Updated: Feb 8
Would you rather be doing anything else but your job? According to USA Today, a record 4.3 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in August 2021. In September another 4.4 million workers quit. Some of the reasons cited include “demanding higher pay, better employment conditions and critical support in their daily lives”. All good reasons to leave a company and pursue something new. The reason that troubles me is “better employment conditions”. The "Great Resignation" is forcing many companies to rethink their employee retention strategy.
Many of us have experienced a toxic workplace culture at least once in our career. Political infighting, turf wars, posturing, private agendas, command and control management and self-aggrandizement are all too common. Departments work in silos, data is weaponized, and access to information is used as political currency. Communication works efficiently up the organizational chain of command, but rarely does it travel down well. Employees are often in the dark about decisions that impact the company’s future, and are left filling in their own explanations, fueling the rumor mill.
In a challenging economy, desperate times can sometimes call for desperate measures to deliver financial results. If not executed properly, desperate measures can result in creating a toxic environment. A toxic workplace is an incubator for employee unhappiness where everyone suffers. It is an environment that is often driven by desperation, politics, and fear. Hiding this environment from your customers is like a couple trying to hide their failing relationship from their family and friends. It is impossible.
“Happy customer service equals happy customers”
Bad behavior can exist at all levels of a company. When it exists at the highest levels, it tends to roll down through the rest of the organization. Middle management can see what is happening, but often feel powerless to do anything about it. Good managers try to make the right decisions and “shield” their team from the problem. Other managers “go along to get along”. Some see this dysfunction as sanctioned and therefore acceptable behavior.
Impact on company morale is devastating, especially in customer service. In a toxic environment, customer service will often act with self-preservation as a high priority. Policy is followed exactly, even if it is not appropriate for some customer situations. The feeling of empowerment to make the right decisions for the customer is nonexistent. Some customer service reps will only do what they have to and nothing more. Employee retention is low, absenteeism increases, and customer churn is high. Why? Because employees that don’t feel valued have a choice of where to work, and customers that are not satisfied have a choice of whom to buy from. This has the knock-on effect of increasing the cost of doing business and decreasing revenue and profit.
Unhappy customer service equates to unhappy customers. When an upset customer vents to an unhappy customer service representative, the rep may deflect blame to other departments or back to the customer or confide to the customer what they perceive are their company’s failings. This never goes well with customers and can lead to them seeking out your competitors.
“Financial setbacks are unavoidable for organizations with toxic company cultures. Substantial fiscal losses are incurred due to absenteeism, lower productivity, turnover costs, lost opportunity costs, and withholding of effort due to a lack of enthusiasm. As a result, more resources will be required simply to maintain status quo, and all the while, competitors will gradually gain the upper hand. As time passes, the organization will dig itself deeper and deeper into an emotional and financial pit,” – National Business Research Institute
So how can a toxic workplace culture be addressed? There are no simple fixes for this problem, but there are steps that companies can take to make the situation better for employees and customers.
1) Clear Communications
Clear communication flow is essential for an organization to be healthy. It is important for employees to be heard without fear of retribution. This communication flow cannot be relegated solely to the hierarchical organization structure, especially if the employee has an abusive supervisor or manager. The company must provide a confidential conduit for employees to report abusive situations. All incidences should be investigated and addressed if merited.
Clear communication of a company’s goals, objectives, strategies, and results should flow harmoniously throughout the organization at regular intervals, with status updates. Regularly scheduled town hall meetings are a good vehicle to give and receive information. In a toxic workplace this does not happen with regularity. Decisions are made that impact the company’s strategic direction and often those decisions are not communicated throughout the organization. This breakdown in top-down and bottom-up communications can result in “hallway discussions”, which often lead to distortions, exaggeration, rumors, and mistrust.
2) Recognition and Reward
Recognition and reward programs create goodwill, bring people together, build trust and inspire others. It sends a message that good work and the people doing it are appreciated by the organization. A well thought-out and administered program can be a significant morale booster. Every manager and supervisor should be provided with a tool kit to administer a recognition and reward program. Individuals who are the beneficiaries of a program like this should be recognized company wide, especially at the townhall meetings.
3) Human Skills Training
Human skills or soft skills are what people use to relate to and understand each other. You can imagine how important this is in a workplace. Having good channels for communication is only half of the solution. Being able to communicate effectively with other people, especially those who don’t share your point of view, is a critical skill to have. Regular human skills training programs should be administered across the organization to facilitate better working relations between different individuals and teams.
“Clear communication of a company’s goals, objectives, strategies, and results should flow harmoniously throughout the organization at regular intervals with status updates”
4) Voice of the Employee (VoE) and Voice of the Customer (VoC) Surveys
Periodic VoE surveys is one way to learn how employees feel about their management, working conditions, level of empowerment, recognition, and appreciation by others of what they do. In addition, a VoE survey is a great way to find out what your employees think about how your customers can be better served. Customer service representatives, field service technicians, technical support representatives and other customer-facing groups are often overlooked when it comes to finding out what customers really want. Customers are always telling them, but in some companies, this valuable information is not asked for or collected and acted on.
A VoC survey solicits invaluable opinions from your customers on your company, people, products, services, and ideas. To gain a full understanding of what your customers think about your company, you need to ask them. A VoC survey can be both qualitative and quantitative. Getting qualitative information first is recommended. To lay out a course that will satisfy and delight the customer will be much more successful if you hear directly from your customers about what they want and expect from your company.
Perhaps the most important thing a company can do to diffuse or avoid a toxic work environment is to treat everyone with kindness and respect. It is the responsibility of senior management to set the example and to embrace employees as their single most important resource. If senior management cannot accomplish this, a toxic workplace environment is unlikely to go away.
Make an effort to engage and retain your valued employees! Happy customer service equals happy customers.
To learn more about how to deliver exceptional customer service experiences that drive customer satisfaction, loyalty, revenue and profit, please visit Bass Harbor Group’s website at www.bassharborgroup.com.
Patrick Sandefur is the Founder and Managing Director of Bass Harbor Group / Customer Experience Solutions. His 30+ year career in Customer Service, Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development has given him a unique perspective of what customers want and expect when interacting with a brand.
Read more from Patrick Sandefur by clicking on recent posts below.