Scottish brewer and pub-chain BrewDog has received a scathing open letter from former employees alleging there was a toxic work culture at the company, where staff were fearful of speaking out about concerns. The open letter from former staff members complained of a culture which gave weight to sexist and misogynistic brewers, of having genuine safety concerns and being pressured into working beyond their capacity, of fearing their mistakes could get them fired and of those in positions of power feeling enabled to act in a toxic manner.
BrewDog have since responded by apologising and saying that they will not contest the letter but rather ‘listen, learn and act’.
Toxic work environments are very costly to business. HR software provider, Breathe, reported that the cost of toxic workplace culture is about £15.7 billion per year in the UK. It also reported in 2020 that 1 in 5 employees quit their jobs due to a poor workplace culture, one third of decision makers experienced or witnessed bullying and more than a half of employees reported that senior management handled the situation poorly.
What should organisations be doing to prevent toxic environments from being established, or to eliminate toxicity once it has already permeated the company culture? We have set out our 7 top-tips below:
- Action, not words - management must lead by example and not just by paying lip service to the notion of eliminating a toxic workplace culture. There is no point boasting of work-life balance and saying that the company does not encourage presenteeism, if leaders are lauded for sitting in the office until 11pm, or colleagues who take days off for genuine sickness are gossiped about.
- Respect employee feedback – where employers ask employees for feedback, but then take no action, or immediately try to rebut or dismiss the feedback received, employees will feel their opinions do not matter and they are very unlikely to want to provide further feedback in future. Taking employee feedback seriously and taking action when feedback is given will signal to employees that they are valued and that the business genuinely cares about what they think.
- Acknowledge that toxic workplace practices are not always overt – leaders sometimes believe that provided there is no explicit bullying or harassment taking place, there is no problem. However, subtle acts and omissions such as micro-managing, a lack of trust, negative gossip and office cliques can be just as damaging. Certain policies or processes can also bring about toxicity, namely, unobtainable targets or performance related pay. Action should be taken early to limit the damage of these less overtly toxic workplace practices and processes too.
- Have someone truly independent available for employees to speak to – employees do often not trust speaking to their HR teams, who are seen to solely protect the interests of the employer. Instead, employers should consider offering independent services such as whistleblowing hotlines, employee wellbeing services, mental health counsellors etc. Employers should promote and speak positively of these available services and employees should be encouraged to use them, as there is often a stigma around their use.
- Know who you are and know your employer brand – it is important that organisations have a clear identity and clear understanding of their company values. Those values should be outlined unambiguously and understood by all within the organisation. Characteristics that align with these values should be sought when recruiting and ‘organisational fit’ should be prioritised during recruitment. To keep toxicity out, it is important to remember not to only hire for skills, but for character and attitude too.
- Hold everyone accountable, no matter their position – in a lot of workplaces with toxic cultures, a blind eye will be turned to the toxic behaviour of very senior individuals or top-performing individuals. This sends a message to others that the company will value results to the detriment of everything else and sends a message to the toxic individual that they can continue behaving badly because their results or seniority will provide them with a guaranteed ‘get out of jail free’ card every time.
- Celebrate healthy behaviours – an important part of eliminating toxicity is by encouraging employee behaviours which are healthy instead. Award kindness, celebrate respect, compassion, and selflessness. Some employers may even go as far as normalising or celebrating failure. A fear of reprimand can stifle employees’ creativity and innovation. Instead, employees can be encouraged to own their failures and use them as an opportunity to learn and grow.
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