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Is your workplace toxic?

Are you brave enough to take a hard look at your organization’s culture?

Like, be super real with yourself. Do you really want to know?

Years ago an old coworker told me that our company was the worst place she has ever worked at. I was like REALLY!?!? I could think of worse.

I was carrying so much workplace trauma that I couldn’t see the red flags. I thought she was exaggerating or being overly sensitive or dramatic. She was a young queer professional that had zero room for boomer inflexibility. Their manager didn’t exactly refuse to use the chosen pronouns but he definitely expressed having a hard time with the idea. So of course I thought this was the issue she was referring to. 

I remember talking to her manager - a well-mannered older man full of gray hair. He brought up how kids these days were confusing with their gender identities. I remember his face when I said “well gender is a social construct.” And he seriously looked like he was choking on something. “I’ve never heard of that. What does that even mean?” So I explained. And then he tells me that he has only ever known gender to be either male or female as ordained by god. 

I gasped. But internally because I am not dumb and wasn’t going to commit career suicide, of course. I thought God wasn’t supposed to come to work. Especially when you are getting government money to pay people’s salaries. I looked around furtively hoping no one overheard. I wasn’t sure if my next comment would be helpful or offensive but I took a risk. “Ummm…maybe don’t say that. I know you are coming from a good place but someone might be so offended that this might turn into an HR case.” 

He insisted that he didn’t know why it would turn into something ugly given that he couldn’t see how he did something wrong. So that was my cue to drop it. I had done my part. 

So was this what made a workplace toxic? I guess that required a bit of attention. But was the rest annoying or did it actually qualify as toxic? Could any workplace be better? Don’t they all have their own issues? Was it a matter of perspective?

When I tell you I want to go back in time and hug myself and tell her to pull out her phone and do a quick google of what makes a workplace toxic! But I didn’t know. And I stayed there until it crushed my mental and physical health. 

So here is a quick rubric. Toxic work environments and the employees in them often demonstrate negative characteristics, like bullying, distrust, othering or labeling, creating in-groups or cliques, pessimism, making disparaging remarks about colleagues and leadership, and lack of employee engagement. 

These are only the symptoms though. 

I really do want you to care about the quality of experience your employees are having at work. But I am too pragmatic to ignore the numbers. Your HR manager sinks about 25% of their time resolving conflicts at work. Your HR salary budget is getting devoured by conflict. Just to give you perspective, that is about $26,250 a year for an average Central Washington HR manager wage. And honestly they’re probably not even resolving anything. They are most likely pacifying.  

That is just the time used up by conflict among employees. But what about lack of employee engagement? What about the halted progress from pessimism and lack of trust?

I’ve worked in places that check ALL OF THOSE BOXES. All of them. I didn’t know better then. I didn’t know how to check or test for work culture so I accepted jobs based on the work I was passionate about. I’ve learned since then that you pick a job based on the culture because that’s what will affect your quality of life the most.

Toxicity is demoralizing. Toxicity leads to merely surviving. There is no remarkable work in toxic environments. It’s expensive to make an inch of progress. Survival gives you tunnel vision and blinds you to possibilities. Toxicity creates more toxicity until it snowballs. (It also may leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit.)

Trust me. Leaving it alone is only going to make it worse. The moment you see vestiges of these characteristics showing up you need to do something about it. 

I can give you tips and tricks, super quick actionable advice on how to handle workplace gossip. We are fans of the super quick and effective “we talk to people not about people, do you want me to go with you to talk to them?” That sends a strong message right away. But this is only addressing symptoms. When you see gossip at work, you can’t simply stay at the shallow end or the roots of the problem will grow and eat you alive.

You have to go to the heart of the issue. Create a virtuous cycle by building a culture of honesty, healthy conflict, acceptance, respect, and trust. Roll up your sleeves and lead the way by modeling. 

As a leader you go first. You speak in vulnerability when you have made mistakes. You go first in accountability and make it obvious what you are working on. You go first and normalize saying “I failed” or “I fell behind.” Thank people for disagreeing with you.

You really have to be brave to self-reflect and ask how you contributed to setting up this dynamic. It’s one of the hardest things to do because it’s hard to see our blind spots. It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge that you aimed for something and the actual impact of your behavior fell short. But asking “How did I help create this toxic dynamic?” is the shortcut. That’s where you begin to pull up the roots. 

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