How to recognize red flags in a toxic workplace

'If people are under-reporting, then leaders have this idea that nothing's wrong'

How to recognize red flags in a toxic workplace

A toxic workplace can quickly become harmful in many ways.

But how can these bad behaviours be recognized and addressed?

It’s often complicated because some managers may not even recognize that they exist, according to Angela Workman-Stark, associate professor, organizational behaviour at Athabasca University in Alberta.

“Leaders may not think anything is wrong, particularly if they don’t hear about it. If people are under-reporting because they have a lack of faith in the system, then some leaders have this idea that maybe nothing’s really wrong because it hasn’t been brought to their attention.”

Red flags

For Workman-Stark — who also has experience at a famously harmful place of work, the RCMP, as chief superintendent — her research over the past six years has shown there are some obvious red flags that will signify something is wrong.

It starts with the type of culture that is practised, she says.

“Is it a competitive environment? Is it focused on acts of endurance and strength, such as people working extended hours to prove their commitment, and their worthiness? Is it the idea of having to put work before family; working long hours, being responsive to calls for extra time, such as overtime requests?”

This harmful culture manifests especially in male-dominated industries, such as policing, military and IT and finance, says Workman-Stark.

“It comes out quite strongly, this idea of not showing any sign of weakness or being seen to engage any in any type of behaviours that may be perceived as feminine, and then derided as weakness.”

Read more: Toxic culture drives great resignation

“Problematic complaint processes” are also a problem as they prevent bad behaviour from being punished.

“When individuals distrust the process, or it’s adversarial, or they feel nothing will happen and no one will be held accountable, that there may even be consequences or repercussions for complainants, and along with that a really unclear definition of harm, then that becomes another factor that just contributes to this perpetuation of harassing-type behaviours,” says Workman-Stark.

Bad bosses

One issue that isn’t addressed enough is toxic management, she says, “whether it’s poor or toxic leadership, such as leaders being excessively focused on individual power; engaging in abuse of authority; and certainly perpetuating negative workplace behaviours, such as harassing or bullying others — they might rationalize some of these negative behaviours,” she says.

Often this behaviour is not corrected, which leads to many types of harm to both employees and organizations, such as physiological harm, financial risks due to lawsuits and reputational damage, says Workman-Stark.

Preventing abuse

So, what can be done to prevent this from happening?

It begins with “good definitions of harmful behaviours, clarity around what that means and clarity around consequences,” she says.

It also includes training for leaders to recognize what exactly is toxic behaviour and how to prevent it, combined with “really good mechanisms for reporting, such as informal and formal reporting, so that part of the complaint process is really clear,” says Workman-Stark.

As part a solid complaints process, protection around retaliation for whistleblowers is also key.

Read more: How to combat bullying in the virtual work environment

Taking a look at the organization’s leadership development practices will help to weed out bad managers, she says.

“Are [employers] focusing on the right things? Are they selecting, and recruiting and promoting and advancing leaders based on really important values and competencies and traits? And are they rewarding the right thing? Are organizations rewarding some of these bad behaviours, which then communicate to others that those are the things that are valued?”

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