Contamination Alert! How to Purify a Toxic Workplace Culture

by Jeannie Walters

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(A Best of 360Connext post)

Ever walk in on a couple who is in the middle of a fight? It’s human to want to back away slowly, hoping they don’t see you. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. We don’t like it.

Organizational culture can reveal itself to customers in the same awkward and uncomfortable way. If your culture is toxic, that toxicity permeates through to every interaction a customer may have. If your culture is toxic, that toxicity permeates through to every interaction a customer may have.

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Do you think your culture might be toxic?

Toxic workplace culture

Here are a few warning signs:

  • Just before answering a customer call, the rep may be commiserating with a peer, complaining of work conditions or grumpy bosses. He or she then tries to turn on the charm like flipping a switch, often coming across as insincere or distracted to the customer.
  • When leadership provides updates to the team, they share knowing glances and an attitude of “oh this again.” They know nothing will change and refuse to be inspired.
  • Human resources, now inundated with complaints and issues, doesn’t see things changing, either. They start advising people to move around within the organization instead of solving the problem where they are.
  • Product development teams have ideas backlogged for months at a time. They have permission to create ideas, but are not empowered to execute on them.

Sound familiar?


Nobody likes to work in a place like this. That’s why it’s crucial to be an enlightened leader and assess the situation realistically. Here are a few ideas for how to address a toxic workplace culture, or even help prevent the disease from spreading!

1. Ask for feedback.

Share it openly. Keep asking and share both the raw feedback AND what’s being done about it. Show your teams that they are heard and action is being taken, even if the action is “we can’t do that because…”

2. Bring your entire team on stage.

If the C-Suite is the only group getting recognition or sharing ideas, it’s easy to feel unheard and unimportant. Ask your superstars to share what they are hearing from customers. Invite your customer service reps to a commercial shoot. Help those who work very hard each day feel like they are part of the bigger team.

3. Answer questions publicly.

Don’t hide behind press releases or edited newsletters. Derrick Hall, CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, hosts a monthly chat with employees and fans. Anything goes! Recently, they stared sharing this chat on Periscope so more people could be included.

4. Invite customers into the process!

It doesn’t have to be formal every time. If your next customer advisory board session or focus group isn’t scheduled for months and you feel out of touch, invite a few customers in to see what’s next or try out a new idea. Staying close to customers is a key part of success.

5. Celebrate the successes.

In any extraordinary culture, you see this pattern repeated again and again. Zappos is known for having in-office parades. Rackspace rewards great customer service reps with a straight jacket to recognize their fanatical customer support. Find ways to celebrate. Catch your people doing right!

Toxic cultures are not successful cultures.

They kill ideas and innovation. They prevent people from doing their best. They protect bad leadership. Take a look around. How toxic is your culture? Is it slipping? Start the toxic cleanup today.

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience. Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, LinkedIn Learning instructor, TEDx speaker, and President-Elect of the National Speakers Association Illinois chapter. Learn more here.

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