A toxic work environment is characterised by poor communication, bullying and passive aggression.
Recently, two popular American shows, Ellen DeGeneres Show and Patriot Act, have been cancelled by many channels including Netflix on accusations of toxic work culture. Most of these concerns and accusations were raised by women, even though these shows are produced in a “first world” country that has seen feminist movements and has made significant progress on women’s rights in the past few decades; as opposed to developing, heavily patriarchal countries.
A toxic work environment is characterised by poor communication, bullying, employees being talked down to, broken team structures where job responsibilities are not clearly defined or just a subtle overall mismanagement and passive aggression. It can result in unhappy and demotivated employees and team members who do not feel respected or who question their worth and contribution to the progress of the organisation.
During more than 13 years of my experience as a working woman in Pakistan, I was fortunate to climb the ladder to senior management pretty quickly. I became CFO of a listed financial institution at the age of 26. During this journey, I have been mentored, encouraged, and helped by men; those of a strong and principled character. On the other hand, I have also been humiliated, discouraged and bullied by other men. While working for a certain employer where negative organisational politics was rampant, I knocked all doors to address my concerns professionally, yet the culture had become damaged to such an extent that regardless of who was in the right, people were not necessarily being treated fairly. Faced with such circumstances, one is initially taken aback by the stress that eventually takes its toll on physical and mental health. Then it can sometimes turn into depression, fatigue and finally burn out, and the only option that one can find is to quit, leave matters to God and seek His guidance.
Men are not used to women taking decisions or having a say in them. Women are socially and financially dependent on their husbands.
It is only when I had removed myself from the situation and my brain fog had cleared that I was able to understand and analyse what was actually happening. As the work environment had become toxic, I as a woman was one of its greatest victims while my male colleagues seemed to be riding the wave. In recent years, there has been much discussion about a major portion of our workforce, i.e. women, not being able to contribute to the development of Pakistani economy. Many organisations have attempted to increase gender diversity and inclusion. Yet, many employees come from a typically patriarchal background where women cook, keep house and then, in their free time, engage in activities that are not economically or socially productive such as watching soap operas on TV or following social media influencers. These women are ultimately subservient to their husbands’ decisions. While most such women are doing an excellent job at building families, they are still socially and financially dependent on their husbands. This basically translates into most men in Pakistani corporate culture not being used to women taking decisions or having a say in them. Out of their workplaces, they do not often meet many women who discuss economy, finance, sports, and other “manly hobbies”, so women representing their companies in important meetings and on different forums is a strange sight. When a woman, leading a team comprised of such men, tries to create a healthy team culture or just get some work done, she is then considered “bossy” and incompetent while a male counterpart would be considered a good leader for the same actions. If she identifies a problem, she becomes the problem maker. If she seeks correction, she becomes annoying. If she takes responsibility for problems, she becomes incompetent. And so on…
It is easier to bully and side-line a woman.
This attitude gets even worse where the jobs of the bosses are at stake due to their lack of leadership or wrong decisions. People tend to become insecure easily. While they can trouble anyone whom they fear to be a challenge to their position, irrespective of gender, it is easier to bully and side-line a woman given the existing perceptions by her team and colleagues. When called out, even highly respected men in our society can resort to being sexist and campaign against an employee based on her gender, engaging in ridiculing her, mansplaining or gaslighting. Hence, it is possible that some people in desi corporate culture would only prefer hiring and promoting those women who can be people pleaser and submissive; who do not engage in conversation about work and business often and could gang up against all “challengers”, especially other strong, intelligent and highly-skilled women.
This toxicity is not limited to women at senior positions, even though breaking the glass ceiling proves to be a big challenge everywhere in the world and more so in Pakistan. Women at junior positions can be harassed, subjected to biased treatment or hired only for “show value”. They are probably the most vulnerable group of employees in any organisation as they risk all kinds of harassment, including sexual, and can be easily fired without ever being able to take a stand or be heard.
You should not hire women if your organisational culture is not welcoming; because if you do, you are only setting them up to fail and hence, ruining their careers.
The issue is that many companies, in their effort to create an image of being an equal opportunity employer, are hiring more women without addressing the real problem of creating a suitable culture. You should not hire women if your organisational culture is not welcoming; because if you do, you are only setting them up to fail and hence, ruining their careers. Employers need to come up with stringent practices, set acceptable standards, and make everyone aware of acceptable behaviours and the actions that could be taken in case of non-abidance; not only on paper but put in practice in real life. The right candidate for a role, even if it’s a woman, will work with all their strength and zeal if you provide them the right team in a positive culture set by the top leadership. In our Mental Strength Programs at Ed-Watch, we are providing companies with the opportunity to create such a culture by providing training on diversity & inclusion acceptance behaviours. Though, this is not something that can be overcome by a one-time training. Toxic culture can only be nipped in the bud if it is led by example.
At present, many employers make policies to tackle regulatory requirements but hardly ever sincerely implement the policy or a complaint management system. Least attention is paid to the confidentiality of the complaint and the complainant. This is why people are always reluctant to report despite a conflict or a problem. In a toxic work environment, where employees are not respected or heard, any complaint made is like a gun shot fired at, and by, your own self.
So what should one do? Leave! Organisations with a toxic culture do not deserve loyal employees. Since cases that are mishandled can have severe repercussions within and out of the organisation and at that point or in the future, especially if the victim or the complainant is a woman, this is the best decision one can take in face of bullying and disrespect. In a toxic culture, women who do not adapt well to toxicity suffer the most given that they are easy targets.
As for employers, next time you advertise a position, think twice about your current internal culture before writing “Equal Opportunity”, from all diversity and inclusion aspects. Work diligently to improve your workplace practices, set the tone of fostering healthy relationships among colleagues and then consider hiring women who are qualified to do the job. Otherwise, eventually, good and high performing employees would leave and you, with a toxic culture at the workplace, will fail at maintaining a good reputation as an employer.
The author, Sana Quadri, is a seasoned Chartered Accountant who has worked in various financial institutions at different senior level positions. She is the founder of Ed-Watch, and very enthusiastic about helping create healthy and safe work environments, providing continuous professional development, and enabling people to achieve their dreams.