Toxic Workplace

Why Does It Happen?

High performing employees, if they are toxic, will cost the company money.
Oriana Scislowicz, BS, LVT, says the benefits of handling your toxic team members include increased efficiency, a better capacity for resilience and critical thinking, and possibly a longer, healthier and more balanced life.

There are many reasons why a toxic work environment happens.

The nature of the veterinary industry seems to be predisposed to a toxic environment. We are a for-profit industry dealing with life and death. This is extremely emotional and draining which can allow toxicity to leak in.

Another factor is a large portion of veterinarians are introverts. “Introverts often lack the capacity to manage teams,” Shawn McVey explains, “because they’ve never been told that they had to. So they don’t know how.” In the absence of strong team leadership, a toxic environment can develop.

Personal struggles/issues are brought into the workplace that contributes to the toxic atmosphere.

Many toxic team members are allowed to continue working because they are high performers and technically good at their jobs. However, when you look at this objectively, they end up costing the company more than lower performing team members who are supportive of the work culture.

“Specifically, avoiding a toxic worker was worth about $12,500 in turnover costs, but even the top one percent of superstar employees only added about $5,300 to the bottom line,” reads a write-up from the Harvard Business Review (HBR).

“Although toxic workers may be faster than average employees, they don’t necessarily produce higher quality work,” the HBR article reads.

Even the technically best employee will end up costing the company money, as well as decreasing efficiency of the team if they are toxic.

Leaders may ignore toxic behaviors because they believe that, the employee will quit and leave the practice short-handed. This is a big mistake.

“But one particular skill does not overcome the attitude that toxifies the environment. Staff loses confidence in leadership when you keep bad apples around. When you fire them, you restore confidence in the ability to lead, and staff members know that skills are not as important as harmony in a workplace environment. Culture is more important than skill sets.”-Wilson

How Do You Know Your Team is Toxic?

Pay attention to Communication. Poor communication.
There is little to no communication at all levels of the company. Policy changes are not communicated. Indirect forms of communication are used, i.e. going through a person to communicate important information. People may withhold information or give misleading information. There is inconsistency with following policies. Every employee does things their own way and there is no unity.

Nothing seems to change people’s attitudes. People stop speaking up with their concerns. They feel nothing will change and it may make the workplace more difficult for them.

People justify behavior with emotions. There are emotional outbursts and people will justify poor behavior with their emotions.

Cliques: You may notice that there are cliques that have formed. These will exclude certain people and communication suffers, adding to the toxic atmosphere.

Money is the bottom line: Yes, we all like to make money, and a business can’t survive without turning a profit, but toxic businesses take that to a whole other level. They pay people poorly and put a premium on profit at the expense of everything else. While this may not be as commonplace in the veterinary industry, it may be a perception of the veterinary staff as medical equipment is expensive and salaries are low.

People work too hard, or not enough: Ironically, though people hate working at toxic offices, they often feel forced to work longer hours by their bosses or co-workers. Other employees have learned how to skate by. Whatever the case, it adds to the toxic atmosphere.

If you are seeing these behaviors in the workplace it is likely that there is a toxic environment and poor workplace culture.

How do you fix a toxic team? Good communication is key to overcoming a toxic workplace environment.
Direct Communication: This means that instead of talking about a problem with another team member, you are going directly to the source and having a discussion. This must be supported by all team members. If someone is coming to you about another team member, you must direct them to discuss it with the person in question and avoid workplace gossip. This is an easy concept but will take time and practice to ensure the whole team is on board.

Open workplace communication must be encouraged. Hold quick morning meetings with co-workers that discuss how the day will go and along with any obstacles that may present themselves and how they will be overcome.

Monthly team meetings are a must, and commonly get overlooked in our industry as we are always busy and they are deemed “less important.”

Hold semi-Annual meetings with the sole purpose of allowing team members to exchange opinions on everything from workflow processes to current company morale.

Scheduling regular one-on-one meetings allow managers to touch base and ask what is going well and what needs improvement. Discuss interpersonal issues with other team members so as to address these early on rather than letting them fester.

If a particular staff member is a source of toxicity then it needs to be addressed directly with them. Having a direct discussion about the problems and set clear-cut goals. Give them a 90-day time frame in which they need to solve the problems. There should be meetings every 2 weeks with feedback. If they fail to show improvement in the 90 days then leadership needs to follow through and terminate this employee.

The bottom-line is that communication is key to a cohesive workplace. This must start with leadership. If toxic staff members refuse to change then it is necessary to terminate them. While this hurts in the short term, long term you will have a much happier and more efficient workplace.

Toxic work environments are draining on everyone on the team. It is not easy to fix and will require some difficult decisions. With good communication and perseverance, however, you will improve your workplace culture and eliminate the toxic elements in your practice.  

References and Resources
Why toxic teams plague the veterinary profession – DVM360
Toxic employee or superstar: Who has a greater impact? – DVM360
Toxic veterinary teams: What they are, why they’re so bad for veterinary practices, and where your hope for change lies – DVM360
It’s Better to Avoid a Toxic Employee than Hire a Superstar – Harvard Business
That moment when you realize your team isn’t talking – DVM360
Protecting Your Practice from Toxic Teams – Veterinary Business Advisors
Creating a Toxic-Free Practice Environment – Veterinary Team Brief
Tips for Team Communication – Veterinary Team Brief
When Techs Hurt Techs: Bullying and Horizontal Violence in Veterinary Medicine – Veterinary Team Brief
Toxic Superstar Employees: Should They Stay or Should They Go? – Veterinary Team Brief

How to Stop Tech-on-Tech Bullying – David Liss, BA, RVT, VTS (ECC)
Is there a bully in the house?  – David Liss, BA, RVT, VTS (ECC)
Reducing Workplace Toxicity – Deborah Stone, MBA, CVPM