The Toxic Workplace

by Peter B. Grazier

Look around you at work and ask yourself how many of your coworkers are really enjoying their work or the work environment. Something is changing, and it doesn’t seem to be for the better.

The combination of technological advancement and competition-driven downsizing seems to be placing enormous pressure on managements and workers today. Add to that the consensus that leaders today understand little about human needs and how they relate to performance, and the result is a lethal brew that is more often today being described as a toxic workplace.

What’s Going On?
The workplace today seems to be more hectic than ever. The combination of the downsizing trend and rapid technological changes have left their marks in precious little time for family, friends, and outside activities. As a result, the ability to balance one’s life is moving higher on the charts as a characteristic desired in the workplace.

Worldwide, workers seem to be saying that they want more balance in their lives and are not getting it. A recent poll1 of 10,339 workers found that they want the same things, regardless of country or culture. Gemini Consulting conducted the international poll of thirteen countries with Yankelovich Partners, and found the five most desired qualities to be:

  • ability to balance work and personal life
  • work that is truly enjoyable
  • security for the future
  • good pay or salary
  • enjoyable coworkers

Worldwide, the ability to “balance the needs of work and family or personal life” was either the most or second-most important attribute in a job. Only in Russia did “having good pay or salary” rank higher. Happiest were French employees; unhappiest were Japanese. But everywhere there’s a sizeable gap between what workers want and what they’re getting, especially in the areas of pay, life balance and a feeling of security. More than half don’t know their company’s mission statement, 84% don’t consider it fundamental to their work and 44% don’t feel connected to their employers.

Another study2 found that the impact of work-family conflicts is circular, going home to impact the family, and then returning to affect an employee’s productivity, job satisfaction and commitment. Nearly 40% of employees feel their careers would be negatively impacted if they took advantage of flexible schedules, or took time off for family reasons.

Academics from Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, working with New England-based Fleet Financial Group, measured quantitatively for the first time the impact of work redesign on both home life and work. Fleet, the country’s 11th largest financial services company, posed three questions to workers3:

  1. How is work organized and what are the business measures for success?
  2. How does the way work is organized affect employees’ personal lives?
  3. And how can changes in the way work is done positively affect both business outcomes and employees’ lives?

They heard from staff about sleepless nights, neglected families, too much work and a sense of frenzy about getting it done.

Technology… Blessing or Curse?
The huge leaps in technology have given us new ways of working and living, and nobody can dispute the many advantages of this progress. However, these same changes are creating a new dynamic, the full impact of which has not been assessed. Cellular telephones, notebook computers, pagers, modems, email, and more have put us in touch with our companies 24 hours a day. Without these “advancements” we were forced into downtime, quiet time, or simply mental contemplation as, for example, we drove home in our cars.

The mind needs an opportunity to regenerate and contemplate…go “offline” for a while. A popular television advertisement shows a worker at home, participating in a teleconference in her pajamas, or another worker on a beach with laptop in hand. Another recent magazine advertisement for PageNet says:

[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]

as though sending and receiving e-mails while playing a round of golf is something that will enhance or simplify our lives.

The essence of the message is that the technology gives us new freedoms…but does it really? Are the workers on the beach and on the golf course really relaxing if they are conducting business there? And do their families feel connected to them at home when they are online with their work? When the novelty of 24-hour connectedness wears off, we will begin to understand that it is having a significant impact on the overall quality of our lives.

Work and the Human Spirit
Two years ago I wrote a piece for this newsletter called Work and Spirituality4. The intent of the article was to acknowledge the growing movement toward recognizing the human spirit in the workplace. What was significant to me, however, was the response to the article. Never before in the 11-year history of this newsletter have I received more feedback. For a number of readers, there was a powerful connection.

In my work over the last 20 years, I have had the privilege of observing first-hand how energizing the human spirit relates directly to individual and organizational performance. At some point, it becomes a “no-brainer.” When people feel good about their work, they tend to perform well. When they don’t, they don’t. The trick is moving the work culture to one that sees nurturing and caring for this spirit as beneficial and productive, rather than “soft” and “coddling.” If I were a senior leader, I would be asking myself each day “How can I help to create a workplace where people feel good about themselves and their work?” This question would lead to actions that promote health, family unity, general wellbeing and, subsequently, greater production and overall performance.

Why Workers Don’t Show Up For Work

According to a CCH Inc. survey of 401 companies employing 800,000 workers, since 1995, illness, long the chief cause of work absences, has lost ground to new excuses: “stress” and “entitlement mentality” —that is, “I’ve worked my tail off; I deserve some time off.” The category “personal needs” increased also.

