How to deal with a toxic workplace

First thing’s first: if your toxic workplace isn’t going to get better and the problems you’ve identified permeate the entire organizational culture, there’s no shame in launching your job search, and seeing what other opportunities are out there!

It’s one thing to stick around at a workplace you love… aside from that one demeaning coworker who always talks down to you and makes you feel 3 inches tall. It’s another to try to fix a culture that’s completely broken and beyond repair, especially if you’re trying to do it alone, without the support of leadership. If you feel unsafe or completely mentally drained, just by heading into work each day, you need to take care of yourself first and get out, the sooner the better.

differentiating between unhappiness and toxicity

There’s a lot of bad apples out there: the sullen worker whose negativity permeates the office; the aggressive bully who wins through criticism and intimidation; the thunder-thief who subverts your efforts before undermining and taking credit for your hard work and ingenuity. These personalities can transform an otherwise awesome workplace into a pit of despair and negativity.

It’s normal to have a bad day once in a while. You’re not going to like everyone you work with, nor they, you. You’re all unique individuals operating at different levels of a power relationship. If you can get along with and actually like most of the people you work with, consider yourself fortunate. If you work for an organization that has zero tolerance for bullying and disrespectful or intimidating behaviour, your company rates high on the bell curve.

Unfortunately, many organizations still don’t recognize the impact a toxic environment has on workers. Or worse, they recognize the atmosphere in the office is tense and people are angry, fearful and unhappy, and choose to do nothing about it. These are the managers who scratch their heads in befuddlement when workers escape in droves to other jobs at the first opportunity. Sometimes they realize, just before they’re replaced because they’re ineffective, just how dramatically the bottom line is impacted by a disengaged workforce and the resulting high turnover. Sometimes they don’t.

For support, you should certainly turn to your manager, HR or higher if necessary. But often toxicity flows from the top down. What can you do to reduce the impact of a toxic environment so you can do your job without having your spirit crushed, and find some satisfaction in your work until you can find a better position?

Whatever your reasons, if you’ve decided to stick it out, here are some tips for surviving a toxic workplace without losing all your hair in the process:

don’t take it personally

This can be really tough, especially when the toxic person has a bulls-eye on your forehead. You can either hide under your desk or realize the problem is theirs, not yours. Disengage emotionally, don’t react, and channel your intellect to work. You can’t change people, but you can affect behaviours.

By changing your response to someone’s intimidation or disrespectful behaviour, you automatically alter the trajectory their behaviour takes. Negative people often thrive on the equally negative reactions of their target. Even a slight directional shift throws them off their game, giving you time to think while they catch their breath. Remember, you can’t change how others behave, but you can change your responses to their bad behaviour.

speak up, calmly

Passive acceptance of poor treatment is unlikely to result in a change; in fact, it might incite further bad behaviour when the perpetrator meets no resistance. If ignoring the situation isn’t getting you anywhere, consider making your objections heard – just be sure to do so in a calm, collected, and most importantly, private manner. Yelling and getting upset in front of the entire office is unlikely to generate the response you want, and may just cause the perpetrator to get defensive and act out.

Like it or not, you’re in a relationship with the toxic person. So make sure they understand how you feel about their actions. Stand your ground. Speak up. Your voice may tremble and your hands may shake, but you’ll get better at asserting yourself with practice. Empower yourself.

get your manager involved

Just the thought of involving your boss may make your stomach roll. What if they treat you differently? What if they side with the other person? Or even worse, what if they fire you for being difficult? Set aside those fears. If your boss is a good manager, they’re there to help you succeed. Good leaders will listen to you and do whatever’s in their power to help make your workplace a happy and productive space.

If your boss is part of the problem, consider going directly to HR if you have a good relationship with someone you can trust in the department. They may have the power to do things that you, as an employee, cannot. If someone is causing problems in the workplace, leaders with the power to make changes need to be made aware. Managers aren’t mind-readers. So if you have objections, share them! Leaders who aren’t aware of a problem can’t fix it.

set distinct boundaries

Let’s say your manager repeatedly makes unreasonable, unrealistic demands on your time, changing projects at the last minute, undoing all your hard work and expecting you to drop everything and work into the evening on what seems like a whim. They throw you under the bus at every opportunity; sometimes they seem to create opportunities to do so. And they’re not nice about it.

Gently but firmly, let them know what you can and cannot do in the time remaining before you leave for the evening. It’s what career coaches call assertive communication. Call them on disrespectful treatment. Be prepared to repeat yourself like a broken record as often as it takes for the message to be received. Focus on you, what you’re capable of and what you can contribute. You’re not asking permission; you’re defining the terms of engagement.

be kind to yourself

The impact of a toxic environment is far-reaching. Prolonged stress is unsustainable. It causes us to break down physically and mentally; it destroys our self-esteem; our performance suffers, as do our personal and work relationships. Find the fun, happy people in your workplace and align with them. Make sure you take care of yourself by eating right, getting enough sleep and exercising. Spend time outdoors and in creative endeavours with people who matter to you. Recharge and regroup. And put out feelers for other opportunities. You’re not obliged to stay in a toxic workplace, especially if you’re the only one doing anything about it. Be sure you make the decisions that are right for you.

Ironically, a toxic work environment reminds us, by virtue of their absence, of those qualities we value in the workplace: teamwork, positive, supportive management, integrity, kindness, good manners – in the same way that a bad manager helps you define what kind of manager you want to be. Make sure you conduct yourself in keeping with the reputation you wish to be known by. That way, while you’re doing the job you were hired to do under difficult circumstances, you’ll be ready when the opportunity you’ve been waiting for comes along. And you’ll be better and stronger for the experience.

 

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