Why ‘toxic’ is overused as a workplace term

Before using that word, there are two key questions you should ask

Why ‘toxic’ is overused as a workplace term

October of 2015 was a difficult time for me. While everything was looking good for my professional career on the west coast, my partner of five years who lived in New York had just announced that he met someone else and was starting a three-month process of breaking up with me.

At one point, my partner described our relationship as “toxic.” It was the first time I had heard the word used like this. To me "toxic" meant something like "chemically dangerous. It wasn't a one-word summary of all the complications and nuances of our relationship.

Ever since that day, the word has become increasingly pervasive. It's everywhere and it's gotten to the point where I've accidentally annoyed people when they use it and I stare at them and ask, "What exactly does that mean?"

Interestingly enough, nobody can tell me. It seems to be used to describe anything and everything that isn't pleasant. It's a universal way to describe relationships, restaurant atmospheres, communication styles and, apparently, everyone’s workplace.

I am sincerely hoping this word starts to die out because it is not the all-purpose utility word people think it is, and I don't think it does a good job of conveying what people want.

‘My workplace is so toxic’

I can't open my TikTok, Twitter or LinkedIn without seeing a post about "toxic culture.” As an HR business partner, culture is everything, so people saying this naturally gets my attention. Whenever one of my employees use this, I have to ask them to provide more details and context. Here are 10 situations where the word "toxic" was used:

  • The employee was mad they didn't get a promotion.
  • An employee was being sexually harassed by a client and a client's co-worker.
  • A manager was making racist and homophobic microaggressions.
  • A new employee wasn't invited to a team sport (they were, they just didn't read the Slack because they turned it off).
  • A group of employees did not like they didn't get as big of a bonus as last year.
  • An employee was going through a divorce and felt like her manager didn't empathize.
  • An employee didn't think it was fair that they had to report to the office an hour earlier once a month to accommodate an office in Europe.
  • Someone accidentally sent a nasty gossiping note that was intended for a work friend to the person they were gossiping about.
  • A male employee tried to hit on a co-worker, was rejected and then spread rumours about him.
  • Two employees on a team weren't aware that a person was trans and mis-gendered them.

As you can see, this list is very polar, with 10 very different issues, ranging from poor manager communication, petty employee disputes to serious allegations of distress and sexual harassment.

While the word "toxic" was used to describe each one of these situations, I had to wrangle, cajole and ask for more detail and clarification to get to the heart of the matter. I'd much prefer if we use the specific actions and descriptors instead of asking people to just understand what is meant be "toxic."

Lack of accountability

One of my biggest issues with people describing "toxicity," especially at the workplace, is that I find it's used as a distancing vehicle. I've heard:

  • "Oh, I couldn't stay in that team another moment, it was so toxic."
  • "Ugh, my manager could be really nice but sometimes she was just the definition of toxic."
  • "I used to like working here, but it's just become really toxic."

In each of these cases, upon discussing the situation more in depth, the employee had an a-ha moment: They were part of the problem.

In the first situation, the team had become disappointed with their co-worker because she had spent a lot of time looking for another job and didn't hide it. She became unresponsive and unreliable and her teammates had to pick up her slack. She had mentally checked out and was coasting. Her team was upset with her, but instead of acknowledging that, using the term "toxic" allowed this woman to distance herself from it and blame the team.

In the second, a person was told he wasn’t receiving a promotion. His manager was still supportive but brought up concerns about how the employee conducted himself at executive meetings. There was no evidence of toxicity, negativity, bullying or favouritism. It was literally an employee disappointed by a conversation and the manager needing to move the followup discussion due to a health condition and not being as available.

In the final example, the manager used to have a team of almost 20. Due to the organization redesigning and his own inconsistent performance, a new team was built and his time size shrunk. The reasons for the changes were communicated to him several times, and he was told what he could do to grow, but instead he chose to lean back and vent on Slack and WhatsApp that the company had become toxic.

Takeaways for HR

As an HR person, I know there are some truly untenable situations and I will never make light of an employee who is in serious duress ─ vicious bullying between employees, unfair and nepotistic managers, sexual harassment, micro-aggressions can all lead to some truly negative experiences for employees. But before using that word “toxic,” I'd invite two questions:

  • What is really happening?
  • How are you contributing to it (either making it worse or better)?

Daniel Space is a senior HR business consultant based in New York. He can be reached at [email protected].

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