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How do you stop toxicity from contaminating your culture?

Written By
Simon Dumont
Vaida Baio | VP of People at Landbot

In 2018, ‘toxic’ was declared Word of the Year by The Oxford Dictionary—beating stiff competition from ‘gaslighting’ and ‘techlash’.

Among the top 10 uses of ‘toxic’ that year, there are a few standouts. ‘Masculinity’ is at #2 thanks to the #me_too movement. ‘Algae’ makes a surprise appearance at #9, catapulted up the charts by Florida’s toxic algae disaster that same year.

And at #5 and #7, we have ‘environment’ and ‘culture’. Here’s what The Oxford Dictionary said about them:

"Toxic environment’ has been more frequently used in reference to harmful workplace environments, and the toll this takes on the workforce’s mental health. From overly demanding workloads to outright sexual harassment, many companies have been exposed as crucibles for toxic culture this year.”

What makes us choose ‘toxic’ to describe workplaces—and masculinity, algae, etc.—over other words? Like ‘poisonous’. Or ‘venomous’. Or ‘harmful’.

One theory: toxicity spreads. When we say something is ‘toxic’, we’re raising a big, yellow biohazard flag that without action, nearby objects will soon get contaminated. A toxic environment will attract toxic employees—and toxic employees will create a toxic culture.

So when you spot toxic behaviour in your team, how do you stop it spreading? And how do you prevent toxicity from infecting your workplace altogether? We asked Vaida Baio, VP of People at Landbot, to don a hazmat suit and give us her thoughts.

What is toxic behaviour?

While it depends on the company culture, there are some aspects of behaviour that would be toxic in most companies. 

When there’s always something wrong when team members try to collaborate with an individual, for example. Or if someone isn’t sharing concerns or feedback openly, but is doing it behind people’s backs. Or if someone is criticising others in an emotional way, without specifying facts or giving a suggestion on how to improve—that’s a common thing toxic people do.

But it's important to add that it’s not always about one employee. A lot of the time, toxic culture comes from the leadership style or values at a company. Values can seem nice on paper, but how leaders actually treat people, who gets promoted, the kind of behaviour that is promoted, and the kind that’s not accepted is what creates space for toxicity to thrive—or not.

So while a single employee may be acting in a certain way, it might be because this behaviour is rewarded in the company.

Do you have some examples of toxic behaviour you had to deal with?

I've definitely been in a few situations like this. At first it’s just some small concerns from the team about that person's behavior. But when you dig deeper, you see that there are big problems with collaboration—and it’s your job to try and understand what’s causing them. 

“Toxicity is often a symptom of forgetting to do the basics of HR properly. At some point, this catches up to you.”

<quote-author>Vaida Baio<quote-author><quote-company>VP of People at Landbot<quote-company>

For example, I remember someone who never gave any authority to others. They tried to make all the decisions, and if the choice was someone else’s they wouldn’t accept it. Others ended up feeling like they couldn’t contribute, or that everything they suggested was wrong. After a while, people stopped proposing alternative ideas altogether.

I discovered the problem by being really proactive about gathering feedback when I joined the company, both through surveys and direct conversations. I talked with a lot of people early on to see if they’d open up. The goal was to create a trust-based environment where people could share concerns whenever they have them—and they did.

Once feedback about a specific person was repeating, that confirmed it.

I also have an example of a manager that didn’t value their team. Managers can impact a very broad spectrum of people around them, so that was really toxic and demotivating for the whole team.

Which steps should HR people take once they’ve identified toxicity?

There’s no one-size-fits-all-solution. First I spend time gathering as much feedback as possible and making sure I understand it. Not just from one person, but a range of perspectives across the team. Sometimes one perspective can be very subjective.

Then it’s about making sure this feedback gets to the right person—but also in the right way. In some situations, it's possible to ask their colleagues to talk to them directly. If there’s still some kind of trust or relationship, I always see if there’s an option to start a direct conversation. The more direct feedback, the better.

But sometimes it gets to a point where that’s not an option. That’s when HR or a manager needs to collect the feedback and bring it to this person. In these cases, it's really important to emphasise that the cultural aspects of their role are just as important as their performance, skills, and knowledge.

I’ve learned that in more technical teams, team members can feel like strong coding and analysis is enough. But how you behave is equally important—and we need to transmit that as managers. It’s a hard job to give that feedback in a way that gives clarity on what they can do better, and also on how they’re affecting their team.

Can consistent feedback and coaching change someone’s behaviour?

It can sometimes. In the case I was talking about before, the person wasn’t really aware of the impact their behaviour was having on others.

Just having that feedback collected and delivered in the right way improved the team dynamic.

It also started a conversation about their role in general and the responsibilities it includes towards other people in the team. In some cases, toxicity can come from a lack of clear job descriptions or expectations around what we expect from people—both in terms of their work, and their behaviour. Someone might not realise they’re being toxic.

How can companies prevent toxic behaviour in the first place? 

It's important to have HR involved in the hiring process. Sometimes companies don't involve HR enough. But People teams can really help make the interviews organised and consistent for each candidate—not forgetting the cultural and behavioural aspects. 

If you leave hiring entirely to each team, they’ll often focus more on the job itself and less on culture.

It's also super important to have internal job descriptions—not just the ones you post on the web—with well-defined roles, responsibilities, and expectations when a person joins the company. 

You can then review these every few months, or every half a year. People’s roles will naturally evolve over time, or when new people join the team. In fast-growing startups it’s extra important to keep track of this so people have clarity. A year after someone joins, it might feel like a completely different company.

“People in technical teams sometimes feel like strong coding and analysis is enough. But how you behave is equally important—we need to transmit that as managers.”

<quote-author>Vaida Baio<quote-author><quote-company>VP of People at Landbot<quote-company>

Onboarding plays a key role as well. It's a crucial moment to really help people understand the values, culture, and way of working at your company. You can’t just take this for granted, because every company is so different. 

It’s about doing the basics really well—nothing fancy. Toxicity is often a symptom of forgetting to do the basics of HR properly. At some point, this catches up to you. 

How hard is it for a team to recover from toxicity?

Ideally you’d notice the toxicity early and react with feedback. If this doesn't work, you might need to change their role, or even let that person go. Keep in mind that if you delay by two months, maybe this person isn’t enjoying working at your company at all—and this will affect the wider team. This situation isn’t good for anyone. In a different environment, they could be motivated and happy. 

If you take too long, toxicity can spread. Then it can take quite a bit of time to bring back people’s motivation and trust in others. These things take time to build in the first place. You might have to build them again from scratch.

What advice would you give to HR people who suspect toxic behaviour?

Don't wait to act. Sometimes you get a little sign, and you think, “Oh, but maybe this isn’t too bad.” So you end up waiting for something big to happen.

Instead, work with their manager to give the feedback immediately. Feedback is digested better in smaller bites. When it's something small, the person can act on it more effectively because they know exactly what the issue is. It’s harder for people to know how to respond when feedback accumulates.

So create a feedback culture of sharing often and early, with as much context and as many concrete examples as possible. This fosters a ‘radical candour’ environment where people can talk directly about what’s going wrong.

Oliva therapist photograph

by Oliva therapist