Surviving a Toxic Workplace Without Losing Your Mind

Today’s workplace culture

Modern American employees are under extreme stress today due to a combination of several related factors:

  • Cost cutting measures;
  • Operating for months or years with over-lean staff;
  • Lack of supervisory training/poor quality supervision
  • Overall pressure to maintain production and quality with fewer and sometimes less-qualified staff

These factors combine to increase pressure and stress in the workplace.  Owners and partners are under their own stress trying to secure financing and to retain profit margins despite increases in the cost of materials and operating expenses. These accumulated pressures will eventually affect relationships among employees and between employees and management.

The workplace includes toxic employees and bullies

One of the most successful articles I’ve written discussed toxic employees and the complicated issues associated with terminating them and shifting workplace dynamics. This online article was viewed roughly 3 times more often than any other article I’ve posted.  Articles on toxic employees, toxic bosses and workplace bullies are increasingly popular today as business owners understand the connection between positive work culture and company success.  Toxic employees control others through bullying.  In a 2010 Strategic, Toxic Employees and Negative Social Dynamics I listed tactics used by toxic employees and how companies need a planned approach to neutralize this behavior. I got to thinking about the employee victims of this kind of manipulation and abuse. I have also been approached by colleagues about how to keep their job when the atmosphere is quite negative.  Today I am writing to these employees who, because of health insurance, financial commitments and job market challenges, cannot easily leave such a workplace.

A 1999 study on workplace stress, Stress at Work reported that 40% of workers surveyed felt their job was “very or extremely stressful” (DHHS, 1999). Though I could not find a more recent survey of employee reports it’s likely that things have become even more stressful for today’s employee.   With high stress and a poor job market more employees must learn to work around these challenges and maintain acceptable job performance.   Avoiding the social and informal power minefields is a skill you can learn.  Those who have the strength and natural instinct for it can be successful without support.  But even with skills if the workplace bully makes you the target, you can find yourself overwhelmed and powerless.

Just use the grievance policy to register your complaint?

Many workplaces are decent and healthy; and some have grievance policies or other dispute resolution strategies that can get workplace disagreements back on track. When this is possible, use these processes. The following material addresses the less healthy and often abusive workplace.  Formal grievance procedures may or may not work.  It might not be safe to speak up in some workplaces due to potential retaliation by a toxic employee or manager. When coaching clients in this situations I urge caution because of the potential backlash.  Please consider any such action very carefully and seek advice from experts before taking steps that might draw negative attention at your office. HR staff can often be trusted to provide support. Trust your instincts as you are the best judge of what course will get the best result. Finally, you are free to consult a legal representative in confidence, when needed.

Abuse is sometimes in the eye of the beholder

A final word of caution on your interpretation of this material.  I’ve worked with employees who felt these behaviors were happening to them when in fact they were treated professionally. Some employees have a keen sensitivity to issues that don’t go their way. Sometimes, employee mental illness can interfere with the ability to interpret reality around them.

Employer responsibilities

A company owner’s first priority is to make the business successful.  From this evolves the need for additional staff—which benefits employees, economic stimulation—which benefits the community and personal success—which benefits the owner’s family/dependents.  Some drastic differences between companies derive from how the owners define “success.” If you define success in only monetary terms, one kind of workplace atmosphere results.  If you define success as a balance of monetary measures, client satisfaction and an employee-friendly, professional work environment, a different kind of workplace atmosphere is created.

Regardless of the owner’s philosophical viewpoint, as long as he/she does not break the law, they are within their rights to run the business as they see fit.  Employees are sometimes of the mind that employers have to be nice, have to take care of them, have to give them time off, etc.  But owners can place as much focus on the bottom line as they wish. That is our free-market economic system.  If this means they are difficult and unfriendly and experience employee turnover as a result, that’s the consequence. Sometimes the nature of the workplace is a result of active philosophical choices and sometimes owners are ignorant of the connection between the way they treat employees and level of turnover or social suffering that results. The amount of discord and employee bickering an employer tolerates through ignorance or neglect is related employee turnover. Those employees complain to everyone about what takes place at work. These matters are somewhat different in union environments.  The article applies primarily to the non-union workplace but the dynamics described here affect union employees and their supervisors.  I know because I have presented to both union employees and their supervisors.

Too bad to stay—Too hard to leave

All of the above combines to set the stage for workplace atmospheres which fall within wide extremes on a continuum. I imagine folks generally know when they are in a very bad or very good job.  The problem is more difficult when the negative parts come on gradually, over time.  These things are hard to see coming and most people wake up at some point to realize that things are not as they wish them to be.  It can also be difficult when you know you have to leave and are looking but the job search is going poorly.  Finally when some things are positive and some are not, what is the right decision?

