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Ministerial resignations haven’t been that unusual in recent history, but Dominic Raab stands out more than most.

The former Deputy PM and Justice Secretary has been ousted after complaints about his behaviour, with accusations that he repeatedly lost his temper at work, and verbally bullied staff. Raab for his part has been less than contrite, blaming the affair on a ‘politicised’ civil service.

Rumours suggest that the government may look to address these concerns by installing their own civil servants, who are more likely to agree with the ministers they work under. But is hiring people who agree with you a good idea, and what message does it send to other victims of workplace toxicity and bullying? Moreover, what lessons can businesses and other organisations learn about how to prevent this kind of toxic work culture?

Uncivil service

The case against Raab had been building for some time. Accusations of bullying towards staff in the Justice Department emerged at the end of last year, with reports in the Guardian and Observer that staff had been offered a ‘route out’ of his department when he was reappointed. This related to a previous stint that had reportedly left some ‘traumatised’, and which had triggered an internal warning to Raab from the department’s permanent secretary.

Following further evidence of bullying claims stretching back to 2018, when Raab was Brexit Secretary, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to investigate. 24 formal complaints were ultimately made against Raab, eight of which were looked into. The report ultimately upheld two of these, concluding that “he went beyond what was reasonably necessary in order to give effect to his decision and introduced a punitive element,” among other issues.

The report did not substantiate the other allegations, however, leading some to come out and defend Raab. While not excusing his behaviour, many cited the high pressure nature of his job as a mitigating factor. Others have put stock in his suggestion that the decision to oust him was the result of coordinated political action. They point to other countries that appoint members of their civil service in order to reduce the propensity for conflict, and the undermining of work.

It is difficult to imagine that dozens of senior members of the civil service across three departments were all engaged in political activism against Raab, however. And regardless of the seriousness of individual complaints, the fact that so many were made over several years points to a recurring issue. If we take the report as read – and it’s hard not to – Raab seems to have been the instigator behind a particularly toxic work culture.

How toxicity undermines organisations

Fundamentally, a toxic work culture is where practices, policies, and individual actions create unhappiness and conflict within the workplace. In many cases, a toxic work culture is instigated and perpetuated by authority figures, who employees then feel unable to challenge. Sometimes toxic behaviour or policies are intended to improve the quality or quantity of work. Instead, they end up having the opposite effect, lowering the quality of people’s output, and stifling their ability to contribute new ideas.

Take a popular present example: Twitter. In a bid to make the company more profitable, Elon Musk has sought to impose a cultural purity among Twitter employees. After firing half of the workforce, his ultimatum – that employees should either commit to “long hours at high intensity” or leave – prompted over a thousand more to quit. Whatever the business has gained in terms of die-hard employees, it has lost in terms of talent, as demonstrated when Musk was forced to hire some of them back. This was hardly the first case of toxicity in Musk’s businesses, either, with a series of lawsuits having been brought against Tesla for racist abuse and sexual harassment.

Another example cropped up in the process of writing this article. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), an interest group claiming to represent 190,000 British businesses, is fighting to stay afloat after allegations of widespread sexual harassment. The appointment of a new CEO has so far done little to quell discontent among its members, and many of its biggest patrons have pulled their support. Or take the less business oriented example of the Metropolitan Police, where thousands of officers are currently under investigation for a litany of toxic behaviour.

A combination of excessive workload, unreasonable demands, inappropriate behaviour, and workplace harassment clearly leads to unhappiness among many employees, and a reduction in their effort and willingness to work. Such a culture can also give the organisation a reputation that makes it difficult to hire people – or at least, the right kind of people. Left unchecked, this can create a paucity of different ideas, insights, and experiences that ultimately puts it at a competitive disadvantage. Employees find that they either have to fall in step with the culture, or suffer in silence, because this is the path of least resistance.

How to fix a toxic work culture

Prevention is always better than the cure, but particularly so in the case of a toxic workplace. A toxic work culture often demands root and branch reform, to the extent that companies can require restructuring and rounds of layoffs when this toxicity goes public. Preventing it from reaching this point first requires that businesses take the possibility of toxic behaviour seriously, and recognise the threat it could pose. In the same way that health & safety policies only work if a safety culture is instilled throughout the business, so too must business leaders be committed to providing a comfortable working environment.

Once the potential for toxicity has been recognised, safeguards can be put in place. This often starts with a robust HR department, with the foremost intention to protect employees from harm, and not to protect the business. Employees need to trust that any complaint they make will be resolved fairly, and not be held against them, or impede their career development. Many an admission of harassment or bullying has gone unreported because the victims fear reprisals, either because the perpetrator is in a position of power, or because the victim is not believed.

Toxicity can also be headed off with leadership and management training. A grounding in conflict resolution and managing difficult behaviour can help to stem arguments, and quell toxicity among employees. However, it should also be recognised that toxic workplaces often start with toxic leadership. More comprehensive management or leadership training can instil good practices that encourage employees, and bring the best out of them. Parallel to this are mental health awareness courses, such as our Mental Health at Work for Leaders course, which can help to spotlight behaviour and language which may cause people to feel uncomfortable.

Where toxic behaviour has become embedded, institutional change is required. While this starts with Change Management, our Managing Poor Performance and Difficult Behaviour or Managing Challenging Conversations courses can also empower leaders to address concerns around toxic behaviour, and take action against those responsible. Adopting a clear, zero tolerance approach to toxic behaviour and an anonymous method for reporting issues will also go a long way to providing accountability in future, and providing necessary reassurance to existing and new hires.


Truly addressing toxicity requires clearer commitments. Organisations cannot simply pay lip service to the idea of preventing toxicity, yet allow it so far as it appears helpful. Too many businesses still hold onto the perception that shouting at, strong-arming and insulting employees is acceptable when it appears to get results, and that employees should simply ‘man up’ and take it.

Failing to get results without getting angry at people is nothing less than a failure of leadership, and does not set people up to succeed. Fixing this requires a reckoning, and an acceptance that toxic behaviour isn’t acceptable in the workplace. When this happens, investing in leadership training, confronting toxic individuals, and improving the mechanisms for reporting poor behaviour should help to set you on the right path.

Is workplace culture affecting performance in your organisation?

Working in partnership with you, we provide insight and expertise to help you address organisational challenges and achieve goals. Whether you are looking to gain a better understanding of your training and development gaps, would like to address certain workplace behaviours, or need bespoke training solutions for a particular challenge, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

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Mark Fryer

26th May 2023

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