The Toxic Workplace

This is a chapter in a book project that I have started about the current state of how the job search and hiring processes are working:

When The Workplace Is Toxic

I’ve never been one of those lucky people who gets to work in one of those fun startups that are great workplaces. The places that I’ve had the misfortune to be employed in haven’t had ping pong tables or amusing cubicles.  That doesn’t mean that some of them haven’t been great.  I regard my time at the physics lab as one of the great times of my life. Still I’ve managed to have a run at the worst of workplaces.

I’ve seen the small business with the owner who had no clue and bought the company after a career in finance at bigco. I’ve had the scut work dumped on me. I’ve worked for crazy bosses, in one case literally though thankfully the schitzophrenic paranoia wasn’t directed at me.  I’ve dealt with angry Russians. I’ve been through the screaming and the backstabbing. To say nothing of the lies.  As well as the constant disparagement and lack of recognition.  When it came to bad workplace experiences I’ve pretty much been there and done that. That’s the fun world of contract engineering.

By the time of my last job you would have thought that I would be able to see the signs of a toxic workspace.  Maybe my earlier bad experiences had misled me.  In any case I dove right into the pit once again.  I will say that it was mostly because of the economy in late 2008 and what I expected from the job market from yet another short term job hop that motivated my decision.

Unless you’ve worked in a toxic workplace it’s hard to understand why people stay. Having been there, first of all the toxicity isn’t a constant miasma, though the stress is always there, like a constant  pressure and the fear of the next explosion. That fear permeates the workplace’s atmosphere and takes control of it. Which may be what the person spreading the toxicity wants, but it plays hell on work productivity.  Creating trauma and anxiety doesn’t make for the kind of environment where things get done.

The problem is that the toxicity creeps up on you. Day to day, it hides in the usual stress of work and you may not notice just how bad things are getting.  Then there’s the problem of a certain degree of loyalty, to your coworkers, if not the employer.  You sort of feel that if you bail that you are letting them down, especially in the times of crisis.

The fight though, never gets any easier. If you are dealing with the kind of narcissistic boss that seems to create these kinds of environments, things are not going to change except for the worse.  With everybody on edge and looking inward as a defense the work itself almost becomes secondary.  Communication becomes harder when everybody is shouting at each other. Cooperation becomes impossible as nobody really wants to be in the firing line.

This is how a toxic workplace looks. Of course workplace is more than a little of a misnomer as very little real work actually gets done.  What happens is more of a thrashing and screaming pit of chaos with the boss in the middle believing that he’s in control.  At least until the whole thing falls apart.  Which it will because the dysfunction is unavoidable forever.

Here’s some more from Entrepreneur Magazine. This is the sort of environment that I had to deal with:

  1. Major communication problems.   

An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is the prevelance of significant communication problems often across multiple areas — between employees and their supervisors, between management and departments, across different departments, with suppliers and even with customers.

Problems can be demonstrated by a lack of communication (often referred to as “no communication at all”), whereby employees find out about decisions after they have been implemented. Other variations of dysfunctional communication patterns include indirect communication (sending messages through others), withholding information and giving misleading information.

Why is communication so crucial to a healthy organization? Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the the organization’s tasks is virtually impossible.

  1. Inconsistency in following policies.

Have you ever been a customer of a business where no one really seems to know what he or she is doing and you get different answers to questions depending on whom you ask? Eventually the employee just seems to say whatever and do what he or she wants. In this way, you’ve experienced a company that has major problems with its implementation of policies and procedures.

When a company’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency and poor quality follow. Customers, vendors and employees wind up hating dealing with the company and its staff.

  1. Narcissistic leaders.

It’s not clear whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders. In either case, the two go together.

The hallmark characteristic is the narcissism of such leaders. They are all about themselves. They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around and therefore more deserving of special treatment. The rules for everyone else are beneath them, they think.

Toxic leaders relate to others in a condescending manner. They take credit for others’ successes and manipulate others (and information) to ensure that they look good. Others don’t really matter to them.

While these leaders may appear to be successful for a while, over the long term their attitudes and actions catch up with them. Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas. They have a high turnover rate in their departments and will eventually destroy the health of the organization.

Toxic leaders might not be at the top of an organization; they often crop in midlevel management and even in front-line supervisory roles.

  1. Seething disgruntlement.

Just like rusty holes in the side of an old car that traversed streets that were salted in the winter, a toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms.

Grumbling and complaining by employees is common. They can find something to complain about almost anytime. Then sarcasm and cynicism gain sway, demonstrating a growing lack of trust of management and leadership and turning into a low-level seething disgruntlement.

Making excuses and blaming others is commonplace. Eventually, team members start to withdraw, stop interacting with others (except in a very defensive manner) or leave the organization.

  1. Physical and emotional health effects.

When a workplace is toxic, it is, by definition, unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments (especially over a long period of time) begin to experience problems with their personal health. This might include not being able to sleep, gaining weight or racking up medical problems.

Emotionally, employees become more discouraged, which can lead to depression. Some become more irritable, touchy and exhibit problems managing their anger. Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work. These symptoms can lead to increased use of alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal substances.

My last place of employment exhibited all these things, in spades. A big clue that could tell you that something is off is the number of unfinished or incomplete projects. The clues were certainly littered around the office that something was seriously wrong. When the junk pile fills a room, that’s a huge clue that the work is not being completed in a productive manner. I used to call the pile the history of mass spectrometry and to an extent that was essentially what it was.

