What is a toxic workplace, and what can I do about it?

Listening to the Experts

Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources describes the toxic work environment: “I’ve heard people talk about it as the result of a boss or even a coworker who is toxic. There can be cultures, like the Trump White House, where tearing each other down is encouraged. Does that count? I just saw it defined as any workplace where ‘the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those cause serious disruptions in the rest of your life.’ Wikipedia says ‘significant drama and infighting, personal battles.’ … I think that’s the problem – if it doesn’t have an understood definition, it isn’t possible to pin down the cause or talk about what to do about it.” The most common situation, perhaps, is where “the boss acts like a dictator and actively punishes people who articulate different views or express disagreement,” Cappelli says. “In addition to people quitting, the big problem for the performance of the organization is that people sit on their hands, they don’t take the initiative to do anything, and they may actually sit back and watch the boss’s ideas fail even when they could be salvaged. Bosses like this usually have issues that no subordinate is going to address. Without an organization that is looking to see what is going on and is willing to intervene, there isn’t a lot subordinates can do except get out.”

Solutions to the Problem

Education, Training, Skills Building

With the culture of toxicity defined, and so many employees relating to this experience, what change can we create? The articles on toxic work environments tell us this is a widespread problem. Nearly a fifth of American workers across a wider swath of industries said they faced a hostile or threatening work environment in a 2017 survey conducted by the Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and UCLA. The advisement is to develop an exit strategy, and methodically leave. For those of us who can, it works. We have to carefully leave, swallowing our pride and self-esteem, separating ourselves from the situation with supports in place. The energy of toxicity is simply to tear down another human being’s value and abilities.

My question remains, can we make change? When I speak about employee turnover, some leaders tune this out, with attributions to external factors. Where is the accountability? If an employee complains internally, they will often be retaliated against in such a toxic environment. Thus, a negative cycle is reinforced, creating more difficulties for the employee.

I am excited with recent research in the topic of toxic work environments, to learn there are leaders in the industry pioneering change in corporate culture. As human beings we learn through education, role modeling and experience. We have a need to develop skills. When prospective clients seek my Life Coaching services, I hear them say two things; they want skills & accountability. Many have therapists who listen to them, and this is necessary to be heard. I appreciate the humility of a leader to admit the struggle and need for an outside perspective to help them reset, recharge and rebuild. We all make unhealthy and simply put, ‘bad’ choices, that negatively affect our lives, the lives of others, and our employees. The best thing we can do is ‘own it.’ Humility in leadership will bring healthy impact to work culture. Today as a leader, examine the department that has a high turnover rate, low productivity, with increase in errors; and begin to research. The feedback may be difficult to hear, and necessary to turnaround the culture.