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Toxic Culture: Is it the Workplace? Or is it Your Employee?

Today I received a message that I get too often. And I hate it.

“LB, can you talk to Susie?” She is dealing with a really bad culture at her company and I told her to connect with you and #GirlsClub.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to hire Susie. (But we’ll call her “Not-Susie” from here on out please)

Shocking transparency alert: I hate these calls because you never know the “truth.” Is it the culture? Or is it Susie? I’ve absolutely seen both happen (note: “Susie” means someone who will see ANY culture as toxic while she quickly tanks yours. She can easily be called “Johnnie” as well.)

We don’t ever know the “truth” of the situation, because truth isn’t singular is it? 

Truth is a lens that is unique to each of us. 

So much so that we shouldn’t as humans all be allowed to use the word “Truth” as if it has a capital “T” and means “The Universal Truth” or the REAL story. We should have to qualify it as “LB’s Truth” or “Steve’s Truth” each and every time! Heck, let’s all replace “the truth” with “IMO (in my opinion) – not because I love text acronyms, but because my  “possibly-jaded-surely-influenced-point-of-view-of-the-truth” is simply too long to say.

But I digress…

Some cultures are toxic. And not just to women, to humans. This usually starts with a bad leader and a management team that is either also a little jerky or just scaredy cats. 

Folks, culture is never what you intend. It isn’t even what you communicate as your expectations. It surely isn’t what you write down during a half-day offsite about mission, values and culture. To be blunt: Your culture is what you and your leaders tolerate.

This is uber-profound. Read more about it here where it is attributed to Harvy Goldberg, or here where it’s attributed to David Morrison. It’s worth reading and sharing when you finish here.

Now, here’s the rub. Some PEOPLE are toxic too. I’m calling them “Susie.”

This isn’t because she set out that morning to cause cancer on your team, but because her lens on life filters in the bad and out the good. The filter on Susie’s mouth does the same. That’s the thing with filters, they aren’t usually very customizable. Some of this is attributed to a phenomenon called selective attention (I only see and notice the bad) and sometimes it’s actually confirmation bias (I went looking for the bad and sure enough, I managed to find it). 

These two proven scientific phenomena happen together so often they’re coined together as “Frequency Illusion” or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (now you KNOW it’s real with a scientific name like that!)

This is the brain function that helps you see something you just learned about (like a new car) everywhere. 

Truth: Susie sees bad culture, leadership and discrimination like Acura RDX’s everywhere she goes. These women scare me. And if you’re in leadership they probably scare you too. 

Here is where our story diverges. Section one is for the women in bad situations determined NOT to be Susie. I see you ladies. Got a potential Susie? Read on, section two is for leaders protecting their cultures from Susie. 

Ending #1: For Workers (it’s NOT Susie):

I’m sorry you had to read all of this. I’m sorry that you’re in a bad situation and that Susie is ruining it by complaining all the time when your boss really is a jerk and you have to armor up every day to go to work. Here’s some advice to help.

  1. Go look for jobs in these companies. These are the 25 most recently awarded companies by the #GirlsClub community (co-sponsored by Sales Hacker and Factor 8) where women want to work. This list is based on votes and comments and the #GirlsClub community due diligence. Nope, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it does mean we checked for things like all the votes coming in at one time and 80% of them being from men. We read every submission and we called contacts. Listen, #GirlsClub is all about helping more women lead in companies, and that means we’re all about helping find more great companies and great allies out there. If your boss is a jerk, start your job search here!

Also, watch what great companies and great leaders are doing at our recent workshop “How Award-Winning Companies Recruit, Retain, and Promote Women”.

  1. Phone a friend at work. Find out if it’s just you or if other women (and men!) have an issue. Don’t let one more day go by where you think you might be crazy or over-sensitive. Now please be careful here. You aren’t trying to start a revolution, and you certainly don’t want this getting back to him or her. Pick someone you trust and start with something like, “Am I crazy or…” Alternatively, try asking if they’ve had similar experiences in other companies because you haven’t. You get it. 

