On January 15th, 2021, Brooklyn municipal workers protested an alleged “toxic work environment” – public administrator Richard Buckheit was accused of abusing his power by forcing employees to do demeaning work, intimidating them and taking away their accommodations, more as a means of executing power than of better efficiency in the company. Though these indictments were corroborated by all office staff, they were eventually dismissed in court.
Was this office environment a “toxic” workplace?
If you come home from work drained, depressed and overwhelmed, feeling more stressed than you know how to explain, first thing’s first: you should definitely consider finding a new place of employment. However, the reasons behind leaving your job shouldn’t boil down to just “well, it was a toxic workplace” – because maybe, you could be ignoring blatant issues not only in coworker relations but how you deal with them.
Don’t let the buzzword fool you – there are common conceptions as to what a toxic work environment is, some of which can be helpful in recognizing broader patterns of inefficient and unempathetic interactions in the business world. However, if these patterns overtake the individual personalities contributing to the larger phenomenon of company culture or fit, slapping broad labels on a workplace like “toxic” can create the worst kind of atmosphere; a dogmatic, unthoughtful one.
While your boss might be a shifty megalomaniac, or a Richard Buckheit-type, remember that life isn’t a clickbait article or an Instagram post. Even things that seem unequivocally problematic have nuance and delicacy, and as the great modern philosopher Dr. Phil says, “every pancake has two sides.”
You hear it on reality TV, in rap songs, on the football field and at brunch; “they disrespected me”, or “I felt disrespected”. Respect seems to be an important value for many, and to be respected is often analogous to feeling appreciated or acknowledged in a positive light. But what does disrespect even mean?
Merriam-Webster defines respect as holding something in “high or special regard; esteem”, but colloquially, respect has taken on a life of its own. Everything from the Girl Scouts to Indeed.com has its own definitions of what it means to respect someone. Culturally it even differs, from Chinese honorifics to Indian Pranāma, expressing etiquette or catering to the needs of the elderly.
This translates in the workplace in ways ranging from active listening to compassion, reflection or deference to authority. Unfortunately, when loosely defined, respect can often be used as a scapegoat to excuse insolence, and disrespect can be manipulated to do the same. If your ideas are chronically disregarded by leadership, your comments berated and mocked, or your requests for time off treated like personal offenses, you might feel disrespected, and this might seem like a toxic place to be.
Again, you might be working for an egotistical jerk, but it’s more than likely that your relationship is simply fraught with misunderstanding. If a situation can be redeemed, mediated or communicated through, chances are, it’s not as toxic as you might think.
Take a minute to consider the nature of these exchanges. Do they all revolve around one particular person? Or one particular team? Did you have one bad incident that left a bad taste in your mouth? If the tensions seem interminable, you could be unconsciously recreating that incidence, vilifying the other party by consistently interacting in a way that reflects the anger you’re attempting so hard to keep suppressed.
Immaturity, unprofessional – “complaints about the noise level, ridiculing intelligence or obsessional attention to inconsequential matters” – if these sound familiar, maybe you’re experienced in the world of pettiness. Ultimately, dramatic high school antics have no place in the office. But just because they’re occurring doesn’t mean that they’re causing a toxic work environment.
Petty coworkers are the worst, especially when their behaviors are directed towards you. You might feel brutalized, insulted or micromanaged at the office by these coworkers who just don’t know how boundaries work. And though you’ve tried and tried to communicate with this person or people, it seems like they’ll never listen.
What do you do, other than quit your job?
The easiest way to avoid a petty workplace, even if you feel surrounded by gossips interrupting work you really do enjoy, is to turn around and walk away. In the days of working from home, this is especially easy – just mute the Slack chat, keep emails to all-business, and if you see something remarkably inappropriate, confide in a friendly co-worker, boss, HR department or even an advice-giving friend.
“Us-vs-them” has a much more direct psychological route to a toxic work environment than some of these other examples may – with social psychology.
In basic terms, an in-group is the cohort you belong to, and the out-group is everything outside of that. In addition, heterogeneity is the diverse, distinctive nature of persons within a group. Homogeneity is the opposite, an inability to classify a group as “all the same”, with an inability to recognize their individuality.
Consequently, in-group heterogeneity means you recognize differences (whether they be cultural, personality or physical) in your group, and see everyone as their own person; out-group homogeneity means that everyone outside of your bubble looks, seems, and acts the same, based upon the biases you’ve drawn about them. That’s just what “us-vs-them” thinking is: “they are alike, we are diverse”.
“Us” and “them” implies that you aren’t working as a “we”. If you see leadership as too “toxic” to converse with, it’ll be hard to progress or succeed in a world in which you can’t communicate with the ranks you seek to join, whether it be at this particular job, or another one.
We’re all just humans, so try having an empathetic, related conversation with someone you see on the other side of the aisle, even if you need a mediator to get there. And if they end up being a jerk, you get the joy of saying that you’re right, further buffering the “us vs them” mentality you sought to deconstruct here.
Injustice is another big word floating around these days, and it may have driven its way into your workplace. You might feel like it’s hard to speak up to superiors about issues that are close to you, like social justice, political views, or company values. But again, injustice doesn’t constitute a toxic work environment – at least not in the commonly known sense.
Justice, while usually synonymous with fairness, has a much more tangible definition in the modern era; it is defined as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge people accused of crimes.” When not directly tinted by the background of legality, justice in the workplace can be interpreted as accountability, responsibility, and equity.
This definition can vary almost anywhere, from company to company. For instance, if you work for a healthcare company or a hospital, justice may be seen as delivering care in an egalitarian way to all patients. If you work at an investment firm, justice may come in the form of charity, or redistribution of wealth. And if you work for a social justice non-profit, well, that speaks for itself.
That being said, a hospital or an investment firm, though contained within the fabric of society and consequently inherently existing in a political realm, its mission statement should ideally be non-political, even if it has a human rights focus. It’s certainly not to say that all non-political companies should wash their hands of fairness, or answerability – it’s just important to remember where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.
Accountability and responsibility are key foundational portions of any successful venture, and policies should reflect the fair treatment of all employees. But if your ax to grind is more about how the mission statement of your company isn’t that of justice, that sounds like a problem of fit, and not a problem necessitating institutional change. Sometimes, a company’s values don’t jive with your own, which is a perfectly legitimate reason to find another job – but not to accuse a workplace of being toxic.