TOXIC WORK ENVIRONMENTS: Not Every Problem is a “Fit” Issue

Toxic Work Environments Self-perpetuate.

toxic-work-environment-self-perpetuatingCulture is the most important feature of any work environment.  If a work culture is toxic, it will pull in toxic people and push out healthy ones.

Amy recently experienced a firing with face-saving (i.e. a forced resignation).  If she did not meet the numbers her bank had required of her, she was given notice that she would be gone in 90 days.

Not only had this person never been fired before, she muttered shaking her head, “I’ve never failed at anything.”  I observed her process through all the stages of grief, shock being first.“ This isn’t really happening.”

As I listened to her, she repeated over and over the events, people, and scenarios that contributed to the firing.  Several times.  And then in short clips throughout the next few days.  “Did I tell you….” Followed by something she had told me several times.

Finally, she laughed and said, “My husband said I don’t know how to empty my trashcan, wryly referring to the computer maneuver of getting rid of everything unnecessary with simply a click.

Humans are “meaning-seeking” missiles and we seek explanations for events in our lives.  If you have recently been fired, laid off, or forced to re-employ, it is easy to blame yourself.  And an honest appraisal of your job history is really important to move forward with success.

If I may say this gently:  Sometimes it was something you did or failed to do that got you fired.  Sometimes it was simply a matter of not having fit.  And sometimes it had absolutely nothing to do with you, as the next story illustrates.

Toxic Work Environments Have Lots of Turnover


In fourteen years of hiring, nine people were fired and three quit.  Of course, Clarie didn’t know this when she accepted the position.   Jackie was the person hiring Clarie and for whom Clarie would be working.

Jackie had been with the company for twenty years.  Since it was a family-owned company and since she had been with the company so long, the family owners considered Jackie “almost like family” (an “insider”).  This dynamic would later seem relevant.

After nine months, Claire was let go.  The reason she was given?  (Don’t put your Human Resources hat on here and think only of the illegality of it.)

Toxic Work Environments Don’t Give You the Real Reasons

Woman with magnifying glass in front of the faceClaire was told she was being let go because she was a single Mom and as Jackie said, “I don’t see that changing.”  Claire thought to herself, “You’re right.  I don’t plan on auctioning off my kids any time soon.”

Jackie continued that she knew single moms ultimately miss a lot of work and become unreliable and that was why Claire was being let go.  This was the explanation, even though Clarie had never missed a day of work in nine months and had been upfront about being a single mom during the interview.

By now you already know that being a single mom had nothing to do with why Clarie was let go (though as we shall see, it may have been, but not in the way you think).

It sounds like two things are happening:  1)  Jackie is protecting her stake as one of the only long-time employees with the family company.  Anybody who stays longer than a year ultimately starts to develop the potential to be “in” and could be perceived as a long-time employee, thus being a threat 2) If I were a betting woman, I would wager Jackie is a perfectionist.

Toxic Work Environment & Perfectionism

fi-perfectionism-cutting-the-grassWhen I asked Clarie if Jackie was a perfectionist, she quickly replied with an adamant yes.  Jackie took pride in what she should have been embarrassed about.  To her, high turnover simply proved that she had high standards and no one could do it as well as Jackie could.

No doubt, if you talked to her privately, she would complain about not being able to ever get or keep good help.  I can hear her sighing now, “It’s just so hard to find someone who is committed to his/her work.  I have tried so long to find the right person, but it just seems like no one ever works out.”

And of course, she is invested in seeing that no one works out.

Toxic Work Environments Set People Up to Fail

toxic-work-environment-setting-up-to-failI suspect Jackie hired Clarie specifically because she was a single mom, thus providing the reason in her own mind to let her go down the road.  If someone has a belief that single moms never work out because they miss too much work and you need to have a reason to let the person go down the road, doesn’t it make “sense” to hire the person who gives you the out?

I suspect if you explained this to Jackie there would be a loud, animated protest.  I am not suggesting this is conscious but deliberate.

Choices are always very deliberate, though rarely conscious.  Few people have so much insight into themselves, that they can call themselves “on the carpet” and internally make the necessary changes without external help or prompting or coaching.

Toxic Work Environments Need Coaching and Accountability

toxic-work-environment-needs-coaching-and-accountabilityTo change Jackie’s behavior requires coaching and accountability, but I guess that Jackie would be very resistant to change because the stakes involve giving up a glorified sense of self and being willing to share her “inside” position in a small family-owned business.

Coaching could gently create awareness and accountability would mean no longer allowing such high-cost practices such as high turnover to continue in her department.

“The purposes in the human mind are like deep waters, but the intelligent will draw them out.”  Prov 20:5

Toxic Work Environments Need Healthy Leaders

toxic-work-environment-needs-a-leaderAccording to Jay Gould, owner of 5 businesses, and an author of a NY Times article, one of the 10 top reasons for failure is dysfunctional management (which always creates a toxic environment). He further defines it as “Lack of focus, vision, planning, standards and everything else that goes into good management. Throw fighting partners or unhappy relatives into the mix and you have a disaster.”  These issues, as we saw above, can especially infect a small family business.

Toxic Work Environments must be changed.  The last thing you want in a toxic work environment is Fit.  Get the environment healthy first, and then hire to Fit the new environment.


Top 10 Reasons Small Businesses Fail. (2011, May 26). The New York Times. Retrieved from


(Using Knowledge You Already Have)

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