Posted: 12:36 am EDT
The State Department recently issued guidance for its American direct-hire employees on “Toxic Behaviors at Work: Where to Turn For Help.” The aim was “to help mitigate the impact of toxic behaviors in the workplace, should they occur.” It notes that “The stress this causes can lower productivity and employee satisfaction, and make it harder for the Department to retain strong employees and perform its best.” A separate guidance will reportedly be issued for local employees and contractors.
What is toxic behavior? According to the State Department, the following is what constitutes toxic behavior:
Toxic behaviors are unwanted and can be verbal or non-verbal. They are behaviors that a reasonable person would consider offensive, humiliating, intimidating, or otherwise significantly detrimental to their ability to do their work. They include, but are not limited to: violent behavior, e.g., throwing items, breaking items; threatening behavior, i.e., intimidation, bullying, yelling, passive aggression, exclusion, lack of communication and/or cooperation; unethical behavior or the appearance of it, loafing, insubordination or failure to follow instructions, discrimination, or harassment.
Let’s add a few more warning signs from Kirk Lawrence of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School:
Types of toxic behaviors include tearing others down, passive aggressive leadership, destructive gossip, devious politics, negativity, aggressiveness, narcissism, lack of credibility, passivity, disorganization, and the resistance to change. These behaviors—individually or combined—can create a toxic workplace environment.
The State Department guidance cable does not provide examples of toxic behavior so we had to do some archive diving where we found some relevant examples:
- A Public Affairs Officer at a U.S. embassy alleged that his interim performance review was tainted by a hostile environment to which he was subject, characterized by bullying and harassment by his rater, the Deputy Chief of Mission, and his reviewer, the Ambassador. (FSGB No. 2011-042).
- A Principal Commercial Officer asserted that there were multiple violations of due process resulting “in an oppressive work environment.” He claimed that “Resolution of this grievance is in the national interest because any organization in which accountability does not exist, managers may act on whim, and decisions and personnel actions are based not on facts but on hearsay, rumors, bullying and fear affects all employees including myself, paralyzes decision-making, erodes morale, makes risk-taking impossible, erodes motivation and performance . . . .” (Case No. 2011-018)
- A Senior FSO who was an office director at one of the bureaus was charged with inappropriate conduct in interactions with his staff and others. The charge and specifications include repeatedly referring to women as “bitches” and “hormonal,” yelling, banging on his desk and forcefully expressing his political views throughout the office. This Senior FSO yelled at subordinates and peers, demonstrating threatening and aggressive behavior towards them in violation of the workplace violence policy, evincing anger management issues, and damaging office morale. According to one witness account, there was a tendency to berate people publicly. “The office has this term being of in the tribe and out of the tribe. You can be put out of the tribe by him. There is a culture of fear to be put out of the tribe. Everyone tries to tip toe because it is not a good place to be. He will take away TDY and site visits and make life difficult.” (FSGB Case No. 2011-004)
- An FS-01 Office Director referred to a former colleague as a “bitch” and used “little officer” and “little employee” to describe women. He sent an e-mail to officemates “which could be viewed as offensive” and received a Letter of Admonishment. (FSGB Case No. 2010-0035)
- Most employees described this ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating, which resulted in an extremely difficult, unhappy, and uncertain work environment. The ambassador eventually resigned but not before most of the embassy’s senior staff, including two deputy chiefs of mission (DCM) and two section chiefs, had either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul and Baghdad (via pdf here).
- One ambassador’s policy successes were overshadowed within the mission by a leadership style that negatively affected morale. Many mission staff reported that the ambassador occasionally criticized and belittled certain section chiefs and agency heads in front of their peers. Mission staff noted front office reliance on a group of trusted mission leaders. Others not in the favored category were more likely to receive attention to weaknesses rather than strengths or potential. (via)
So this is not really a case of “toxic behaviors in the workplace, should they occur,” is it?
