The toxic work environment

I recently had someone tell me about an incident that reminded me about hostile work environments. All I will say is that the person in question is a family member. (I am purposely being vague; she works in a small office, and any additional description or detail could identify her or her employer. All I will reveal is that she was stabbed in the back by a coworker.)

Granted, in a large company, the prudent move would be to talk to your chain of command and possibly even file a complaint with HR. However, this office has fewer than ten employees; I don’t think it even has an HR person. What do you do then?

She told me that she wanted to take the high road and stay in the office to fight this person; as she put it, “I don’t want (this person) to win.” I told her, you need to update your resume. If (this person) causes you that much stress, and your work environment is that toxic, then (this person) has already won.

As vaguely as I’m trying to describe this, I also wanted to write about it because I think it’s a very important point. Toxic work environments are one of the top reasons (if not the top reason) why people leave jobs. I, myself, have left jobs because of abusive managers or coworkers; I remember one position where the CEO was so verbally abusive that I actively pushed my resume and took the first offer I got. I was absolutely miserable working for that person, and I could not leave that place fast enough.

Professionally, one of the worst things you can do is continue working in a toxic work culture. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not fun. It brings down your workplace morale, which, in turn, leads to unproductive stress, resentment, and a number of health issues (both physical and mental).

Those of us who are working professionals (that is, excluding full-time students and retirees) spend most of our waking hours at the office. (For those of you who don’t actually work in an “office” — construction workers and professional athletes, for example — for purposes of this article, construction sites and athletic facilities count as your “office.”) My workspace is effectively my home away from home, so I want it to be comfortable as possible. Many workers — myself included — will often decorate their workspaces with a few touches to reflect their personalities; I’ll usually have my wife’s picture on my desk and a Syracuse Orange poster or pennant on the wall. If I’m working on something mundane, I’ll often put on headphones and listen to music, or if the Yankees are playing a rare weekday day game, I’ll tune in and listen to the ballgame while I work.

I’m a big believer that a happy and comfortable worker is a productive worker (this might seem to contradict my earlier article about being comfortable, but that is a completely different context that isn’t applicable here). You don’t want or need anything in the office that brings you down, and you don’t want to be constantly looking over your shoulder.

If a situation arises that disrupts your productive routine, you need to deal with it. If it’s something that can be addressed relatively straightforwardly — say, talking to your supervisor or HR — then take whatever steps are necessary to do so. But if it’s a situation where the workplace culture and environment are infected, then it’s probably time to send out your resume.


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