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These aren’t really new… in many… in many regards new problems that we’re dealing with, but I do think there are some elements about the work that we do today that has really brought them more into focus.
Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we help HR and business leaders embrace joy in the workplace. I’m Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting, an HR consulting practice. Joining me is my co-host and dear friend JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink and Powered by Purple Ink, a professional network I am part of.
Today’s topic is toxic workplaces. This topic was the winner of our most recent listener survey. Thanks to all of you who weighed in via LinkedIn, Twitter, and in response to our e-newsletter to let us know that this is a topic that is weighing on you and that you want to hear about. We thought it would be good to start today with an expert who can give us some grounding on toxic workplaces and collaborate with JoDee and me as we respond to specific listener questions that we’ve been receiving on this topic. Jesse Gomez is the Chief Revenue Officer for Williamsburg Therapy Group. He has more than 20 years of experience designing and implementing workplace benefit strategies for companies of all sizes. Over the course of his career, he has served as a member of the executive leadership team for several high growth digital health companies and is an investor and advisor for several others. So welcome, Jesse, we’re so pleased that you’re here.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you both.
So Jesse, can you help us really understand, what do you think constitutes a toxic work environment?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s a term that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. So I think there’s a few things that contribute to a toxic work environment. I think, one, fair treatment… or unfair treatment is certainly a part of it. A lack of trust, transparency, honesty, and fairness. And the decision making or communication, I think is another element. I would add excessive pressure, unrealistic expectations or deadlines, a lack of support or resources, the propensity to ask folks to, you know, work harder for the same pay that they might have been receiving before or… and including, I think, a culture of blame and punishment. You know, I think there’s some obvious ones that oftentimes, I think we take for granted – bullying or harassment and of course, discrimination. And of course, some of these things are even protected by federal law, and so… but I think all of these are elements that we generally tend to see within, say, the… the sort of definition of what makes a toxic work environment.
Yeah, they all sound awful.
Yeah. And, Jesse, it’s interesting to me that this keeps coming up as a topic and that our listeners, as we mentioned, we surveyed and this was the number one topic for them. But with that definition, you can see how it impacts so many people, because there’s so many… so many issues involved with it. You know, some people might feel strongly about one of the issues you mentioned, and some feel stronger than others. But why do you think that word “toxic work environment” is being used so much in today’s world of work?
Yeah, these aren’t new. That’s a great point, JoDee, these aren’t really new… in many… in many regards, new problems that we’re dealing with. But I do think there are some elements about the work that we do today that has really brought them more into focus. The rise of social media, I think is… is certainly one element. Clearly, I think probably the most profound one that comes to mind for me is the change in the nature of the work. The pandemic led to significant changes in the way many people work, including the proliferation of remote work, the increased use of technology, and I think this rapid shift has made many folks feel isolated or disconnected from their colleagues, and they may feel like they’re under increased pressure due to the demands of their jobs. It’s interesting, because we’ve… sometimes some really great things come out of really bad circumstances, and I think what the pandemic has really forced us to do is rethink the whole way that work gets done. Everybody got sent home, and yet we were still productive, and in many cases more productive. That seems to be in many respects, sort of a slap in the face in terms of, you know, people much smarter than I that have constructed what is the ideal workplace and you know, the water cooler and things of that nature. But yet we found that when we were forced to, we were able to do some things differently. And so I think it’s making us look at things that have been age-old ways in a new light. But I think all of those in that rapid change in such a rapid period of time, I think are all contributors as to why people, you know, what… why this topic of toxic workplace is… is now sort of taking center stage in many conversations.
Yeah, that makes sense.
Yeah. I also think that people aren’t going to tolerate toxic workplaces anymore. I don’t think that… I think that we tolerated a lot before now.
Yeah. Do you have… I’m curious, do you have an opinion, perhaps, as to why people won’t tolerate it any longer?
