The toxic office – we’ve all seen it or experienced it at one time or another. There are office bullies, meetings where the tension could be cut with a knife, and the fear of discipline for leaving early for a doctor’s appointment. Or how about that one co-worker who scans the room for anything he can run to the boss with in a shameless effort of self-promotion? It’s every person for themselves. Or is it? How can you tell if your office culture is tainted? And how do you fix it?

When your workplace environment is negative and unhealthy, you might have a case of toxic culture.  There has been a growing conversation about the effects of toxic culture on productivity and employee wellbeing. But workplace toxicity can also mean that the diversity of your employees is not fully recognized and incorporated into the organizational culture.

Did you know that a toxic culture has an especially harmful effect on minorities and people of colour? The office can become a microcosm where oppression is reinforced. A recent report by Catalyst calls it Emotional Tax, the constant state of being on guard, preparing to deal with potential bias and discrimination. According to the report, when racial bias and discrimination are left unaddressed, companies also end up paying the price through the loss of talent and revenue.

Here are 3 common symptoms of toxic culture and what you can do about them.

Symptom #1 – Diverse Voices Are Silenced

Diagnosis: On a team of many people and perspectives, only a few actually get heard, while the contributions of others are regularly undermined or ignored. Is this a familiar dynamic? Gender, race and ability along with other social factors can influence who the dominant voices are. For example, research cited in Time’s Money found that men dominate 75% of the conversation during conference meetings. Moreover, when male execs talk more than their peers, they are perceived as more competent while the female execs who talk more are perceived as less competent.

Prescription: Create a respect agreement or group guidelines to guide the conduct and culture of your meetings. Ensure that everyone has a chance to provide input and share what is important to them to be fully engaged. Equity (fairness) doesn’t mean equality (sameness): people may not necessarily need to contribute in the same way but they do need equal access and opportunities to succeed. Understanding and accommodating the different needs around communication and participation can help create not only more enjoyable meetings but a healthier and more inclusive workplace culture.

Symptom #2 – Microaggressions Are a Common Occurrence 

Diagnosis: Small comments that routinely disparage people’s identities are common around the office while people in power don’t bother addressing them. “Where are you from?” followed by “No, where are you really from” posed to a person of colour. “You’re gay? I should get my decorating tips from you!” or, “Wow, I totally wouldn’t know you have a disability, you look so independent!” They are called microaggressions.  Masquerading as well-meaning comments, these every-day expressions of prejudice undermine people’s identities and make them feel less than. Microaggressions can target any part of people’s identities and lived realities, and they can have a cumulative effect that is harmful to our physical and mental health. They’re like mosquito bites that, over time, amount to serious injuries (watch this video for more on this).

Prescription: Microaggressions may appear minor, but their impact is deep and insidious. When people get the message that it’s ok to undermine others’ identities and that no one will challenge them, it perpetuates a toxic culture. Left unaddressed, issues may develop into conflicts and even bullying or harassment that can lead to formal complaints. Use your communication skills to interrupt microaggressions every chance you can, and coach others to do the same. Make sure your organization has a Code of Conduct and an Anti-Discrimination and Harassment policy that are up-to-date and in line with current legislation. Invest in professional training on diversity and unconscious bias to help employees shift their language and behaviour toward inclusion.

Symptom #3 – People Are Afraid to Be Themselves

Diagnosis: When people don’t feel safe to be fully themselves, they tend to hold back in a whole variety of ways. For example, they may deliberately edit themselves during those watercooler conversations when talking about their family, partner or personal lives. Such strategic disclosure takes a lot of energy. While we all have things we want to keep private at work, feeling like you can’t share fundamental parts of your life like faith, sexual orientation or family status can take a toll on people’s confidence and sense of wellbeing.

Prescription:  Make it a priority to build an office culture that values diversity and promotes inclusion. Be sure to communicate this priority to your employees through a strategic plan and internal communication tools like a company newsletter. Harmony@Work’s DEI Advisors can help you craft a strategy that will meet your unique needs. Normalize terms that affirm human diversity and use inclusive language in documents, policies and meetings. Form a Diversity and Inclusion Council that can help provide access to activities such as lunch-and-learns, guest speakers, poster campaigns and community engagement and volunteering opportunities with the intention to heighten intercultural awareness among employees.

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Harmony@Work is Canada’s leading provider of corporate training programs in DEI (diversity, equity + inclusion) in the workplace with customized programs, workshops and consulting services. Harmony@Work facilitators engage interactive + situational training methods and tools and provide DEI Certificate programs for businesses and their employees.