HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Handling Toxic Bosses in the Workplace

As someone who has worked continuously since I was legally able, I’ve had my fair share of terrible bosses—and I’m sure that you have, too. I struggled with the worst one long before I had ever heard of the concept of a hostile work environment or the damaging effects of bad company culture.

My solution was to tough it out for a year when the organization went out of business. For employees, waiting it out is a poor solution. For employers, identifying and dealing with toxic bosses are critical to the success of their organizations.

I recently had a chance to ask Shane Metcalf, the Chief Culture Officer at 15Five, how to deal with a toxic boss.

HR Daily Advisor: How can employees spot if their boss is toxic?

Metcalf: Managers might be unsupportive or lack key communication skills because they lack training or other resources from the company. Toxic bosses, on the other hand, are probably not fit for management in the first place but were promoted because they excelled as individual contributors.

Employees can look for certain traits like selfishness and a lack of self-awareness. Does a manager actively listen, or does he or she interrupt and talk back to employees? If you’re not allowed to speak up in the first place, that’s a huge red flag.

Be wary of bosses who are constantly putting employees down, take credit for work they didn’t perform, and fail to recognize employee contributions. The best barometer for toxicity is asking yourself, “Does this person genuinely care about me as an employee and as a person?”

HR Daily Advisor: What are some key practices lower-level employees can implement to manage up?

Metcalf: When a manager isn’t willing to take the initiative to build a healthy relationship or even be a partner in completing team objectives, individual employees need to recognize where they can improve the relationship. Check in with how your manager is doing at the beginning of meetings to show care, model how you’d like to be treated, and build rapport.

It can be uncomfortable for employees to keep their managers accountable, so inquire about their schedules, and agree on a firm timeline when you need something. De-personalize it by linking it back to the greater objective instead of work they are doing for you.

If a doomed relationship seems guaranteed, employees can schedule a meeting with HR to talk through the challenges and discover solutions. A management change or a shift in teams might be in the cards, but the employee might have to be the one to come forward to start this process.

HR Daily Advisor: What can individual employees do to continue to develop professionally despite a poor coaching relationship?

Metcalf: Every manager’s job is to consistently move employees forward. In a positive manager/employee relationship, the focus should be on personal and professional development, and that sometimes means that the employee has to leave to grow. So certainly, in a toxic environment, employees should explore this option.

Evaluate if you want to make the relationship work and continue to develop in the role, or look for opportunities on another team or even in another company. If employees stay, here are a few things they can do to continue to develop professionally despite a poor support system.

  • Change the language: Employees need to be careful when labeling toxic bosses. In essence, you’re saying, “This is how they are, and there’s no space for change.” If, instead, you say, “We have a difficult or challenging relationship,” then you are utilizing a growth mind-set regarding the other person and are creating space for the relationship to transform.
  • Confront with care: A best practice is to have a radically candid conversation with the person. This means being direct while caring personally. The relationship might just be a series of miscommunications, but if neither party speaks up, it cannot be repaired.
  • Request to work remotely: Sometimes, the boss’s body language or specific behaviors rub people the wrong way, and people will work better together when they are not in the same office. A final straw is to limit personal interactions to business needs like one-on-ones and other meetings via video conference.
  • Look for a different job: If all fails and the employee has tried and worked at improving the relationship (even with the help of others), it is probably best to look for another job. This can be painful if the rest of the work experience—like relationships with coworkers—is pleasant, and it can also be scary depending on the employee’s qualifications and likelihood of new employment. But in the long term, the decision can be a massive improvement for a person’s life and career.

HR Daily Advisor: What role does other leadership play when a boss doesn’t offer constructive feedback?

Metcalf: In many ways, a toxic boss is a failure of leadership. It doesn’t make sense to hire or promote managers without offering them training and other growth opportunities. The ability to offer constructive feedback does not come naturally to everyone.

There should be solid internal communication systems in place so that leadership has visibility into manager/employee relationships and can act when friction arises.

Leaders can also set the tone of the company culture as one of transparency and support, with rituals that encourage desired behaviors. For example, we created a ritual during the Friday all-hands meeting wherein an employee asks a fun or poignant question. Everyone participates, including leadership, to build camaraderie and connection, as well as to model vulnerability and transparency.

Finally, leaders need to make employees feel safe by creating an avenue for escalating these issues, whether that’s through HR, through a manager’s boss, or by creating a cultural norm of direct upward feedback.

HR Daily Advisor: How can toxic leadership impact an entire organization? And what is the solution?

Metcalf: Leadership sets the tone and direction of a company. And when leaders are toxic, it can negatively impact company culture, morale, and performance. When your employees do not look forward to showing up and getting work done due to relationships that are bogging them down rather than building them up, productivity will plummet.

Leaders can look at internal company data such as retention rates, absenteeism, and productivity. Pay attention during meetings to see how teams interact, or conduct a survey for each department through which you ask about the culture, trust in leadership, and communication with managers.

Put systems and processes in place that encourage feedback, such as continuous performance management, pulse surveys, and 360-degree reviews. When leadership builds a transparent culture, people pay more attention to the way they behave.

Above all, be committed at the highest levels to crafting leadership at your company. This includes training in hard skills, as well as in emotional intelligence (EQ), the ability to understand other people and what motivates them. Offer training in self-awareness, motivation, cultivating empathy, and being able to regulate your behaviors. While these soft skills used to take a back seat in business, as companies try to engage and retain employees and create cultures where innovation thrives, EQ is becoming indispensable.

For more guidance on toxic individuals in the workplace, join us in Tennesse on November 15th at HR Comply 2019 where we will hold a session called, “Toxic Personalities and Workplace Conflicts: Effective and Legal Ways to Manage Tough Interpersonal Situations and Build a Culture of Cooperation.”

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