Recognize a Toxic Workplace

By Thompson, Kimberly | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Recognize a Toxic Workplace

Thompson, Kimberly, Phi Kappa Phi Forum

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculating the July national unemployment rate at 9.5 percent, or 14.6 million people, in the most recent data available at press deadline, it may be difficult for jobseekers to recognize a toxic workplace. Those in need of a position, concerned about the vast competition, might not want to close any potential open door, no matter how shaky. And applicants at interviews, preoccupied with making a good impression, understanding the job and learning about salary and benefits, tend not to pay attention to warning signs, especially in a tough economy.


But toxic workplaces are a problem, no matter the sector. Only 45 percent of employees are satisfied with their jobs, according to a recent survey of 5,000 households conducted for The Conference Board, a nonprofit business membership and research association. This is the lowest since 61 percent in 1987 at the poll's inception. The drop crosses the key criteria of employee engagement, according to The Conference Board: job design, organizational health, managerial quality, and extrinsic rewards. "Fewer Americans are satisfied with all aspects of their employment," the press release states, "and no age or income group is immune."

Jobseekers can use this information to form questions and reach conclusions about a specific opportunity. In fact, a candidate in his early 40s, an expert in human resources looking for a new situation, learned this lesson the hard way not too long ago when interviewing for a management position at a business consulting firm. He didn't trust his gut or deal with troubling evidence right in front of him.

Though a skilled professional, he lacked confidence in his interviewing abilities partly because he hadn't looked for work in years, and, therefore, downplayed worrisome cues. He felt uncomfortable in two interviews with the same callous manager but concluded the fault resided more with himself than the prospective supervisor, even though the latter did most of the talking and asked few questions. During the first interview, the manager took a phone call without apology or explanation, and the interview ended abruptly immediately afterwards. On some level, the applicant knew that there was a mismatch of chemistry between them and that he should turn down the job if offered it. But nervous and eager, he rationalized things away.

He wanted the idea of the job so badly that he accepted the position--for seven months, anyway, and then gave notice. The manager's micromanaging, second-guessing, and abrasiveness made him miserable and hurt his private life as well. He wound up taking a similar but lesser-paying job elsewhere a month later because the office felt comfortable, lacked conflict, and seemed a good match. His confidence soon rose.

It may be easy from afar to identify the signals he dismissed; however, in a struggling economy and highly competitive job market, applicants are apt to follow in his footsteps.

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