In 2017 Susan Fowler Rigetti hit the headlines when she published a damning blog about working at the ride-hailing company Uber. Fowler Rigetti decided to go public because her efforts to draw management's attention to problems of sexual harassment and other unprofessional behaviour in her workplace were ignored and she was punished for speaking out.
A subsequent investigation received more than 200 allegations from other Uber staff members about systematic bullying, discrimination and harassment at the company. A purge followed that saw over 20 employees fired and the high-profile departure of senior executives, including company co-founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick.
What happened at Uber is extreme but not untypical of the bruising “bro culture” for which Silicon Valley is often criticised. It also gives credence to the view that “all organisations are dysfunctional. It’s just a question of degree”. Most people could point to practices and behaviours in their workplaces they wish were different. But with the jobs market now so full of opportunity, the real question is why would anyone stay in what modern workplace parlance would call a toxic culture?
“Toxic is a catch-all phrase that covers a multitude of bad behaviours and practices in the workplace including, but not limited to, bullying, harassment, incivility, violence, unwanted sexual advances, sexual assault, the expectation of working long hours, poor leadership and selfish co-workers.
"The list really does go on and on, so it's important to parse out what we mean when we talk about toxic work cultures," says organisational behaviour specialist Annette Clancy who is assistant professor of management at the school of art history and cultural policy at UCD.
“At the lower end of the scale, it generally means poor work-life balance and an expectation that people will work excessive hours to get the job done. Depending on the business sector, this can be ‘built in’ and expected in the earlier years, and may come with ‘bragging rights’.
“However, it also comes with stress, anxiety and mental health issues. Toxic cultures are psychologically unsafe, therefore people are afraid to speak out, particularly to authority figures who may question their credentials or status. As a result, risk-taking diminishes and team members are afraid to call out mistakes and learn from them.
“This type of toxic culture can be terrifying to work in because people are afraid of making mistakes and, afraid that, if or when they do make mistakes, they will be punished for both making the mistake and not reporting it.”
Learning from mistakes
Working in a fearful environment puts people’s feeling of psychological safety, which Clancy defines as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”, under threat. It creates a volatility that undermines productivity, stifles creativity and stymies initiative.
Psychological safety as a concept in the working environment grew out of research by Harvard University professor Amy Edmondson, who discovered in her studies of how medical teams function that the best ones reported the most errors. “Initially this seemed strange to her, but when she dug a bit deeper, she realised that the best teams were reporting the most in order to learn from their mistakes,” says Clancy. “They had developed psychological safety amongst team members to support learning.”
In her revelations about Uber, Fowler Rigetti said its toxic culture was driven from the top, with constant internecine fighting and attempts by managers to sabotage each other and their superiors.
Start-up culture has traditionally been top heavy with men, who seem more willing than women to accept this type of behaviour, but Clancy points out that this can quickly turn into what she describes as “toxic masculinity, which involves the need to aggressively compete and dominate others”. In Fowler Rigetti’s case, this was tolerated because her manager was a high performer but, for most organisations, the problem with letting this kind of behaviour go unchecked is that the focus becomes the fight instead of the business.
“Toxic masculinity has come under scrutiny in recent times because of the #MeToo movement but it is important to understand that toxic masculinity isn’t a form of masculinity, it relates to acts of aggression used by men in positions of power to dominate others around them,” Clancy says. “Susan Fowler highlighted just how awful Uber was as a workplace for women, but that toxicity is also as awful for men who reject the competitive and aggressive version of masculinity that Uber and other companies like them promote. Not every man promotes toxic masculinity and not every man wants to work in an aggressive, competitive, sabotaging work environment.”
Toxic workplaces are generally highly political, unfair and micromanaged environments where negativity and blame hang in the air and there is a glaring disparity between what the company says its values are and how it actually behaves. People have little autonomy and are afraid to open their mouths for fear of reprisal. On a practical level this usually leads to a high rate of absenteeism, long-term illness and high employee turnover.
Part of the problem may be that organisations, especially start-ups, don’t pause long enough to understand what culture is and that their organisation will have one, whether they are conscious of it or not.
The norms of shared values and appropriate behaviours that underpin company cultures come from the top and a good culture will help to drive an organisation forward. But underestimate its power to go sour, as Travis Kalanick did, and it can bring the walls tumbling down.