Shawn Lim
Aug 23, 2023

Avoiding a toxic workplace culture: Experts on what businesses need to do

After Campaign's exclusive reporting on the internal strife in Circles.Life, we speak to ex-employees and workplace culture experts on what red flags other businesses need to watch out for.

Avoiding a toxic workplace culture: Experts on what businesses need to do

Last month, Campaign exclusively uncovered a grim picture of digital telco Circles.Life, after the company reportedly underwent another round of layoffs and exits partly driven by deep-seated issues that go well-beyond financial pressures.

Since the publication of our initial story, more ex-Circles.Life employees have come forward to share their stories with Campaign, including those in marcomms-related roles, alleging toxicity in the company culture, the need to overcome leadership challenges. while pointing to strenuous working hours to deliver against organisational expectations.

While we won't fully detail these allegations here, Campaign has also spoken with workplace culture experts to get their views on what businesses can learn from this situation.

*Note: Names have been changed to protect employee identities whilst maintaining reporting accuracy

Former employees' experience

Ethan Tan joined as a senior product manager, initially leading the fintech division, but its closure led to his reassignment to another product area.

He faced gruelling work hours, rigid hourly targets, and concerns about company values dictating extra hours. He observed opaque layoffs and questionable practices during his tenure, including misrepresenting product availability.

Tan's discomfort with what he felt were misaligned marketing strategies eventually led him to leave.

Another former employee, Adrian Lim, later joined a media-related role and encountered senior management focused on personal connections rather than suitable appointments.

He faced aggressive behaviours, bullying, and witnessed alcohol-related misconduct. Lim highlighted pervasive gaslighting and a power imbalance among senior personnel.

Attempts to mediate conflicts appeared tokenistic, with external perception management overshadowing genuine issue resolution.

Lim found the company's communication ineffective and doubted the benefits of restructuring efforts. Despite senior-level discussions, the operational impact seemed minimal, causing overburdened employees.

How should businesses create a good culture?

Unfortunately, the above experiences do not exist in isolation, as many companies battle to navigate achieving an employee-friendly and empathetic work culture, whilst balancing the imperative to attend to the bottom-line.

However, a great place to start for a more inclusive and respectful culture comes from the top.

Charlotte Wilkinson, diversity and inclusion and leadership development for Asia-Pacific at LSEG (London Stock Exchange Group), explains to Campaign for this to be executed well, businesses need a strong People & Culture function and leaders need to set out what that means regarding policies and working practices, and push back on destructive behaviours. 

“From what I have seen is that unfortunately, especially in these still relatively young and frankly naive businesses, they do not tend to have these strong, experienced People/HR leaders who can set things straight with founders–so you do not get the good foundations to build a great culture in the first place,” says Wilkinson.

“However, if you do have an inclusive culture, people will feel able to speak up when they are unhappy and not face the consequences, but when you don’t have this inclusive culture, people are afraid of repercussions which seems to be a lot of the case here.”

Wilkinson continues: “Unfortunately, business founders and leaders often set ridiculous expectations on employees and thus set the standards of acceptable behaviour–Elon Musk being the current best example.”

(L-R) Charlotte Wilkinson and Zi Kit Toh

The practice of tracking hourly sign-ups and having penalties for not meeting targets raises, as highlighted ex-employees, raises concerns about potential burnout and unhealthy pressures.

Zi Kit Toh, the founder of Emote, a corporate workplace training platform, tells Campaign that understanding that employee well-being and high-performance are inextricably linked.

Suppose businesses want their employees to perform at a high level consistently. In that case, employees need to be in the conditions to do so as, most of the time, that involves living a balanced life where they can tend to other important aspects of their lives and have sufficient time to rest and recuperate.

“If you look at the highest-performing athletes in the world, their rest and recovery are vital to their ability to perform at high levels consistently–it is a shame that a similar perspective is not adopted for office workers. It really should,” says Toh.

“Employees who are overwhelmed, burnt out, and can't tend to the rest of their lives are typically not very productive. When employees are given more time and space to rest and build balanced lives, it positively affects their work too.”

For example, Microsoft Japan tried a four-day workweek a few years ago. It experienced increased productivity, showing that reduced stress levels and extra personal time lead to higher productivity during work hours.

“So, overall well-being and setting performance goals aren't opposing forces, but well-being is vital in pursuing ambitious performance goals. Are your working practices helping your people be in their best condition for a long time?” says Toh.

“The best way to not achieve your performance goals is to run your people into the ground while chasing them.”

