Business

THE TOXIC WORKPLACE

A poisoned atmosphere can wreak havoc, writes KATHERINE MACKLEM

KATHERINE MACKLEM January 31 2005
Business

THE TOXIC WORKPLACE

A poisoned atmosphere can wreak havoc, writes KATHERINE MACKLEM

KATHERINE MACKLEM January 31 2005

THE TOXIC WORKPLACE

Business

WHEN STEVE JONES WAS JUST TWO YEARS from retirement, he quit his job as vice-president of human resources at one of Canada’s largest banks, walking away not only from a high salary but also from a fat pension. He’d spent his entire career in banking, and had no idea what to do next. A change of management two years earlier had replaced a peoplefriendly way of doing business with one more cutthroat and focused on the bottom linean approach diametrically opposed to what Jones believed in. The new leaders systematically dismantled programs he’d put in place. The level of pressure he experienced at work went through the roof. Not only was he sleeping badly, he’d developed diabetes, which he says may have been triggered by high stress. He’d tried, unsuccessfully, to get laid off. ‘T was a 53-year-old, overweight white guy,” says Jones, who asked that his real name not be

used, “and I figured, if worst comes to worst, I can always deliver pizza.”

You know things are bad when delivering pizza beats hanging in for another 24 months. Besides, Jones had a high-paying job—he was making $180,000 a year as a corporate exec with a swish office in a downtown high-rise. But realizing “there wasn’t much value in a pension if I was dead,” he knew he couldn’t stay. “I felt absolutely out of step,” he says. “There’d be conversations in meetings that made me feel I was in a foreign country where I didn’t understand the rules or the principles.”

In The Corporation, the hit 2003 documentary film, businesses are portrayed as psychopaths that can wreak havoc in the communities where they operate. Human resource experts are finding the same kind of havoc can be wreaked inside a company as well, and can have disastrous effects on the people working there. It’s a phenomenon that’s become increasingly prevalent, they say, so much so there’s now a new moniker to describe the situation: the toxic work environment. In Jones’s case, there was nothing wrong with him; rather, his workplace was so poisonous, he was unable to function. And in today’s business world, where there’s an unprecedented focus on next quarter’s earnings, the toxic company is becoming increasingly commonplace. “This is an unchecked phenomenon,” says Sussannah Kelly, who is building an executive search business after two decades in corporate human resources. As part of the global search firm Boyden International, Kelly and her business partner Michael Mclnerney have

THE SYMPTOMS OF A POLLUTED COMPANY

It’s not a single thing that creates a toxic company, but a combination of elements. Mediocrity over merit: promotions based on favouritism: mediocrity is rewarded. Management by fear: disagreement is a career-ending move; new ideas dry up. Leaders lose it: executives always operate at high stress levels.

Age and gender ghettoes: leaders hire in their own image, resist new perspectives. Personal agendas prevail: egos outweigh company business agenda and values. Revolving leadership door: new leaders come and go; long-tenured run the show. Poor public persona: negative comments rampant in surveys, blogs and chat rooms. What human assets? Financial assets are “valued” more, people are “costs.”

Déjà vu all over again: no clear vision of the future, and as a result the company can’t move forward.

Source: Boyden Institute

established a Toronto consulting business called the Boyden Institute, which aims to identify and weed out toxic leaders. “There’s a lust for unreasonable profits,” Kelly says.

That lust creates a culture inside an organization where the pursuit of short-term profits towers above all else, including the company’s own long-term health. Often, the CEO’s remuneration—and ego—is closely linked to those quarterly profits, and boosting all three replaces what’s best to sustain the

company’s growth and survival. Mclnerney points out that with the average tenure of today’s CEOs shrinking, they have only a small window in which to make a mark. Often, the result is an absence of humanity in the workplace, Kelly says.

Relentless demands, extreme pressure and brutal ruthlessness are all trademarks of a toxic company, as is a twisted disconnect between what a firm says it does for employees and what it actually is doing. People are looked at as costs, rather than assets. On its books, a company might have progressive policies regarding work-life issues, but in fact employs no part-time workers, a key option for those who are struggling to balance career and family. Fear and paranoia, and anxiety to the point of panic, are other characteristics of a toxic workplace. “You can tell as soon as you walk into an office that it’s toxic,” says Barbara Moses, a consultant in career management and author of What Next? The Complete Guide to Taking Control ofYour Working Life, among other employment-related books. “People are rushed; they have that harried look,” she says. “Conversations are curt and abrupt; there’s no chance for thoughtful, rich conversation.”

There are multiple reasons why the toxic workplace is proliferating, Kelly says. With mega-mergers and globalization, some corporations are becoming more vast and impersonal, while simultaneously recurring waves of job cuts have left: companies lean and left individuals with workloads greater than is reasonably feasible over the long haul. Instead of rewarding long-term planning, expediency is demanded. Add in a leader who ignores the human toll, and the result is likely a toxic workplace. Creative and innovative ideas—ironically, the factors that drive the best corporations—are stifled; employees are alienated; people get sick.

As of yet there aren’t studies focusing directly on the toxic workplace, but other stats provide an interesting backdrop. An overwhelming 90 per cent of Canadian companies polled last summer said the workload of their employees has increased, says a report by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. At 64 per cent of them, “emotional tension is prevalent among employees,” and absenteeism is up at 68 per cent of the firms. Another study, conducted by a different HR consulting firm, Towers Perrin, shows most

A poisoned atmosphere can wreak havoc, writes KATHERINE MACKLEM

KATHERINE MACKLEM

Canadians are barely turned on by their work. While one in five say they are highly engaged, almost the same proportion (17 per cent) say they are disengaged. Three out of five claim to be moderately engaged.

For their business, Kelly and Mclnerney

have hooked up with Louis Stokes, a clinical psychologist, to use an assessment tool they say will weed out toxic leaders. It’s a test that identifies how potential bosses behave under stress—factors they call derailers. These are characteristics that, under duress, can become disorders. For example, a skeptical boss can be healthy, but under stress, that same person can become distrustful and paranoid. A bold leader can become a narcissistic bully. A cautious person can become paralyzed. “On any team, you need different people,” Stokes says. “But until now, no one has looked at the dark side that can come around and bite you.” Culture matters, stresses Mclnerney, and it’s almost always set by the person at the top. “If there’s a healthy culture, an organization can survive tumultuous times,” he says. “If it isn’t innovating, it’s not going to survive.” Nor will employees. Jones, now working as a consultant, says that while he makes far less money than he used to, his health is pretty good. “I wouldn’t trade the money,” he says, “to ever go back into that again.” 171

katherine.macklem@macleans.rogers.com