An off-handed joke. A crude remark. A hug or touch that’s lingered way too long. Expectations or treatment from a manager that are constantly crossing lines. A tough work environment is one thing, but when company culture allows a toxic environment to take over, it’s time to face the facts: you’re likely dealing with workplace abuse.
Dawn Kaiser, author, HR expert, and Global Joy Refueler, offers her insight into how to correctly identify workplace abuse, the right way to confront it, and what those in leadership positions should do to protect company culture against fostering abusive behavior.
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How would you describe or define workplace abuse? Have you ever experienced it?
In its broadest sense, workplace abuse is about toxic behaviors that seriously undermine productivity and work-life and team effectiveness in the workplace. Toxic behaviors can take many forms, such as harassment, bullying, discrimination, shaming, sabotage, hostility, etc. In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that ‘one in five workers had left their job because of a toxic workplace.’
When I was an internal HR person, I was responsible for doing investigations when employees would courageously come forward and share what they had been experiencing in the workplace. Part of my job was to help educate people on the difference between toxic and tough workplace behaviors. A boss or coworker may have a bad day every once in a while, or they may have high expectations which can feel tough to achieve but yet are reasonable, which is different than toxic workplace behavior which is the experience of repeated, unreasonable, and unwelcome acts or expectations that can lead to emotional or physical harm.
What does workplace abuse look like in the pandemic workplace?
According to a survey by software company, Writer, ‘thirty-eight percent of employees say they have experienced toxic workplace communication during the pandemic.’ It is not surprising that, as colleagues, customers, and other contacts were being brought into the intimacy of people’s homes as they worked out of their kitchens and living rooms, people let their guard down and became more informal and, in some cases, inappropriate. A comment about some decorations in the background can all too easily be followed by unsolicited remarks or an improper joke that then makes a person feel uncomfortable. Other ways toxic behaviors show up in remove/virtual environments could be things like purposely being excluded from meetings or being bullied over video calls or even having a manager hang up a video call.
If you have personally experienced workplace abuse or see it happening to someone else, what steps should you take?
Before you can call out or speak up about experiencing or seeing workplace abuse or toxic behaviors, you have to first see it for what it is. Is that comment from a colleague a harmless joke, or is it racist and offensive? Is that someone being very direct in their comments, or is that a serious of case of belittling and bullying? Ask yourself if the remark or the behavior is unwelcome and makes you uncomfortable and realize that if you are asking yourself these questions, chances are something isn’t right, which means it is an opportunity for you to speak up.
As you speak up, you don’t have to have a huge speech prepared. Simply find a clear and concise way to express your concern or disapproval over the comment or action that isn’t OK. It could be as simple as a calm and direct statement like, ‘Hey, that’s not cool’ when calling out someone for using offensive language or being rude. Or you could say, ‘I know you’re trying to be funny, but it’s reinforcing a stereotype.’ Ultimately you want it to be clear you disagree with the comment or behavior, but in a way that doesn’t make the person appear stupid or bad. Even though it’s not a requirement, I always encourage people to speak directly to the person with the toxic behaviors first before going to talk to your manager or HR, unless of course it is an extreme and egregious behavior like physical assault, which you would report immediately.
If you’ve been treated badly more than once, I highly encourage you to keep a personal record to help you remember the specifics such as the date, time, and location, what exactly the person said or did, who else was there, and how it made you feel.
Overall, be clear on what your boundaries are, what you’re comfortable tolerating, and what you are not. Then practice communicating assertively and firmly about your needs and concerns.
From a managerial perspective, what should you do to not only acknowledge and rectify current workplace abuse, but also safeguard your team and company culture from having future workplace abuse occur?
The truth is that abusive and toxic behaviors thrive only in work environments that enable that type of conduct to exist by not confronting it, which is why it is extremely important to eliminate toxic behaviors and not tolerate them. In their book, Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power, Elizabeth Holloway and Mitchell Kusy state that ‘just one toxic person has the capability to debilitate teams and individuals.’ Managers and supervisors need to not be bystanders but rather be courageous to step in to stop toxic and abusive behaviors. Don’t excuse the behavior away; confront it.
Managers also need to understand that organizational norms that make up a workplace culture are essential in how employees respond to toxic behavior and whether they trust managers to address workplace abuse. There is a much greater chance of employees speaking up and reporting workplace abuse when the workplace is intentional about creating a healthy culture and honors its core values every single day. What are your core values? How would you describe your workplace culture? Creating a culture of joy or toxicity is a choice.
Finally, trust is key to creating a workplace where people feel comfortable enough to speak up. In his book, The Trust Edge, David Horsager discussed eight pillars that build trust. These pillars are clarity, compassion, character, competence, commitment, connection, contribution, and consistency. As a leader, be willing to reflect on how well you are building trust with your team, because a lack of trust contributes to a toxic workplace.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Obviously, I have been speaking about this topic from an HR perspective, so I would like to also talk about it from a faith-based perspective. Before speaking up, I would encourage you to seek wisdom from God on how to deal with the issue and person. Proverbs 2:6 says ‘For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding.’ You want to be thoughtfully proactive rather than defensively reactive, so take a breath before responding or confronting and seek God’s guidance.
Secondly, as I have stated above, I do think we have a responsibility to speak up, but I also know that the toxic person isn’t your real enemy. Your real enemy is Satan and he will use anyone to get you distracted and distanced from God’s love. So practice Matthew 5:44-45, which states, ‘but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’ Keep a prayerful attitude about someone who is demonstrating toxic behavior; you never know how God may intervene in their life as you pray for them to change into the likeness of Christ.
Finally, in a perfect world, we would confront a toxic person and they would immediately change, but that is not how it always goes (actually most of the time that is not how it goes), because we live in a fallen world. But whether or not the person changes, you can still experience peace and resolve by knowing that you are not alone, for God has promised to be right by your side and you already have victory!
Dawn Kaiser is known as the Global Joy Refueler and the author of “Joy Notes: 90 Days of Delight.” She specializes in helping weary, hopeless and stuck entrepreneurs and other professionals to go beyond burnout and experience greater joy and success in their businesses and their lives. Burnout is a place that is personally familiar to Dawn and she shares with thousands of people yearly how she got back up again to create a joy-fueled business and life. She is now on a mission to empower others to live their entrepreneurial and audacious purpose without burning out. She believes that by following the pathway to joy, entrepreneurs can massively impact the world as they rediscover the harmony between health and hustle. The Joy-Fueled Experience™ is based on Dawn’s 20 years of coaching, training and research. She has worked both as an internal and external coach, consultant and learning and development specialist. Dawn has her Masters of Education, PHR, SHRM-CP and a whole host of other alphabet letters, all which boil down to she has experience in business, in Human Resources, leadership and life.
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