The major symptoms of a toxic workplace

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The major symptoms of a toxic workplace
And how you can use the basics to keep these business killers at bay

By Harry S. Dennis III, for SBT

This month, I would like to thank my good friend Tom Parker, president of TEC Russia and former FBI agent, for his professional thoughts on the subject of toxic workplaces.

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Let’s begin with the seven symptoms of a toxic workplace:
1) Highly repetitive jobs – Jobs that require little mental exercise and can be accomplished with a near robotic response.
2) Rigid, isolated management – Management that is disenfranchised and remote, as in a "caste" type of system.
3) Jobs that are performed with little self-direction – A work order tells you what to do, how much and in what time frame.
4) Negligent hiring and retention efforts – People are viewed as filling vacant spaces and unfilling them when economics dictate they aren’t needed.
5) Volatile labor-management relationships – Strictly "we-they" attitudes summarize how labor views management.
6) Unilateral management decisions – Communication is always "down the line." Seldom "up the line."
7) Lack of uniformly fair discipline enforcement – Broken rules are evaluated and judged on an "incident-by-incident" basis.
This sounds pretty pathetic doesn’t it? Tom Parker teaches conflict management to the staff of a large medical center. He says that due to the high pressure the staff is experiencing, based upon the above symptoms, they are bordering on distinguishing themselves as a "toxic workplace."
Unfortunately, as we all know, management and managers have everything to do with whether a workplace becomes toxic or not. This is not to place the blame directly on them. But the fact of the matter is more often than not they are at the root cause of the problems.
And the ones that are really bad? Here are the traits that they exhibit and, I should add, in many cases don’t even recognize it:
1) Intimidating, overbearing attitude – "My way or the highway."
2) Inflexible, controlling personalities – "That’s not the way we do things here."
3) Crude and rude behavior – "This is not rocket scientist work."
4) Openly break rules for their own benefit – "Do as I say, not as I do."
5) Contemptuous of most employees – "No disrespect, but you are a dunce."
6) Plays favorites – "I need this done, but I’ll take care of you with the brass."
7) Inconsistent decision-making and discipline – "I said that applied last week."
8) Withholds privileges to exert control – "No cell phone calls on company time."

Workplace toxicity takes two to tango, according to Parker. First you need a high-pressured environment where people are under stress. It doesn’t help – as in his medical center example – or in many manufacturing companies, where shift changes manage to pass on from one shift to the next the frustrations of the preceding shift along with the ceremonial chant of "it’s not my problem now."
Then you need management – but more specifically, first-line supervision -as the final source of ignition. It is at the first level where the heartbeat and pulse of most companies can rise to the occasion to extinguish toxicity or allow it to spread.
For example, Parker describes a small company where the CEO who wears many hats hired a new supervisor. For some reason, this new sup chose a 27-year valued employee as his whipping boy. And whip him he did, relentlessly – in front of other employees. He was disciplined unfairly, assigned menial work and chastised every time he looked the wrong way.
The story gets worse. The chastised employee called the CEO with a very threatening message: "I’m on my way down to kill you and two others." It turns out that he had been suspended for insubordination by this supervisor (now history by the way) a week after his wife of 23 years filed for divorce and his son had been arrested for armed robbery.
The police intervened. The employee was committed to a psychiatric ward, and the company continued to give him support because as more information came to light about the "new" supervisor, it was clear he was way out of line. In the end, the employee found a new job with his old company’s help. And he apologized profusely to his old employer and was grateful for the outcome.
This is obviously an extreme instance of the consequence of workplace toxicity. But in this day and age of workplace violence, terrorism in the workplace, disgruntled employees who return to nonchalantly kill fellow employees and owners at random (most recently the Chicago warehouse killings), companies must get proactive.
My thinking says that we must do all we can to prevent toxic workplaces to begin with. In 35 years of meandering around the business world, the basics prevail: create trusting cultures, treat everyone fair and square, give everyone the opportunity to stretch their capabilities, and reward performance. I’m sure there’s more, but these are good for starters.
Until next month, may all our readers’ workplaces be totally detoxified!

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of TEC (The Executive Committee) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at 262-821-3340.

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Oct. 3, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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