HR Strategy

How HR pros can repair a culture that has taken a toxic turn

Following allegations of a toxic workplace at ‘The Tonight Show,’ two workplace experts advise how HR pros can try to avoid a similar fate.
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The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon/NBC via Giphy

· 4 min read

Comedian and late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon is known for his celebrity impersonations, sketch comedy, and, now, allegedly heading a toxic workplace at The Tonight Show.

In a recent Rolling Stone article, current and former employees of the show alleged that the Saturday Night Live alum’s behavior, which they described as “erratic,” created a toxic environment, and that HR didn’t help.

“One longtime employee says they never reported their issues to HR because early on in their tenure at the show, they saw colleagues of theirs attempt to speak to [HR] representatives and subsequently get fired from the show,” Rolling Stone reported.

While NBC has not yet responded to HR Brew’s request for comment, a spokesperson for the network provided a statement to Rolling Stone. “[P]roviding a respectful working environment [at The Tonight Show] is a top priority,” the spokesperson said. “As in any workplace, we have had employees raise issues; those have been investigated and action has been taken where appropriate…[W]e encourage employees who feel they have experienced or observed behavior inconsistent with our policies to report their concerns so that we may address them accordingly.”

“This is a high-profile case, but it happens at workplaces of every size, in every industry across the country,” wrote Andrew Challenger, workplace and labor expert at outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, in a press release about the allegations. “When employees work in fear, innovation ceases, and the main focus of workers’ jobs becomes trying to avoid the boss’s wrath. This causes a downturn in employee morale, loss of talent, and the potential for hostile litigation.”

HR Brew spoke with two workplace experts about how HR pros can mend a culture that’s taken a toxic turn.

First step. HR pros first need to own their mistakes and apologize to employees, said Joe Mull, workplace expert and author.

They should also identify how the environment turned toxic in the first place, he said, adding that it’s often because “leaders are treating people as a commodity” and “not treating people humanely.” Only then can HR help the organization move forward.

“If you want to walk back a toxic culture, you have to be prepared for when it happens, because it’s going to happen again,” Mull said. Ask yourself: “How are we going to respond differently as an organization? How are we going to hold people accountable? How are we talking about standards of behavior for members of the team regardless of their station on the org chart?”

Create a culture of safety. When rebuilding a company’s culture, Mull advised that HR teams create a space where employees can speak up—emphasis on the “up.” When toxic situations arise, employees will talk about it among themselves, he said, but not up the chain of command, with the HR and leadership teams who can ignite change.

Exit and stay interviews, employee pulse surveys, and psychological safety training can help, Mull said. Employees should have a way to tell you: “Hey, this behavior isn’t okay, here’s what I’m experiencing.”

HR pros also need to rebrand themselves as approachable leaders. Oftentimes, employees don’t think HR is there to help them, but rather to serve as the messengers and enforcers of corporate policy.

“HR has to focus on rebranding within the organization,” said Joelle Monaco, who runs her own consulting firm and advises companies on people and organizational management. “That looks like getting out from behind their desks and having conversations and getting to know people.”

“Build the space for conversations and have open forum Q&A from HR,” Monaco said. “What happens if the HR team connected with the staff monthly?” Say, for a coffee chat.

Consult outside professionals. HR teams shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and lean into external resources, Monaco advised, noting that HR can be “the smallest department within a business and oftentimes, three people [are] doing all of this work.”

“Connect with outside subject matter experts and resources, because you don’t have to be the one collecting the data. Someone else can collect it,” Monaco said.

This may involve conducting stay and exit interviews through an outside consultant, for example, something that, Monaco said, may make employees feel more comfortable sharing feedback.

“You can definitely see the example from the Rolling Stone article, where things just go under the rug, or there’s retaliation, and then that just creates a culture of trauma and people aren’t going to say anything, especially if they need to work, or they’re going to leave, and that reputation will start to supersede that company,” Monaco said.

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