To say the least, work culture is in the midst of a shakeup. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and general cultural and political upheaval, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t reevaluating their relationship with work. Likewise, the word “toxic” is also having a moment in the workplace, especially in regards to company culture and the widespread return to in-office work. As a society, we are suddenly talking about how things like burnout, mental health, and company culture affect the workplace. This is a good thing: the recognition that work is more than just the specific job that we are paid to do is an important step in furthering employee retention, DEI efforts, and overall productivity. But what is toxic work culture? At what point does a job go from being simply not a good fit to being toxic? And what unnoticed, unmentioned aspects of the workplace ultimately lead workers to start thinking of a job that they once eagerly interviewed for as “toxic”?
Defining toxic culture is often easier said than done, and unfortunately it’s only getting harder. With the prevalence of DEI commitments and the understanding that job seekers value diversity and inclusion, companies are getting more savvy about the messages they’re sending out to recruits. It’s no longer ok to have a blatant “bro” culture or to outwardly expect that employees have no life outside of work. On the other hand, corporate virtue signaling and slacktivism are on the rise. This often takes the form of a very involved social media or advertising presence: companies who are very passionate about social justice issues on Instagram or in ads, but these messages don't translate to action. It’s much easier to craft an image of inclusion (talk the talk), than it is to create inclusive culture (walk the walk). Job seekers interested in a workplace with a truly inclusive culture need to be mindful of this and will have to dig a little deeper to get the full picture.
The shift to remote work and flexible schedules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have also convoluted the discussion around work culture. If your workplace is returning to in-person, and you really don’t like that, is that toxic work culture? Or is the job just no longer a good fit for you? Again, there’s no straightforward answer. Some companies truly value in-person collaboration and interaction. Some offices are returning to in-person work just so they can micromanage employees. Managers and employees will have to grapple with this question and look at it from a perspective of inclusivity in order to avoid the pitfalls of toxic work culture. Again, it’s important to dig deep, have difficult conversations, and advocate for yourself and/or your employees in order to understand whether you have a culture problem or a “not a good fit” problem.
It’s impossible to talk about toxic work culture without discussing the disproportionate effect it has on marginalized employees. An able bodied male employee may see returning to the office as a minor inconvenient schedule change, whereas a single mother with a physical disability may find it extremely difficult if not impossible. This doesn’t mean that employers need to cater to every whim of their employees. It means that individual differences, especially those of marginalized and underrepresented groups, need to be carefully considered and (when possible) accommodated in order to retain employees and maximize productivity. A workplace that ignores the differences that define their employees has toxic culture. A workplace that expects employees to conform to a specific homogenous culture rather than recognizing and embracing differences is a toxic environment. On the other hand, a workplace that has a policy in place for specific and transparent safety or productivity reasons may just be a bad fit for certain individuals.
The great resignation is a wakeup call for due diligence. Employers owe their employees an inclusive and safe environment to do their job in, and job seekers owe it to themselves to define what they need in the workplace to be productive and content in their jobs. If we pay careful attention to the shifting dynamics of work culture and mindset, this era can be a metamorphosis rather than a trainwreck.
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