The Great Place to Work certification process involves inviting companies to participate in a culture audit, a proprietary tool designed for companies to showcase their stories about how they create a great workplace for their employees. Most of the top companies in the world have defined core values or a set of guiding principles and fundamental beliefs that encourage a group of people to function together as a team and work toward a common objective. PR, HR and Marketing teams as part of their responsibilities monitor and influence company ratings like Glassdoor to make them more attractive to future applicants. In spite of all these efforts, The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in one of its recent surveys (2019) reported that one in five Americans left a job in the previous year due to bad company culture.
The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression that is selected to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance. In 2018, the word of the year was “toxic” as it was used in multiple contexts and was the year’s most talked about topics. They define it as: a very unpleasant person, relationship or situation, especially in the way somebody likes to control and influence other people in a dishonest way. In the context of a workplace, Author/Consultant Annie McKee gives this explanation: “Toxic or dissonant organizations are rife with conflict, fear and anger…..When you walk into a toxic organization, you can actually feel that something is wrong. “ In her bestselling book, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope and Friendship, she furthers lays down the characteristics of a toxic culture as follows: (1) Intense pressure to get short-term results, (2) taboos against speaking up to power, (3) Us-vs-them mentality, (4) dysfunctional competition, (5) lots of talk about values but not enough action, (6) lack of clarity around a vision, (7) disrespect, (8) lack of appreciation, (9) pessimism, (10) Incivility and hurtfulness tolerated or even encouraged and (11) Inequity, absence of meritocracy, and injustice.
What causes such behaviors to exist in the workplace is a whole different topic but the reality is that they do exist in some form or the other in both large and small organizations. In some companies it could exist in a particular group or division or team and may not be company-wide. Recently a very popular talk show host publicly apologized for the toxicity in the work environment. An extreme form of this behavior started various social movements and protests around the world. I faced a similar situation when I joined a company a few years ago and realized after some time that something was wrong; almost all the characteristics of a toxic workplace mentioned above fit the company’s culture and leadership style. Due to personal and financial reasons I continued to work there against all odds. It was a highly stressful stint and only after I was convinced that it was not worth its salt, did I decide to quit.
In spite of the struggles, I survived 3 years and reflecting back realize that though the experience was mostly negative, it was not completely useless. However bad the experience, there is still some learning and I would like to highlight few survival strategies for those who find themselves in a similar position today:
- Recognize and accept your situation: It took me almost six months to finally come to terms that I was in a toxic setting. Until then I was under the impression that there was something wrong with me and was constantly on the defense. Accepting the reality of the situation helped me to cope better and make better decisions that did not completely erode my self-esteem and confidence levels. Of course like any complex situation, it’s important to be honest with yourself when arriving at this judgment. It may help to consult trusted advisors and mentors if you are confused. Secondly, it is important to determine your own priorities, goals and values so that at no time you compromise them for the sake of the job.
- Do not complain to anyone: In a toxic workplace colleagues are difficult to trust, managers are not open to feedback and HR is ineffective. Even if others acknowledge the issue, they are helpless to do anything about it. Hence instead of complaining against the system, look for solutions that are in your control. For advice and support on how to navigate specific problems, consult people or experts outside the organization. Again, they will not make the toxicity go away but can help you make better sense of it without any serious repercussions.
- Look for the silver linings: There were reasons I stuck on for 3 years at a toxic workplace. Apart from the salary, there were advantages like international travel, networking with reputed partners/clients/suppliers, industry experience, flexible working hours, proximity to family and friends, club memberships, fancy designation, free weekends, etc. With regards to company reward and recognition, you can appreciate the positive reinforcements but do not get carried away by them. As long as the perceived benefits outweigh the day-to-day work related stress, you can find comfort in the chaos.
- Keep your head down but your chin up: There is a popular saying in corporate circles, “a bad reputation is better than no reputation at all”. However when it comes to toxic workplaces, I found it best to keep a low profile. The reason is simple: good reputation is largely dependent on perception not merit and a bad reputation makes you an easy target. Both are not sustainable in the long term in these circumstances. Keeping out of the limelight may sound contrary to popular advice but in this case it can help increase longevity and decrease unnecessary pressure. Let your work stand out rather than your reputation.
- Engage everyone but don’t expect much: Keeping your head down does not mean you should not engage with colleagues. Even though the environment may not be conducive to building long term relationships, it is important to engage and communicate with everyone. Working in silos will alienate you further and make it tougher to get work done. It may not be easy to share a camaraderie with someone you find difficult to trust, yet until you have a choice you will need to literally and figuratively grin and bear them. The trick is to not have high professional expectations else you will get into a cycle of disappointment and despair.
- Have an active life outside office: I found it extremely helpful to focus my energies on activities outside the workplace that could distract, de-stress or detach me (temporarily) from office work. If you have been thinking of taking up a hobby for the longest time, now is the right time. Stay active and socialize with friends to keep your health intact. Just make sure to engage in rehabilitating and constructive activities. Whatever you do, do not spend more time in office than you need to. Spending additional hours in a toxic environment can take a toll on your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
In 1959, Psychologist Frederick Herzberg developed the Two Factor Theory of Motivation which is still relevant and widely used by companies globally today. According to this theory, there are certain factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction (Motivators) while a separate set of factors that cause dissatisfaction (Hygiene Factors), all of which act independently of each other. In order to remove dissatisfaction in a work environment, these hygiene factors must be eliminated. There are several ways that this can be done but some of the most important ways to decrease dissatisfaction would be to pay reasonable wages, ensure employees job security, and to create a positive culture in the workplace. Unfortunately the reality is that toxic workplaces are on the rise as a result of culture neglect as outlined in the 2020 Emtrain Report. Just how much should be tolerated and when is it time to quit? That is a difficult question to answer without context or facts. I am reminded of the popular movie “The Devil Wears Prada” where a powerful boss has a personal assistant who is sorely tested in her dream job. After enduring months of hardships, the assistant has a sudden revelation about her priorities and perspectives in life and reaches a conclusion that it is just not worthwhile to continue. Whatever the circumstances, the power of choice is always with us.