Coaching, Corporate Services, wellness

What does ‘Toxic Workplace’ even mean?

Our entire world is rethinking how we do things under the spotlight the COVID-19 pandemic has shone on our systems. Essential services, office attendance, flexibility, and employee well-being have all had to be examined and redefined under the pressure of the circumstances. Organizations who have failed to address some of these issues have suffered significant losses and fallen under the axe of ‘The Great Resignation‘ sweeping the western world.

No sector has been unscathed by the rising trend of employees choosing to leave the toxic workplace environment in services of improving their quality of life and protecting their mental health. From the fast food frontline to the corporate and finance board rooms, people are remembering that they are human beings with human needs and are applying this awareness to changes that meet these needs.

But what is toxic? Over the past few months I have asked that question every time the word toxic is thrown into conversation about the workplace. What do you mean by toxic? What flavor of toxicity are we talking about? Give me examples, stories, instances that fall under this 5 letter umbrella word. Here are some examples of what I have been given:

  1. The owner of a business means well, but the people directly under them are acting contrary to the values the owner claims to espouse. These people turn smiling faces up to him and act as if all is well but they are mistreating or dehumanizing the employees on the lower levels.
  2. Wellness programs are in place just to look good in the recruitment negotiations. In reality, the employer or direct manager won’t allow flexibility in the work day to attend their own wellness program.
  3. Complaints have been filled against a coworker for harassment, racial slurs, and/or bullying. The complaint isn’t addressed/the complaint is addressed in words but not actions, and months later the perpetrator is promoted/made partner.
  4. Pre-pandemic micro-management had to be set aside during the pandemic lock downs in favor of working from home. Now that the pandemic seems to be ending and offices are reopening, management attempts to reinstate micro-management systems in spite of proof that these systems are not necessary.
  5. A company claims to hold family values but fails to support flexibility for employees dealing not only with the pandemic fallout, but the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of children and the logistics of lockdowns and quarantines for positive cases.
  6. The willingness of business leaders to go against rules set for employee safety and protection in the pandemic, putting profit ahead of people.
  7. Managers communicating instructions poorly or not at all penalizing employees for not following these mystery instructions and/or not meeting expectations that haven’t been communicated.
  8. Business leaders making decisions about process and operation without the involvement of the employees who actually do the function, thereby making ill-informed decisions that create even more difficulty for the employees.
  9. Failure to address performance of one coworker but instead overloading the coworkers who perform well to compensate with no difference in compensation.

As the list goes on and on (and it does…for several pages) a theme begins to emerge about toxicity. I have come to believe that toxic is the word used to describe the absence of integrity. What is integrity might you ask? Our clients often do. We use two different approaches to integrity – Ontological and Functional.

One of my favorite representations of Ontological Integrity is the Rotary 4 Way Test:

The Rotary International 4-Way Test

They could have stopped at think, say, and do for me, but they even went on to the quality of the thinking, speaking and doing. If each decision-maker in the examples of toxicity above had used this test, what would be different in these work places?

Where the 4 Way Test application isn’t clear, it is shored up by the Wagon Wheel of functional integrity.

Functional Integrity is often represented by a wagon wheel with spokes going out from the center. Where a spoke is too short or too long, the wheel’s roundness, strength, and ability to turn smoothly is impacted, making for a bumpy ride. That un-even spoke may well be an under-performing employee, a defunct system of micro-management, or an over emphasis of things that actually don’t matter or make a difference to the operation of the organization.

How Wheels Work – And Teams too!

The transformation of workplaces everywhere into safe and enjoyable spaces of integrity is a very big part of the mission of Blue Island Oracle. We work with individual leaders and whole teams, building muscle around integrity. So much of a lifetime is spent at work. Who wants to spend so much of their life in a toxic place?

Leave a Reply