Reflections on toxic workplaces and how to navigate them
When I think about toxicity at work, I remember The Devil Wears Prada. The film is about an accomplished university graduate, Andy Sachs and her experience working at an upscale fashion magazine in New York whilst navigating the highly toxic work environment.
Andy started working at Runway magazines as the Junior Personal Assistant to the Editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly, a job she continuously heard described as one that “a million girls would kill for”. She quickly realised that it was a job from hell. Her boss, Miranda, was very demanding, extremely impatient, and freely dished out sarcasm. She remained unbothered as to how people received her. No one was spared from her onslaught, and she constantly held people in disdain. Her staff practically had to read her mind to ensure they remained several steps ahead of her, otherwise, they would face her wrath.
Everyone was expected to meet very high and almost unrealistic standards in their work and personal conduct. Miranda’s staff remained in awe of her and could do almost anything to remain in her good books. Andy’s immediate supervisor, Emily, the Senior Personal Assistant, was longsuffering, fully immersed in the toxic workplace culture, and focused solely on meeting her personal career goals even if she had to sacrifice her health to achieve them.
Eventually, Andy came to a moment of realisation: she could no longer adapt to working under those conditions. Her personal life was in shambles: she had broken up with her boyfriend, and her relationship with family and friends had deteriorated quickly. She also questioned who she had now become, and eventually decided to quit her job in favour of her keeping her sanity.
As an HR consultant, the film resonated with me as I recognised all the prevailing issues and how they became established as norms within that workplace. I could connect with Andy, Miranda, Emily, and all the other characters as I had come across similar people through my work. I could understand how Miranda became the devil and why Andy continued working for her. I had seen many of these things play out in various companies I had either consulted with or heard about.
And so a few weeks ago, when TechCabal published an expose about how the Founder of Bento Africa had enabled a toxic workplace culture, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. There were reports of verbal assaults, emotional abuse, and threats of physical violence, to name a few, all of which I had observed working in human resources. The article made for interesting conversations across several WhatsApp groups as people shared different perspectives on the matter. Unsurprisingly, many people had either experienced similar things or observed them happen to others.
The article trended on Twitter with the #HorribleBosses hashtag and later that night, a Twitter Space was organised lasting for over seven hours. It hosted almost twenty thousand participants by the time it was over! Many people shared even more shocking stories from personal experiences covering physical violence, sexual harassment, unfair work practices, unreasonable punitive measures, and even threats to life and property.
Starting my career in consulting, I quickly realised that the main focus was ensuring that client objectives were met. As project timelines were always pre-agreed, any delays could potentially impact the project scope negatively. This could further result in resource wastage, which the client either paid for (depending on how it was presented) or the consultants paid for. Thus, understanding what was at stake often made people more task-oriented than people-oriented, especially people in leadership. The pressure made many people focus more on getting work done without considering who did the work and how they got it done.
It continues till today, and for many who work or have worked in other high-pressure environments such as financial services, marketing communications, and even healthcare, this is not news. Those who have worked for at least 15 years would even testify that it has become a way of life and is not as shocking as many younger people consider it to be. The only difference is that now, there is a greater expectation for people to be more emotionally aware.
Yet, many inappropriate behaviours are quite prevalent in sectors where performance expectations are high, both individually and collectively. Are the people on the receiving end comfortable with this? Most certainly not, but most people learned to grin and bear it, after all, work must be done and salaries must be collected. Your boss called you names? It was because you didn’t review your report properly before you sent it to her. Your supervisor threatened to get you fired? You took it in your stride, after all, you didn’t achieve your target and you should remain grateful for the job.
The question then is, what can people who experience toxicity at work do? Do they suck it up and endure till they find another job or pretend like they are living their best lives and keep working? I have a few suggestions I believe people can adopt. However, be aware that seeking an expert opinion is crucial as no two scenarios are the same:
- Challenge any untoward action the first time it happens but be wise about your approach. People will quickly realise that you do not condone bad behaviour. If the issue is with a senior colleague, speak to them privately and politely about your reservations regarding their behaviour
- If you notice a colleague being bullied or victimised, stand up for them if you can: you could be in their shoes tomorrow. If you are unable to stand up for them, encourage them to report it or do so on their behalf
- Ensure that you document anything that concerns your work and relationship with others. In the same vein, where required, have witnesses who can corroborate your version of events
- Make an official report to Human Resources and then Management as a last point of call. If either or both of these parties have been compromised, make an anonymous report to the board (hopefully there is an active one)
- Prepare to exit if you cannot survive
- Take formal action against the perpetrators of victimisation by making an official report either to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management (CIPM), the relevant regulatory authority that guides your company’s operations, or the industrial court (yes, they work)
People often think they have no choice when faced with an unsuitable work environment, whereas that worst-case scenario they refuse to consider is also a valid option.
We must not perpetuate the same things that we complain about. We need to remember that people are human beings, too, and they deserve self-respect irrespective of whatever they may have done or not done. Let us all be human: this is the way I see things today.