My guess would be The Great Resignation back in 2021. I think that was just a really cathartic opportunity where people realized, you know, I don’t have to stay somewhere I’m this unhappy. And I think that got people talking about happiness at work. Now, I could be wrong on that, because I’m not a scientist in any way, shape, or form. But I feel like people are just much more vocal… vocal about toxic workplaces now and their refusal to accept it.
Yeah, I would agree with you. But I would piggyback even on that a little bit and say what your… what your thought conjured up in my mind was… is that if you’re going to send me home, and I can do the work from home or anywhere, for that matter, all the other things that I don’t like about this company, I might not have to tolerate any more. Because if I can work remotely for any company, now I can be a little bit more demanding about what’s really important to me given that singular dynamic.
Yeah, that’s probably right. Yeah. Fascinating. So the Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, recently spoke on this topic, and he made some really good points. I don’t know, Jesse, if you’d be willing to share those with us and with our listeners?
Well, I think the important thing… I’m going to paraphrase here, because it’s a… it’s a… it’s a long, but really great report, I think long overdue. And, you know, I think it’s important to take note that it’s the… it’s the Surgeon General, – right? – who is weighing in on… on things that have… generally constitute a crisis, and generally a healthcare crisis. And so I think the fact that he focused in on the toxic workplace, I think demonstrates, although he didn’t… I don’t think he actually… actually called it a crisis. But I think just by virtue of him weighing in, and the things that he said, I think represents to be a crisis, particularly in the midst of us being in a, quote unquote, healthcare crisis or health crisis in the midst of a pandemic. So I believe that he thinks we are in a crisis situation. I would agree. I think the negative impact of, you know, toxic work environments, that and the impact that they have on health and well being of individuals is critical. I think he wanted to raise awareness of this issue and encourage organizations to take steps to address it. I think, again, that since he’s the Surgeon General, providing the public with the best available scientific information on public health issues falls within the scope of his job and he wanted to call attention to this particular topic and encourage organizations to take steps to create a positive healthy work environment for their employees, which will ultimately naturally have benefits for both the employees… the employees and the organization as a whole.
Interesting, yeah, I wouldn’t have ever thought about the Surgeon General being involved or weighing in on this. But good points you made that, of course, it has to do with our health and well being as well. And Jesse, what do you think are some of the key things that an employer can do to avoid being a toxic workplace?
This one is kind of basic, but you… in my experience, I’m always surprised how infrequently it happens. I would urge every company out there to take the time and to draft clear values, and not just values… externally facing values about how you treat your customers, but I think these values should very much reflect the company’s values for how they treat each other internally. I think this is… this should be… to me, it should be core in every organization. But when I see that it’s apps, and I see a lot of companies struggle, and I see the a lot of the proliferation of some of the behaviors that we’ve covered today. But start with some clear values that are widely publicized throughout the org. These values, I think, should be… should clearly articulate what the company expects from its people and how they interact with one another. I think these should serve as the baseline for hiring, firing, and promoting folks within the organization. I just think it’s one basic step that every company can do, including executive leadership, and incidentally, it shouldn’t be… These values shouldn’t be created in a vacuum or exclusively by executive leadership. But I think it certainly is a proven method for how everybody in the company lives up to that expectations of transparency and accountability and very clear understanding of, you know, what we expect from one another, manager or rank and file employee and everybody above and below.
I like that. And I think that constant conversation about the values – right? – that it’s not just something you put on the wall or have in your employee manual, that it’s a constant conversation that’s part of your interview process as part of your performance development conversations, so that they’re kept in front of people as well, too.
Love it. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to take those listener questions that have been coming in on this topic, because we’ve gotten a number of them, and some of them many times. So we’re going to, as a team of three here, respond to some of the most popular questions we’ve gotten about toxic workplaces. So number one, what are some strategies for addressing co-workers who are bullies?
I have to admit, you know, I feel like I always sound like a harsh HR person, but my thought first thought many times is get rid of them. Right?
It’s a good place to start. And then we can have a conversation about are they salvageable.
Right. And, you know, there needs to be good conversations or investigations or whatever around that. But just to not… not tolerate that in the workplace. So.
