Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Surviving Workplace Abuse: Perpetuating the toxic workplace

My workplace was far removed from this peaceful scene I shot in the fall of 2006.  It is pictures like these that bring back the good memories, the things that kept me level and moving forward for so long in what was becoming an increasingly difficult situation.  A situation where toxicity flourished unchecked.

At the time this picture was taken, I was fresh, very fresh from a secondary trauma when my pastor showed up unexpectedly and very angry at my doorstep because I'd thrown my Bible on the floor.  

At that time, I'd been through workplace abuse experience #1 but was not able to recognize it for what it was.  I had a therapist who also did not recognize the workplace abuse nor the trauma it had caused nor had any idea had to treat it.

For eighteen long months there was no healing, no help, no recovery. I was well and truly stuck emotionally.

Finally, just the month before I threw my Bible on the floor that fateful day in the church library, I had connected with a new therapist.  One who was well-versed in trauma, PTSD and had a proven track record in being able to work with people like me and help them on their roads to recovery.

She was the first one who acknowledged the role of trauma and PTSD in my life and in my actions.

Unfortunately, getting a good therapist and starting to work on the road to recovery does not mean that things are going to happen quickly.  There are no magic wands in recovery from psychological damage.  It's a long road involving a lot of hard work - and the occasional set back.

I love to look at this set of pictures because although I did not know it then, I was embarking on a journey, not one set out in road maps, rather one not clearly defined.  I look back at these photos and see how far I've been able to come from where I was.

If I only knew then what I know now, would things have been any different?


If I only knew then what I know now, would things have been different?

One can only hope.

My head at this point is filled with lots of knowledge, research about workplace bullying and different aspects of it such as the toxic workplace.  Knowledge clamouring and begging to be let out.

I think by this time that we can definitely agree on one thing:  my workplace was toxic.


Not contaminated by chemicals or toxic waste, but contaminated by toxic workers.  Wikipedia defines a toxic employee as: 
  1. In the context of a toxic workplace, a toxic employee is a worker who is motivated by personal gain, uses unethical, mean-spirited and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert .
    Notice that the quote above describes the toxic workplace as being inhabited by a toxic employee - or employees as the case may be.  There cannot be a toxic workplace without at least one toxic employee.

In my former workplace, I believe that one or more than one employee was toxic beginning long before I ever walked in that compound.  I have come to wonder if toxicity was actually part of the workplace culture.

It certainly seemed to be an environment where toxicity flourished at different times with different people and where the infrastructure had become so cracked that toxicity was part and parcel of the "normal" work environment.

One incident that gave me pause occurred with a totally different employee who had gone on to bigger and better things by the time I was injured by bullying in the workplace about a year after the picture at the beginning of this posting was taken.

As I've noted, my workplace resembled the grass in south Texas where I once lived; everyone had their own burr, thistle or thorn.  "Walking" without extreme caution was inadvisable.

Working without extreme caution in my workplace was not advisable either.

At one point, I was learning a new job - that of dispatcher on an off shift.  Now, the dispatcher in a distribution environment is the "top dog" so to speak.  He (or she) is responsible for getting the trucks out on time.  He/she is not responsible though for the production of the paperwork for the truck leaving.  That is another employee's responsibility.  An entry level position.

In this incident, I was the dispatcher.  A young man was learning the ropes on producing the paperwork.  His trainer was a university student who had had a "casual" position with the company meaning part-time since she had been in high school.  She was more than capable of training this young man...

But .... was she toxic?  Did she spread toxicity to this new employee?

At one point, she was teaching him the ins and outs of the needs of a certain client whose truck was not due to depart for more than an hour when I had an urgent need for paperwork to be done right away.  Therefore, I asked the trainee to do up the paperwork for me.

He refused.

He said he was working on something else.  I pointed out that this need was immediate and should take precedent over what he was working on.

The trainer then told me very nastily to do the paperwork myself.


I don't remember how the paperwork got done that night.  I do remember that I felt like I'd been hit between the eyes by a blow I hadn't seen coming.  I had never treated a co-worker, especially one in a position above me like that.  It had never occurred to me.  And I wondered why she felt this behaviour was appropriate especially in a training situation.  I felt that by her actions she was teaching the newest member of our "team" a lesson he would never forget ... that certain people did not deserve respect.  That it was OK to refuse to do a job which was part of his job.

I don't always use the right words so sometimes I substitute another word.  I told the trainer that she was teaching him not to respect my authority.  To which, she took a lot of umbrage and let me know that I didn't have any authority.  Which apparently is true.  The dispatcher is the senior employee in the office, but does not have any authority.  

However ...

I realize now that the word I meant and should have used was "respect".  She was actively teaching the new employee to disrepect another employee.  One old enough to be their mother.

And therein laid part of the problem.

I took the young man out of the office later and we had a talk about what had happened and how we were both feeling.  It turns out that this young man felt like he was working with his mother - and he didn't like it.  I realized that a huge part of my problem was that I have been an authoritative person and that he was reacting very negatively to that trait in me.  I agreed to work on the authoritative part of my behaviour if he would work on his issues i.e. perceiving me and reacting negatively to me because of my age.  I may have been in his mom's age bracket BUT I was not his mom.

I also talked with the trainer with much less success.  She refused to budge on her actions.  In fact, she brought up everything thing I had ever done or said in the workplace.  Not positively.

I was already a year into the therapy that was steadily, slowly changing my life and felt that bringing up the past was not productive.

I talked with my therapist about this and we both felt the young lady in question was being toxic.  So I went to my manager.  Who went to her manager.  Who was this young lady's mother.


I think you can guess what the outcome of that was.  Nothing.  In fact, from my point of view worse than nothing.  The 2up felt that there was nothing toxic about her daughter's behaviour.  So the stink continued.

Several years later, this woman who was at that time our 2up became my 1up.  Her feelings and perspectives from that encounter lingered on and I believe polluted her ability to deal with the bullying.

The young man in question?  He too continued on in that position for years.  He was one of the signees of the "complaint" I mentioned in a past post - the one that resulted in my termination.


If I knew then what I know now in terms of the dynamics and the futility in trying to change the workplace environment what would I have done?

I think it best if we deal with that question in future posts.

Until tomorrow....

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