How to Deal with Toxic Culture at Work

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Working is an integral part of your life. Most of your day is spent at your workplace, surrounded by your peers and coworkers. A welcoming, comfortable environment can breathe so much good into your life, but a negative environment can do just the opposite. What happens when you find yourself surrounded by obnoxious behavior and trapped in a toxic workplace

It can feel like such an isolating experience; the very people meant to support you in your work end up becoming your biggest hindrance. Regardless of your dedication to your employer, no employee can withstand such abuse for very long. It’s no wonder good employees are 54% more likely to quit if they work with an employee identified as toxic.

Refusing to work with toxic people has no bearing on your personal integrity. Sometimes you want to do what’s right for your employer, but you cant jeopardize your own mental or physical wellbeing at the same time. There’s no shame in leaving a workplace that doesn’t keep your safety in mind. 

However, quitting need not be your go-to reaction. Learning how to recognizeanalyze, and respond appropriately to toxic behavior can help you live, and possibly even thrive, in a hostile work environment. The key is to keep your wits about you and learn how to interact and coexist with the most toxic of the bunch. Here, we’ll outline a few steps you can take to counteract the effects of a toxic workplace.

1. Toxic Workplaces: Avoid It (If You Can) or Learn Damage Reduction

The first weapon in your arsenal to combat toxic work culture is the power of recognition. A toxic workplace hardly develops spontaneously. There are usually signs and symptoms well before it has reached its peak. If at all possible, before you have committed yourself to a new organization, seek third party reviews and former employee feedback. 

Websites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn allow users to review companies they have worked for in the past. While you may occasionally run into bitter reviews from a few bad apples, you should strongly consider the average rating of a company, especially when there are many reviewers. The more reviews on the website, the closer you will get to the legitimate score of the organization. Take your time and read through them, write down your most concerning comments and keep them in mind the next time you’re visiting the workplace. 

While reviews are generally a good place to start, it is good to keep in mind the likelihood of false reviews. Sometimes, if a manager sees a terrible commentary on a website, they may ask current employees to bombard the site with positive reviews to drown out the negative voice. What’s worse is this review manipulation is a symptom of a toxic workplace in and of itself. 

Try to cross-reference concerning comments. For example, if a reviewer hints at fraud allegations, see if you can find any news articles or whistleblower campaigns. If such things are a part of your prospective company’s history, you may not want to judge them too harshly, especially if this was in the distant past. It is possible to change the culture of a toxic workplace. However, still keep these allegations in mind when interreacting with the company to look out for suspicious signs. 

    If you have inadvertently found yourself part of a toxic workplace, it’s time to do damage control. Observe and gather feedback from fellow employees, be aware and alert to the toxic components at play. Are employees feeling pressured into committing potentially illegal acts? Are they competitive to the point of colleague sabotage or cut-throat tactics? Are they disheartened or mentally exhausted? Once you have identified toxic behavior, set your limits, and plan your reactions if you ever become involved in similar incidents. 

2. Signs of a Toxic Workplace

If you are not sure if your workplace is toxic, there are a few signs you should keep an eye out for. Pay special attention to how your fellow employees feel. Everyone is built differently and faces their own, unique struggles. If you have yet to feel the effects of toxic work culture, that doesn’t mean your coworkers haven’t either. 

Pick up on the details of office small talk, are they complaining about work-related stress? In the optimum work environment, employees will feel an appropriate sense of ambition and self-development, but continued pressure about their performance is unprecedented. Prolonged stress evolves into anxiety, fear, and eventually, burnout

If you notice these symptoms among your coworkers, pay attention to how management consults this issue or if they are in fact, exacerbating the problem. Toxic work cultures thrive on negative reinforcement. Employees are often made to feel like cogs in a machine while their individual worth or needs are overlooked. A key example of toxic behavior is the promotion of favoritism accompanied by shaming. Management may give special privileges to their most lucrative employees while publicly reprimanding and shaming those that are struggling. 

Preferential treatment and workplace competition can breed some toxic outcomes. Organizational culture indicates the priorities of the company. If the company values sales more than competition, teamwork will be the ultimate goal. If the company chooses to promote artificial competition by pitting employees against one another, they ultimately desire to separate their workforce and push sales unsustainably. In these sorts of workplaces, values are rarely mentioned. If your coworkers or management only mention their values in passing, yet operate on an any means necessary model, it is very likely your workplace is a breeding ground for toxic ideologies.

3. Coexistence in the Office: Leadership and Group Psychology

Toxic workplaces often foster an us versus them mentality between management and ground employees. Although we have all taken part in good-natured humor, it is not normal, or healthy for that matter, for employees to actively harbor feelings of ill will and resentment towards management. 

In the optimum working environment, employees and management operate as a team with a shared objective. Ground employees are valued members of the organization. When entering a new workplace, take note of the recent hires. If you notice an ever-rotating cycle of employees being hired or subsequently fired/quitting, that’s a substantial red flag and could indicate your worth within the company. 

True, healthy leadership comes by setting an example. Management should have an intimate knowledge of the duties, hardships, and needs of their ground staff. This does not necessarily mean they need to start from that position themselves, but simply that they should show respect for their work. When employees are struggling with inadequate utilities while management takes part in luxuries, this dissonance has come to an end.

Another symptom of imbalance in the workplace is when value is placed on hours rather than results. If you see employees delivering top notch results in all their quotas, yet still hounded for taking their personal days and breaks, it’s a sign the company does not value their employees. In this case, the toxic component is that of overwork and pressure. The company wants as much as they could get from their employees, not just their fair share of work. 

4. Learn How to Establish (and Defend) Personal Boundaries

In every workplace, but especially in toxic environments, it is important to set boundaries for yourself. In no circumstance should you allow your workplace to dictate your personal life, set a work-life balance. 

Toxic workplaces often try to manipulate their employees into overworking or going into excess, unpaid hours. The key here is to set a precedent of your comfort zone, what you consider work hours, and what you consider personal hours. If you allow your workplace to take advantage of your unpaid labor on a few occasions, it sets the tone for the rest of your time at that organization. They will only respect your time if you do. Make it clear you are not willing to work outside the terms of your employment but put forth your utmost effort during working hours. 

Have your results at hand so you can indicate the work you’ve done during office hours and never take a step back from this hard line. Despite manipulation tactics, few companies will reprimand an employee for sticking to their professional and personal limits. This goes for all aspects of workplace life as well, such as your own values, your property, your physical boundaries, etc. The term ‘toxic’ encompasses many behaviors, and you can’t individually account for all, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. 

Toxic workplaces are the 5th leading cause of death in the United States, from the stress of mismanagement to inadequate benefits, these health risks add up. Go into the workplace with your own set standards of what you are here to do and accomplish. This should already be determined from your interview and research processes. 

If you feel as though you are being taken advantage of, or if you feel unsafe, escalate the situation to the appropriate human resources department and work from there. No matter the company, there are legal protections that serve you. As long as you keep an eye out for toxic behavior and intentions, you should be well on your way to a healthy professional life.

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