Yeah, I think it’s kind of a nonstarter. But I would take a step back and want to know, like, how did we allow this bully in, or how do we allow this behavior to foster? I think it goes back to sort of, again, like, the values. Did we mishire? Or did we promote somebody without sufficient management experience or training, and are they being a bully because they’re scared and don’t know what to do? Doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it brings you back to is, like, what role did I play in this? And ultimately, if it’s just that I mishired or somebody on my team mishired, then that is what it is. But again, having those values in place, and then looking at the situation. I think this whole pandemic thing put a lot of people in different situations, not just us as employees or us as executives or HR leaders, and our job changed, but I think everybody’s job changed and how people handled the stress. I don’t think we were all really well equipped for it.
No, I think that’s really fair. And I have to say, I think both of your answers as leaders I admire. I mean, I do. I think that you’re thinking about it the right way. I think that some of our listeners are going to be working with bullies and they’re not their manager. And they’re not the leader of the organization, but they’ve got a bully they have to interact with every day. Honestly, I have worked with bullies, and it is not pretty. It’s… it can really make coming into work miserable for you. So I would say practically what I would do… don’t… but not sure that works for everybody, but I try really hard to win them over. Now I could go back to my strengths finders, because Woo is my number one. But I would do everything I could, because I want my life to be as pleasant as possible and I’ve got somebody who’s a bully and is not happy, so I would do my best to win them over. I would kill them with kindness, all those types of things. I’ve been successful with some bullies. Doesn’t mean I ever liked them. I didn’t really respect them that much. But we could function together. And there’s going to be somebody who can’t you just can’t win over. And in that case, if you… if it’s affecting your performance in your job, you’ve got to escalate it. I really do… I think you have to take it to leaders like JoDee or Jesse, because it’s probably, I know, above your pay scale. If they cannot be normalized, or at least defanged, I think you need to escalate it up.
My new favorite word of the day, “defanged.”
Funny. All right. Our second question from listeners. How do you deal with a manager who’s a bully? So assuming that it’s your boss, who is that toxic person.
I hate to be a little bit redundant here, but I will just slightly and say, again, are the clearly articulated company values that outline what we expect from ourselves and our employees, are those present? Beyond that, I think it’s along the same pathway, Susan, what you just described, which is that I think you have to step back from the situation and try to be looking at the situation independently, and certainly that’s what you’re going to ask if you’re a manager or HR or somebody else. And so if you were in their shoes, what would you… what would be the ideal outcome and what would… What advice would you give to a friend or something that were going through the same thing? I think we have to remove or try to remove ourselves from the situation and then reinsert ourselves back into the same situation with a plan. The plan being, I want to understand what I may have done or why I’m sensing that you’re treating, you know… that these are the things that I’m experiencing when I’m… from you. But I’d be very careful about the “you” statements. Make it more about, like, “I.” I would document everything, I would document that conversation, I would document instances where you were made to feel uncomfortable or where there was a sense of favoritism or that something was inconsistent in the treatment that you received. And then at the conclusion, I think, of that meeting and leading up to that meeting, thinking about the outcome. If I were in this manager’s shoes and I had done something wrong, how would I wish that somebody would have approached me and sort of given me that second chance to sort of make a bad situation good. And then ultimately, wrap that up in writing. Like, if they receive that well, like, “I appreciate you coming to me and making me aware of this, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was doing those things,” those meet… that may be best case scenario. But either way, regardless of the outcome, positive or negative or indifferent, I think you want to document that outcome and request validation from that… from the person that you talked to if that was your manager. This is what I understood from our conversation. I just wanted to make sure I heard you clearly, if I missed anything, you know, please correct it in this email. So that it’s all… it’s all there.
