Your workplace could be toxic (and you might not know about it)
When Rebecca Cade, a former sideline reporter for Real Salt Lake was asked to describe the culture at her former workplace in an August 2020 article for RSL Soapbox, she used one word: “toxic.”
Cade had only worked at the organization for six months but told RSL Soapbox that there were several instances where she felt some of the organization’s executives had behaved inappropriately towards her. One instance, she details, involved Andy Carroll, the former chief business officer at RSL, discussing her body over glasses of scotch with her male coworkers.
“I didn’t really ask for specifics, but I know for sure they were talking about my boobs,” Cade said to RSL Soapbox, mentioning that she was also falsely accused of having a sexual relationship with an RSL player.
Cade’s story of workplace toxicity was among many that broke after Dell Loy Hansen, owner of Real Salt Lake, appeared on a morning edition of Radio From Hell to vocalize his distaste for the August 27th game delay orchestrated by RSL players in protest of police violence. A scathing article written by The Athletic (where sources called Hansen a “f***ing racist,” among other things) appeared hours later, exposing other grim instances of rampant workplace misconduct within the organization.
The events caused Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to launch an investigation into the organization. Hansen decided a few days later to sell off the organization before the investigation was concluded.
You might not know if you have a toxic workplace
RSL isn’t the only workplace that could be considered “toxic,” and though it’s easy to blame RSL leadership for setting a certain tone for the rest of the organization, even companies with the best leadership can fall victim to culture toxicity.
A survey from SHRM states that one-fifth of Americans have worked in a toxic environment at least one time in their career, but only 41 percent of misconduct that causes a toxic environment― things like sexism, racism, etc.― is ever reported to those who are in a position to do something about it.
“Most people are terrified of being retaliated against because they don’t think that their word is going to mean anything,” says Allison Evans, director of human resources at Your Employment Solutions. Though Evans didn’t work for RSL she’s describing exactly what happened at that organization―employees like Cade were hesitant to report inappropriate behavior to HR in fear that they’d be retaliated against or worse, ignored.
Employees worry that drawing attention to any workplace misconduct would result in a job loss, but Evans reminds employees that they are protected by law in any instances like this. And if the workplace chooses to ignore any claims of misconduct, they can be held legally responsible as well.
“Employees here in Utah are protected under federal and state anti-discrimination and harassment laws,” says Evans. “They have the right to file a complaint with their employer if they feel they have been discriminated against or harassed in the workplace, and the employer has a legal responsibility to investigate and correct any issues.”
However, Evans says, since workplace misconduct is often alarmingly unreported, some business leaders might not even realize that their company is being plagued with toxic behavior. Everyone has a different view of the world, says Evans, and it can be hard for some people to recognize their unconscious biases if no one ever questions them.
High-turnover rates could be indicative of a toxic workplace
As a leader, Evans suggests taking a closer look at turnover rates within your offices or departments if you suspect employees might be hiding issues with sexism or racism. Since most employees are likely to quit instead of getting fired or dealing with any of the other feared repercussions, places with rampant misconduct will have extraordinarily high turnover rates.
“If you notice a common issue at one location versus others, or in [one department versus others] but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is, employees might not be coming forward with [misconduct] claims,” says Evans.
Of course, leaders should look for the other usual warning signs as well, says Richelle Anderson, human resources coordinator at Buckner. Signs of potential misconduct can include a sudden lack of morale in previously high-performing employees, sudden timidness or disconnect with certain coworkers, and taking many absences in a short period of time.
No matter how small or insignificant things like this may seem, any sudden changes in the way team members are acting or performing should be an immediate cause for concern, though Evans and Anderson agree that the most reliable source of information is straight out of employees’ mouths. It’s important for HR to bridge any gap between employees and the executive team, no matter the circumstance they say.
If an employee doesn’t feel comfortable talking to leadership about issues within the workplace, it’s a larger symptom of a poor culture. It’s not something an anonymous helpline or suggestion box is going to fix. It will take leadership who cares, sets the example (or at least calls misconduct out when others do not), and is willing to breakdown those toxic workforce norms and create trustworthy connections, says Evans.
“It’s not just saying you have an open-door policy. You can’t just say that. You have to truly mean that. You have to be trustworthy,” Evans says. “You have to be transparent with them, honest with them, and you have to be confidential and careful with their information. You have to live it. You have to breathe it. You have to have all your executives on board. You even have to go so far as to having a code of conduct stating it in your missions or your value statement. And this 100 percent has to be supported from [executives at] the top.”
Anderson agrees. If those leading the organization aren’t capable of supporting open-air, totally anti-discriminatory policies, it’s time to be more deliberate about who we are appointing to lead our organizations, because the next generation of workers aren’t going to be quiet about what’s going wrong at work, as seen in the recent developments at RSL.
“It really stems from the top. You need to vet those [leaders] out like no other, especially nowadays. They need to show up and exude that culture and that mission statement,” Anderson says. “[Future] generations are not going to sit back and allow inappropriate things to happen. It’s not going to be washed over anymore. It’s not okay to come into a workforce and feel bullied by seasoned employees who are on their way out for retirement. Behavior like that is completely unacceptable.”