Pick carefully and keep it to one or two trusted colleagues. THEN you go together to the boss or to HR with facts and examples (examples are key and yes, they will get back to him or her). Don’t leave a great company if one person is the problem, see if you can get that one person fixed or gone instead. If that doesn’t work, go back and read #1.

Also consider fixing it yourself. If it’s down to leaving or fixing, don’t automatically give up your job! I bet you were there first! So talk to him or her and coach. Start a group. Suggest some team building or culture activities. Ask a mentor, a leader you trust, or even the CEO for help. Hey, if you’re on your way out anyway… Chances are good that if you see it, they see it. Help them fix it while helping yourself to a better workplace.

  1. Reframe it. If and when you’re past the point of fixing it internally and you’re moving on, know that your listeners will have the bias I shared at the beginning of this article. Please realize that if I (who started a second company with the express goal of helping not-Susie women) admit to having doubt, imagine how much doubt other leaders probably have (I’m just brave enough to say it out loud, so really, please don’t send letters). 

Your job is to boil all that anger and frustration and disappointment into a tidy little soundbite that makes you sound positive, in-control, and totally unwilling to say bad things about other people or companies. This is a tough one, but it’s critical. 

Shoot for something like, “It became apparent that the culture was not going to be a long-term fit for me. I’m looking for companies and leaders who focus on developing people and providing excellent service to their customers.” This lets the listener imply that your current company didn’t develop their people and might even have been shady with customers. Gasp! That’s instant credibility for you and a potential strike against them…most won’t follow up from here. Message received. And if they do ask a follow-up question, give the exact answer my recent non-Susie hire gave me, “I’m afraid it’s probably a top-down issue.” Vague. No badmouthing, and yet perfectly clear.

Ending #2: For Leaders (it IS Susie):

Long story long, I don’t know the “truth” about not-Susie’s past culture. Because a friend referred her to me, I did spend time trying to help her. But first, I tested not-Susie’s filters and biases. I needed to know if she would find bad things about me and my companies as well. Try these questions with potential Susies (and other potential culture-killers by other names).

First, I look for an internal or external locus of control. Does she talk about what she can control or what the world does to her? Does she refer often to an infamous “they” in management that represent faceless & nameless leaders making decisions in a vacuum? Bad signs.

Next, I look for how willing someone is to badmouth. Ask for some specifics or an example or some level of detail. If most of the answer is negative, you hear lots of blame, or you could put the phone down for a short nap while they rant…we probably have a problem. Just like middle school, if you’re willing to talk badly about her to me, I know you’ll do the same about me to literally everyone else.

Finally, I test for confirmation bias. If all she can talk about is the bad stuff, she’s going to keep finding bad stuff. It’s like a first date when all he can do is complain about his ex, right? Either he isn’t over her or he finds wrong with any woman. Either way, I’m out after one drink and before anybody orders dinner. The trick here is to give a little rope and a wide open question like, “Tell me about it.” Keep a tally mark during the entire conversation or interview. Each story, example, or answer will either feel positive, negative, or inconclusive. Tally up at the end.

Don’t hire a toxic human. They’ll fast-track you to a rotten culture. I hope these three tests were useful. 

Final tip for leaders. Get schooled in what women are looking for in a workplace. Why? Because we’re consistently your top sellers and you tell me a lot that you can’t find enough of us (this is based on completely biased research I’ve conducted over the past 4 years of leaders saying this to me. On a similar note, 37.9% of all statistics are made up).

In summary, I support both sides of this challenge and see so clearly that we’re in it together. Nobody wants to work with Susie. Nobody wants to be seen as one either. I salute the not-Susies out there looking for a better workplace. You deserve it! And I empathize with the leaders who are trying hard to build intentional cultures and wonder about their next hire. I hope these musings helped both sides of the arise come together better (and convinced all of you to vote now for next year’s top 25 companies list!)

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