What is a Toxic Work Environment – and How You Deal With It

By Ruairi Kavanagh - Last update


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While the importance of culture within workplaces is more prevalent than ever, even some firms with the most polished messaging and image can be prone to elements of a toxic work environment, and the damage it can create. 

There is a common belief that susceptibility to a toxic work culture is most common during the early stages of your career. That’s not always the case at all. The story of someone, we will call her Rachel, is one that many of us can identify with.

What is a Toxic Work Environment?

With over 10 years of experience in the technology sector, Rachel had just landed a coveted marketing job at a high profile tech start-up. She was raring to go, this was the opportunity she’d been waiting for, and spent the first few days in the company getting to know the team, understanding the company objectives and attending orientation sessions. As an experienced professional Rachel thought she knew the drill, but within a few weeks of working in the company, Rachel began realising that something wasn’t right. She had been in challenging situations before so she thought maybe it was just the new environment that was taking some getting used to, but the situation didn’t improve. She began to dread facing work every day, which was a new experience. On paper, the situation didn’t look so bad. Her work hours were manageable, the salary was generous, and yet she was deeply unhappy. Just three months after joining the company, she called it a day.  Rachel was dealing with a problem worse than burnout – she couldn’t cope with a toxic work environment. It didn’t take her long to realise that this company had allowed a ‘toxic’ environment to develop, and instead of trying to struggle through it, she did the right thing and decided to move on.

It’s a situation we can all find ourselves in, no matter the physical environment around you, it is personalities that create a work environment that’s ‘toxic’, suffocating open communication,  hindering initiative and creating a culture where fear is prevalent. So what are some of the situations that Rachel was dealing with?

Feeling out of place

Polished ‘on-boarding’ packages and a streamlined series of induction meetings are now normal in most medium to large organisations, but there’s a difference between being welcomed and actually feeling welcome. Rachel experienced that, while she got the necessary introductions and orientation sessions from the HR, her colleagues were largely indifferent or ambivalent to her. This is indicative to how they themselves feel, and this has permeated throughout the organisation.

Getting respect for your work 

Whatever level you’re working at, you are entitled to respect for the work that you do. We have likely all experienced situations where we have felt micromanaged, where we have felt disempowered or lacked motivation or direction in our work. Seeking direction within the company, Rachel presented a plan to amplify a product line through a strategic email campaign, the plan lay in her manager’s inbox for weeks, until she had to remind him to look at it. Once shared with the team, not a single team member replied on the email, leave alone put in a  word of encouragement or support. It’s almost like it didn’t exist. Disempowerment through disengagement.

 Rigid hierarchy

It still exists, in many forms. Many companies promote their ‘flat’ structure through visible elements such as dress code or office layout, or accessories. Yet in reality the real decision making power just rests with a few people. That’s not always a bad thing, once it’s a leadership team that makes the rest of the company feel involved in the overall direction. Companies with a watertight hierarchy models seldom get this right. Good ideas die on the back of delays, indifference and too many cycles of ‘approval’ and ‘feedback loops’.

Criticism

The maxim “appreciate in public, criticise in private” is widely, but not always, adhered to in organisations. Criticism is of course not always a bad thing, through constructive criticism we learn, grow and adapt. But criticism can of course take many forms. The written word can carry considerable weight, so email or messaging can be a breeding ground for paranoia and unnecessary attrition. This can take the form of a manager cc’ing a more senior member of staff, unrelated to the original issue, into replies, or even cc’ing the entire company when they consider it necessary, which it almost never is.

Policies or people?

Policies are put in place to support people but an organisation that constantly puts policies ahead of people can breed a toxic work culture. Whether you like it or not people make mistakes, even the best employees will not be able to do everything right all the time so latitude needs to be allowed for this. A toxic work culture is evident if management follows every infraction or deviation from policy with punishment or criticism because this usually leads a culture of fear in which people feel that taking a risk or showing creativity in how they do their work will be punished.

Navigating it

Of course there are times when it really is just down to one person’s opinion or feeling about working in a particular company. Sometimes a toxic work environment can exist for an individual without it reflecting the overall company culture, or with it being a common experience for others who work there. Sometimes it just isn’t the right fit. Navigating the working world with all its dynamics, opportunities and competition is a different journey for everybody.

Sometimes, circumstances may dictate that you need to accept the bad with the good and persevere. “If you have to work within a toxic environment, make sure you keep notes on what transpired so that, if you are questioned, you can defend your work,”  is the advice of a senior manager at a financial brokerage firm.

 Most importantly, and it might seem obvious, but try not indulge in behaviour that exacerbates such a culture. Beat toxicity with your positivity, and with your individual actions  try to cultivate a culture you aspire to have around you, where and when you can.

 Another survival tactic that a lot of seasoned corporate employees abide by is maintaining a certain professional distance. “I just keep my head down, do my work, be nice to people, be a part of social equations from time to time, but with a conscious moderation. At the end of the day, many people in an office are competing with each other at some level and so some level of friction is to be expected. Get the best out of team work, but maintain a certain professional distance because familiarity breeds contempt,”, says a team lead working at a corporate investment bank.

If you find yourself in any of these situations, remember, your rights are enshrined in law. You are entitled to a level of respect, courtesy and understanding that is the same for absolutely everyone within the workplace, regardless of any hierarchy. While learning through tough experiences can be valuable, there is no merit in persisting through a job which makes you feel undervalued, and threatens the wellbeing of other elements of your life. No job is as important as you.

You can find out more about your rights in the workplace from the National Employment Rights Authority here

 



Ruairi Kavanagh

Considering a Career Break?
Training, Upskilling, CPD and Your Career


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