Unfortunately, many people can share personal stories on the topic of toxic workplaces. It is just too easy to accept a job thinking we did our due diligence, only to discover we have fallen into a pit of vipers, where the corporate values said to be so important during the interview are nowhere to be found on a typical workday. How did this happen? Or better yet, how do we avoid it next time? Well, my friends, let’s check in with a couple of experts and figure that out together.
Know What to Look For
Let’s start by defining toxic workplaces. In our common vernacular, toxic workplace can be used to describe any workplace that is awful. But that is too broad and all-encompassing, which is why I am grateful that in one of his recent “Work Life With Adam Grant” podcast episodes, Wharton Professor Adam Grant shared his list of four workplace sins. These sins included:
- Toxicity– Cutthroat behavior, unethical choices, and disrespect are tolerated or even rewarded if it yields the desired results. For example, when results are more important than relationship.
- Mediocrity– On the other hand, when we lean too far into relationship and ignore the end result, we fall into mediocrity. All the energy is poured into getting along and there is no pushback, which results in… well… poor results.
- Bureaucracy– I have found the trap of bureaucracy particularly tempting for us engineers. We love rules, but without a certain amount of risk to balance them, we are tied up in red tape and stop progressing.
- Anarchy– Without some helpful guidelines and structure in place, we end up with anarchy, making it impossible to function as a unit. With each person doing their own thing, there is no strategy, and no one learns from the past.
With a clear outline of what can go wrong in a workplace to create a toxic environment, how do we avoid it like the plague?
Start at the Interview
We can trust our interviewers to talk about the work culture and how important these values are, but, I myself wouldn’t trust them to give an honest assessment of implementation. Grant suggests that you ask a few questions to find out how much a business invests in its corporate values, including:
- Can you give me examples of how your company commends employees who have lived up to or been examples of your corporate values?
- Can you tell me about an employee who failed to live up to the corporate values?
If these values are actually important, we should be able to see examples throughout the workplace. We know who is effective at their job because of raises and promotions. There should also be clear indicators of who contributes to a strong and healthy workplace.
Do Detective Work
After you receive the job offer, Grant suggests that you shouldn’t be afraid to dig around for supporting evidence. Reach out on LinkedIn to former and current employees. Jenny Chatman, a professor at Berkley and Queen of Organization Culture, provides this list of questions that can help reveal the true nature of that mysterious work culture:
- What do people care about?
- What do people talk about?
- What is behavior focused on?
- Are people aligned on these issues?
- What are the non-negotiables?
While people might clam up or provide misleading answers when directly asked if their current employer has an unhealthy or healthy workplace, these questions offer more options and space for honesty. By leading with these questions, you can, hopefully, obtain some behind-the-scenes details from a few different sources, and see if the information aligns. You might be able to determine what internal disputes there are and the general attitude among employees. And you can add your questions to this list based on your value or previous experiences. The important part is to ask!
Now that we know what we are looking for and the types of questions to ask, we can do our best to avoid all four workplace sins. Here’s to workplaces that esteem courage and affirm demonstrations of their core values. As more employers strive to invest in their employees effectively, I hope that the term “toxic workplace” will soon become antiquated.