Last week Baroness Casey’s review into standards of behaviour and internal culture at the Metropolitan Police was published. The report uncovered damning evidence to back up its brutal conclusion that the force is institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic.
It serves as a depressing reminder that dealing with toxic attitudes and behaviours at work is sadly something that’s all too common. And while this is an issue that many people have to deal with on a daily basis, it’s difficult to grasp how such toxicity can become so deeply etched into the culture of an organisation.
So how does it happen?
“Toxic workplace culture often comes unfortunately from a style of destructive leadership,” says Dr. Thomas Rhys Evans, associate professor in occupational psychology at the University of Greenwich.
Essentially, ‘higher-ups’ set bad examples that cause a ripple effect which spreads far further than the colleagues they interact with day to day. “They embed that within the organisation, into its structures, into its policies and practices, and that basically leads to organisational chaos,” he says.
If there’s one place chaos absolutely shouldn’t exist (though the current state of the NHS renders this nigh on impossible) it’s in hospitals. For nurse Charlotte Langford*, however, this would be a normal part of her day when she was working in an intensive care unit.
“A lot of things got swept under the rug,” she tells HuffPost UK. “There was a lot of ‘Don’t you dare say anything’ or ‘You didn’t see that’ happening. And you just knew that if you did say anything you’d be given horrendous shifts, treated horribly and not supported.
“Senior staff being given shift preference was ridiculous. They’d work double pay shifts on Sunday and then you would go Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday without a single senior member of staff and you’d be drowning. It would be extremely unsafe.”
As well as patient care being put at risk, colleagues were also treated horribly.
“Once we were gifted some chocolate by a patient and it was rubbed on the hospital floor by a senior member of staff and then offered to a more junior nurse who took it and ate it.
“One manager was also really sexually inappropriate with a specific member of staff. He would grope her behind the curtains and once he used sign language to tell her ‘I want your cunt’. Ultimately it all just made us feel extremely unsafe like we could kill someone, and that’s why we all left.”
Being in the workplace often means navigating politics, personalities, working styles and egos. It can be a delicate balancing act, made even more complicated if your organisation places importance on hierarchical structures.
Charlotte never discussed the toxic behaviours she was privy to with senior colleagues, and it’s easy to understand why.
“If it’s your line manager or somebody who is at a higher level, you feel you can’t challenge that behaviour and you think that somebody else should be doing it,” says Claire Warner, founder & CEO of workplace culture & wellbeing consultancy, Lift.
Interestingly, there are certain types of organisations that are more susceptible to breeding toxic cultures than others.
Dr. Evans explains: “Toxicity is actually most likely found in more political and/or competitive cultures and organisations. And that’s because it gets embedded through levels of bureaucracy and taps into that feeling of being micromanaged and having your behaviours observed and assessed very, very tightly.”
Dealing with oppressive management styles is one thing, but there are often layers to what makes an organisation toxic.
For Kenny Adekoya*, who worked on a retail shop floor, it was a combination of inappropriate sexual conduct between his manager and other colleagues, as well as a constant undercurrent of racism.
“My manager was a married man but he was having affairs with two of the women I worked with,” he tells HuffPost UK. “He used to put them on different shifts so they wouldn’t work with each other and that caused a lot of issues.”
“One of the women he was seeing got pregnant and his wife ended up finding out about everything. She came to the store, understandably angry, and caused a scene in front of customers.”
Kenny continued: “There were other things as well. I was the only Black member of staff there and one day the same manager pulled me to the side and asked, ‘Is it racist if I call you a c**n?’. He said when he was growing up everyone around him used to say it.”
This all made for an uncomfortable work environment which caused Kenny to detach himself from his colleagues. “I just wanted to get in there, work and get out.”
And he’s not alone. Research from management consulting firm Mckinsey & Company found that toxic workplace behaviour is the biggest cause of things like employee burnout and intent to leave.
Amanda Stewart* barely lasted a year at a magazine publisher where toxic attitudes were commonplace.
“We were in a meeting with a senior colleague discussing using talent for a piece we had coming up. When I pitched a certain influencer she said, ‘But, I feel like all she is these days is fat. Like, that’s her USP. She’s just fat. Right?’. Other people kind of laughed because the boss said it, and if the boss says it you laugh,” she says.
“The whole vibe was off and they were just spiteful and nasty about each other. The bitchiness, eye-rolling and snarky comments about everyone in the team at any given moment were rife, but as soon as that person was in the room it was over the top niceness. I honestly couldn’t believe I had stumbled upon the real life ‘Mean Girls’!” she tells HuffPost UK. “I managed the year but towards the end of it my mental health was shot.”
It’s stories like these that beg the question: Is it actually possible for an organisation to rid itself of toxicity? As you’d expect when dealing with things as complex as culture and behavioural change, the answer isn’t a straightforward one.
“What we should recognise is that toxicity isn’t there or it’s not, it’s a continuum. So we have organisations which have very little and we have organisations or teams where it’s embedded and it’s strongly felt by everybody,” explains Dr. Evans.
“Change is certainly possible, but what we know about the organisational change literature is that change is very hard. People like to think it’s one rotten apple in a barrel, but the issue is the whole barrel is wrong. And so it requires dramatic substantive and invested change. It certainly doesn’t stop with small-scale intervention.”