6 ways to prevent a toxic work culture

By Robert Half on 19 October 2023
Estimated Read Time: 4 minutes

High employee turnover rates, low staff morale, widespread gossip – these are symptoms of a toxic office in Hong Kong.

Elaine Lam is Managing Director of Robert Half Hong Kong, overseeing business operations in the region. With close to 20 years of experience in the recruitment industry, Elaine is a respected thought leader on employment, recruitment, and workplace trends. She says another symptom of a toxic workplace is "a constant flow of negative energy. A group of negative people can influence people who are neutral. You always want to make sure you have more positive people than negative people. That is step one to improving workplace culture."

As an employer, how aware are you of the workplace culture in the office?

The goal of every employer is to boost productivity among employees. Even if you prefer a more traditional hard-line approach to management, there is a fine line between a driven work environment and one that is overly competitive to the point of toxicity.

Related: How to improve workplace productivity

Here, we examine some common tactics and mind-sets that may contribute towards the creation of a toxic work culture, and some tips on how to improve workplace culture in a healthy way.

1. Give credit where credit is due

Do your employees take credit for their colleagues’ work? Do they belittle each other’s efforts to make themselves look good? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, but it doesn’t have to be that way within the company.

Ensure that everyone who contributes to a project is getting the credit that he or she deserves by observing your staff regularly and asking for updates on their progress.

Related: Conflict management in the workplace

2. Encourage team sharing

Though there can only be one top performer at a time, it doesn’t mean everyone else is incompetent. It’s normal to incite some friendly competition among your employees, but how you deal with the results of the competition matters. Do you subject the “losers” to humiliation or ridicule? Doing this could lead to resentment and the loss of morale. You want your employees to be driven, not discouraged.

Consider arranging for top performers to mentor the ones who are having trouble hitting their targets. This will naturally foster a positive working environment, and results in a more cohesive team.

3. Avoid playing favourites

A team leader that plays favourites and scapegoats is a huge contributing factor to a toxic work culture.

Not only does this behaviour alienate the designated scapegoats, it can induce bullying and the formation of cliques, leading to the eventual breakdown of the team.

Related: The benefits of good staff morale

4. Lead by example against a toxic work culture

Do you heavily penalise or criticise your staff for making mistakes while excusing your own blunders? Do you set rules that you don’t follow?

A good boss admits to mistakes and lives by his/her own code of conduct, whereas a bad boss merely enforces it on others.

5. Provide adequate outlets for mutual feedback

It’s important to provide employees with an avenue to communicate with the management. Assure them that negative feedback will be considered and addressed, and offer incentives for sharing ideas that can improve the workplace.

People like to know that they are doing well in their roles, especially if they are exceptional at it and love what they do.

Related: Why is employee engagement so important?

6. Encourage an open office culture

If your employees are hesitant to approach you for help, there’s a good chance that it is fear holding them back, not awe. While boundaries are important in maintaining your role as a leader, it also pays to encourage your employees to approach you with their concerns or if they need assistance.

You might find that they have good ideas to share, but were afraid of being criticised and maybe even blacklisted.

"To improve workplace culture you must avoid a culture where people gossip. They might not agree with management or the company's decisions but instead of going to a manager to speak about their concerns, they gossip. You want to create an open culture where people can voice out their view and create a safe environment where people are willing to speak up," says Elaine.

As a leading voice for DEI in the workplace, Elaine has been instrumental in helping her businesses build fair and equitable workplaces that attract and retain exceptional talent. She is a strong advocate for workplaces that allow each team member to bring their whole self to work, resulting in more engaged, productive, and loyal teams for her clients.

All in all, fostering a harmonious working environment is not as straightforward as simply following these tips closely. If you’re guilty of any of the above-mentioned scenarios, don’t worry – it’s not too late to resolve matters.

By keeping the lines of communication open and fostering a collaborative work culture, you can turn a toxic workplace into a dynamic environment where employees are happy, motivated, and engaged with their roles.


Learn from Robert Half’s expert recruiters so you can build a talented team of employees or advance your career. Operating in over 300 locations worldwide and as one of the leading recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, Robert Half can provide you with assistance where and when you need it.

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