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Surviving a Toxic Office

I wanted to know why people quit their jobs. Last week, I posted a poll on my Linkedin page.

More than 93k people viewed this poll in 7 days and 3,500k people voted.  

Many people believed that “the fish often rots from the head” and with “bad management, comes a toxic workplace”. But above bad management, stagnant salaries and a lack of flexibility, toxic culture took first place. 49% of people that voted would leave if a company’s culture was bad. Some already had!

Toxic offices come in all shapes and sizes. There are the irredeemably awful situations – Susan Fowler’s blog post about life at Uber lives on. It’s been a few years since it was written, but it’s still shocking. And relevant.  

Some companies are rotten through and through. Beyond taking your skills somewhere else and (depending on how bad the situation is), reporting your employer to external organisations like WorkSafe or FairWork, there may not be a lot you can do.  When it comes to issues like sexual harassment and racism, short of investing in a crusade, handing in your resignation is often the best option. Self-care is not selfish!

That doesn’t mean you have to let the issue slide. Fowler went on to write a book, but she didn’t need to stay inside Uber’s toxic environment to do that!

But what if you don’t want to quit? What if you’ve worked for years for a well-deserved promotion, or you’re in the middle of a passion project that you want to see out until the end? What do you do when you love the work and your peers, but hate the culture or your Manager? 

If, for whatever reason, you’re determined to stick it out, here are some tips to help you do it.

Don’t Join In

Gossiping is human nature. It’s also playing with fire. Cliques and rumours are fun to be in and terrible for an office. They create hostility, hurt feelings, favouritism, misunderstandings and anxiety.

You can’t control the other people gossiping, but you can make it clear you won’t participate. Draw a line: you are here to work. Not speculate about coworkers’ affairs. 

Good Eggs

Chances are you’re not alone when your workplace is driving you crazy. 

Instead of joining the fracas, focus on healthy relationships. Put in time with the people at your company who are forces for positivity. Grow those relationships and rely on them for support when the going gets tough. People can make work a nightmare but they can also be a silver lining.

It’s Not About You

Most of us share the ability to make anything about ourselves. Usually, it’s not; if your manager is always negative or your desk-mate is rude, it’s not your fault.

In a toxic workplace, avoid shouldering blame. Be critical of criticism: take the helpful, leave the bad and focus on the bigger picture.

Create Boundaries

Done with working after hours? Frustrated with a lack of communication? Tell someone. Make it clear what your boundaries are and create a paper trail to back yourself up. If needed, talk to HR or higher management. You don’t need to settle for “the way things are done”.

Sometimes, like Susan Fowler, you’ll be lied to. Sometimes others won’t listen. Don’t be afraid, though, to push back. A toxic workplace isn’t going to fix itself. Sometimes, people aren’t aware of how their actions are affecting others: speaking up may prompt change.

It is not your responsibility, however, to save your employer. As some respondents to the poll commented, a toxic workplace, low salaries and a lack of flexibility all have the same cause: a bad boss. If management is the issue, there’s not a lot that you can do if they refuse to address your concerns.

An organisation owes employees good management. If, when prompted, it refuses to focus on bettering its leaders, introduce training, or provide the ability to speak up without repercussions, ask yourself if it’s worth your time and talent. 

Take What You Can

If nothing else, learn what you can. A toxic workplace can be a lesson in mismanagement. It’s a chance to learn how to deal with conflict, communication and leadership: all the things to never do, and some of the things that work. You may not be able to save a sinking ship, but you can learn how to build a better one. 

Health Above All

Even if you’ve decided you won’t leave, don’t forget to listen to your body. Stress can do major damage. From our stomachs to our hearts, no job is worth ruining our health. 

If you can’t sleep or you are keeping a bottle of painkillers on the desk for constant headaches, take a step back and ask yourself: is this going to get better soon? If there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s probably time to stop digging upwards.

And whatever you do, always remember: there is more to life than work!  If you’re stuck for the foreseeable future, get a hobby. Visit friends. Make sure you have a life beyond 9 am to 5 pm that’s fulfilling. Something even Gary from finance can’t ruin.


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