Who doesn’t love an episode of House of Cards? The juicy storyline of a relentless politician who would do nothing short of fulfilling his self-fulfilled destiny. Only Hollywood could come up with a storyline as good as this one — or maybe not?
Let’s face it: Those characters aren’t that far from stories we’ve heard from friends and family. Some business leaders can be toxic, just as much as Frank and Claire Underwood, disguised as your manager, C-suite executive or peer. It’s not that unreasonable that you might be a victim of a toxic leader. If your every day “normal” includes sharing stories from your workplace with family and friends — as in work is all you talk about — you might be a victim of toxic leadership.
Here are 10 signs where toxic leadership is present at your company and what you can do about it.
1. Do you spot nepotism?
This is the practice of employing family or friends in a company that will inherently give more power and influence of those individuals. Most companies have policies either against or addressing nepotism in the workplace to avoid conflicts of interest. Not all nepotism means that there is toxic leadership present in your company. Some small businesses are run by family members and are perfectly fine. The point is to be aware of how nepotism can impact your working conditions.
2. Is there an absence of company policies?
These could suggest that the company doesn’t want to deal with how employees should report issues and consistently follow the same procedure each time there is a recurrence. If you aren’t sure what your company’s policies are on things like how to deal with sexual harassment, for example, ask your HR manager or representative for a copy or a link where you can download. You’ll want to keep a hard copy of your company policies for your reference and for version control if needed.
3. Does the “head of” your function have a history of bad behavior?
If possible, this is something you want to research before you take the job but sometimes that is difficult to do. Carefully determine if that person’s history directly impacts your ability to be successful in your role. If the answer is yes, then you should consider reporting the bad behavior to your HR representative and manager.
4. Is your boss supported?
Depending on the company hierarchy, you might be impacted by toxic leaders who manage the company directly or indirectly. If your boss isn’t supported in their career, budget needs to run your function, or ability to make (even just basic) decisions, this can be symptomatic of a toxic work environment. You might want to consider how this will impact your career path within the company.
5. Is there a CYA culture?
Cover your ass (CYA) is generally a mindset that occurs when management is a "blame and shame" culture. It's a micromanager special. Do you find yourself carbon copying (cc’ing) or blind carbon copying (bcc’ing) people on every email just to prove a point? Or do you find yourself cc-ed when your manager wants to humiliate you or a coworker? It's an environment low on trust and usually low on morale as well. One suggestion to stop the CYA culture (with you) is to document your process and only offer it if asked.
6. Do you sense a “just deal with it” mentality?
You and your colleagues have succumbed to the work environment and choose to settle for “we will tough this out.” Instead of focusing on great work, you find yourself complaining and talking about the same issues with colleagues. If work is starting to feel like a constant venting sesh, it’s a sign of toxic leadership not searing through the organizational dysfunction. Not sure what that dysfunction looks like? Here are seven signs you're trapped in a dysfunctional workplace.
7. Are relationships built on loyalty?
This is a form of manipulation to control people indirectly or directly to carry out a larger agenda. It’s not obvious what your role is in the agenda — you just know that you need to do as your told and get it done. That said, the general outcome of these relationships leaves will leave you feeling exhausted, tired and unsure who your allies are. People who suffer from this type of unhealthy relationship shouldn’t underestimate the overall impact to your mental health. Consider finding a healthcare provider and support within the company to escalate your concerns.
8. Are whistleblowers going to the press?
This can lead to some interesting water cooler talk but be wary, the press loves a good story. Be cautious about talking about stories you read or hear about if you’re not directly impacted. You can create harm by spreading speculations and gossiping with coworkers. Here's how to deal with workplace gossip.
9. Is anyone held accountable?
This is not only frustrating but it can be a sign of toxic leadership. It could be as simple as the toxic leader doesn’t know how to manage a person or the team. Bad leaders can sometimes be so disconnected from their moral compass that they refuse to manage the bad behaviors directly.
10. Do discriminatory behaviors lead to bias decisions?
These can lead to bias decisions in the form of sexism, racism and ageism, among other forms of discrimination. If you feel that you’ve experienced or observed any of these behaviors, you should consider contacting your HR manager right away.
If you are experiencing toxic leadership at your employer, you have options to rehabilitate from the circumstances. You’re not alone and you shouldn’t feel alone as you’re going through this experience. Prioritizing self-care is so important when you’re going through a difficult time. This could mean scheduling time to eat a meal or working out during the day. You could also consider seeing a medical professional to help with rehabilitating your mind and body.
Aside from focusing on yourself, there are other ways you can manage a toxic work environment. Depending on your personality and communication preferences you could:
- Stand up to the bad behavior and attempt to improve your working conditions. If you are retaliated against, you should consider speaking with your HR representative, manager, or possibly a lawyer.
- Look for a new job, perhaps even a new job in a new industry. We spend enough time at work — there's no sense in being in a state of misery for any extended period of time.
- Consider speaking with a lawyer to have legal advice.