Do you work in a toxic workplace? I'll share what that looks like in a minute. But if you do, there comes a time when we all need to evaluate our work environment and the people we work with to determine if it's hurting our career path or, much worse, our health and well-being.
If you decide to take the higher road and stick around, safeguarding against a toxic workplace falls squarely on the shoulders of every employee. Whatever your level or function, everyone needs to be watching out for one another by weeding out the few bad apples that may be taking morale down.
In his book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, executive coach Ray Williams describes the characteristics of toxic workplaces, and the part that dysfunctional leaders play in creating them. As he writes in Psychology Today, toxic workplaces will manifest in the following seven ways:
1. All sticks and no carrots
Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems, and rarely give positive feedback for what is going right. Or mostly carrots for the best performers, sticks for the rest.
2. The creeping bureaucracy
There are too many levels of approval and management to get things done and a singular focus on micromanaging employees.
3. The gigantic bottom line
Profits, beating the competition, and cost cutting are solely focused on without consideration of other bottom lines.
4. Bullies rule the roost
Management bullies employees, or tolerates bullying when it occurs among employees.
5. Loss of the human touch
People are considered to be objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their happiness or well-being. There's also little evidence of leaders' compassion and empathy for employees. As a result, you'll encounter high levels of stress, turnover, absenteeism, and burnout.
6. Internal competition
Employees must compete internally, which is enforced by a performance assessment system that focuses on individual performance rather than team performance.
7. Little or no concern for work-life balance
People's personal or family lives must be sacrificed for the job; overwork or workaholism is commonly evidenced by 50-hour-plus workweeks, little or no vacation time, and 24/7 availability for work communication. There is little or no commitment to making contributions to the community, worthy causes, or making the world a better place.
How do you stop it?
A good starting point is to make sure that all employees are keeping a finger on the pulse of the organization to make sure people are being cared for to do their best work, and that fear is being pumped out of the workplace regularly.
When toxic behaviors persist, here are some strategies to consider:
- Conduct a culture or employee engagement survey that reflects on the work environment and management's performance or leadership. If they're the problem, HR needs to step in and play a role in assessing organizational health.
- Have HR and well-meaning managers conduct stay interviews to keep good people from leaving.
- To weed out toxic employees, include behaviors like "respect," "teamwork," and "encouragement" in your performance planning and then measure them.
- Invest in coaching for managers and staff.
- When dealing with a toxic co-worker who is apt to turn a discussion into a he-said, she-said mud-sling, bring in a third party to document meetings to protect yourself from drama.
- Every employee needs to learn the value of setting boundaries. Define what is acceptable behavior and what isn't--then communicate assertively with appropriate boundaries.
- Expose the problem by promoting a healthy culture and living out shared values to squeeze out unwanted things like gossip, bullying, sabotage, disrespect, and insubordination. The larger the group campaigning against toxic behaviors, the better they'll be rooted out.