Toxic behavior, no matter how small, can escalate and create a poor work culture. Here is how to nip smaller issues before they become big ones.

by Catherine Mattice
Date Published April 26, 2022 - Last Updated January 20, 2023

This article first appeared in ICMI, a partner publicaiton. 

Negative behaviors come in many forms, but all are harmful to employees and the work environment. Even those who are not on the receiving end of negative behavior (e.g., witnesses) are affected. Though not all negative behavior rises to the egregious levels of harassment, discrimination or violence, all should be addressed by managers to ensure employees feel safe and engaged. Also, it's easier to step in early on, before it escalates.

This article will discuss negative behavior as a social phenomenon and warning signs it may be occurring in your workplace, and provide managers with useful tools for addressing it.

Negative behavior at work is costly for organizations. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association in 2010, negative behaviors at work cost organizations an estimated $300 billion dollars annually. These costs came as a result of higher turnover, higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and more.

Why is the cost so high, you might ask? For one, negative behaviors like bullying, unprofessionalism, and harassment are a social phenomenon. While those on the receiving end are typically hit the hardest, others around the target are also affected.

Here’s an example:

Pam is new to a call center. Her desk neighbor, Angela, has been there for five years. Angela often overhears Pam’s conversations and is quick to tell her when she does something incorrectly. When Pam asks a question, Angela says things like, “It’s really not that hard, Pam. What are you not understanding?” Angela says these things out in the open for everyone to hear.

Not only will Pam be affected (being on the receiving end of the behavior), but all those who work around the two also experience negativity. They might wonder if they’ll be next, or spend time gossiping about it. Just being around the negativity can disrupt their own productivity.

In addition, studies show that when less egregious behaviors like incivility occur but go unchecked, the behavior likely escalates into more frequent and aggressive behavior. The aggressor essentially gains permission to continue to act this way, and it becomes more and more normalized to them and those around them.

Managers play a key role in squashing negative behavior before it gets worse.

The first step is being able to identify when bad behaviors are plaguing the workplace, even if they aren’t receiving complaints or witnessing the behaviors firsthand. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that 75% of employees do not report harassment when they witness or experience it – and I suspect that carries over into other behaviors such as incivility and bullying.

Warning signs of toxic behaviors in the workplace include the following:

Communication breakdown.

Employees stop collaborating entirely to avoid toxic interactions. Miscommunication and lack of communication makes effective and efficient work impossible.

Higher absenteeism.

A toxic work environment can be taxing on employees, and so they call in sick to avoid the situation. Also note that hundreds and hundreds of research articles from around the world have identified correlations between toxic workplaces and psychological and physical damage.

Wait, there's more. To read the rest of this article, click here

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a Strategic HR Consultant who assists organizations in building positive cultures through HR practices. The founder of Civility Partners, Catherine is a widely recognized thought leader, and she is passionate about employers’ responsibility to create the opportunity and environment for employees to thrive. She has appeared on or in NPR, CNN, USA Today, Time and more as an expert, she has published articles in a wide variety of venues, and was a regular contributor to

Tag(s): supportworld, best practice, employee engagement


More from Catherine Mattice :