Bullying, racism and sexual harassment should have no place in the modern Australian workplace, yet bad behaviour is all too common.
In 2016 research by Lindsay McMillan, managing director of Reventure, 14 per cent of Australian workers described their workplace environment as “toxic”, and 20 per cent had experienced significant problems in communication with a co-worker or boss. A staggering 50 per cent had experienced serious conflict or negative conduct at work.
Experiencing bad behaviour in the workplace affects people’s morale, job satisfaction and physical and psychological health. Employees who experience poor management are likelier to have a heart attack in the next decade. About 80 per cent of women who’ve been harassed leave their jobs within two years.
SafeWork Australia reports that depression, psychological distress and emotional exhaustion are common outcomes for bullied workers.
Toxic workers also have a damaging ripple effect on the broader team. A 2015 Harvard Business School report claims that having a toxic employee on the payroll costs the average business an additional $US15,169 a year, primarily because of the departure of high performers who can no longer tolerate the negativity. Even modest levels of unethical behaviour can cause substantial costs and lost opportunities to the employer organisation, including loss of customers, increased turnover and lessened legitimacy among external stakeholders.
Toxic conduct pulls teams off track, creates unnecessary rifts, wastes management time and damages productivity.
The reputational trainwrecks of recent royal commissions provide further proof that good workplace conduct is a legitimate focus for employers.
The good news? Addressing bad behaviour in the workplace can generate huge benefits for workers, employers and the Australian economy, and there are clear actions we all can take. First, all staff can learn to be “upstanders”, not bystanders, and recognise that the victim of toxic conduct often has the least power to do anything about it. Colleagues who witness aggression or sexualised behaviour can intervene, standing up for their co-worker and for professionalism and respect in the workplace.
The many accounts that have emerged in the recent #MeToo movement show that sophisticated bullies and sexual harassers often operate behind the scenes, when no witness is present.
To counter this, employers can encourage concerns to be raised promptly and without fear of retribution. They can create multiple communication channels, including regular employee surveys that address culture, values and risk-taking (as well as engagement); trusted human resources staff; the ability to make anonymous complaints; and forums that encourage employees to express their views constructively.
Frontline managers also can hone their skills at identifying and addressing misconduct. Unethical behaviour should be addressed early, before it starts to contaminate the broader organisational culture. Managers can remind the whole team of its responsibility for building a good workplace culture.
Perhaps most important, leaders must “walk the talk”. Boards and senior leaders should address any disconnect between the standards the organisation says it believes in and the operational reality. Act on behaviour that is “toxic at the top” because the conduct of leaders and managers sets the ethical tone for the rest of the organisation. Does the chief executive need to have a quiet word with one of the executives? Could a coach help to build self-awareness and self-control in a “rock star” employee who misbehaves?
Correcting or removing a toxic worker from your team delivers twice the financial benefit of adding a superstar, so can you afford to leave bad behaviour unaddressed in the workplace?
Rose Bryant-Smith is a director of workplace advisory firm Worklogic.