This post is not in reference to any particular workplace or environment I have been in, but is an amalgamation of the experiences I have had across many different workplaces. While I reference The Thesis Whisperer as a blogger I admire, my post isn’t about academia or even university specifically (I have had a life outside of this place duh). Unfortunately I don’t have any concrete answers to provide, rather, this is a thinking-through of my own reactions to the experiences I have had.
A toxic workplace can take many forms. What one person finds intolerable, another may experience as business-as-usual combative office politics. A Google search reveals that this notion of the toxic workplace has entered the lexicon of popular culture, has become a ‘thing’. Some checklists credit specific personalities and archetypes as being responsible for this particular phenomenon, others recognise the existence of more general behavioural patterns. In my experience it can be both: it can be because of the influence of a few ‘bad seeds’, or it can be a general environment of negativity and paranoia that takes its toll on everyone. Put simply, a toxic work environment is one in which you go home at the end of the day feeling at best unfulfilled and depressed, and at worst angry and anxious. In my experience these feelings creep up on you. At first you attribute your unhappiness to isolated incidences, or to particular people who you work with, however eventually you come to realise that these events aren’t isolated, but patterns of unhealthy behaviour that, if unchecked, can repeat themselves for months and years at a time and cause untold emotional suffering.
The Thesis Whisperer’s post ‘Academic assholes and the circle of niceness’ examines the phenomenon of toxic individuals (“assholes”) as present specifically within academia. Citing Robert Sutton in his book ‘The No Asshole Rule’, TTW notes that being an asshole (arsehole?) is advantageous, and while workplace assholes may not be popular, they do end up being respected more, and their behaviour may even end up being emulated by the people who work underneath them. TTW continues:
Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.
The sad thing is, I have worked with far too many assholes to argue that this isn’t the case. I think everyone has. Being a jerk, perversely, pays off. I have worked for and with some of the most gorgeous, genuine, talented people you could imagine, but I have also worked for, and interacted with, some massive jerks. Jerks in high places. Jerks who don’t apologise, who never back down, and jerks who appear to all intents and purpose to be a success within their careers. Jerks who act like jerks so often that it has become normalised, background noise, part of ‘the-way-it-is’.
That’s all well and good, but there is a cost to fostering this environment. It is true that in some workplaces the people who act like jerks may appear to rise to the top, but the flip side is that good, kind, talented people will be lost. TTW notes:
He [Sutton] clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. […] It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.
My post isn’t about academia specifically. As a long-term casual my interactions with academia have only ever happened from the fringes. I have made my opinions on the treatment of casuals abundantly clear. However toxicity is something I have known to permeate the cultures of environments as diverse as the retail sector and the corporate sector. I have worked at, and left, my own share of toxic workplaces and situations. I have stayed up all night worrying about work. I have cried to colleagues about unfair treatment and conditions. I have taken stress leave from work because the situation had become so untenable. I have had my concerns about a potentially dangerous situation dismissed by a superior who really should have known better. I have worked alone in a cubicle or an office and felt angry, alone, and having no idea what recourse I had, if any. I have rarely, if ever, stood up for myself. These experiences have come to have an emotional toll on me. I enter into these situations in good faith, and remain in them for far too long for many reasons. I think part of me doesn’t want to believe that the people who are nice to my face, are perhaps not as well-meaning when I am not around. I also form loyalties to colleagues in the workplace, where I will feel a sense of obligation to the individuals I work with. Mostly I make it about me. If only I was more assertive/less sensitive/better at handling complex situations/thicker skinned I would be able to cope better in these situations. So I return to the scene-of-the-toxic-crime, day after day, silently hoping that things will get better, all the time knowing full well that they won’t.
With the transition into full-time employment, comes the risk of encountering this toxicity. This makes me question my own abilities. It isn’t the work I question. I am fully aware that I am smart and driven and capable. It is the navigation of office politics that makes me feel entirely out of my depth. I am already someone who speaks in the passive voice. My emails are peppered with “if it’s OK” and “would you be able to’s”. Having come up against these kind of environment and conditions in the past has made me question my ability to be the career person I would like to transition into. My daughter is going to school next year, casual employment is becoming increasingly tedious and demeaning, I want to start being paid for public holidays and sick days, which seems like a small ask and yet seems to be the hardest thing to transition to with my background as a long-term casual.
This blog post may read as if I am not capable, but I am thinking about it from another perspective. It isn’t that there is something wrong with me, it is that there is something wrong with workplaces that reward negative and intimidating behaviours, and that leave the people who work hard and contribute feeling unacknowledged. I refuse to compete with my colleagues, I am perfectly capable of being diplomatic because I posit it as being fucking nice and talking to everyone as I would want to be spoken to. I am more than capable of responding well to criticism as no one could ever be more critical of me than I am of myself. When I have come up against these situations in the past I have talked a big game when I am at home with my husband about how I am going to stick-it-to-the-man, but at the end of the day I will back down, eventually walk away, as I figure my mental health and emotional stability is worth more to me than aspiring to a ‘career’ in a place that makes my colleagues and I unwell, rewards arsehole-ish behaviour, and fosters unhealthy interactions between peers.
As I said in my introduction, I am unable to offer any advice on how to navigate toxic workplaces as I am unsure of how to address these issues myself. This year is the year of the assertive Smart Casual, so I am turning a critical eye to my experiences within the workplace, and asking myself what place I see for myself in the future. I know I want to write. I know I want to work in an environment which fosters teamwork and collaboration, and doesn’t operate on a platform of competition. I know I will not tolerate intimidation tactics and make them about my perceived sensitivity. The Thesis Whisperer offers the suggestion of instigating a “circle of niceness” within the worklace: a space where colleagues can come together to “be[..] together and talk[..] about ideas with honesty and openness” (sic). I think this is an idea that can be useful outside of the academy, as the asshole phenomenon is definitely not university specific. I want that, I think most people want that. It is an idea I am going to bring with me to my current situation, and to any future employment situations I enter into.
If you need a nice Smart Casual at your workplace let me know.