Well, Jesse, I’ll be a little bit repetitive, as well, to say maybe they just need to be removed from the organization altogether. But I do think – and you… you, Jesse, said this, and maybe using some different terms, but I think we have to help people feel that sense of self-awareness, right? Or, at least my tendency sometimes is to go in and… and want to fix people or want to say, “Hey, this is how it has to be done.” And they don’t even have the self-awareness to know that they are considered as a bully or other people view them as a bully. Now, maybe they’re, you know, not looking for that or felt like that being a bully was the way they needed to be to be most effective. But creating that self-awareness to where they can get to a point to say, hey, you know, I understand the impact I’m having on other people now, help me with that, help me overcome that. And if they don’t feel that sense of ownership or understanding of it, then they might just not be right for your organization.
Ideally, you get to that situation relatively quickly, because there can be unintended or long-term consequences that come from a failure to act in a prompt way, as well.
Yeah, I want to work for the companies that you two lead. I would tell you, that if I was an employee and my boss was a bully, I think that your advice is… it is spot on that, you know, come to them, let them know how you’re feeling, share with them the impact it’s having, if there’s something you’re not doing right, you want to fix it, I think that all works. But if they’re just downright a bully and they like the power, they’re in a power trip, their boss is… leadership is in their… you know that he’s… he or she is in their ear, you might just have to make that decision to vote with your feet. It just may not be the place where you’re going to be able to thrive. And so I would always say that, remember, it’s your choice every day to come into work. It’s… it’s your choice who you bring into work every day, the self that… your best self, your not-best self. So I think that sometimes that’s the plug we have to… we have to pull.
If you’re dealing with a bully, you’re likely also dealing with somebody who is likely dishonest and manipulative, so the documentation and the context and all of those other things become really relevant, because it might be a he said, she said conversation. And think about it – if you’re dealing with somebody that already has either… lacks self-awareness may have low self-esteem or some other issues going on. The idea that you could expect that they would be forthcoming when questioned by leadership, I think, is… would be giving them far too much credit.
Jesse, I think you’re right. And I have to believe – maybe that’s the optimist in me – but that you’re probably not the only person who’s experienced this. If this is a bully, and if you, as you exit the organization and you share that in your exit information, my guess is there’s going to be other bodies left behind that it’s going to also… hopefully leadership is going to see over time that this person is destroying our workforce.
Yeah, but I don’t think it helps you if you’re number two or number one.
It doesn’t, it does not help. Totally agree with you. Yeah, you’re taking the bullet early on.
The first person to raise their voice.
Yeah, that’s really, really difficult. Well, good. Well, let’s go to our next question. I want to help my supervisor see that there’s hypocrisy in some of their behavior. How can I do this without putting them in a defensive position?
Yes, I think the key to many conversations – in lots of different kinds of conversations, much less when people are feeling this hypocrisy in their behavior – is to, like, you know, lay out the facts and avoid judgment. Not to say, you know… you mentioned earlier Jesse about not using “you” statements – right? – but to say, you know, your team has observed, I have observed, this event happened yesterday. So giving them information about the facts around it, and then ask them, like, how… you know, how do you feel about this now? What were you thinking when, you know, you were dealing with that person or with that issue? And try to get them to bring that up, as, you know, maybe that self-awareness of saying, I had no idea that’s how people viewed it, or that was my… you know, they say many times we judge our actions, not our intentions. So intentions can be positive, but the actions don’t align with it. Getting to that self-awareness again, or understanding about what’s happening, or at least other people’s views on what’s happening.
I would say that, especially if you’re trying to talk to your boss about any topic that is particularly sensitive, you have to come from it at a from a place of caring. And I think that if you go in there, say, you know, I think you’re really hypocritical, you don’t walk the talk, I think that they will get defensive. But I think if you really care about the person – and if you don’t really care, then don’t bother. But if you do care, I’d go to them and say, you may not realize this, but when you do such and such, here’s the impact that I’m seeing on others, and I think you could be even more effective if you XYZ. That’s a real gift you’re giving the boss, I think. So… for any sensitive topic, especially this one.
I got nothing to add. Those are great.
Fair enough. Well, we’re gonna go to our final question that’s been very popular. My direct manager shows favoritism toward some of my co-workers. How can I fight this?
