When a Return to Office Comes, Will You Dread It?
Now’s a good time to decide if your workplace is toxic
If, like millions of Americans, you’ve been working remotely, the time away from the office should prompt you to ask: Am I yearning to return, to once again be with my enjoyable colleagues and engage in meaningful collaboration? Or am I dreading the return because it’s clear to me after months away that my workplace is toxic?
If you’re in the former and happy camp, congratulations and here’s hoping your employer safely reopens soon. If, however, you’ve come to realize — or knew all along — that your office is an awful place to be, what follows are some suggestions for dealing with the dreadful workplace.
Look for a new job now. Don’t wait for the coronavirus to be brought under control. True, job postings and hiring are down, but many employers are still hiring and some are even growing. Looking for work is never easy. At least now, working from home, your daytime search activities can be very private. You’ll be in good company: Monster, the online job board, found that 42% of U.S. respondents in a survey had left a job because of a stressful environment. (Some suggestions on how to spot a toxic workplace before you go to work there are below.) And my colleague, Wade Tyler Millward, has assembled a guide for your search: https://www.rate.com/research/news/looking-better-job
Consider the difference between a truly toxic workplace and what’s merely an office with some disagreeable quirks. At the office, are you able to do your work and enjoy the doing of it? The work itself is what you were hired for and, one hopes, also what brings you satisfaction. If that’s the case for you, but you have a snarky co-worker who gets on your nerves, or a boss who takes too long to respond to emails, well, that doesn’t rise to the level of being toxic. It's kind of normal, and you might be able to coax such people into behaving better by nicely asking (more on that below). You can also try to focus on the things you can control — your work — and tune out those you can’t.
If your boss or co-workers prevent you from successfully doing or enjoying work, that’s a fundamental problem. Marcia Whicker, a Rutgers University professor, coined the phrase “toxic leader” to describe narcissistic business managers who exhibit favoritism, ignore dysfunction and take credit for other people’s success. These bosses often inflict upon employees long hours, job insecurity and a poor work-life balance.
Research from Stanford and Harvard estimated toxic management contributes to at least 120,000 deaths a year and accounts for up to $190 billion in healthcare costs.
If this sounds like your situation, I suggest you a) look for new work, as it takes time, and crummy situations often get crummier, and b) take what steps you can to improve the atmosphere. Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior, says many interpersonal problems can be resolved one on one, in a conference room or outdoors where no one can overhear your discussion.
If, for example, a co-worker interrupts your presentations with rude questions or premature criticism, you can use a tête-à-tête to suggest saving comments until you have finished: “I understand you want to offer feedback, but frequent interruptions make it hard for me get my ideas across to the team.”
If the direct approach doesn’t work, see if others in the group have had similar problems with the same person. One or two should suffice. Bring them with you when you approach a superior to ask for help. Multiple complaints make clear that this is not just a personality clash.
Be prepared to be rebuffed, all the same. Toxic bosses and other dominant personalities are often inflexible and don’t care about your discomfort. Human resources, your boss’s boss, and other up-the-chain-of-command paths are always possible, and there too you may get no satisfaction and also find your boss now extra-mad that you complained outside their realm. Or you might get lucky and find an enlightened official who steps in.
Ideally, one discovers a toxic workplace before taking a job there. Think of all the reference checking and fact finding employers do on you. Some of it seems downright intrusive. Your job is to turn the tables and before you accept work — preferably before you seriously apply — do some investigating about the nature of the workplace and the boss.
If you know anyone at the company or someone who has left, ask them for a candid assessment. Sample questions: What’s the hardest thing about working there? Does the boss support and protect you, or undermine you? Same for co-workers? Are there risks and problems I won’t see from outside? To those who left: Would you willingly go back?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to strangers if you don’t know anyone at the company. That’s what LinkedIn is for. Ask to have a phone call and ask neutral questions. Many people are happy to help. It’s time consuming, yes, but a few hours sleuthing beats taking a job that makes you miserable.
Job sites like Glassdoor and Indeed solicit companywide and CEO-specific reviews by employees. The reviews are usually anonymous, so it wouldn’t be prudent to take any single one of them as the gospel truth. But look for common elements: If “cliques,” “rapid turnover,” “gossip,” “capricious management” and the like show up, tread carefully.
Also beware of obsequious yet unspecific reviews by anonymous contributors, as you would on Yelp.
Google the company and boss and also hit “news” to see if anything unsavory or troubling surfaces.
No amount of investigation can guarantee you won’t end up in a toxic workplace. But reducing the odds is worth the effort.