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Surviving a Toxic Environment in the Workplace

Surviving a Toxic Environment in the Workplace


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

In recent days, we watched the Bill O’Reilly scandal play out in the news. In the end, Fox News decided to fire him. The New York Times reports that O’Reilly will receive a payout of $25 million. There are also reports that he had signed a new contract just before being terminated.

If that sounds scandalous, let’s recall the other recent scandals at Fox News. Roger Ailes, the founding CEO of Fox News, was terminated for sexual harassment nine months before O’Reilly’s dismissal. Also, former Ailes right-hand man and Fox News co-president Bill Shine has resigned from the network.

Ailes received a $40 million payout. Fox executives “promised at that time that there was no room for ‘behavior that disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment,’” according to the Times.

Fox News Receives Racism Lawsuit

This past week, 11 former and current Fox News employees filed a lawsuit citing “abhorrent, intolerable, unlawful and hostile racial discrimination” against Fox News. The lawsuit alleges that former comptroller Judith Slater (who was fired in February), Ailes, CFO Mark Kranz and other executives ran the company like a plantation.

The plaintiffs allege that these executives subjected black employees to derogatory treatment. That treatment included Slater’s demand that minority employees arm-wrestle white female supervisors for her own “entertainment and amusement.”

The suit says Slater made fun of how black employees pronounced “ask” and “mother.” When President Trump ordered the travel ban against several Muslim-majority nations, Slater allegedly asked some black employees, “Who is going to Africa?”

Do Executives ‘Walk the Talk’ or Do They Contribute to a Toxic Environment?

If Fox News has anti-harassment policies, some employees no doubt believe those policies are on paper only. Why?

If we go by recent events, it appears Fox News created a culture where senior executives and “golden children” employees condoned all types of harassment. How seriously would employees take a policy when they see the founding CEO violating it?

O’Reilly had a huge fan following and made $18 million to $20 million a year. He filled Fox’s coffers with sponsors’ money by dominating the ratings.

Why would senior management ask him to get the situation under control? Why did it take numerous complaints over several years before his alleged sexual harassment was addressed?

In regard to the racism lawsuit, reports say two black women working in the payroll department first raised their concerns about racial bias to the human resources department. Both women said they were told HR could do nothing because Slater had too much dirt on the senior executives. In essence, she knew where the bodies were buried. Did the sexual harassment allegations against O’Reilly and Ailes inspire the black employees to raise their concerns again?

(In a statement, Slater’s lawyer, Catherine M. Foti, told the Times that the lawsuits are “meritless and frivolous. All claims of racial discrimination against Ms. Slater are completely false.”)

What Motivated Fox News to Get Rid of Toxic Employees?

What prompted 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch to finally deal with the O’Reilly situation? What was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back?

Was it due to company policy? Was it due to the need to address an issue embarrassing Fox employees? Was it due to a public outcry and the subsequent lawsuits? Was it due to doing the right thing? Did Slater also receive a golden parachute severance package?

I believe that the “golden” children eventually became a liability. The cost of keeping them became greater than the cost of firing them, so management devised a plan to get rid of these toxic employees. The motivator was a financial decision versus a “do the right thing” initiative.

Until we remove this heinous mentality from organizations, cases of this nature will continue in the workplace. Policies may be on the books, but subcultures permit that behavior to be tolerated and even accepted. The unconscious message is “profits over ethics.”

In the first night’s ratings after O’Reilly was off the air, Murdoch congratulated the staff for beating all the competition once again and increasing viewership. “This was a stellar performance,” he wrote in a memo reported by Business Insider.

Why Do Employees Stay in a Toxic Environment?

Subcultures can be toxic; the situation is made worse when an organization’s leaders display toxic behavior. This creates a toxic environment in which there is a lack of organizational justice and employees feel hopeless. As a result, employee productivity is mediocre and the workplace stalls.

So why do workers stay in these types of organizations? If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model, the reason for staying in an abusive situation could be the individual’s perceived or real needs. For example:

  • Employees need the salary to take care of their basic needs (shelter, food and other necessities).
  • Employees might tolerate sexual harassment because they are “just passing through” on their way to something better (feeling of accomplishment).
  • Employees stay in the job because the salary will support their start-up businesses (self-actualization of satisfying a dream).

If you elect to stay in this type of environment, how do you survive? Everyone has different coping strategies. To make the best of a bad situation, Life and Career Coach Kassy Scarcla has some suggestions:

  • Don’t take the work home with you. Make a conscious effort to “let go” as soon as you walk out the workplace door.
  • Find someone outside the office to whom you can vent. If you talk to someone at your job, that individual may be going through the same thing that you are. You don’t want to feed off each other. Also, by discussing with someone external to the situation, your sounding board can validate your sanity.
  • Look for the positives. There is something positive in every situation. Toxicity is usually a personal characteristic. Try to find something admirable about the mission or vision of the organization.
  • Establish boundaries. Toxic people do not respect boundaries. Sometimes, you may have to remind them that boundaries exist and re-educate them on where they are.
  • Create a positive workspace. Some of my introvert colleagues decorate their workspaces with items that make them happy and smile. Have something visual to remind you why you are still at the job.
  • Find outlets for stress relief throughout the day. Some people make sure they go out for lunch or take walks during breaks. Try anything that breaks the “status quo” of the day.
  • Focus on the facts, not the stories. Don’t participate in or listen to office gossip. It brings you down.
  • Clear up any misunderstandings right away. Communicate. Confront and clarify any erroneous information that comes up. Stay away from the drama.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and an ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.



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