• Mallory Weiss

How to Fix a Toxic Workplace

Finding a balance between a sympathetic environment and a cut-throat one

Let’s imagine the workplace is a tomato sauce. The delicate balance in flavor is something that people spend their whole lives chasing — recipe cards, yellowed with age, are passed down from generation to generation. Today, a Google search can provide thousands of opinions on how to make the perfect sauce and tips for what to do if it starts to go south. For example, when a tomato sauce is too acidic, you can fix it by adding baking soda — this is actually a real tip — because the sodium bicarbonate reacts with the acidity to produce carbon dioxide gas, which you can then stir away.

Extend the metaphor to our workplaces. We could (and do!) spend our entire careers seeking that perfect “flavor balance.” So what happens if a workplace has become “too acidic,” as it were? Is there a sodium bicarbonate equivalent for a toxic workplace? How do we strike a balance so that our workplaces are — for lack of a better phrase — tough but fair?

All of this also bears the question, if our workplace is a sauce, is the world just a giant, spinning Totino’s pizza roll? (Photo by Alesia Kozik from Pexels)

Let it Simmer?

A recipe for a toxic workplace might go something like this:

  • Six tomato-faced managers who are quite literally red-cheeked from both laughing at the way you filled out your expense reports and from screaming at you when you had to reschedule the budget meeting

  • A pinch of salty colleagues who intentionally exclude you from work meetings with the hope that you’ll feel unwelcome and quit

  • Roasted—

Okay, the tomato-sauce analogy is only going to take us so far, and not just because I’m running out of puns. The fact of the matter is that toxic workplace behavior can be subjective. In general, a toxic workplace is one in which employees feel demeaned, berated, bullied, or held to an unfair standard. But when does toxicity start to veer into hostile work environment territory (in the legal sense)?

I’m not a lawyer. (My lawyer tells me this is important for me to state) So, I cannot tell you whether your workplace is toxic or legally hostile. What I can tell you is this:

For a workplace to be considered hostile, it must be severe or pervasive. The behavior must be targeted at a protected characteristic, and the harassment must affect an individual’s ability to work.

That said, even if there’s some legal ambiguity as to whether or not a workplace is technically hostile or simply toxic… that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. So, here are a few things to keep in mind when cookin’ up a balanced workplace environment.

The Not-So-Secret Sauce

  1. Mental health is health. Considering the number of times I’ve accidentally referred to a teacher as “mom,” I’m the first to admit that it can be challenging to keep your personal life “at home.” But is mental health personal in the sense that it should be kept private? It’s becoming clearer and clearer that it cannot and should not. Put simply, mental health affects an individual’s ability to do their job, so ignoring it would be like ignoring the office fire alarm or the fact that Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn definitely don’t belong here. When surveyed, half of millennials and 75% of Gen Z-ers said they voluntarily or involuntarily left a job for mental health reasons. While I’m not suggesting that managers become licensed therapists, I think these numbers point to the fact that mental health is no less important than physical health. So, it’s crucial to treat it as such. Communicate openly about mental health, and talk to your HRBPs about what mental health days can look like at your company. Lastly, work to destigmatize “work-a-holic behavior” by praising balance rather than extreme dedication.

  2. Belonging is not a buzzword. When it comes to discussing workplace belonging, bad-faith readers might assume that I’m referring to the workplace equivalent of a youth soccer awards ceremony, where everyone is rewarded for simply remembering their shin guards. And while I, personally, wouldn’t mind a few more orange slices in the workplace, I can understand where an environment in which everyone is told they’re great for simply showing up would be detrimental to productivity and company success. But, an environment in which folks are in constant competition with their colleagues also runs the risk of creating an environment ripe for bullying or systemic bias. For example, mistaking confidence for competency can actually perpetuate heteronormative and white-centric structures that keep folks who do not fall in those categories from feeling like they can belong, let alone succeed. So how do we find the middle ground? Creating an environment that revolves around honest and frequent feedback is a good place to start. That way, folks are aware of expectations, are given opportunities to improve, and can feel empowered to speak up if they feel they’re being mistreated or undermined.

  3. Speaking up isn’t escalating. If, like me, you grew up believing that if you said the name, “Voldemort,” a noseless, dark wizard would appear in your bedroom, then I can understand why talking about potential toxicity or workplace issues might inspire a fear that you’ll conjure them into existence simply by speaking their name. Rest assured, talking about workplace incidents with your HR team, exercising bystander intervention, and communicating company values will not result in a work environment plague but rather provides teams with support and encourages healthy dialogue. It’s one of the reasons Ethena suggests training monthly rather than all at once… it provides an opportunity for teams to talk about the issues that might be impacting their company culture (or could in the future). And, we hope that our tips at the ends of our nudges provide a starting point for teams to turn those discussions into actions.

Make It Your Own

For as many different kinds of tomato sauce as there are out there , there are just as many workplaces. We at Ethena recognize that creating a healthy workplace is not a one-size-fits all endeavor. Otherwise, we’d add a sprig of basil and be done with it. But when it comes to keeping our workplace environments free from toxicity, we believe that the few tips outlined above — support for mental health, frequent and candid feedback, and open communication regarding workplace culture — can provide a healthy foundation to start from. Unlike a certain hair-pulling rodent, we’re not interested in dictating your every culinary or workplace move. You’re the chef; but we hope you’ll consider us your sous.

Stats to prove it.

Latham & Watkins wrote about our unique and effective approach to harassment prevention. It’s less boring than it sounds!

“ (1).png

A company using Ethena could reasonably expect to face fewer enforcement actions and to be less vulnerable to liability for sexual harassment."