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Does your toxic workplace need a referee?

4 questions to ask yourself about your organization's workplace environment

4 min read


Toxic work environments, acid situations, office politics and scarce resources can lead to excruciating workplace drama. Unneeded stress is becoming an increasingly targeted operational and HR expense for CFOs to reduce, and a top challenge for management to detect early.

So how can your administration or small business better mitigate rifts, clashes and other toxic workplace situations going forward?

Our recommendation, metaphorically, is to expand your qualified referee count — more specifically, their strategic placement inside your business model.

In my experience as a rebranding and turnaround strategist, multiple eyes and ears on critical and at-risk processes, combined with unbiased honesty and consensus, more quickly reduces toxicity, molds new behavior and increases retained earnings.


I played rugby for 16 years. It’s one of the most physical team sports on the planet, for women and men. Rucking, mauling, tackling and stiff-arming to advance the ball are as aggressive as they sound.

The propensity for infractions (or toxicity) in rugby — high tackles, punching, or worse — has always been considerable. Akin to hockey, the physics and pace of contact that ensue from the moment of kick-off are intense by design. Rugby began in 1823 without any referees, if you can imagine that.  Opposing team captains presided over the match, which were fiercely and physically argued.

70 years later, rugby became a more formal and spectated public contest. One referee was added in 1892 to prevent mayhem, and the game became much less toxic. Scoring outcomes were more clear. However, infractions and punches not seen by the lone rugby referee still went on for another 150 years, up until about 15 years ago.

Today, rugby at all levels has three mandatory referees — one main judge on the field and two sideline judges. They can now see almost everything from every angle, having equal voice calling a player or ball out.

Thanks to adequate refereeing, and instant replay, rugby today is a more cleaner, less toxic sport, and far more family-oriented at the grass roots level. This is why the historical evolution of zero to 3 referees is such an interesting concept for chaotic and toxic workplace leaders to consider more closely.


The logic of refereeing should be tailored to your own workplace dynamics mathematically, especially inside start-up companies.

To begin, simply ask yourself: “Am I, as the business owner (CEO, executive director, or senior manager), the type of leader who:

  1. is more of a quarterback and captain amongst employees, yet typically not seen as a fair referee or mediator?” (in other words, zero referees exist in your workplace)
  2. actually referees well, yet I’m still experiencing cases of employee fraud, supply chain letdowns, customer mistreatment, or team infighting?” (in other words, one referee with multiple playing fields is not enough perspective)
  3. as both QB and captain, serving as the main referee with a second umpire on the sideline, yet one-half of my game field is still unseen?” (perhaps two referees are not enough?)
  4. has all angles of my playing field covered with the right amount of qualified referees?” (in other words, your workplace is finally free of toxicity and unneeded stress and strife)

Whether your business is retail, custom services, professional office or a manufacturing facility, reducing the propensity of a toxic workplace culture is a critical fiscal initiative today. Adding more referees inside your operation may prevent your business model or organization from becoming chaotic or toxic.


  • Expand your qualified referee count according to your business model’s total playing field — limit disputes by refereeing the entire game from all perspectives
  • Place multiple eyes and ears on critical or at-risk process areas to gain a complete perspective — engineer granular solutions where they are needed most
  • Monitor your business model’s growth, stress reduction, and fiscal earnings closely — prove where your profits are coming from to justify investing in strategic referees

Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead strategist at RedBaron Advisors in Charleston, S.C., and Palm Beach, Fla. A former rugby player, Harvard graduate, and expert on workplace and small-business turnarounds, Hanson has written for Harvard Business Review and SmartBrief considerably. He can be reached for consulting roles and speaking gigs via e-mail or over Twitter @RBC_ThinkTank.

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