How to Help Clients Deal With a Toxic Work Environment
As career professionals, many of us have experienced toxic work environments firsthand, or we may have helped our clients deal with the fallout of toxic environments. Such a scenario can cause undue stress on us, our co-workers, and other people we deal with. In turn, it can negatively influence our attitudes toward people and work in general, and may even affect our personal lives. In this article, we’ll explore what a toxic work environment looks like and how we can help our clients deal with the situation.
What is a Toxic Work Environment?
Has your client ever worked in a toxic environment? Sadly, toxic environments are common these days. They often exist in aggressive, male-dominated, highly fast-paced, or high-pressure roles, fields, or industries; especially where meeting and/or exceeding targets is critical to driving the bottom line. Some examples of such workplaces are in manufacturing, engineering, construction, sales, technology, and law practices. However, toxicity can exist in other roles and industries, too.
A toxic work environment involves negative behaviours, including manipulation, bullying, yelling, swearing, name-calling, and other types of unacceptable-to-the-workplace conduct. If these things are endemic in the organizational culture, lack of productivity, lack of trust, high stress, and ongoing conflicts become the norm. It is an environment where people may feel psychologically unsafe, which can pose serious impacts to employees’ health, well-being, and career. If your client chooses to speak up, they may fear being criticized or rejected.
Toxic environments can escalate to become hostile work environments if action is not taken by employers and/or workers. Employers with five or more employees are required to prepare a clearly outlined policy about workplace violence and harassment supported by written policies. These may include procedures on how to report claims and how incidents or claims will be investigated and handled.
Unfortunately, there are many ways a toxic work culture is created within the workplace. This includes employers who consistently neglect or ignore what is going on; those who know, but do nothing to change the culture. However, sometimes these harmful environments can be gradually and inadvertently created if a company culture isn’t thoughtfully and consciously created and documented, but rather evolves as a by-product of different influences, such as changes in leadership or turnover of staff.
Tips for Helping Clients Deal With a Toxic Work Environment
Here are 10 tips for supporting clients who are dealing with a toxic work environment:
- Help your client consider and weigh the issues against their options and the consequences. First, ask your client to identify what core issues are occurring that are causing the toxic work environment. What can be done about those issues? What cannot be changed? Your client can either stay and tolerate the toxic work environment—even work toward changing it—or they can simply leave. Work with your client to explore the “what if” scenarios in detail, identifying the best and worst possible outcomes.
- Encourage your client to reclaim their inner power. This means being proactive, understanding and acknowledging their human rights, learning about the labour laws, as well as identifying their own personal values. Then, the next strategy is responding appropriately and asking themselves how they could react differently.
- How do I respond when I encounter toxic situations and behaviours? Choosing to reframe the situation and respond professionally and calmly goes a long way to modelling positive behaviours, as opposed to overreacting and escalating a situation.
- What role can I play in changing the situation? Motivate your client to act on the best option for potentially making a shift to a more positive culture.
- What is preventing me from exiting the role/company? What are the key issues or obstacles, both imagined and real?
- Support your client in redefining and setting firm boundaries. This strategy will help your client reclaim their locus of control, exercise choice over attitudes and behaviours, and set firm boundaries about how they want to be treated. Sometimes, role-playing with your client can guide them in determining how to establish firm boundaries and effectively communicate them to their employer and colleagues.
- Help your client to seek other professional services, if necessary. If a client comes to you with a situation that is out of your scope, counsel them to find an appropriate professional to consult. For example, they may need the services of a paralegal to aid them in understanding human rights, or a counsellor or therapist to help them process what is happening or has already happened. In some cases, they may need to contact the relevant governing labour law body.
- Reassure your client that what is happening is not their fault, while empowering them to make different choices. Toxic work cultures are created and not born. Depending on the situation, these work environments can be traumatizing.
- Empathize and exercise patience. As career practitioners, we must remember that while “leaving the workplace” sounds simple, it isn’t always easy. Empathize with clients that you understand how the security of the paycheque, the benefits, the established friendships, and the expected everyday routine can seem like “compensation” for the toxic environment. Assure them these same comfortable things can be found in a place that doesn’t negate the benefits through constant bad behaviour. Keeping all of this in mind, and showing empathy and patience as our clients explore their options, will be helpful as they navigate the transition.
- Provide informative wellness resources that can support your client. For example, the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Emily and Amelia Nagowski, effectively explains how stress lives in our bodies and how to complete stress cycles. Other resources may involve encouraging your client to contact their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), where they can access free counselling, other relevant books, along with podcasts and other tools. This helps clients to feel driven to change something or take better care of themselves as they work through this process.
- Be mindful of our clients’ contributions to the toxic environment. Without victim-blaming, we can help our clients to see how speaking negatively with colleagues can further contribute to the toxic environment, especially if what they say is misinterpreted and spreads around the office.
- Find ways to decompress. Support your clients to identify ways to unwind from their stress-filled workday. Perhaps they like to go for walks, listen to music on their commute home, or simply meditate.
- Seek additional support. We all need people to turn to who can inspire us, listen to us vent, and support us as we navigate our journey. Help your clients to find a community they can lean on.
Lori Jazvac is a passionate, award-winning Master Certified Résumé Strategist and Certified Employment Strategist through Career Professionals of Canada. As a multi-certified Master Résumé Writer and Certified Career Transition Coach, she specializes in helping clients navigate challenging career transitions. In 2013, an empowering vision inspired Lori to launch Creative Horizons Communications, a holistic career services firm where she virtually supports jobseekers around the globe to embrace their next career milestone. In her spare time, Lori enjoys dance, blogging, watching comedies and reality shows, yoga, and taking long walks in nature.
Conny Lee is a Certified Holistic Narrative Career Practitioner, Online Business Manager for coaches, Certified Career Strategist, Certified Employment Strategist, and Certified Résumé Strategist. She is focused on supporting people to create the career, business, and life they truly desire and love. To learn more, visit Conny’s website at thevisionaryva.com. When she isn’t working, Conny enjoys reading, listening, learning anything related to personal development, spending time with her family, and working out.