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Navigating Toxic Workplace Cultures: Real Stories and Legal Insights


Introduction


In my career, I’ve had my share of bizarre workplace events. For example, there was the time a co-worker once brought a 14” Bowie knife to work. We knew nothing about the knife until he grabbed it from his desk drawer and with one dramatic swing, sliced through a report he’d been proofreading for a co-worker. He squealed in delight at the sharpness of the blade as the author of the report left his office in tears. When his Supervisor heard of what had happened, he only laughed and went to see the new knife!


Oh, yes, and there’s the co-worker whose girlfriend went missing. Teary-eyed and distraught, we watched as he appeared before reporters and pleaded for her safe return. Later, he returned to work to soak up support from co-workers who rallied around him when news broke that she was found, dead, in the trunk of her car less than two blocks from our workplace! Who could have done this? Well, isn't it always the boyfriend? Within the month he was arrested. The next year, he was convicted of the murder. Come to think of it, that was 1988. He was paroled years ago. I should check on that.


There’s the CEO who, to assert his authority over the room, angrily warned us to be wary of his temper. “When you see the vein on my neck start to throb you better watch out!”. When I get together with my old-colleagues, we still laugh at the scene - it was the first (and last) time any of us had been asked to watch someone’s “throbbing vein”. The same CEO also had a penchant for texting key managers after-hours, sometimes 20-30 times an evening. Ignoring his texts would then trigger him to call and fill the voicemail with obscenities. At the same time, his newsletter contributions extolled the virtues of teamwork - "it makes the dream work".


You can’t make this stuff up!


Murder aside, how disconnected does one have to be to wave a knife around the office and think it contributes positively to workplace culture? What performance gains does a CEO hope to achieve from threatening a room of subordinates with tales of his temper? Over the last month, I’ve had numerous conversations with people who’ve shared bad-boss, toxic workplace stories. The stories are alarming. What’s equally alarming though, is how we also go to great lengths to catch each other. Here’s a great example that’s come to me recently involving Abermarle Marketing Group (AMG) in Vancouver. Before you check, I’ve changed the company name and names of the characters.


Tracy was over the moon to land a job at AMG. She knew it to be a competitive work environment, but she looked forward to learning more about the industry and soaking up the culture that she’d heard so much about. What Tracy didn’t know was that the workplace had changed. The arrival of a new charismatic CEO had given rise to a toxic "gotcha culture," where employees clamoured to gain favor with upper management.


Enter Mallory, a mid-level manager, who’d been with the company for several years. Frustrated at her lack of advancement, and feeling the pressure to perform, Mallory was caught up in the new culture – so much so that she’d resorted to recording private conversations with her colleagues. One such colleague was Tracy. Over wine at a quiet watering hole with Mallory, Tracy shared her candid opinions on what she considered a lack of leadership in the company. After a second glass of wine, Tracy’s recorded comments were especially useful to Mallory who shared them with Maya, a Senior Manager with the company.


The back story to all of this is that Mallory was insecure in her position. Unlike Maya, Mallory had been passed over for promotion on more than one occasion, she was envious of Tracy’s youthful enthusiasm and how quickly Tracy had infused herself into the workplace. Mallory and Maya had always been close. With Maya poised to be the company’s first female Vice President, Mallory hoped that by sharing the recordings of Tracy she might finally be able to move up and, this time, take Maya’s old job.


Impact on Workplace Trust


Mallory's recordings came to light by accident. Apparently, she was queuing up a presentation and clumsy fingers pressed play shortly after her phone connected with the wireless speaker. At first, the table heard only background noise but then Tracy’s recorded opinions on leadership came through with surprising clarity. Confused, co-workers turned to each other as Mallory spilled her coffee in a scramble to control her phone. In the blink of an eye, a dramatic change in workplace dynamics took place. As people talked over one another, Mallory left the table in tears and left her co-workers with too many questions.


Legal Considerations: Did you know?


It is legal to record one-on-one conversations in BC. Yes, it’s true.


While it’s illegal to plant a recording device in a meeting room, Section 184 of the Criminal Code allows a person to record a one-on-one conversation without notifying the other party. Again, it’s legal - so long as there are only two people in the conversation. Mallory knew this, she learned it from Maya. Maya learned it from the CEO who presented the practice as a ‘pro-tip’ of sorts. She bragged that her recordings had given her leverage at work but also with some key accounts.

 

Want to learn more about recording conversations in the workplace? Here are some links:

 

Building a Trusting Workplace


Fast forward to the present day, AMG now has a new VP of Human Resources, and they are on the hunt to replace the CEO who, interestingly, left the company at the same time as Maya. They were an item, which was a surprise to everyone – including the CEO's wife.


I digress but, really, you can’t make this stuff up!


Facing a mutiny, the company Board Chair invested in leadership training and communications. New leaders, like Tracy and Mallory (yes, Mallory still works there), are learning how to lead and care for their teams. By emphasizing ethical practices and fostering a culture of respect and open communication, AMG hopes to instill a new set of workplace norms. It’s still a competitive workplace but it’s already a much kinder one – and devices are left outside the door.


Conclusion


Tending to workplace culture is not light work, nor is it something that can be done part-time. As a company, AMG is learning this. More to the point, they’re learning a painful lesson that that it’s much easier to maintain workplace culture than to try and rebuild trust and morale. They're also learning that, while legally permissible, some practices not only undermine employees, they can also affect business as AMG has had to deal with the loss of several treasured key accounts.


While I’ve changed the names, the story is true. Mallory is a good person. After taking a leave, she returned. It was bumpy reboot but she's doing well. Her story is evidence that good people do questionable things when they feel unsupported and cornered. Baseline behaviors change and when Managers aren’t checking in, employees are often left to their own devices - in this case, quite literally.


Wrapping up, I invite you to look at your own leadership practice. While you might be surprised at the workplace stories, or legalities of recording, this post (murder aside) is really a reminder about leadership. How do you want to lead? Corporations tend to take on the personalities of their CEOs. So, as a leader, If you don't value communication, neither will your direct reports and neither will their teams. When leaders aren't transparent, employees gorge themselves on rumors, gossip and bad practice. In such environments, as AMG learned, no one looks good, no one feels good but everyone notices including clients.


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Norm Adams, a Certified Professional Business Coach, was selected the 2023 Business Coach of the Year by the Professional Business Coaches Association of Canada (PBCA). He is a trainer, facilitator, business developer, and business owner with 30-years’ experience working with small business owners, First Nations’ Governments, Indigenous entrepreneurs, as well as public and private companies in Canada and the United States. Do you know your employees? Don’t record them and keep your knives at home! Contact Norm today at norm@pivotleader.com.

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