Fixer: How can I begin to rectify new organisation’s rotten culture?

I don't know how to start tackling high attrition rates and poor levels of engagement

I started an HR manager role at a new organisation six months ago, and after getting to know the team and running a few initial engagement surveys, it’s become apparent that the company has quite a toxic culture, which is perpetuated by those at the top. We have a very high attrition rate, and engagement rates are pretty poor. Something needs to change but I don’t know where to start. Would it be best for me to tackle this internally, or should I just go straight to getting help from a third party?

I will start by saying you are in a responsible HR role that can make a difference, so try to tackle this internally. External help often supports good internal work rather than the other way around.

To begin with, take a step back and ask yourself what it is you are trying to fix: engagement, culture, attrition, leadership, or all of them? From this, you can then gear your efforts towards solving the problem(s). Everyone wants to have good engagement levels, and you can get there through good people management. It sounds simple, but this covers every aspect of the HR sphere and begins with that first interaction somebody has with your organisation, all the way through to – and even beyond – when they have left. 

Leadership and management would be a sensible place to start. They are already in the organisation, likely to be aware of the problems and will be key to fixing them. In theory, if people are well managed, developed and motivated, they are likely to stay longer and this will showcase itself in higher engagement levels. Whether they need development is a separate question, but their buy-in and involvement is key. 

Labelling the situation a ‘toxic’ culture is something you may want to avoid. Good data and evidence on what the problems are will give you credibility. With this in mind, challenge your current view and see where you can find wider qualitative and quantitative data that tells you a story of what is going on, then deliver that message to your senior leadership team and work with them to resolve the problems. 

An experienced HR professional, Idris Arshad is currently a people and inclusion partner at south-east London-based hospice St Christopher’s. He has previously worked with a number of faith-based charities, as well as with housing and homelessness organisations, and also lectured on a part-time basis at London Metropolitan University. He was recently mentored as part of CIPD’s Aspiring HR Director Mentoring programme. 

His replies are written in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views of People Management or the CIPD, nor are they a substitute for professional legal advice. Not all queries submitted can be answered, and personal replies are not possible. To pose an anonymous query, visit