Being better leaders

To prevent power imbalances (as alleged in the case of Circles.Life), companies should begin with a well-being or stress management program when trying to improve the social or relational environment at work.

Toh notes that if a person has ever been in a state of high stress, or exhaustion, they would be familiar with how low their emotional capacity is or how irritable and impatient they become.

When people are at their mental and emotional limits, Toh says it becomes nearly impossible to consider others and their feelings as there is insufficient fuel in the emotional tank.

“I always encourage ensuring that leadership development programs are accompanied by a commitment to creating better working habits, workload and pipeline management, and some form of stress management, emotional intelligence, or resilience program,” explains Toh.

“Companies may find that by improving the baseline stress levels of their leaders, respectfulness and empathy improves along with it. Only after that would I look into developing more skill-based training about communicating effectively and empathetically. Leaders must be in the best condition and capacity to execute what they learn.”

The issue of layoffs and restructuring can be challenging for affected employees and the company's reputation.

Wilkinson says leaders should try to be as humane as possible by giving people as much notice as possible, providing them with flexibility where they can, supporting them in finding new roles and critically don’t over-promise no more cuts to the staff remaining.

She recalls that the many notable layoffs she has seen over the last few years in Singapore have inevitably been further cuts often made to people previously reassured that it won’t happen to them.

For example, regular town halls to share updates and enable managers and leaders to answer employees' questions are critical.  In many businesses, these updates are left to HR to have all the conversations.

However, Wilkinson says it should be those with relationships with their teams, like the managers, who are briefed well enough to fill their teams in and allay fears.

“Layoffs are demoralising for the remaining staff, and people will likely start job hunting before they get pushed in further rounds,” explains Wilkinson.

“Unlike some countries, Singapore also doesn’t have strong protection for staff during retrenchment, so good businesses will go beyond statutory requirements to do more for employees, for example, not cancelling work visas immediately. Hence, people have time to find new roles or try and pack their lives in Singapore, giving them access to career coaches etc.”

Creating a safe environment

Companies need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting toxic behaviours and where these reports are genuinely addressed with accountability.

Toh highlights the scenario where employees are asked to share honest feedback about their leaders' performance. He notes that when leaders dismiss such feedback, become defensive, and justify their actions, it creates a hesitancy to speak up again.

“What is more important than any specific measure to implement, companies must ensure that leaders receive feedback well. Will reporting behaviours be met with understanding, support, and commitment to behaviour change?” asks Toh.

“If employees feel like speaking up is a waste of time (or even worse, to their detriment), you can be assured that they will not speak up.”

Toh advocates for direct feedback delivery, eschewing HR intermediaries, anonymous surveys, or feedback boxes. He asserts that anonymity often hinders accountability as receiving an anonymous complaint can feel like an attack rather than a catalyst for improvement.

Toh also ponders how one can adapt when unsure of whom the change is intended for. According to him, accountability requires clarity on who holds responsibility.

“Unless there is a severe need for anonymity, for instance, reporting inappropriate behaviour or whistleblowing. Feedback about day-to-day undesired behaviours should be approached directly,” explains Toh.

“How companies and leaders communicate will always be more important than the chosen tactic. Any tactic should work if leaders can respond to feedback with understanding and commitment to improving.”

Wilkinson points out that actual progress emerges only within a company that genuinely embraces inclusivity, where individuals can voice concerns without fear of repercussions.

She highlights that processes for whistle-blowing and anonymous reporting find actual utility within an inclusive cultural framework.

In addition, a company needs to be unequivocal about its dedication to DEI and must cultivate an environment of inclusivity, whether it's the initial strides or more advanced aspirations.

“This needs to be communicated across all employee touchpoints: Website, recruitment channels, job descriptions, contracts etc. so that it is embedded throughout the business and talent can make no mistake in what the business believes in as acceptable inclusive behaviours and values,” explains Wilkinson.

“Intrinsically these are the values by which the business operates, but the expected behaviours or outcomes of these values must also be precise. This means that everyone joining the company can be clear about the right and wrongs for this business.”

For example, Wilkinson once ran a project that revolved around the nuances of 'speaking up' and 'whistleblowing’, where these phrases carried distinct interpretations across cultures. In Europe, raising safety concerns was straightforward, yet in certain parts of Asia, critiquing one's boss or management was strictly taboo.

“Careful translation of what whistle blowing and speaking up meant needed to be explored and clarified so that everyone in the business understood the same values,” explains Wilkinson.

Campaign Asia

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