  • You like the boss but the co-workers are gossipy
  • You like the co-workers but the boss is abusive
  • The money is great but the atmosphere is troubling
  • You like the workers but clients are abusive

Individuals have to decide what will work for them.  Much will depend upon the nature of the employee’s temperament, the specific negative aspects, external employment environment and the marketability of the employee’s skill.

Skills and perspectives needed to navigate today’s workplace

When faced with a negative workplace we have to ask: Do you want to be true to yourself, tell the truth and damn the consequences? Or, do you want to preserve your sanity, fly beneath the radar and leave with some degree of professionalism?  Some employees do fight back; some sue successfully for various negative affects of abuse in the workplace.  The vast majority, however, lose their job and the possibility of any reference for future job seeking.  What’s worse is that some may develop a reputation in the community as a trouble maker.  This doesn’t make him or her a trouble maker but the perceptions are powerful particularly in a small community.

I generally advise two potential courses

You’ll need to figure out how to navigate the least stressful for you while still allowing yourself some performance success, or, find a position elsewhere.  Not on my menu is: stay and complain.  The complaining strategy rarely works out for you, your co-workers or your boss. The way to remain sane in a crazy or chaotic atmosphere is to maintain a clear perspective; remain observant; and use skilled boundary setting to prevent being drawn into battles that you cannot win or situations that will make you a social target.  “flying beneath the radar” is a good way to picture it.

If you can, focus on this approach

In my coaching practice, the following strategies are possible when working with a private, competent support person who can reinforce this kind of detachment:

  • Set realistic expectations of others – supervisors and coworkers
  • Accurately read the landscape
  • Focus on what you can control (what you do and think and say)
  • Perform your job duties to the best of your ability within what you can control
  • Do the best you can within the parameters you are given
  • Avoid whining, complaining or gossip
  • Don’t tell others what they should do (supervisory responsibilities not-withstanding)
  • Mind disclosures to employees who are not trustworthy
  • Get objective, confidential emotional support outside the organization

When should you look for another position?

Workplace dynamics can run from mildly unhealthy to intolerable.  Every individual has his/her personal tolerance level.  Sensitive employees often see the issues coming early and may need to exit sooner than others who are more oblivious to the negative dynamics around them.  In addition, employees who are targeted by negative employees specifically, may have to exit earlier. It is really an individual decision. I find that when I’m having stress symptoms (tight chest or stomach aches) and have tried to resolve issues without success I generally begin searching for another assignment.

Given the above, there are a few things that no employee should have to endure:

  1. When your supervisor or coworker yells, throw things and verbally abuses staff;
  2. When your supervisor gets visibly angry if you talk about things that need to improve;
  3. If a supervisor uses confidential information against you or discloses this information to others who do not have a need-to-know;
  4. If supervisors or coworkers gossip and criticize staff in any public manner or to clients;
  5. Companies in which laws are being broken;
  6. When employees are singled out and punished after privately or professionally disclosing the behaviors described in 1-5.

Looking for another position

Finding a job while working full-time is a considerable challenge.  Employees are cautioned not to do this on company time nor with company computers, email or Internet connections.  Working on resumes, checking advertisements and other job pursuit activities should be done on home computers.  Begin contacting trusted friends in the community and network in a low-key manner.

Giving notice

I’ve heard from many victimized employees who are dying to give the employer a piece of their mind.  Perhaps the company has an exit interview process for terminating employees. Most of the time, exit interviews are conducted in a professional and good-faith manner.  However, in companies compromised by fear and intimidation this may not be an effective strategy.  I can feel my HR colleague’s irritation when I say because terminating employees are a potential source of valuable candid information.  You are not obligated to provide your observations. It’s your choice.  In addition, burning any bridge can come back on you at employment reference time.. If you feel you must give some feedback, do it in a non-personal and professional way.

Exaggerated feedback examples to make the point

  1. Personal: “My supervisor is a jerk.  I have never seen a more abusive, horrible person!”
  2. Non-personal: “I am surprised at the manner in which my supervisor conveys his dissatisfaction with our performance.  I don’t think yelling and intimidation are effective tactics and I should think this method won’t help the company meet its operational goals in the long run.”

Good luck.  Email me with your own survival stories- sbenoit at benoitconsulting dot com

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Sources

1. Benoit, Suzanne V. (2010) Toxic Employees: great companies resolve this problem; you can too! to see an excerpt or to purchase go to: purchase book

2. DHHS and NIOSH Publication 99-101 (1999) Stress at Work, accessed March 2011 at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/

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