I learned as time went on that what I was seeing was the result of the Company’s owner and manager after the company was acquired not being able to actually work things to a conclusion. His extreme narcissism did not allow him to see that he wasn’t accomplishing very much and as long has the inventions and patents kept coming that was fine. Well at least until he had to settle the ongoing lawsuit over some of those patents with the big blue Ivy Covered Snob Factory down the road that the company founder had sort of put in his back pocket when he retired from said Snob Factory and started his own company. Which my boss sort pushed him out of and was now preparing to sell.

Said lawsuit and acquisition kept said boss out of my hair for the time being, but that changed as time went on. After the sale went through to bigco, said owner was now a manager with all the things that go with that like budgets and schedules. If bigco had been smart, they would have brought somebody else in for that sort of thing and put the boss in a corner with a research budget and an intern or two to play with creating new ideas.

Instead, bigco put the boss in charge. Suddenly for the first time, said boss had to deal with things like deadlines that he could no longer avoid and things like project budgets and needing to get approvals for new projects. This was an environment where he had no familiarity and his Narcissism wouldn’t allow him to ask for help. He was out of his depth and started to take it out on the rest of us. Certainly he took it out on me. I called it being his whipping boy. It seems that every time there was a meeting where things were going to get serious he would charge into my office and start berating me, using, as was typical of him, the most foul language possible. None of matters at hand were serious and in fact they were all trivial design issues. Certainly not worth making anybody excited over. This happened multiple times. As I said, whipping boy.

I had been handed the hottest potato in our little group. This was probably the one project that HAD to be finished or our whole little group was in the soup. And I was dealing with an instrument that I had relatively little experience with and a deadline that was a killer. I suspect now that I was handed the thing because I was expected to fail and the blame could fall on me. Which was stupid because if the project had gone down the tubes, the splash would have been on everybody, especially said boss. That Narcissism again. Of course it may have been that I had been working bits and pieces of the instrument in question for a year or so and thus had a clue what needed to be done and how to do it. Which I by and large did.

In the end toxic workplaces implode on themselves, one way or another. While it may seem to the creator of the toxicity that the way they are behaving is the only way to accomplish the tasks at hand, the consequences of communication breakdowns and noncooperation that a toxic workplace create will only make the tasks ever more difficult.

Certainly that was true in my case where my fear of setting off another foul language assault from my boss kept me out of his office when I normally would have gone in with questions or requests. That hurt the project and created yet more tension. Certainly the atmosphere was not conducive to getting the project done as expediciously and swiftly as it needed to be done. Which had an impact on me, the boss, and the company’s finances by the time it was all over.

That last job had all five of the points in the Entrepreneur magazine article. One person’s inability to cope with his changing circumstances and inability to understand and emphasize with those trying to make things work created a climate where there was really only one way things could go. I learned my lessons at a high cost to my health and mental stability. Hopefully my former employer learned something from the experience, but I doubt it. Frankly, in the end there were no real winners from the whole thing.

There was a chance, if everything worked to do great things. The fact that, in the end the whole thing came down in ruins is a testament to the strength of a toxic workplace. Certainly bigco had every warning that things were going toxic. People outside our office complained about the boss and his verbal assaults. Deadlines slipped and work did not get done. Relations with the customer were shaken and the boss would present untried instrument ideas as solutions to the customer’s needs. The warning signs were all there.


Eventually the boss made one assault on me too many and HR was called in. I think that that was the beginning of the end for me at that job. Bigco brought a manager in to take over the actual management of our little side office but he almost immediately bailed to do the job of the departed marketing manager and left things more or less as they were. After about a year I was laid off, probably to make an example of me. Shortly thereafter the whole little office collapsed.

I’ve learned some things from the experience. The first is that no amount of abuse is acceptable. Perhaps if I had taken action to curtail the abuse right from start, that would have mitigated much of the stress. Stress that I at least did not need at the time. An email to the boss’s boss and HR would have saved myself a lot of grief and more than likely helped thing along.

Second is don’t go along to get along. If you need resources, get them. If you need cooperation, ask politely once and then go over the other person’s head if necessary.

Third is, communicate. If you are in a bad spot, let people know. Even if the task is somebody else’s responsibility let people know the good and the bad.

Fourth and most important, if things get too bad, bail. The toxic environment is not your fault and ultimately not your responsibility. Your employer gave you the task and they have a certain level of responsibility for creating an environment where the task can be accomplished. That includes a workplace with some degree of restraint and civility.

My advice with dealing with a bad situation is that if it can’t be resolved, leave. Even a period of unemployment under your own terms is not as bad as the stress of dealing with the constant miasma of a toxic workplace. If you can do nothing to change how things are you owe your employer nothing. In fact that employer has failed you in the worst way possible by not dealing with the situation. As much as you may want not let your friends and coworkers down, you can’t help them by getting sick. There are always greener pastures and it’s much better to be looking for a job while you have one. And who knows, maybe your leaving, especially in the midst of an important assignment will send enough of signal that the people in charge will take notice. In any case their problem will no longer be yours.

I’m posting this first, not because it’s the first chapter but because nobody should have to deal with what I did.  In retrospect I made a lot of mistakes, not least of which was not standing up more for myself. I was afraid and bullies smell the fear and thrive on it.  Going along to get along didn’t help me, the boss or the company. In the end we all lost. Which is the saddest part of all.

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