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Surviving in a toxic work environment

It looks like time is up for corporate entities that ignore a toxic work environment. In the US, at least. Popular American talk show The Ellen DeGeneres show has been in the news because of multiple shocking allegations of workplace harassment, racism and sexual harassment by former employees. Hollywood’s darling host Ellen feigned cluelessness and kept mum for a while. However, the allegations kept rolling in after a controversial Buzzfeed report had many employees going on record about the bad behaviour of top management and the abrasive work culture.
The backlash was severe. Hashtags #ReplaceEllen and #RIPEllen were trending on Twitter. There were doubts about whether the 60-Emmy-winning show would even make it to the next season. Ellen finally addressed her staff and launched an internal investigation. Turns out, tough decisions were made. Three of the show’s top executive producers – who were the subject of many complaints Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman and Jonathan Norman – have “parted ways” (a polite way of saying they were fired).
America’s largest feminist organisation isn’t free of a toxic culture either. The National Organization for Women, better known as NOW, would be expected to be a safe place for women to work. After all, it was founded by pioneering feminists like Betty Friedan. However, things changed down the years. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought forth some painful allegations about racism and ageism at NOW. More than 10 employees and visitors went public about how women of colour were openly disparaged in meetings and conferences.
On the last day of one particularly scathing conference where a black woman was heckled, some women marched inside the office to protest racism at NOW. The result? The organisation’s president Toni Van Pelt is stepping down on August 28. We can’t expect the same level of moral culpability from top management in India Inc. Yet, there might be a silver lining.

What is a toxic work environment?

Opinion on what makes a workplace toxic differs from person to person. Bullying is hands-down a strong indicator, though. An office where you are continuously silenced, or saddled with tedious tasks, disallowed leaves, not included in important discussions or excluded from most banter is pretty much toxic. If the supervisor or manager participates in the bullying, it’s bad. If he/ she ignores negative behaviour towards staffers, then the boss is an enabler of the toxic workplace culture. A toxic work environment can lead to absenteeism and abysmal productivity. Worse, it can lead to various health issues including depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

Work-from-home a blessing in disguise

For office workers trying to survive in toxic workplaces, the temporary work-from-home arrangement because of COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise. Says web designer Laxmi D, employed with a media house in Delhi, “I was thinking hard of ways to escape the negativity in my office and was at the point of quitting just before the pandemic hit. My office was closed due to the lockdown and I couldn’t be happier about working from home. WFH has allowed me to physically distance myself from the bullies at work. They don’t influence me negatively on Zoom calls and email interactions as they could when I was working in their midst.”
Laxmi recalls with horror how she used to excuse herself to the office bathroom and burst into tears after particularly scathing remarks from her manager. “I can switch off more easily now that I am surrounded by my family members. WFH has taken the pressure off,” she says.
Laxmi is much stronger and more relaxed to survive a toxic work environment in the new normal. The past few months have given her – and countless other office workers – a break from round-the-year workplace bullying. She confidently states, “I have started documenting what happens on a daily basis. If the bullying continues after returning to office, I will take it to the HR or the management. On the off-chance that my complaint is ignored, there’s always the option of leaving an organisation which doesn’t value your presence!”