA, has seen firsthand how toxicity at work can hinder personal resilience. A financial executive with over 20 years in the corporate sector, Melanie experienced a range of work environments while building her career, from the demoralizing to the uplifting. These experiences—both good and bad—sparked a passion for creating healthy work environments.

They also inspired her to write the book Detox: Managing Insecurity in the Workplace, in which she describes the causes and impacts of toxic work environments and outlines the changes needed to detoxify the workplace. We asked her to share some insights with us.

How do you define insecurity in the workplace?

Melanie: My definition of insecurity is a feeling of danger or vulnerability. In the work environment, this feeling may be rooted in a lack of confidence in our abilities, uncertainty about expectations, concerns about job security, or the perception of threats in the environment, such as workplace bullying.

Do you think a lot of organizations are getting it right or wrong?

Melanie: I think many organizations want to get it right and there is a growing awareness of the benefits of a healthy work environment for both employee success and business performance. However, in many companies, the drive for short-term results still distracts leaders from ensuring that they take steps to establish a positive corporate culture.

What are some red flags that indicate toxicity in the workplace?

Melanie: There are several—I’ll share a couple of them.

Low participation in company meetings and events can be a sign of toxicity. Employees will instinctively avoid interaction with others in an environment where they don’t feel safe. They will be less likely to share their ideas, ask questions, or collaborate with others.

High employee turnover and a low rate of internal promotions can also be red flags. It is difficult for employees to take the risks required to learn and grow when they don’t feel secure at work. As a result, fewer employees will be ready for promotions when opportunities occur. Limited growth combined with the negativity of a toxic corporate culture will drive employees to seek jobs elsewhere.

Does toxicity always start at the top, or can it affect just one rung of the ladder?

Melanie: There is no denying that “tone from the top” is real. Company leaders have the greatest impact on a corporate culture, and that’s why it’s critical that values and leadership style are factored into recruitment processes when hiring people for leadership roles.

Having said that, each of us—whether as a leader or an individual contributor—has the power to influence our workplaces for the better or the worse. I know this to be true, because even in an overall toxic corporate culture, I have seen teams create healthy micro-cultures. These teams are able to protect themselves from the negativity of the external environment by creating supportive, positive relationships with their peers. At the same time, however, I’ve seen departments within supportive and healthy corporate cultures become toxic because a workplace bully isn’t managed appropriately and ends up creating an insecure environment for their peers.

In short, we all have the power to move the dial on toxicity or positivity in our workplaces.

What’s one thing a leader can do to actively support a healthier corporate culture?

Melanie: The most important thing leaders can do is model healthy, positive behaviour. Employees look to leaders to understand the conduct that is acceptable within a company. If leaders exhibit toxic behaviours, such as demeaning or disrespecting others, employees may deem this to be tolerable within the company.

Leaders must also ensure that they deal with toxic behaviour when it occurs within their teams. Too often, leaders allow poor conduct to continue because the perpetrator is a high performer—or simply to avoid conflict. However, it’s critical that leaders manage dysfunctional behaviour immediately to ensure that it doesn’t harm the health of the work environment for others and lead to lower performance and higher staff turnover.

Ultimately, a leader who ignores toxic behaviour has the same negative impact as a leader who behaves in a toxic manner themselves, because their inaction validates toxic behaviour as acceptable.

Melanie Pump, CPA, CGA, is the CFO of Brane Inc. Visit her website for more information on her book and to access her blog.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of CPABC in Focus.