Toxic Culture Club – How to Avoid Becoming a Member

Toxic Picture

Sean McDonough looks at the reality behind the headlines with stories featuring toxic cultures. He reviews recent cases of bullying and sexual harassment. In addition, Sean outlines proposed legislation which will make employers liable for the protection of employees subjected to harassment and provides a list of steps to help minimise your exposure to risk and toxicity.

Over the past few months, we’ve heard of several high-profile cases that have demonstrated how important culture is, both for positive results and when it’s “toxic” to the ruination of an organisation’s reputation and more importantly the risk to its own employees.

Where matters become problematic, we find individuals who’ve adopted behavioural traits or taken risks that have far-reaching consequences. The actions of these disruptors can be awkward advances to colleagues, aggressive acting out when not getting their way or taking a risky decision and chance on something for a thrill or personal gratification.

One organisation that has recently revealed its unsavoury side is the Confederation of British Industry, better known in shorthand as the CBI.  This is the UK’s biggest business group with some 190,000 corporate members. The CBI is noted for its high-profile work as a lobbyist, supporting corporate member interests. Their profile and reputation have been badly damaged by a series of events which include allegations of rape, and repeated, unrequited, advances to female employees by senior staff.  Having conducted a full report to determine where things went wrong, the list is quite long but includes, hiring “culturally toxic staff”, and failing to act swiftly and effectively to fire those who were sexually harassing colleagues.

Brian McBride CBI president has publicly apologised for the fact women within the organisation were not being heard and were uncomfortable in coming forward with their complaints. The CBI’s EGM in June will be where they propose to present their plans for managing the membership body going forward.  McBride stated that he thought they had become overly complex with too many layers and managers.  Dare I suggest it’s not the layers but the culture that enabled these inappropriate behaviours?

The Metropolitan Police have clearly demonstrated how failing to address the actions of dangerous, misogynistic, and predatory officers can be strongly associated with a toxic culture.  Enough has been written and broadcast about the Met whose challenges to repair their reputation and undertake wholesale reform are sizeable. They simply failed to address the underlying cause, its culture perpetuated by very poor hiring decisions and failing to spot or act upon obvious warning signs.

One example of the questionable hiring decisions has seen former Minister of Justice Dominic Raab resign from his post. Following complaints by civil servants the PM commissioned an investigative report into the claims. Rishi Sunak received a report from Adam Tolley KC cataloguing a series of incidents dating back almost five years and covering several ministerial roles in which Mr Raab’s behaviour could be measured on a scale from inappropriate to bullying.  Staff were taking sick leave through stress following clashes involving threats by Raab. These incidents were whilst he held the position of Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs 2019-21.  He asserted directly to those civil servants in the firing line that they had breached the ministerial code. The consequences for such acts are known all too well as instant dismissal. He was proven to be entirely wrong in his assertions.

Raab’s case was interesting in that the role of a Minister is like that of an interim executive.  Ministers are not the employers of the staff within their respective departments and have no direct line authority, that is left to senior civil servants. To be a successful Minister they must learn to work alongside the civil service. Turning back a few decades the classic “Yes Minister” TV show highlighted the power and influence of the Permanent Secretary.

Regardless of the line management, any position of authority comes with responsibility for those you can influence externally but also essentially internally, whether you are their direct manager or not.

Raab’s resignation has brought criticism from some who refer to the frailties of employees when challenged over failures to deliver on expected outcomes. The counterargument, if you’ve read the full 48-page report by Adam Tolley KC as I have, is delivering such messages with a lack of people skills alongside noted anger management issues. Regardless of the dedication of an executive, the hours put in and the drive to succeed you still need to be mindful, and respectful and communicate effectively with colleagues.

For me, this simple one-line quote highlights a critical area of opportunity to improve an organisation’s culture.

“Shaping your culture is more than half done when you hire your team.”

Jessica DiLullo Herrin – CEO & Founder

As we’re on this subject of culture and people management it’s worth mentioning the proposed introduction of the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill. The relevance is that this Bill will place a heavier duty of care on the employer to ensure employees are protected from inappropriate behaviours such as intimidation and sexual harassment. The definition of harassment in the context of the legislation is “unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic.” Protected characteristics include age, disability, race, religion, and sexual orientation. If an employee is subjected to behaviour which creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, either by colleagues or 3rd parties, they may bring action against their employer for failing to protect.

Considering this forthcoming legislation and heightened awareness of incidents, and signs of when things have become toxic, now would seem to be as good a time as any to check in and take the pulse of the culture within your company.

Here are a few suggestions that could prove useful in improving the culture and engagement within your business.

12 Ideas to Help Improve Company Culture

  • Clarity of purpose and values – have a clear set of values that you would expect every employee to adopt and that they should be encouraged to actively demonstrate in their dealings with colleagues, customers and suppliers. By contrast highlight those attributes that are not acceptable and the consequences for exhibiting i.e. bullying, sexual harassment
  • Employee happiness and fulfilment – If not already in place set up a regular review such as a pulse survey to check feedback. Regularly assess and make amends where appropriate.
  • Align recruitment and the design of person specifications to the values you hold as a business. Focus on their potential and emotional intelligence over a long CV full of experience. Consider adding scenario questions that provide a clue to personality. e.g.
    1. If you could change one thing about your approach to a challenge, what would it be?
    2. Name one of the main drivers in your personal life
    3. Give an example of a stressful situation you had at work; how did you cope with it?

Always make use of references and consider including others in the recruitment process, often a fresh pair of eyes can pick up on signals others might miss.

  • Create an engaging, fun onboarding/ induction process. Losing staff shortly after recruitment is very common, almost a third quit in this initial period.
  • Provide mentoring support as an option for new joiners, and ensure your mentors are appropriately skilled and prepared for the role.
  • When employees understand what their role is, where it fits within the business and how they help to move the dial toward success they are more fulfilled and happier in their work. Don’t be afraid to share your plans across the business.
  • Celebrate success, personal achievements, and innovative thinking through employee recognition. This raises the self-esteem of the person rewarded and encourages greater engagement in their work.
  • Give employees space to work. Nobody likes to be micro-managed.  Sometimes, on rare occasions, it might be necessary. Encourage the employees to be proactive in asking if they need help rather than spoon-feeding answers.
  • Where there are serious issues of conduct with an employee act swiftly, always investigate thoroughly and be consistent and open about the process. Ensure your grievance and disciplinary policy follows the correct legal process and in turn match the actions and timescales as set out.
  • Make it clear that you actively encourage employees to provide feedback on any area of work in which they feel uncomfortable. Have a whistleblowers charter to protect any member of the team who feels they need to raise a concern ensuring there are no repercussions for blowing the whistle.
  • Office, hybrid, homeworking – whichever path is taken be sure to support fully.
  • Last but far from least lead from the top. Senior management should be aligned and consistent in their messaging and behaviour. Be transparent in your communications, no hidden agendas, jargon, or discrimination with whom you share important news.

If the above is a topic of concern for you please feel free to drop me a line or fill in the confidential enquiry form below and we’ll be in touch. You can email me via

*Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay
Mogers Drewett

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