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Toxicity Travels: 4 Tips to Recognize and Stop a Virtual Toxic Work Environment

The idea that toxic leadership and toxic work environments ended when many companies sent their employees to work remotely due to the pandemic is nice. However, it is entirely untrue. The bottom line is toxicity travels. The bounds of an office cubical or breakroom did not prevent corporate culture, good or bad, from moving into an employee’s home. A person can generally define a toxic work environment or workplace behavior with some form of power, typically a manager, who uses it by targeting an individual to cause psychological harm. The behavior can be blatant and deliberate, such as verbal abuse or harassment. Or it can be less visibly aggressive. In either instance, these actions are finding ways to continue online.

Toxic work cultures have many damaging side effects including, but not limited to demotivated and disengaged employees, causing significant negative impacts on organizational outcomes. Toxicity can further manifest itself in several ways: off-hours communication to gossip that undermine the team, passive-aggressive or aggressive contacts through email, text messages, or live video meetings, lack of balance from increased requests and expectations to toxic leaders taking credit for successes and blame-shifting any setbacks.

Overcoming toxic work cultures is possible; however, it is much more difficult in a virtual environment. Engaging an outside consultant can help by giving a fresh look at a challenging situation. Body language, physical presence, and human touch are excellent ways to interpret company culture when questioning employees, but in the virtual environment, this is nearly impossible. Consultants will need to take another approach to determine company culture and find the root cause of any toxic behaviors. Asking these four simple questions will help determine if the organization is suffering from a toxic culture in the virtual environment.

  1. Is everyone collaborating together? A high-performing and robust culture requires trust. If the team intentionally avoids working and collaborating with another team member, there may be a problem. Checking for patterns to identify if the individual is making too many mistakes, not actively participating, or not working as hard as the rest of the team will show the team, they can trust the leadership for handling a problem if it exists. Knowing what is best for business and the team and making necessary changes will reduce the negative impact on morale.
  2. Is it fact, or is it opinion? Complaints that are judgmental rather than fact base can have a very negative impact on a team. For example, blaming a manager for a bad hire or indicating someone is lazy for being late are attacks on the individual rather than identifying the process’s specific facts that need to be improved or corrected.
  3. Are we fully transparent? Sharing information and being fully transparent will reduce friction in communication and help the team feel involved. Including as much information as possible to all staff also allows opportunities for employees to volunteer for projects and other situations where gaps need to be filled. A lack of transparency creates mistrust and a breakdown in communication channels.
  4. What do new hires think? New hires and outside consultants provide a perspective that leadership cannot get elsewhere. They have not been around for years and are not ingrained in the culture. Do they notice tension or friction between coworkers, leadership, or teams in meetings? Are they on the receiving end of gossip? The answers to these questions will help leaders and consultants determine the depth of the toxicity in the organization’s or team’s culture.

Remote work situations have opened the doors and availability to transform who businesses can work with. Locational and geographical boundaries are no longer as restrictive as they once were.  For this reason, understanding the meaning behind being global, globalization, and culture is critical for successful partnerships with international business partners. Understanding geographical culture is just as essential as understanding organizational culture. More and more consultants are being brought in to help organizations understand these concepts. Consultants, for their part, also need to understand and be able to translate to business leaders what they need to know to avoid cultural mishaps.

Consultants must have a diverse skill set, allowing them to identify, diagnose, and correct an internal toxic culture to have a global mindset to help organizations build strong partnerships with international associates. Having a global mindset and understanding culture requires a consultant to be sensitive to differences and the ability to build bridges to cover the cultural distinctions. Consultants must also tackle their innate biases to overcome the challenges of building relationships and developing trust with individuals from different cultures.  Understanding the differences in geographical culture will also give the consultant a deeper dive into the corporate culture.

Toxic work teams trying to collaborate and work globally will pass their toxicity on to the new group, whether directly or indirectly. Studies have shown that abusive traits are often passed on, creating a ripple effect. Toxic work environments threaten those that work there, but they can also threaten revenue and the organization’s bottom line. Unhealthy work settings can create high turnover and cost the organization projects, especially in the global marketplace.

We learned that while remote work may have initially taken the stresses and strains of a toxic work environment away by removing the face-to-face interaction, it is not an antidote. Along with the employees, the organization needs to take an active stance to end toxic work environments. The following four steps will help end traveling toxicity.

  1. Employees must create boundaries and stick to them when office hours creep into home time, creating a clear understanding of when they will be working and when they are off. Supervisors and colleagues will need to respect this boundary and not punish others for having it.
  2. You are not participating in office gossip through text messages, emails, chats, or direct messages during video meetings. Negatively talking about others in any situation will create hostility, drama, and low morale. If you are participating in it now, you can almost guarantee that you will also be talked about in the future.
  3. Organizations need to uphold and enforce a policy against actions that create toxic environments. From bullying bosses to retaliation, if employees don’t feel they will be heard and action is taken, they will stop reporting it. The organization needs to be firm in that it will not tolerate this type of behavior.
  4. Get help. Supervisors, employees, or teams- there is help that can stop the toxic behaviors. Anger management, emotional intelligence training, and team counseling can benefit individual team members, groups, and the organization as a whole.

Understanding the costs of toxic work environments is the first step in creating change. The world is not the same. Each culture drives the way they do business and work with others. Businesses need a clear understanding of their corporate culture before attempting to work in a global market and further research future project partners’ geographical and company culture. The virtual and remote environment awarded us several positive benefits to crossing boundaries we once were constrained by. Organizational leaders need to stop passing out passport stamps to toxicity by putting a greater emphasis on their people rather than their profits and create influence in a progressive way.


Jenipher Cornelius

Jenipher Cornelius

I focus on the strategy, leadership development, and operational success of our member experience. As part of the executive team, I helped create the Member Success and Engagement group to solely focus on our current members. Relationship Management is our core value on the MSE Team. Coaching and training group leaders to ensure group meetings are productive, efficient, and enjoyable.

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