The State Department unclassified guidance helpfully provided a section for “Roles and Responsibilities” — some of the points enumerated below like, how it’s “nearly impossible to succeed in changing a toxic situation without making any changes in your own behavior” — are rather questionable. We understand the consequences of meeting fire with fire but it sure looks like the onus is on the person who perceives the toxic environment here, rather than the person who is causing it. Take a look:
It is incumbent on everyone working at the Department of State to conduct themselves in a professional manner. This means not only refraining from engaging in toxic behavior, but also following the appropriate steps when confronted by someone who is engaging in such behavior. Meeting the toxic behavior of another with toxic behavior of one’s own is neither productive nor professional.
It is imperative to keep the following points in mind as you consider how to address a situation that you find toxic or counter-productive:
–> If a supervisor is telling you what needs to be done, in a reasonable and non-threatening manner, and holding you accountable for doing it, in a reasonable and non-threatening manner, this is not toxic behavior. This is their job. Therefore, you are required to follow supervisory instructions, unless there is substantial reason to believe that the instruction given would place you in a clearly dangerous situation or cause you irreparable harm. If you perform the action instructed, you do have the right to register a complaint or grieve later.
–> You cannot control the behavior of others, only your own.
–>You should take some time to consider your own role in a situation you find toxic.
–>It is nearly impossible to succeed in changing a toxic situation without making any changes in your own behavior.
–>These are not easy things to do. Stretching oneself in a situation that is already difficult is additionally unpleasant. However, it is a necessary part of one’s own development and the improvement of one’s work environment.
Has somebody been reading those management books about “stretching” again? You’re in a toxic workplace, and your boss is an ass and a bully, and you’re “stretching” yourself, so your boss would be more pleasant? No, you’re stretching yourself so that you’ll be more pleasant to your toxic boss, who will, of course, cease being a bully and an ass? No, whaaat?
Ay, dios mio! Who writes this stuff?
The State Department guidance identifies 10 key resources for toxic behaviors:
- The Office of the Ombudsman, Workplace Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center (wCPRc)
- Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR)
- Human Resources/Employee Relations/Office of Conduct, Suitability, and Discipline (HR/ER/CSD)
- Employee Consultation Service (ECS)
- Human Resources/Grievance (HR/G
- Diplomatic Security Office of Protective Intelligence Investigations (DS/TIA/PII)
- Diplomatic Security Office of Special Investigations (DS/DO/OSI)
- Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Leadership and Management School (LMS) Leadership Coaching
- Office of the Inspector General (OIG)
- Unions for State Department Employees: American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1534, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), or the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Local 1998.
That’s a long list but dear ones, aren’t you forgetting the meat in the soup?
What about leadership?
Leadership—or the lack of it—lays at the core a toxic workplace. When a toxic workplace develops on a peer-to-peer level, it is the lack of leadership that allows it to fester. All too often, however, toxic workplaces are created from the top down, when managers or supervisors are the root of the problem. One study found that 37 percent of workers said they had been bullied at work and that the majority of those bullies (72 percent), were bosses. (via)
A piece on toxic culture from forbes.com notes that there is a large body of research showing that a leader sets the tone for the office and sets an example for internal comportment. “Executives who claim to operate at such a lofty level that they cannot be bothered by the daily operations or political scale-balancing of their organizations are simply poor leaders.”
One HR manager interviewed by Peter Frost in Toxic Emotions at Work (Harvard Business School Press) also observed:
“Fish stinks from the head!” The higher up the toxic person is, the more widely spread is the pain, and the more people there are who behave in the same way. If you have a CEO who delivers public lashings—in effect does his performance appraisals in public—then you will have the lieutenants begin to join in.
We understand the intention is good but c’mon folks … to issue a lengthy guidance on toxic behavior in a workplace without addressing leadership is like serving yak soup without yak meat.
Here are some wild yaks to look at when you read that official guidance. Not quite the same but better than nothin.
More yak meat here:
- How Toxic Colleagues Corrode Performance (Harvard Business Review)
- The Toxic Handler: Organizational Hero—and Casualty (Harvard Business Review)
- Workplace Culture That Fosters Toxic Behaviour pdf (Prentice Hall)
- How to Overcome The 6 Most Toxic Employee Behaviors (Fast Company)
- Time to Treat Toxic Emotions at Work (HBS Working Knowledge)