Taking a deeper look into unhealthy workplaces

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Bullying, gossiping and closed doors were just a few of the things Brittany Picker encountered for over a year at her previous job. With a work culture that encouraged high school drama over teamwork, Picker knew that this job was not right for her anymore. With the idea of leaving for a long time, she ultimately used school as her excuse to get out. 

“A toxic work culture like this is a place where you don’t feel comfortable, where you’re feeling drained not just physically but mentally, as well,” Picker said. “The reason I gave them for leaving was that my summer school classes didn’t work with their schedule, which was a reason but wasn’t the defining reason.” 

As college students, the constant curiosity of a future career is always looming on the mind. With high expectations of loving a job, what happens when it starts to feel draining both physically and mentally? Toxic work culture presents itself in many ways and can happen in all types of professions. 

Toxic work culture does not just exist in a black and white manner; it can come in many forms such as bullying, harassment and discouragement. Every case of a toxic work environment is different, ranging from a variety of illegal actions down to just bad behavior. Either way, toxic work cultures are rarely discussed and, oftentimes, swept under the rug.  

What constitutes a toxic work culture?  

Jennifer Hooft is an independent human resource management consultant who has extensive knowledge of the in-and-outs of toxic work culture. Overseeing her clients, she offers advice and training about bullying and harassment in the workplace. 

“I define a toxic work culture as one in which destructive or negative behavior has a harmful impact on the people and ultimately on the culture, and leadership does nothing to intervene,” Hooft said. “Workplace culture is created and changed by every person in the organization. Problems arise when leaders fail to hold people to a high standard of behavior and fail to put policies in place that guide people according to core values and expectations.”

With that in mind, toxic work culture is not confined to a small array of actions. It can vary in both how an individual feels and how a company is run, as well as the type of leadership that is being communicated. 

Picker, a senior biology major, was working at a veterinary clinic where the toxic work culture did not appear until a couple of months after she started. Once she had become more established and comfortable at her job, Picker noticed that, not only was work culture toxic to her, but it  affected the business’s clients, as well. 

“It was a place I felt valued money over anything else and it was their number one priority, being constantly overbooked and never turning clients away,” Parker said. “The work alone drained everyone, but then it seemed to also have a high school drama environment where there were favorites involved, cliques and a place where everyone was talking about each other behind their backs.” 

Hooft elaborated on how common cases of toxic work culture includes that idea of a “high school drama” narrative. Gossiping and bullying being very prominent in these cultures. 

“What we see a lot of the time are cases of basic incivility, sometimes on a grander scale, bullying in the workplace,” Hooft said. “We see examples frequently where a person is targeted, isolated or excluded from meetings, email distributions, etc. and where gossip is allowed in the workplace, which I think is huge in creating that toxic work culture.” 

The effects of a toxic work culture

Shawn Miller and Jordy LePiane are both employees working at Boise State University within Human Resources. With Miller overseeing the functions of the people and LePaine specializing in employee relations, they both have seen the effects that people working in a toxic work culture experience. 

“I would say that people walk around with a general burden,” LePiane said. “A feeling of fear and distrust of their colleagues and leaders, where people don’t talk to each other in the hallways, people aren’t collaborating and decisions are made in silos.”

For Picker, one of the biggest effects of her being in a toxic work culture was seen within herself. 

“The toxic work culture I was in made me into a terrible person,” Picker said. “I didn’t like the things that I did in order to fit in with everyone. I felt like I had to be that negative person in order to be liked by other people.”

Not only are individuals affected by toxic work culture, but the organizations are as well. These cultures can create feelings of burden, distrust within one another and organizations can lose major amounts of money. Perhaps most importantly for productivity, they can lose talented employees. 

“In toxic work cultures, there is no shared faith,” Miller said. “If you think about the best teams you’ve been on, there’s a shared faith, whether that may be winning a game for the team or a putting a newspaper together to win an award as a company.” 

When it comes to the company, enabling that toxic environment does not just affect their employees, it affects the profit and reputation, as well. Hooft discussed how businesses will often do performance evaluations but, in the end, they are not focusing on the picture as a whole. 

“Organizations often judge performance based on meeting business metrics. An effective organization measures both the what and the how, but they weigh the performance rating more on the how than on the what,” Hooft said. “In other words, do you inspire trust? Do you build effective relationships? Are you respectful of other people at all times? Or do you meet your business metrics, leaving dead bodies in the wake? We know what gets measured is what matters, so we have to measure and value the behaviors that contribute to a healthy culture.” 

Getting out of a toxic work culture 

It is not uncommon for a large amount of people to experience some form of toxic work culture at a point in their working lives. People can struggle when it comes to getting out of toxic situations at work, whether that is the fear of coming forward or the uncertainty of not finding another job.

“People who are targeted by workplace bullies feel trapped in a bad situation, and they often believe if they bring a claim forward, their situation is just going to get worse,” Hooft said. “Zero tolerance for retaliation is key. In the meantime, the victim will do well to exercise self-care, take care of sleep, nutrition, and exercise, gather a support network, and access counseling through an employee assistance program to better deal with the situation.”

Along with getting out of a toxic work culture, employees can take measures to ensure that a company is right for them and aligns with their values before taking on a position.

“If I was advising someone I would say to sleuth their website, talk to people who work there, go to Glassdoor,” Miller said. “But if you have the opportunity to talk to someone who works there, asking them what their mission is and what their values are, how do you see it playing itself out and if you can see yourself there in two years.”

LePaine recalls a time where he was trapped in a toxic work environment before obtaining his current position. He spent over 10 years of his life in sales. 

“I used to be in sales, and the cutthroat nature of that business encouraged poor behavior between colleagues and managers,” LePaine said. “I loved the competitive part of it but, as far as culture goes, it’s very cutthroat and all about the numbers and it didn’t align with my values.” 

The workplace does not have to be a place where people stick to themselves, according to Hooft; it can be a place that fosters kindness and helpful attitudes. 

“In the workplace, we have an opportunity every day to help each other have a better day, have a better experience and move toward success,” Hooft said. “Certainly, if we see someone being bullied or harassed, we have an obligation to stand up for them, be their courage, and do what’s right. If we expect these positive behaviors, we foster a healthy workplace. We do not allow destructive behaviors to become prevalent. And we avoid a toxic culture.”

Human beings can be complex, but when it comes down to it, there is a certain craving for the need to be around others. LePaine explained that being connected is vital, not just in the workplace, but in life in general. 

“I think humans are happiest when they feel connected to each other,” LePaine said. “Whether that’s in the workplace or anywhere there is more than one person interacting with somebody else. Humans are naturally happiest and most productive and most successful when they feel connected to the people around them.”


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