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How to turn toxic workplaces into happy, productive ones

A toxic work environment can cost a company money, productivity, and talented employees who feel they have no choice but to leave, says Toronto author and conflict resolution consultant Janice Quigg.

And lawyers — even though they’re trained to deal with conflict every day — are certainly not immune to the problems that lead to workplace toxicity, says Quigg, a lawyer, coach and organizational consultant.

“Lawyers, as a group, are notoriously unhappy compared to other professionals,” she tells

“They’re often so busy dealing with client files that they don’t take enough time to deal with issues at the firm.”

A toxic workplace can emerge in several forms, Quigg says. There can be a lack of trust in the leadership, which can create an environment of backhanded actions, subtle forms of sabotage, and secrecy.

There can also be hidden conflict, which exists just below the surface, where employees are afraid to speak up in case it negatively affects their careers, she says.

A lack of transparency from the top down can really unnerve employees, especially if they’re concerned about the financial security of the company, Quigg says, adding a lack of acknowledgment can also make employees feel unappreciated and undervalued.

Another type of toxic workplace can exist when employees feel they must be constantly on the clock — which is quite common in law firms, she says.

“You feel compelled to send emails out at 10 o’clock at night just to make sure the clients feel they’re being well taken care of.”

Lawyers also are under tremendous pressure to meet targets for billable hours, which can make balancing personal and professional lives a struggle, Quigg says, noting that lawyers are at risk for health problems, increased stress, and substance abuse.

Some people develop anxiety just from thinking about going into work, she says.

The effects are quite costly. Toxic workplaces tend to have high turnover. This means companies face significant hiring costs, which includes recruiting and interviewing time — all of which takes away from a firm’s billable hours.

There are also training costs, Quigg says, and if a new employee finds the culture isn’t a good fit and leaves quickly, then the company must train yet another new employee. It can take some time before a new associate becomes profitable, she says.

There are also termination costs when someone leaves the company, including exit interviews, severance, or administration costs.

A toxic workplace also tends to be less productive, with higher absenteeism, and employees who are more likely to be sick, Quigg says.

Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to turn things around, she says.

“Treat people well and they will give you 200 per cent. It’s that simple,” Quigg says. “Listen to people, treat them well, work together and you can create an exceptional culture.”

A Harvard-trained mediator, Quigg focuses on organizational leadership and the cost of conflict. She’s co-authored two books — The Soul of Success and Professional Performance 360, Special Edition: Success — both of which received The Editor’s Choice Award. She is currently working on her next book, An Exceptional Workplace: The Secret to Creating Irresistible Companies that Attract and Engage Talented Employees.

Quigg’s consulting firm focuses on conflict resolution, with a mission to help companies develop workplaces that attract and retain talented people.

The most important step a company can take is to stay in tune with their employees, she says. And that doesn’t just mean a monthly pizza lunch or even an annual review. Make it a common practice to sit with your employees, even just for a casual coffee once in a while, and ask how things are going.

She says employees should be made to feel that what they say won’t be held against them. A company needs to have empathetic leaders that are open to feedback.

“If an employee doesn’t feel comfortable telling their manager that they feel underappreciated, they’re just going to look for an exit strategy,” Quigg says.

Happy employees are healthier, more creative, and ultimately more profitable, Quigg says, citing a decade of research found in Shawn Achor’s best-selling book The Happiness Advantage.

Toxic work environments aren’t limited to the legal profession, Quigg adds.

In fact, a recent poll from Monster Canada found that one in four Canadians has left a job due to stress. A recent Gallup poll found that 70 per cent of the workforce is disengaged. And nearly one-fifth of American workers find their workplace hostile or threatening, according to a study by the Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles.  

“Conflict is everywhere,” says Quigg. “Everybody has at least one horrible story to tell about somewhere they’ve worked.”

Quigg, a construction lawyer, started focusing on improving negative workplaces after hearing a number of disturbing stories from friends, family members and clients — some were even experiencing extreme anxiety about going to work.

“I had clients who were grown men, construction workers, almost in tears about having to go to work because they were treated so poorly,” she says.

“I felt terrible that people spend most of their waking hours at work, and are so miserable there. I am really passionate about helping companies turn that around so that employees can feel happy, healthy and valued.”

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