You know, I always think that’s an interesting question about… it can be someone’s perception. Right? They’re harder on me than they are others, they like them better than me, they treat them more favorably than they do me. So sometimes it’s real, and sometimes I think it’s perception of what we might be seeing, or we know we’re getting in trouble for things, and so we assume other people aren’t, because we haven’t observed those conversations. But, you know, I would go back to my previous answer as well, too, about sharing facts or sharing feelings, you know, and not judgment on their manager, but stating the impact of what they feel about it.
I was gonna say I feel like I have been the favorite of a manager before, and it really is a fun place to be, but you feel badly. You’re gonna feel badly for everybody else. So I do think that people are, you know… managers are humans too. And I think you do have to sometimes bring it to their attention. Say, here’s what makes me feel… I feel as though you may not like me as well, or I feel as though I’m not getting the same treatment and here’s what would be really helpful to me. I think you have to advocate for yourself and own it. And let’s hope if you do it from a place of caring, the individual will receive it in kind. If not, and they don’t care, then you have other decisions to make.
And Susan, I’m totally not surprised that you were a favorite many times.
Thank you, JoDee.
I think we’re all guilty of this in… in some capacity. I personally think one of the things that I’ve tried to be better at as I’ve, you know, sort of gone through my career or learned over time is that I think when I started out and I was young in leadership, I operated under the assumption that I had to be uniform with how I treat everybody. So it’s one… one message to the entire group, one set of resources, everybody has everything equally. And what I realized is… is that that was… it didn’t take me long to realize this is… it’s a really poor way to manage. And that some people are strong at some things and some people need a little bit more hand holding in different areas. Some people’s confidence do need a little bit stroking more than others, and others don’t like it. I was one of those people that didn’t really like the recognition, the public recognition, if you will, while I know others that I’ve managed in over my career, like, thrive on it. And so I think it’s… I think, to both of your points, it has to be, if it’s something that’s impacting you on a personal level, on an individual or personal level, start from a position of that I don’t think that the person is, like, intentionally trying to make me feel less than. Give them the benefit of the doubt, but certainly present what your feelings are and what that perception might be. And I think more often than not, you’ll find that that person is interested in you feeling comfortable and confident and asking sort of the same questions. And certainly I do this on onboarding and on a regular basis, like, what can I do to be a better manager or leader for you? What am I not doing that I could do better at? And so hopefully, if you’re having those kinds of conversations with your… with your direct reports, that doesn’t come often as a surprise, or you’re giving them the opportunity to bring those issues up.
I think that’s fair.
Jesse, we are called The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, so we always like to ask our guests a JoyPowered® question. Our question for you today is what last piece of advice can you give our listeners on creating more joy at work?
So a few different things. If you’re listening and you’re not in leadership, that doesn’t mean that you can’t take initiative and go to leadership and ask that if… if this is absent, to be a part of and championing the development of some workplace values and how we interact with one another. Again, get people from other departments involved, this should not be done by just executive leadership. Set goals. Celebrate accomplishments, even the small ones, and don’t be afraid to celebrate them big or small. Build positive relationships with your co-workers and be supportive and respectful of their needs. And then I guess lastly I would say this is perhaps the most important and does require some diligence and effort, and that’s to take breaks and practice self-care, whatever that means for you.
Jesse, I love that advice overall. And especially a lot of times when I speak on this topic, I talk about people being in a waiting place, like, they’re waiting for someone else to do something about it, whatever that “it” might be. And we have to understand, as you said, that no matter what level we’re at or what role we’re at, we can have an impact just by asking questions or reaffirming values or building relationships or whatever that might be.
Yeah, I love it.
Yeah, I’ve said that great leaders know that the best ideas are oftentimes going to come from places they never would have looked.
Very true. So Jesse, how can our listeners reach you if they want to connect after today’s episode episode?
My email is Jesse at Williamsburg Therapy Group dot com, or find me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty easy to find and connect with me there.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for being here today. Really appreciate.
Thank you both. Happy New Year.
