Going back to the office, tough situations are where 'true leaders are born'
Having to confront belittling or degrading comments while on the job, or being compelled to tip toe around bosses with fiery personalities is not good for morale or for business.
Since the pandemic, more attention has been paid to the issue of toxic workplaces but that doesn’t mean the fight to prevent malicious behaviour is over.
“Anytime there are human beings gathered together, we have the opportunity for toxicity,” says Wayne Turmel, master trainer and coach at The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a training and development organization, in Las Vegas.
“As people are talking about going back to the office, there’s this rosy set of glasses that we put on like we were all working in the Garden of Eden before everybody got sent home.”
This is where true leaders are born, according to Jenna Bayuk, founder at Kinship Kollective, a consultancy in Vancouver.
“I would like to believe that the toxicity levels have lowered but it really comes down to how leaders are equipped to handle those situations and the culture they’ve created,” she says.
“When things get tough, how do you uphold your values and your mission? What my experience has told me is a lot more people are aware; people are speaking up, companies are upholding their values and taking action when those things occur.”
With video calls becoming more accepted in today’s workplace, behaviour such as gossiping may have evolved in the way it’s being carried out, according to Turmel.
“As a matter of fact, in some ways it’s gotten worse because when you left the meeting room, and somebody said: ‘Can you believe that happened?’ At least you looked around to make sure if somebody was watching, you have to be careful. Now you get off a Zoom call, and you get on a call with your best friend, and it’s 20 minutes of ‘Can you believe that stuff happened?’ And nobody knows that’s going on.”
While this type of overt behaviour is bad, it’s not the only way employees are harmed on the job.
The power of microaggression
Belittlement hits differently. Whether it’s a sly dig or a missed “thank you” or an outright slur, the truth is we’ve all experienced it: big or small, loud or silent.
For Mamar Gelaye, Amazon’s vice-president of ops tech solutions in robotics, she recalls a time in a meeting when a male colleague repeated her point as his own.
“This microaggression was intended to silence my voice,” she says. “However, I used this opportunity to address the situation in the moment by responding, ‘Thank you for reinforcing my point,’ and proceeded to drive the conversation forward.
“This interaction was both teachable and empowering, and reminded me that there will be times when good people make mistakes, but I have the power to speak up for myself when something isn’t right.”
According to data from SurveyMonkey, 26 per cent of employees have been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work and 36 per cent of workers have witnessed one in their workplace.
Strong policy statement
While these harmful actions are wrong, they also need to be firmly addressed.
It begins with having a strong policy statement addressing the issue that tells employees toxic behaviour will not be tolerated, according to an employment, human rights and labour lawyer.
“It’s not good enough just to have them tucked away in some dusty corner of your intranet. Make sure that you talk about them openly and publicly in your employee meetings,” says Kathryn Bird, a partner at Ogletree Deakins.
“Make sure that it is well known how to make a complaint. Make sure that when you receive a complaint, you take it seriously, it’s treated confidentially, it’s treated with the respect and dignity that a complaint of this nature deserves.”
But what exactly constitutes a poisoned work environment?
“A toxic workplace is one where there are a series of incidents — both micro and macro — that occur within the workplace on a day-to-day basis that the employer is seen to or does condone,” says Bird.
Need to accommodate
Employees who are being targeted by abuse, need to be accommodated, says another lawyer.
If the mental health difficulties stem from the workplace environment, and the employee has alerted their bosses to the situation, the employer has a responsibility to deal with this behaviour.
“It’s important to review the workplace culture,” says Antonio Urdaneta, an employment law expert and founder of Workplace Legal.
“Are we talking about harassment? Are we talking about sexual harassment? Are we talking about discrimination? Are we talking about violence in the workplace?”