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Toxic Workplace Behavior Didn’t Disappear with Remote Work; It Moved Online

November 11, 2020

By Heather Nezich, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

When workers went remote back in March, corporate culture went with them. And if that culture was toxic, it’s likely still toxic. The toxic environment formerly housed in cubicles and offices, has now moved into workers’ homes.

“If you work at an organization that has a toxic culture characterized by mean behavior, incivility, aggressive behavior, and perhaps bad interpersonal treatment, that behavior and culture doesn’t stay in the building,” says Manuela Priesemuth, a professor of management at Villanova University. “When we talk about work culture, we talk about the employees’ perception of ‘this is how things are done around here: how we communicate, how we supervise, how we treat customers.’”

Toxic work behavior is manifesting in remote work in various ways:

Office gossip and communication –Much of this is lost online, and office gossip has moved from offices and hallways to online chat threads.  When communicating in person just 7% of the message is from the spoken words.  38% is from vocal intonation, and 55% is completely nonverbal.  Much of that is lost online.  To reestablish intonation and body language signals, managers should check in with employees periodically and try to use video or voice calls where possible.

Workers being overlooked during remote meetings – A recent survey from Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, found that 45% of women business leaders say it’s difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings, and one in five women say they’ve felt ignored or overlooked by colleagues during video calls.  It’s important for managers to be aware of this and talk to their employees if they see them withdrawing from meetings.  “Because we’re virtual, there’s much more of a tendency to fall into the background, to not be seen or heard,” says Dana Brownlee, a Forbes contributor and founder of the corporate training company Professionalism Matters. “This can be especially hard if you work on a team where a handful of people naturally dominate conversations in a physical space. “If it’s already harder to assert yourself in an office, it becomes extreme online.”

Managers can make work-from-home burnout worse – According to new data from, 68% of people report experiencing burnout due to mounting household stress and a reduction in separation of work and home life. “Simply being drained and stressed or feeling depleted are strong predictors of aggressive behavior,” Priesemuth says.  A leader can create a toxic environment when they expect their employees to be available beyond preset working hours. Workers need time to disconnect. Another common culprit of workplace toxicity if surveillance software. This can be a double-edged sword. “There is evidence for both, such that monitoring can certainly reduce counterproductive behavior,” Priesemuth says. “On the other hand, if employees’ personal control and autonomy is too much constrained, it can be frustrating, and they start to act out, become more deviant from norms and standards to regain this sense of control. Work autonomy has always been a strong predictor of employee motivation and productivity.”  Allowing for flexible schedules is important right now as many have children at home doing remote school, etc. The most important indicator of job productivity is whether or not the job is getting done.

Allies are a crucial lifeline – Often times, toxic environments are created by managers abusing their power. If toxic behavior is cultural, widespread issue, then allies both in and outside your organization are essential. “Allies can just be people you feel good around when you need to laugh and have a good time,” Brownlee says. “If you’re in a toxic environment, it beats down into your soul, and you need to find a way to feed yourself psychologically and emotionally. Maybe it’s not someone on your team, but two teams over. Find someone you really relate to.” Professional memberships or employee resource groups can also be good sources of support.  Wit can be helpful for HR to conduct larger employee surveys to acknowledge workplace issues and move toward addressing them. However, while employee surveys and town halls can raise awareness of poor organizational culture, it’s ultimately up to senior leaders to listen to worker concerns and implement changes to improve the situation.

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