Happy New Year.
Yeah. Best wishes for… for a very bright and healthy 2023.
Oh, that’s great.
This listener question comes from someone who listened to our August 2022 episode, “Avoiding Workplace Investigation Pitfalls.” How do you handle an investigation where no concrete solution or conclusion is found?
Okay, you know, listener, I get this question a lot. I get it from clients that I have. I get it from students that are taking classes from me on leading workplace investigations. You know, what do you do when you just… you’re at the end of a really well-run investigation and you still don’t know? I’ll tell you that I always remind people that we’re gonna go for the reasonable person standard. You are not a prosecutor. You’re not trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something occurred or something didn’t occur. You are a reasonable person looking at all of the data that you can get your hands on and you are reasonably making judgments. You want to make sure that you’ve tried to connect dots where you can, and where you can’t, that you’ve tried to turn over other rocks. And if there’s no other rock to turn over, you may find that you don’t have concrete proof or a smoking gun. But what you need to have is rationale – rationale that can explain why you believe what you believe. And if it’s ever put under scrutiny by an outside agency, if you ever find yourself on a witness stand, if you ever sat… find yourself in front of a judge, you want to be able to say here’s what I found, here’s what I didn’t find, and here’s why I believe what I believe. And that is the standard that… well, should win the day. I’m not an attorney, I can’t tell you it will win the day, but it should win the day. It’s okay for you to say that at the end of an investigation, it was inconclusive, if you… if you actually cannot come to a sound resolution or a solution or an answer. But you… I try very hard not to get to that. I try very hard to come to a conclusion. And if I can’t, then I’m going to be that reasonable person and say I can’t. So when I end up with an investigation that I think is inconclusive, I can’t tell you whether it happened or where it… when it didn’t. I still go back to the complainant. I share that although I wasn’t able to substantiate their allegations, I’m not saying it didn’t happen. And I say if any new information comes to light, I’ll reopen the investigation, make sure they have my contact information. And I also get back to the accused and I let them know that I was unable to substantiate the allegations. However, it doesn’t mean that I think they didn’t occur. So gives me a chance to do some re-education with the individual about the company stance on that topic. And also, if it’s that they truly feel they were innocent, they didn’t do it. Let’s talk about how do we help you ensure that perception never arises again. So maybe there’s things that you might want to do differently so that you don’t make yourself vulnerable to these types of allegations. So, that… I want to make sure I conclude with both of them in a way that hopefully will be helpful.
JoDee, it’s time for in the news. HRdive.com published an article on November 10, 2022 by Ginger Christ entitled “Feds eye employee training repayment agreements.” That really gives me pause. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio told HRdive he is considering legislation on these TRAPs – T-R-A-P-S. That stands for Training Repayment Agreement Provisions. It has been common where employers need to invest training dollars and time into new hires that employees have to agree to stay for a period of time or repay the company for those training dollars. This article cites hospitals often do it with nurses and mentioned a $30,000 payback if the nurse doesn’t stay for at least three years at one hospital.
Isn’t that incredible? When I was in banking, we did a much smaller amount for new bankers who we put through an investment licensing program, and if they left within a shorter time than what they had agreed to – maybe six months or a year, I don’t quite remember anymore – they ended up having to pay us back a certain amount of money because we had paid for that education. They may not do it any longer, but it was certainly alive and real when I was there. Ginger says that lawmakers and regulators have in recent years pushed back again against employers that aim to recoup training costs from workers. The CFPB requested public comment in June of 2022 on the practice. They are viewing these TRAPs similar to predatory consumer practices, an employer-driven form of debt. Fascinating. There are some local laws relevant to this already on the books, some of which allows an employer to recoup training costs if the training is portable, meaning that the individual wants to get whatever the training is, they can go out to another employer and then benefit from it. If you have this practice today, we encourage you to make sure it’s compliant with any local laws or stay on the lookout for what happens at the national level, since it’s on the radar of legislatures and the CFPB.
Very interesting. Good…. good thing to watch out for.
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