How to tell if a workplace is toxic

In my book I am inserting a chapter on employment for those returning after a long time being out of work. One thing we are not good at is detecting whether a place of employment is toxic. I do not like to apply that word, toxic, to a human being, and I will not, but for sure a workplace can get that way.

There’s a major difference between calling a single human toxic, which really means you’re calling that person mentally  ill (think about it!), and calling a workplace toxic, which usually means badly managed in some fashion. I studied this in a management class. There are reasons why a workplace gets toxic, ranging from the management being too lax to the management being too controlling, and various in-between combinations.

The group being managed may be too large for the management team to handle. Or they’ve allowed cliques to form, subgroups that they did not plan on that ultimately harm some of the workers and undermine the leadership. The top brass may have bad ethics or fail to follow the ethical guidelines they supposedly eschew.

Corruption can happen at any level but usually is handed down from the top. If the top brass are corrupt (bad morals, stealing from the company, dishonest practices, etc) then this will then pass on to all the employees under that management.

Outright mutiny is possible, but when is this likely to happen? Is it really that probable that all employees are crooks or rebellious to that extent, for no reason? One example of mutiny is a work strike. But strikes happen when workers get together and decide, “Hey, this is wrong.” If workers were happy and treated well there would be no need for a strike.

How can you tell if a workplace is toxic? Are the only toxic workplaces those shit jobs you end up with that pay $8 an hour?

Go look up Seattle Symphony. Check out around 2007. These folks are renowned musicians. Look what happened there! This is a prime example of a toxic workplace.  Clearly poorly run, poorly managed, leaders playing favorites, rampant retaliation, gossip, backbiting, etc. It looks worse than junior high and Facebook combined!

This is a toxic workplace, an example of one that has employees (orchestra members) with long contracts who know each other very well, maybe too well. Reading about what happened makes me glad I got out of the music business….leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Now looking back at my brief stint at a toxic workplace last January, I realize now I did not see the signs. I missed the obvious because of my inexperience with workplaces in general. I should have quit after my first day on the floor (my 60th birthday!) when my supervisor, Marquita, deliberately singled me out and bullied me, and would not stop even after I asked her to. Nicely. The fact that the other management made excuses for Marquita, repeatedly ignored or diminished the seriousness of her bad behavior. This was a sign of a toxic workplace. Since I was sitting so close to her all shift I overheard all the gossip between her and the other supervisors. They were such idiots that they assumed I couldn’t hear (well, she can’t see, so likely she’s deaf and brainless, too….people really do think like that!). They were constantly yapping. I did not appreciate having to hear it all.

Of course I should have quit and not stuck around.  The biggest sign of Toxic Workplace is that they’re always hiring. They’ve got a permanent “Help Wanted” sign out there, always advertising, constantly sending you emails begging you to come in and interview even if you tell them you have another job, No Thanks. They’ll hire anyone! Trainings happen every two weeks or every month since hardly anyone is retained.  People come and find out how bad it is and leave, or if they look like they’re going to be trouble, like maybe they’re a little bit smart or insightful, they’re fired faster than they can quit. Even management seems to be unable to retain anyone. Many of these companies fold or morph into something else, or appear to be something else…don’t be fooled.

I was indeed fooled, though, because I had no way of knowing what a healthy workplace looks like. I was amazed when I got to my current job and found out that this is what work is supposed to be like. It’s not an ideal job but I feel that it’s reasonable…reasonably so. The pay is excellent and I very much like my supervisor…or maybe I like her on some days and not others.

I have not seen the company do anything really bad. Mistakes? Yes. But nothing that, so far, hasn’t been remedied. A goofed paycheck now and then is not the end of the world especially if they straighten it out promptly. They goofed my “stats” this month but I have the real data which I backed up and saved. I did my own calculation and told them their figures were off. I suspect they will be a little more careful before trying to pull the wool over my eyes at this point. They are less likely to criticize based on guesswork anymore, as I have informed them I keep my own records (that was a hint!).

I have experienced isolated incidents of poor management behavior, but it’s rare and not the norm. For instance, one of the trainers blew her top at me during a training. She totally lost it and started yelling! She did not use swear words, but she was definitely out of control and unprofessional. However, I am shelving this one for now. We don’t see the trainers past the training and they aren’t the “floor” managers, so seeing as I will not encounter this woman again (and there were witnesses! How embarrassing for her!)I have nothing to worry about…actually, she doesn’t either and is likely glad she won’t see any of us again.

Overall, they pick good leaders, people who are well-experienced and capable. A company that makes occasional infractions is not a toxic workplace, it is a workplace run by human beings. A company that repeatedly ignores infractions or deliberately silences or harms workers is going to be problematic to work for. The key is being able to recognize the difference as soon as possible and make a timely decision.

Feedback and comments welcome!