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TOXIC: When the Workplace Turns Sour

by Marquette Turner

in News & Views


Many complain about poor workplace behaviors of others. Although not illegal, these behaviors are unhealthy and unproductive. Some of those that I work with do not seem capable of getting along with each other, and it’s harming our ability to work efficiently. What can I do to address these behaviors and improve this toxic work environment?

The first step is to create a clear list of the exact behaviors you have in mind. Until people know what is and what isn’t OK at work, your workplace will continue to put up with employees’ differing standards.

For some, asking for a date is cute and flirtatious. For others, it’s awkward and insulting. For some, terms like “stupid” are playful, while others find it demeaning and unprofessional.
Your team should meet with people who had complained of a toxic work environment and ask them to share the details of what other’s are saying and doing. From these interviews then develop a detailed list of inappropriate behaviors.

What may seem menial and rather obvious can produce spectacular results. After turning the list into a formal code of conduct, ask each team member to agree to the code and then start holding people accountable to the new standard. So, start by clarifying the new rules.

At the personal level, deal with each abusive interaction as it happens. Hold what we have come to call a “crucial conversation.” Start by assuming the other person isn’t fully aware of the impact of their actions. Instead of becoming upset, ask yourself: Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do what they just did? Now you won’t be angry and won’t start the discussion on the wrong foot.

Next, describe the problem, starting with the facts: “Here’s what just happened” as opposed to what you want to see happen. For example: “You raised your voice and called me incompetent. I was hoping we could keep our conversations free from labels or a harsh tone.” Then stop and check for the other person’s point of view. “Is that what just happened, or did I miss something?”

If the person agrees but seems unaffected, explain the consequences of their actions—how it made you feel and the effects on your relationship. If they still remain unaffected, explain that you’ll have to call in an authority figure. Of course, this won’t be necessary as long as you start the discussion with a clear and unemotional description of the problem. When you keep a professional tone, the other person is likely to respond in kind and you’ll engage in a healthy discussion of the problem.
You are right to be concerned about a toxic work environment. Everybody deserves a workplace filled with civility and respect.

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