The Rise of Toxic Workplaces – and How to Cope

Posted By Terri Williams on June 30, 2017 at 6:44 am
The Rise of Toxic Workplaces – and How to Cope

A recent report, “Civility in America,” reveals that incivility is rampant – and 75% of respondents believe that incivility has risen to a crisis level, leading to toxic workplaces.

Some key findings:

  • 84% have personally experienced incivility.
  • 34% have experienced incivility at work.
  • 24% have quit a job because it was an uncivil workplace.
  • 30% of managers have fired an employee due to uncivil behavior.

Factors leading to an increase in toxic workplaces and bad behavior

The vast majority of respondents believe that incivility has increased in recent years. In response, The Protocol School of Washington, which has an annual National Business Etiquette Week, chose “Toxic Workplaces: How to Resurrect Civility In Business” as its theme this year.  “In examining why today’s work environment has become so toxic, we can look at a variety of factors that range from technology that makes interpersonal relationships rather impersonal to the rise of employee bullying and cultural disrespect,” according to Pamela Eyring, president and owner of The Protocol School of Washington.

The technological advances that make work much easier might also make toxic workplaces more common.

Christine Porath is a management professor at Georgetown University and has written extensively on bad behavior in the workplace, including a study in the Organizational Dynamics journal. She tells GoodCall®, “Workplace relationships may be fraying as fewer employees work in the office and feel more isolated and less respected.” Porath also believes that globalization has resulted in cultural tensions. “And in the digital age, messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding – and, unfortunately, putdowns are easier when not delivered face to face.”

The rise in workplace stress can also help to create a toxic environment.

Types of bad work behavior

While bad behavior at work is rampant, there’s a difference between the typical behaviors exhibited by bosses versus those exhibited by workers. Porath explains the differences in “No Time to Be Nice at Work,” as follows:

Bad Behavior by Bosses Bad Behavior by Workers
Interrupts people Hibernates into e-gadgets
Fails to pass along necessary info Uses jargon even when it excludes others
Doesn’t say please or thank you Ignores invitations
Talks down to others Does not listen
Takes too much credit Emails/texts during meetings
Swears and puts others down Belittles others nonverbally


However, both are guilty of taking little interest in others or their opinions, being judgmental of those who are different, and taking easy tasks while leaving hard tasks for others. Those behaviors can quickly add up to toxic workplaces.

The civility report also reveals that 94% of us believe that we are either always – or at least usually – polite and respectful to others, so perhaps we’re not able to objectively gauge our own actions.

Eyring provides specific examples of specific behaviors that can create toxic workplaces:

  • Passive aggressiveness: “You don’t like to voice your opinion about something, but, you want to complain about it much later after the fact.” Eyring says this type of behavior can turn a small problem into a large one. “By stating your opinion about something upfront with a coworker or boss, you show respect for yourself and you gain the respect of others by facing challenges head on.”
  • Tone: “Work colleagues do not appreciate being patronized or having someone come across as borderline violent or simply mean.” While a manager’s criticism can spark creativity, Eyring says that screaming and shouting produces a negative effect. “What you’re really doing is alienating everyone, and it comes across as unacceptable bullying.” If you feel your temperature rising, she says it’s best to take deep breaths and calm down before speaking any further.
  • Being unresponsive: “Nothing draws the ire of a colleague like the unreturned phone call, the unanswered email, or the no-show in a team meeting.” Eyring warns that these behaviors can quickly take a workplace from a toxic level to a nuclear level. “Remember that you may be on the receiving end of this sort of behavior and it’s best to remember the Golden Rule and be as responsive as possible to ensure good work flow and good cooperation.”
  • Negativity: “If you have a defeatist attitude and you’re always shooting down ideas and are overly critical of other people’s suggestions, you may not only be uninvited to the next company happy hour but you may find yourself being edged out of your job.” Most workplaces rely on collaboration and Eyring says the ability to be positive is crucial. “That doesn’t mean you have to be Little Mary Sunshine, but you can deliver criticism in a helpful manner without coming across as that ‘get off my lawn’ lady.”

Restoring workplace civility

Just as organizations document their values about customers, Porath believes they should take the same approach regarding their employees. “One honest sentence can set the tone for civility and form a solid foundation for expectations and accountabilities – it can be as simple as, ‘We expect employees to treat each other with respect.’”

Eyring agrees and says, “The number one thing that people can do to restore workplace civility is to reinstate respect in the workplace.” And she adds that it should be consistent – the delivery man should be treated with the same level of respect as the company’s CEO. “When you exhibit this type of behavior, you lead by example, and help make good manners and civility a common and most welcome practice.”

However, some people tend to be toxic by nature and companies need to be proactive to avoid them. “Tightening your screening for civility is much easier and cheaper than getting rid of an uncivil employee,” Porath warns. “And, please, don’t hire anyone without checking references with civility in mind since this type of behavior usually leaves a trail.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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