In 1995, “illness” made up almost half of the reasons why people took time off from work. In 1998, it had dropped to 20%.

The message? Pay attention to employees’ emotional well-being.

Source: Business Week, 11/16/98, page 8

What Makes a Workplace Toxic?
My dictionary defines toxic as “poisonous, or pertaining to poison” and poison as “any substance which, introduced into an organism in relatively small amounts, acts chemically upon the tissues to produce serious injury or death.”

A toxic workplace can certainly pertain to stress-related illness or death, and this has been well documented. But it can also relate to attitude. Much has been written in the last two decades about employee dedication and commitment, and the fall of the work ethic. But I think these rantings are simply cover-ups for a management system that has largely ignored and perhaps exacerbated the human condition at work. How else can one explain the exceptions like Southwest Airlines (see the book, NUTS! Southwest Airlines Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success) where employee commitment is higher in general and company performance has consistently trounced everyone in its industry?

A recent article in Fast Company magazine5 entitled “Danger: Toxic Company” discussed the work of Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Mr. Pfeffer says there is ample evidence that companies that manage people right outperform others by 30% to 40%.

So, what characteristics of companies inhibit this kind of performance and render them “toxic?”

The Contract
– On the first day of work, some of these companies are requiring people to sign at-will employment contracts that give the company the right to fire an employee any time for any reason. What kind of message does this send on the first day of work, and could it affect loyalty and work ethic?

Toxic Flextime
– There’s an old joke at Microsoft that says “We offer flexible time—-you can work any 18 hours you want.” Work redesign that was supposed to eliminate work actually eliminated people, shifting the same work onto fewer people. Labor statistics show that working hours have steadily increased over the last decade. The problem with increased working time is that it forces the employee to choose between two competing obligations—work life and personal life (or family)—creating inevitable guilt in either direction.

Rewards for the Privileged
– The topic is so old by now that business magazines that routinely ranted about it have stopped. Pay and bonus systems for those at the top have escalated to Hollywood star status, frequently in the absence of corporate performance. One has simply to ask, does this horrible inequity have anything to do with a drop in attitude, loyalty, and work ethic?

Assets or Expenses?
– Labor is a cost of production and is considered an expense, and the goal is usually to minimize expenses. Assets, however, contribute to value. Most organizations will proclaim that “our employees are our most important asset.” But when most managers look at employees, do they see an asset to be developed, or a cost to be minimized?

In basic science we learned that a ball at the top of a ramp has potential energy. That potential is always there until the ball is released to move down the ramp. The characteristic that distinguishes employees (or labor) from other expenses is this same potential. The employee has the potential to add value through creative ability. But most managers don’t understand this and certainly have not been taught to release it.

Modeling the Culture
– Toxic companies have a mismatch between what the mission, vision, and values hanging on the wall say, and how the leaders really behave. Everyone knows that the real culture and expected norms are something else. The spiritual element of the human species wants to believe in something better—a higher purpose for the work being done. So leadership that reinforces this is motivating—leadership that contradicts it drains energy.

Real Involvement
– Toxic companies cling to the past and resist real involvement of the workforce in the organization’s thinking. For years we have recorded the motivating effects of involvement and, conversely, have observed the demotivating effects of exclusion. People have much to contribute and are de-energized when those talents are wasted. Turnover rates tend to drop when people feel a real connection to the organization’s thinking processes.

The Tree Eventually Falls
A strong and sturdy tree can endure much in terms of punishment. Even an attempt to fell the tree is resisted. The tree can endure a single chop from an ax and not be weakened. It can even withstand several cuts without falling. But eventually, enough damage is done—the cut is too deep—and the tree falls.

To me, workers are like trees. They start out enthusiastic about their new opportunity, strong in their support of their new organization, and able to withstand an occasional hit. But in toxic workplaces, one metaphoric chop after another begins to take a toll until the worker makes a decision, conscious or otherwise, to tune out. And these decisions ultimately decide the fate of the organization. TBI

  1. International Workforce Management Study, September 1998. For more information go to
  2. Families and Work Institute – The National Study of the Changing Workforce, 1997 and the 1998 Business Work-Life Study.
  3. 212-465-2044

  4. For more information, call RPPI at 617-496-3478
  5. EI Network, Jan-Feb 1997
  6. Fast Company, Nov-Dec 1998, page 152