Toxic behavior, including bullying, is rampant in the workplace—with nearly 20 percent of U.S. workers experiencing it and 19 % witnessing it.1 It’s also a major force behind the ongoing Great Resignation.2 A survey by FlexJobs found that people who have resigned over the past six month cited “toxic company culture” as their number one reason for leaving.3
I, too, have experienced toxicity, including downright bullying. After spending 17 years as a marketing exec at Procter & Gamble, where I helped spearhead some of the world’s most iconic marketing campaigns including Always #LikeAGirl thanks to the wonderfully supportive environment, I was confronted with a toxic environment in my next job. My boss was rude, belittling and treated my team and myself as if we did not know how to do our jobs. Nothing we did was ever good enough. He regularly made humiliating, sarcastic comments. When I teared up in a meeting one day, he gave me a tissue box with a sticker that read “Dalia’s tissue box” and later said to my team: “You think Dalia is such a tough cookie, an Israeli ex-platoon commander? Did you know she has a tissue box in my office with her name on it?”
Eventually, after three years of trying to find ways to end the abuse, I decided to leave. I took up a master’s in organizational psychology at INSEAD business school and dedicated my thesis to issues around handling a toxic environment.
The lessons from this research, combined with my experience in both a toxic environment and at a company with sound policies in place to prevent toxicity (P&G) led me to conclude that the only answer to workplace toxicity and bullying is zero tolerance. This applies on the company side as well as on the employee side.
On the company side, there are three steps I have identified that can—and must—be taken:
1. Enforce the use of leadership assessment tools (LATs).
The only people who can determine if a leader is good are their direct reports, so give them a voice by relying heavily on these tools. They provide valuable input on how a leader’s direct reports view them and what qualities they show up with. Make LATs a top priority.
2. Assess and promote leaders as much for their people skills as for their business skills.
If you want good leaders, reward good leadership! During talent reviews at P&G, leaders would receive a score for their people skills, based on criteria including assessments by direct reports and a score for their business skills based on things such as KPIs. They were only promoted if they were top rated in both areas, and the tactic worked very well.
3. Invest in leadership training.
Many managers want to be good, supportive leaders but simply don’t have the know-how or skills. It’s not their fault: leadership skills such as identifying people’s strengths and coaching your team must be learned. But too often, as managers move up to leadership positions, companies assume they are prepared and have the skills. These skills are not innate, but even the more nuanced skills such as emotional intelligence and creating a psychologically safe environment are teachable. That’s why every company should invest in leadership training.
As for employees dealing directly with toxicity, my advice is simple: walk out and complain. Your company and / or HR department should have policies in place to support this approach. Some of the successful policies I advocate for are having an anonymous ethics line, where calls trigger investigations. Anonymity is key, as is having a neutral, well-qualified HR person in place to help mitigate toxic situations.
(2) (2) Sull, D., Sull, C., & Zweig, B. (2022). Toxic culture is driving the great resignation. MIT Sloan Management Review, 63(2), 1-9.