Addressing toxicity in teams a big issue in health-care field

By Staff

Getting to the root cause of a toxic workplace can involve some deep digging and tough choices for senior leadership at health-care organizations, says Toronto health lawyer Kate Dewhirst.

Toxic teams and how to deal with them was the subject of a recent webinar for primary care teams presented by Dewhirst, principal of Kate Dewhirst Health Law, along with co-host Maria McDonald of McDonald HR Law, and special guest, Christine Burych of StarlingBrook Leadership Consulting.

“Toxicity in teams is a big issue for primary care teams such as family health teams, nurse practitioner-led clinics, midwifery clinics, and public health units,” Dewhirst tells, explaining that the session was broken down into two parts looking at the main causes of toxic teams — problematic culture and difficult individuals.

Is it me? Bad bosses

“When you see toxicity as a leader, the first thing you have to do is to engage in a little self-reflection,” Dewhirst says.

While many executives are happy to pin the blame on a single expendable person who can be scapegoated, things aren’t always that simple, she says.

Instead, drawing on advice from the Harvard Business Review, Dewhirst encourages executives to carry out a culture assessment in their workplace, to determine whether there are deeper organizational issues feeding toxicity.

“If people are stressed, leaving the organization, gossiping, taking leaves of absence or saying they don’t want to come to work, then you may have a culture issue,” she says. “You have to ask yourself whether the situation would change if a single person went away, and if it wouldn’t, then you’ve definitely got a culture issue.”

Remedying a faulty workplace culture is no easy feat, says Dewhirst, who explains that the impetus for change can’t come from the bottom and work its way up.

“It has to start at the top, where the boss sets the tone for everyone else,” she says.

Burych then offered her own advice for bosses hoping to spot warning signs in their workplaces and to improve their own behaviour with employees.

“There are things they can do with some self-reflection if they’re contributing to the problem, including checking in and being open with employees and monitoring their emotional regularity, ” Burych says.

No really, it is you: Firing individuals

Sometimes it is not the culture. Sometimes individuals are responsible for problems in the workplace. certain individuals are responsible for problems in the workplace.

Dewhirst says things can get tricky for executives when the person identified as the source of toxicity on a health team is a high-value employee who provides outstanding or unique services.

“Sometimes you have to fire the best person on your team. Even when they’re great at what they do, if they’re killing the workplace culture, and there’s no sign their behaviour is going to change, then they have to go to save the team,” she says, paraphrasing controversial communications guru Gary Vaynerchuk’s recent viral video.

“It can be hard for leaders to grasp that, especially if they’ve had difficulty recruiting for that position in the past,” she adds.

Dewhirst says senior leadership often require counsel to guide them through the process once they’ve reached a decision to terminate someone.

For example, they will need to determine whether the termination will be for just cause or without cause, which will have implications for how much notice or compensation in lieu of notice is due to the employee, she explains.

In addition, Dewhirst says a pause may have to be placed on the termination process in certain situations, such as when Human Rights Code issues are in play, or when the targeted employee has made a harassment claim about another person in the workplace.

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