When setting the stage for an ideal toxic workplace the Devil wears Prada until today, remains one of the greatest examples of all time. Andy (Anne Hathaway) is a recent college graduate with big dreams. Upon landing a job at prestigious Runway magazine, she finds herself the assistant to diabolical editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Diabolical is right, because all along the movie you see Andy questioning her ability to survive her grim tour as Miranda’s whipping girl without getting scorched. Many of us, spend close to 192 hours a month which translates to 2,304 hours annually in a constant landmine working environment of which 2300 hours a year are spent avoiding getting scorched and blown-up. I think there are definitely better ways to spend your time, and a toxic workplace can not only harm you emotionally but physically as well.

Recently there was a story on Amnesty International. The human rights organisation secretary-general, Kumi Naidoo, ordered an independent review after two employees killed themselves last year. In the review one staff member described Amnesty as having “a toxic culture of secrecy and mistrust”. Amnesty said the senior leadership team accepted responsibility and all seven had offered to resign. Five of the seven senior leaders, based mainly in London and Geneva, are now believed to have left or are in the process of leaving the organisation.

“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.”

Miranda Priestly

In May 2018, Gaëtan Mootoo, 65, killed himself in Amnesty’s Paris offices. He left a note talking of stress and overwork. A subsequent inquiry found he was unhappy over a “justified sense of having been abandoned and neglected”. Six weeks later, Rosalind McGregor, 28, a British intern working at Amnesty’s Geneva office, killed herself at her family home in Surrey. While an inquiry into her death noted “personal reasons” as being involved, her family said they felt Amnesty could have done more to address her mental health.

Amnesty is not the only organisation to come under fire recently for its treatment of employees. A report earlier this year said that bullying and harassment were commonplace at Oxfam, and last year Save the Children was at the centre of serious allegations of workplace sexual harassment.

Toxicity in the workplace is real and it kills. As was the case in the “Devil wears Prada” – you would agree with me, that just about every company has at least one toxic worker who poisons the air for everyone, so much so that when that person is away on vacation, it’s like a breath of fresh air in the office – everyone on the team walks around with a spring in their step, and when the person quits, there is a huge sigh of relief, and like magic, the team begins to flourish.

So how do you tell if your office is a toxic workplace, or what exactly is a toxic workplace? If your colleague does not continually greet you particularly in the morning, or perhaps never asks for your opinion like she does from other team members, does that equate to a toxic workplace? Or if the boss always looks at you with a pinched face, do you have the right to call that toxic? Here are a few signs that your office is a toxic workplace.

  1. Equality rule is a foreign concept : Research shows that in some organizations, there is a “Privilege Culture” at play that can foster toxic behaviors: Employees who are technically gifted or great in their fields don’t have to consider how their uncivil behavior or work habits affect others. There is one set of rules for them, and a different set of rules for everyone else. Sometimes the toxicity comes from one individual who treats everyone with disrespect. He or she uses a dismissive tone and language, cuts people down, orders them around, criticizes others’ work with impudence, takes potshots at people in front of their peers, and intimidates and humiliates almost everyone on staff. The boss turns a blind eye because the employee is a high performer and “gifted.”
  2. When the landmines outdo the battleground : Ideally an organization should not be equated to a battleground, but once you start playing survival for the fittest, then you are in enemy territory. When you always catch yourself walking on eggshells around the senior management because anything you say, can be blown up out of proportion leading to major showdowns in the office then your environment is toxic. When no one can challenge the senior level in a respectable manner because everyone fears a meltdown that can result in an entire department being fired, then you are in a toxic environment.  
  3. When Uncle Sal is on the throne : We all have that one uncle who never got his manners right. He is untrustworthy, cannot be trusted with any family matter and sometimes has been known to sell the family’s property and pocket the money, then lie about the value of the sale. He cheats on his family and yet at the same time, can be known to create anxiety between family members because he has mastered the game of divide and conquer, so you find family members not talking to each other, because Uncle sal told each one of them conflicting information and now they are at odds. Uncle sal flirts with all the females that come his way, gossips and erodes boundaries. If you can equate Uncle Sal to your boss, or to someone in senior management, then it is a definite warning sign. This bad behavior filters down to other individuals. Pretty soon, it becomes a part of the culture, defended with the simple phrase “it’s just how things are done around here.”
  4. Joeffry Baratheon is on staff : Joeffry is often cited as the most hated character on Game Of Thrones. It makes sense – he’s a spoiled brat who gains too much power and goes on to be a murderer. He’s needlessly cruel towards everyone around him and abusive. There is often an individual who fits that description in many organizations. They may not have a significant title, but they derive their power from their long term service in the company, or they inherited the power because the former boss was their relative or the other. They are almost untouchable.  Employees have learned to be on their guard for this person who is a political master of manipulation and covert operation. Whereas in the eyes of management, they come out as a trusted employee who has the company’s best interest at heart, so they use this trust to stir up malice behind the scenes and acts as the company cop. Worse still she has the ear of senior management who are clearly oblivious to the potential harm being caused to the rest of the staff, and when the year ends, she is named the employee of the year and given a huge bonus, to the dismay of those who know the “Jeoffrey” in them.
  5. When Managers play favorites : We all know the signs. Lucy from marketing is always given preferential treatment. John from operations is the only who does special training and gets all the special trips. Karen from Human resource is always given time off, whereas everyone else fights tooth and nail to get a day off. It’s no wonder these “favorites” advance faster , regardless of merit. The manager spends more time with these selected few than with others. He constantly praises them publicly, leaving the unmentioned ones to feel bad. As like in days of the bible, favoritism promotes feelings of envy, and in the end destroys the trust of the team and damages team morale.

Do you recognize these signs in your own organization or department? If yes (albeit hard to admit) it may look like knowingly or unknowingly you set up the stage for a “toxic work environment” and yes it is time to close the curtains and write a brand new script for your workplace, and if you stick with me in this four part series, I will show you how.

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