Fixing Workplace Hostility

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a toxic environment:

I finished university just over a year ago and applied for a finance position at the head office of one of the UKs top firms. One of the managers (my future line manager) came across as a little odd in the interview. I kind of brushed it off as just him putting his foot in it awkwardly. I got offered the job and started a few weeks later.

So, I turned up on my first day and straight away there was hostility from two of my work colleagues (we are a team of 5) and that manager. From receiving the evil glares, to being abrupt with me, to laughing whenever I talk despite the fact my comments are normal, to trying to isolate me, giving me the silent treatment, gas lighting about having favourites, abusive comments just ambiguous enough for me to have nothing solid to complain about, trying to bait and antagonise me, to co-opting other people into the games against me. I have been enduring all this for a year with no improvement in my circumstances.

The position is not a internship, its a regular job. Due to the comments dropped I know that part of the problem is my manager see’s me as a threat (I’m not even interested in his job). And the two colleagues joining in the torture have been their over a decade with no promotion. So I think I kind of upset their ambitions.

I’ve been looking for answer on how to fix this for a while with no luck. The comments all seem to assume I have the problem and usually say I’m an arrogant know it all graduate. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I am friendly, cooperative, willing to learn, a hard worker, respectful to others, and humble myself. How do I get on with these people in a way that won’t send me to an early grave through stress?

After a year of this with no improvement is it time to find a less toxic company to work at? I would really like to stay here if possible as the wages and benefits side of the job are superb. I was also a mature student (not a kid) and have held several jobs before going to university. I have never ever encountered this type of reaction out of people before.

Signed, Not Ready For An Early Grave

Answer: 

Dear Not Ready For An Early Grave:

First, I congratulate you for being hired by one of UK’s top firms. Whatever transpires, you should feel good about that–that this firm saw your credentials meeting their standards for the position for which you applied. I regret that your first year adds up to so much toxicity that you wonder if you should seek work elsewhere.

Yes, life is too short to endure a toxic work environment for long. Can you fix it? Possibly, but in light of the description you provide regarding your manager and two uncooperative coworkers, probably not. Yet, rather than resign, doesn’t it make sense to make a reasonable effort to change that environment? At least it makes sense to continue doing the best you can, until you have another job offer in hand.

Assuming that you want to try to “fix it”, I am suggestion some approaches you might consider. Numbers 1-6 are suggestions you should do on you own, as if you were an investigator of what has transpired from your own perspective this year of employment:

1.      Don’t assume you can fix it. What you describe is an interpersonal and it usually takes two to tangle or to tango. Learning to dance in a new situation might not be you who are making the wrong steps although as you say “all seem to assume I have the problem and usually say I’m an arrogant know it all graduate.” Incidentally you write clearly, but I have not corrected some of your grammar. The mistakes may be hasty, but some I noticed are: a internship should be an, see’s for sees, their instead of there and some missing commas.

2.      Before blaming yourself, manager or coworkers, reflect on what is good about your job in addition to its wages and benefits. What do you do that you like about the job?

3.      Also what do you do well? Can you list projects completed successfully? Such a detailed list is something you will want to have ready if and when you meet with your manager or someone within your firm who might listen to your story and assist you in coping, correcting and/or transferring to another position within the firm.

4.      What about it are problems, other than the two coworkers’ and manager? Has your manager or coworkers criticized what your do or don’t do? How have you responded? Were those complaints justified and/or corrected?

5.      Your descriptions of difficulties are generalizations, rather than specific language they used and non-verbal signals that bother you at a particular time and in reaction to something you did or didn’t do with which they seemed to disapprove. (“evil glares, to being abrupt with me, to laughing whenever I talk despite the fact my comments are normal, to trying to isolate me, giving me the silent treatment, gas lighting about having favourites, abusive comments just ambiguous enough for me to have nothing solid to complain about, trying to bait and antagonise me, to co-opting other people into the games against me). So can you recall and log those occasions and interpret what provoked them?

6.      Have you confronted the coworkers regarding any specific time they expressed displeasure? Or if you did and were not pleased with their response, did you invite them to go with their complaint and with you to your manager? Especially if you thought their criticism was unreasonable or a pattern, would it not be wise to get your manager advice regarding how to do the job as is desired? I don’t know the firm’s protocols for evaluation or for seeking advice of a manager, but have you met with this manager and asked “How well do you see my performance? What do I do well and what needs improvement?  Do you know what going on between my coworkers and me? And what do you recommend might minimize the toxicity?” Should we meet with you about making our work more productive?” What resulted from such a meeting or meetings?

7.       Probably a meeting with your manager is now in order and depending on what you learn will help you determine if there is a way to improve your working relationship. Apparently, your work group doesn’t have regular staff meetings that makes explicit who does what and when? Seeking your manager’s guidance and clarification about how he sees your performance will help you know what to do next. Perhaps this will be a time for you to suggest that such staff meetings would help or at least checking in from day to day with him about assignments.

8.      Request your manager’s help in making your career successful. If you learn you there is hope, develop a plan and schedule a meeting to review progress. If you determine that he thinks you don’t fit, ask about a transfer within your firm. Meanwhile quietly begin your job search while maintaining doing the best you can to cope with your coworkers and to maintain your own performance.

9.      Realize that finding a job fit sometimes is a process of elimination. Soak up all you can from this firm, however toxic. Know that interpersonal relationships sometimes require extraordinary patience and some never are harmonious, but that you can work well even with disagreeable people. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is my way of saying you can’t fix it, but with the help of your manager together you might be able to fix it, and if you can’t you will cope at least until you are transferred or find another job.

William Gorden