Toxic Work Culture

Editorial Comment

In November 2020 Boris Johnson gave a judgement when a complaint was raised about bullying in the Home Office implicating home secretary Priti Patel.  We think it was wrong to exonerate her on the grounds that the leadership of any team\department are responsible for the mental and physical health and safety of all the colleagues in the workplace.  The press at the time were describing a toxic workplace.  As a leader Patel should have had the skills and experience to detect and manage fairly the behaviours which cause this, and not to become one of the actors. Boris Johnson as her boss should also have been able to make a judgement that was fair.  He has access to expertise at the top level of academia who would have been able to dissect the behaviour and culture in an organisation and point out the roles of all of the actors.  The fact this happened in the highest office in the land leaves the festering sore of toxic workplace culture to grow and flourish by providing a template policy for organisations to mimic.  We think because the system that supports workers who are bullied is open to abuse, the guidelines that are applicable when making such a judgement should take into account proper investigative practice by qualified people.

In Britain the law allows for judgement at several levels:  The employer, the enforcement agencies and the courts are all parts of the system. 

What can possibly go wrong?  Start with management and leadership training.  Human Factors are an important part of leadership training and personnel selection.  In any population people with various characteristics come together in communities and workplaces to form teams.  We know from studies that the mindset of the population is diverse, for example 25% of people at some time in UK will suffer a mental illness.  (Office of National Statistics).  One study promoted by Crimewatch UK said that 54 percent of people like to get on with their neighbours.  Not much is said about the other 46 percent but as many as 20% have a variety of personality disorders and 3% or so have some of the worst anti-social personality types.

A respected teacher in the field of information security described the world as a place where you meet many people and make very few friends.  He said “The world population numbers in billions so the percentage of friends you make is infinitely small compared to the rest of the population.  Friends are people you welcome and ask into the house when they come to your front door and who you can trust with your property and business.  Everyone else you leave at the front door”.

Toxic Skills as a Risk

There is a high degree of probability, that when you meet someone they will attempt to exploit you. Normally if it’s for friendship, or business then consent will be part of the deal.

What harm does it do?

Toxic people exploit others in such a way as to cause them harm. To achieve this they take advantage of the target’s human characteristics.  The most toxic people will be able to masquerade as friendly, while developing the ability to deliver a toxic blow at a time of their choosing.  Sometimes it’s for money, other times it’s for sex and yes, once they’ve achieved contact and the honeymoon is over, they will be in control and will remain so until they have got what they want. Some recent examples of exploitation are listed here. At the extreme end of the scale, Toxic people will kill you once they have had their satisfaction. In the workplace, more likely they will get rid of you, by the back door route. Exposing perpetrators is a risk. Mostly they strike for their own satisfaction and leave physical, psychological or financial damage behind.  They will brag about you or humiliate you as part of the process.  The type of harm inflicted by people with these behaviours, delivered in one or more aggressive incidents has been identified by Michael Linden in 2003. Known as Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder (PTED) it appears as a branch of PTSD according to the National Bullying Helpline

Safe to say anyone deliberately indulging in bullying behaviour is intent on harming a victim and yet a prosecution for bullying is a difficult thing to arrange. Nobody wants bullying in their life, but when it happens it creates fear – a natural response in the human body to fight, stand still or flee accompanied by a release of adrenalin, too much of which is physically harmful.

The Antithisis of managing by Fear

Some people think a little stress is necessary for good leadership which is a myth.  Good leadership practices reward performance, teach motivational skills and team building. These are the antithesis of toxic management.  Motivational skills are based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Team building is based on Belbin’s team skills for example. Here we think bullying is a throwback to slavery.

Toxic Management


Toxic Skills include the ability to control, deceive and manipulate others.  The ability to persuade  and network with like-minded people are well developed in toxic minds.  What your toxic co-workers and your toxic bosses are discussing between themselves about you will be hidden from view.  If you ask what was said or to be included in conversations, you will be lied to. Any copies of conversations requested will be legally redacted.  (Only the justice system can expose that).  Tactically toxic people will deny any allegation and make out the victim is the guilty party to cover themselves.

One senior NHS manager told us what it was like to keep up with the demands of what his toxic boss euphemistically called objectives.  It exhausted him.

 When he could no longer fulfil his role in a professional manner due to continuous interference, aka micromanagement, he left.  The problem was he could no longer focus on really important work while being pressurised into trivial tasks. Nor could he delegate without his decisions coming into question above and below him in the management chain.  He said ‘After saving the NHS a significant six figure sum and lowering its carbon footprint I had been further engaged by the finance department of Kent and Medway NHS Trust to run up a project worth millions to the NHS and which would revolutionise patient care in Kent. At the same time my team was rolling out hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of IT.  I realised when I was pressurised into making a business case to justify a three thousand pound security system for this job that my boss was trying to get rid of me.  As I left the CCTV fell into disuse and £60K went missing.  I was’nt going to hang around for that. I had already complained about his management style after years of abusive supervision.  Prior to this incident a bodged job by one of his sycophants left a help desk and my team without a computer network for several weeks.  As I fixed that I spoke out.  I was under threat for two years or more before during and after that and had little or no support from my union, Unite. I had to deal with it on my own. in the end my replacement(s) were already briefed and I was about to be side-lined and demoted.  Occupational Health and HR weren’t interested, the union claimed they couldn’t support me.  I was so unwell after that that I lost all confidence in any sort of job.  It ended my career early and cost me 2 years in lost wages. It wasn’t just the continuous micro aggression.  The objectives he set were usually blocked and managed to maximise my workload. This meant I had a high degree of challenge and no support.  He knew this.  before I left I gave the trust the opportunity to change its toxic culture in 2016 shortly after the Frances Report came out. It chose not to.’  (Given that this organisation is responsible for treating the victims of toxic people, it opens yet another Pandora box.) 

Investigating Bullying

To successfully investigate workplace bullying, an investigator would need to be; independent, knowledgeable about the characteristics of toxic bosses and co-workers, have training in leadership, be able to expose lies, and to ask meaningful questions of the victim and assailant, also to find witnesses or evidence to corroborate with the victim’s complaint and the power to protect witnesses from intimidation.

The language  that can record and accurately describe incidents of bullying which are aimed at the emotions is not well known.  Complaints present as a weakness. 

Toxic Workplaces cost more. They are hard work and Time is money. Workers in toxic situations are faced with maintaining work performance, while simultaneously struggling to decode and describe the behaviour which affects them.  This manifests itself in various ways; low performance after loss of sleep over a long period of time are a gift to the toxic boss who can use it to fire the victim.

Non-toxic managers will have an obligation to protect employees but will be conflicted by culture and policy rigged in favour of the toxic culture.  This presents a further challenge when it comes to following up or raising a grievance. 

Given the presence of threat and fear, victims are usually reluctant to name witnesses and witnesses don’t speak, presenting a wall of silence. 

In the toxic workplace, investigations usually have only three official actors:  The perpetrator,  the victim and the investigator.  Audit is absent.  In these circumstances the likelihood that an investigation will produce a positive result for the complainer when an aggressive boss by asserts his “right to manage” and the investigator doesn’t know the difference between aggression and assertiveness.  When this changes, workplace bullying will be on the road to becoming a thing of the past.

Conclusion

For this reason we are supporting Alan Shawcroft to raise awareness of toxic work culture as a means of management.  We also support the national bullying helpline who are advocating change in the light of PTED to the Legal and HR community.

As of 23rd February 2021 Alan’s Go Fund Me campaign has been unexpectedly suspended.

Stuart Dixon FRSA, MInstLM

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