Are you considering taking “The Great Resignation” as your pick in the 2022 business jargon drinking game? I wouldn’t recommend it unless you can hold your alcohol. With the current rate at which people are throwing the phrase around, I’d be blotto each day before I finished my morning newsletter reading.

To be fair, the Great Resignation does seem to be “a thing” and not just meaningless clickbait. Since mid- 2021, there has been a precipitous increase in people quitting their jobs (about 30% more than would be normal if you look at twenty years of history).

Of course, it’s not the first time that resignation rates have gone up. There have been upticks in turnover in the past when the labor market has been hot, and people could leave their jobs for an instant raise or promotion. But what’s interesting to me about the current spate of resignations is the extent to which I’m hearing of people leaving with no job to go to. It’s the difference between this…

Fish jumping from one bowl to another

And this…

Fish jumping out of its bowl with nowhere to go

And boy, it’s gotta’ be pretty grim in your bowl to consider the latter a better option.

That’s how poorly organizations have been in caring for employees’ physical and psychological safety. People are so exhausted, so worn down, so demoralized, dehumanized, and defeated that they’re quitting without a prospect of how they’ll earn a living.

That’s bad. Horrible, really.

As a leader, it’s an important time for you to think about life in your organization and on your team. How hospitable is the environment in your fishbowl? Are there toxins building up?

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

First, let’s agree that toxic is a strong word. Its primary definition is “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation.” Although there might not be many scenarios in your workplace that get to the level of death or serious debilitation, it’s worth considering whether or not there are factors that could legitimately fall under Merriam Webster’s second definition of toxic, which is, “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.”

Harmful. That’s not much of a stretch given the working conditions in a lot of organizations.

Evaluate your workplace on the following dimensions:

Does your workplace have toxic policies & processes?

I scratch my head when people use the term “toxic organization” because I’m not sure what an organization actually is. The closest I can come to nailing down the amorphous, abstract construct known as an organization is to consider the organization as the policies and processes that exist beyond any single individual. People can come and go, and the explicit rules of the organization remain.

Does your organization have toxic policies or processes? Consider these indicators…

  • Working conditions that are unhealthy (unhygienic, scorching hot, frigidly cold, cramped, lacking privacy, back-breaking)
  • Official working hours, break times, or scheduling systems that leave employees with little control or ability to accommodate their personal lives
  • Discriminatory hiring, performance management, or promotion practices that systematically disadvantage certain groups
  • Low compensation that doesn’t provide a living wage

These are only a few examples but anything that is codified into the rules of the organization that could be considered harmful should be on your radar. Which policies in your organization might legitimately be considered toxic by employees? What can you do to raise the flag and to have those practices and policies reconsidered?

Does your workplace have a toxic culture?

If the notion of “an organization” is nebulous, culture is even more elusive. Yet, there really is such a thing as a toxic culture. It comes down to the norms that dictate how people in your organization behave. These are the unwritten rules by which your people operate. And boy-o-boy, can they be insipid and insidious.

Does your organization have a toxic culture?

  • Resistance to new people and rejection of ideas that disrupt the status quo
  • Zeros and heroes where some people have clout and others are ignored
  • Passive-aggressive behaviors such as gossip, undermining, or sarcasm
  • Office politics and opaque back-channel influence strategies
  • Relentless positivity and unwillingness to tolerate dissent or disagreement

Again, I could have written a list the length of my arm of examples that suggest a toxic culture. You get the idea. Do the unspoken rules of the organization tolerate, allow, or even condone nasty, exclusionary, unproductive, or demoralizing behavior?

Does your workplace have toxic leaders?

Uh-oh. This is you. Is it feeling a little warm in here? Of course, it’s not only you, but also any of the people with power and control who might be making life miserable, either intentionally or unintentionally, maliciously, or innocently. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Failure to prioritize and constant pressure to deliver an unachievable workload
  • Harsh, critical, dismissive judgments masquerading under the guise of feedback
  • Double standards and inconsistent treatment between favorites and flops
  • Poor planning that necessitates rework and firefighting
  • Micromanagement and constant questioning and meddling in people’s work

The vast majority of people who take on management responsibility are decent human beings. Somehow, the combination of pressure and power corrupts. Scary fact, did you know that studies show that empathy declines as power increases. Zoinks! Not good. Take a long hard look at your leadership behaviors and see if they’re harming the people who work for you.

Does your workplace have toxic employees?

It’s not only those with power that can make life inhospitable in your organization. Employees are affected strongly by their teammates and colleagues and sometimes that’s not in a positive direction. Is there evidence of any of these destructive behaviors among the members of your team?

  • Failure to deliver on commitments that affect other employees’ ability to meet the expectations of them
  • Social exclusion and shunning of certain team members from the social interactions of the team
  • Gossiping about teammates with colleagues or the manager
  • Harsh, uncivil, disrespectful interactions characterized by derision, snide remarks, or personal attacks
  • Overstepping with narcissistic, heroic, save-the-day behavior that prohibits coworkers from contributing or devalues their contributions

If these kinds of things are going on under your watch, you’re on the hook for them. And rest assured that some of the toxic coworkers might be your favorite employees because they’re aces at managing impressions. It’s not ok to be clueless or bamboozled by people who treat their coworkers poorly—even if those people deliver for you.

Do you have toxic customers?

Now we’re into the really interesting stuff. It’s possible that you are presiding over a toxic Angry customer with "toxic" scamp on foreheadworkplace not because your organization has draconian policies, not because the culture has soured, not because you’re a jerk, or
because your employees are…it’s possible that coming to work has become a threat to people’s physical or psychological safety because your customers are terrible.

Wow. That’s a lot to deal with. How far we’ve come from the heady days of “the customer is always right.” In this day and age, we’ve got flight attendants having to duct tape unruly customers to their seats (seriously, if you didn’t see the video, watch it here).

Any chance that your customers should come with a Surgeon General’s warning?

It might look like this…

  • Abusive behavior, including yelling, unwanted physical contact, aggressiveness (hats off to all the nurses who endure this kind of punishment as a regular part of the job)
  • Rule-breaking and attempts to contravene organizational policies
  • Unrealistic expectations and constant threats to take their business elsewhere
  • Nickel and diming for every single item with no respect for the value they’re getting
  • Disorganization and changing expectations that lead to endless rework

Yup, that’s a terrible prospect but it’s not far-fetched to think that you could be losing employees because your customers are jerks. It might not be your fault, but it’s still your problem. What are you going to do about it?

Physical and Psychological Safety

It’s your job to foster a workplace that is both physically and psychologically safe for your employees. If working in your team has become toxic for any of the reasons I outlined, you better do something about it. If you can’t, my guess is that it’s not a safe place for you either. Maybe it’s time to update your resume and join the Great Resignation.

Epilogue

To be fair, I believe that the term “toxic” is getting bandied about far too liberally. “Toxic” is no longer reserved for the types of noxious workplaces where you might be screamed at for not being able to keep up with an unreasonable workload or forced to pee in a bottle if you want to make your quotas. I’ll be back with some examples of where employees are overreacting and how you might address it if you or your organization is being unfairly labeled as toxic. Stay tuned.

Further Reading

A Different Take on Psychological Safety

Are you working with a toxic team?

The Vicious Cycle of Bad Behavior