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Working In a Toxic Workplace? Here’s What To Do

Let’s face it: workplace environments can be toxic. Some offices are drama-ridden, with gossip floating between cubicles and whispers shared during lunch hours in the office break room. Other work settings have leaders with poor leadership qualities and bosses who criticize without anything actually constructive to offer. Some workplaces are cliquey, others are endlessly stressful. Some colleagues are impossibly passive aggressive, while others are ruthlessly manipulative.

If you find yourself in a situation like any of these, please know and believe that you’re not alone. At GenTwenty, we’ve all experienced a layer (or more) of toxicity at work. Whether due to a particular person, or the overall culture of an establishment, we’ve all found ourselves working in the wrong place at one point or another along our careers. Sometimes it’s as simple as a lack of professional chemistry between you and your boss. Perhaps you two just don’t see eye-to-eye on how to tackle projects. We’ve been there! Or, maybe it’s a large issue that stems from the fundamental problems a company has at it’s foundation and core, like high turnover, a lack of communication, or poor organizational structure. Yup, we know what you mean.

These red flags at work ultimately lead to you finding yourself in a toxic workplace. We’re here to arm you with what you need to do if you find yourself in any toxic situation at work.

What to do in a toxic workplace:

1. Document everything.

Any incident you encounter that crosses the line between professional, constructive conversations and enters a territory of personal attack, safety, or overall well-being needs to be documented. Every place, time, and detail of an inappropriate event at work should be recorded.

If a colleague or person in position of power is telling racist, sexist, or other jokes in ill-taste, record them. You ever feel manipulated into taking on extra duties because a colleague or supervisor is blackmailing or threatening you? Record it. Your boss makes sexual comments or advances? Record it. If a colleague is spreading gossip, record it.

Keep track of every detail possible (including the time, date, location, and present parties), no matter how immature or severe the situation seems. Having a record of documented incidents will arm you with evidence. It will bring credibility to your claims, should the situation escalate to you seeking out professional (or even legal) action to remedy the wrongs. Record incidents as they occur so the details are fresh in your mind.

2. Save all communication. 

Even though we’re professionals, sometimes we say the wrong thing or write something we shouldn’t at work. People in positions of power at work do this too. Maybe your boss told you to “f*ck off” during the work day (hey, it’s happened). Or, perhaps your supervisor approved your time off request, but then later rescinded it without just cause, which is unfair and completely wrong. No matter how insignificant or great the situation seems, save all communication in a file.

Save emails, especially if a colleague or supervisor has written inappropriate, offensive, or other distasteful language toward you. If you can, record phone calls and conversations, especially if you happen to work alone in an office with other person. Note, though, that people cannot be recorded without their permission. And if they are, this cannot be used as evidence. If your office records phone calls, great! If not, maybe this is something you bring up that would benefit the company.

You need to protect yourself. If your boss curses at you, but no one was around to hear it, did it really happen? Of course it happened, but there’s no proof. If a toxic work environment is getting worse and worse with each passing day, make sure you’re saving communication between you and the other person (or people) you’re having trouble with. Protect yourself in the event things only escalate.

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3. Meet with an HR rep, stat.

Most companies have a representative in human resources (HR) who is your go-to for professional concerns. Absolutely meet with a professional within your organizational structure to officially submit your concerns.

Jokes may seem harmless, especially during lunchtime camaraderie in the office, but if you ever feel offended by “jokes,” report them. If a supervisor tries to make a sexual advance, a colleague makes lewd comments, or you’re being assigned work outside of your job description and role, report it. It really doesn’t matter how insignificant or innocent you think the situation might be. You can only take action to effect change in the workplace if an HR rep knows what’s going on and can conduct an investigation.

Too many people are afraid to speak up out of fear of getting fired. As scary as it might be, please don’t let anyone silence you. HR reps are there to help you. They can offer support, guidance, and ultimately represent you and your concerns. Take advantage of the resources your company has, to protect yourself if you’re in an unsafe or toxic workplace.

4. Meet with the person/people responsible.

Unless the situation requires legal action, usually problems in the workplace are resolved through formal discourse. A meeting with your supervisor might be all that is needed to bring your concerns to his/her attention.

Perhaps share that your colleague is telling inappropriate jokes at work. Most bosses will address a situation like that immediately. If the problem you’re having is with your boss, bring a close colleague or other supervisor to the meeting with you as a mediator/witness.

Explain what is bothering you and why, and be prepared to have solutions for how to fix it. Some supervisors aren’t even aware they’re causing you stress or speaking inappropriately because they’ve been in the business for so long. Some bosses do curse, depending on the industry, and don’t even realize they’re doing it. Others are terrible leaders, but could be groomed into leading better with some solutions you have in mind. Depending on your situation, a conversation may be all it takes to remedy the toxicity once and for all.

5. Move on.

If steps 1-4 bring you no success, be prepared to move on. Listen, we know how hard it can be to find the perfect job. We understand that great jobs with amazing salaries and impressive benefits are difficult to pass up. Yet, sometimes you have to leave. What matters most to you? Integrity and self-respect, or money? Only you can answer this for yourself.

At GenTwenty, we pride our brand and our team on being our best selves. We know that putting ourselves in toxic situations isn’t going to help us become the best we can be. We hope you recognize this too. It may not seem like it right now, but your future self will thank you endlessly if you say goodbye to the job that makes you miserable.

If you have an emergency fund, perhaps submit your notice before you even line up something else, just to make sure you’re leaving for the right reason. Don’t be afraid to say goodbye to anything that makes you feel unsafe, disrespected, or downright unhappy.

Some workplace environments are toxic. Ultimately, you need to be proactive and take care of yourself to get through it.

Depending on your situation, try remedying the problem by working with the person/people directly. If that doesn’t work, know that you can take action to effect change. Don’t be afraid to leave if your current workplace is unsafe, inappropriate, or simply not a good fit. Only you know what kind of work setting you need to be in to feel safe, be productive, and thrive.

Have you ever worked in a toxic setting? How did you handle it? Share your tips and experiences in the comments!

About the Author

Rachael Warren (Tulipano)

Rachael is a University of Southern Maine graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and a minor in Sociology. She remotely works full-time as a Senior Content Marketing Specialist for Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. In her leisure time, Rachael enjoys traveling with her husband, finding the next Netflix series to binge, and taking too many photos of her dogs Jax and Kai. Rachael is obsessed with chapstick, favors the Oxford comma, and is a proud Mainer. You'll likely find her exploring New England + beyond.