Working in a toxic environment can rapidly erode your feelings about your job. Just dragging yourself to the office every day can fill you with dread. And evaluating whether to speak up to HR about the toxicity — How much should you say? — can be incredibly intimidating.
We know this from firsthand experience. A few years ago, we were asked to analyse and assess what seemed like an edgy, dynamic startup. After three weeks we realised we had unwittingly joined a team trying to navigate a destructive workplace culture. The team was led by an impossible-to-please micromanager with an explosive temper. The office environment was fraught and tensions were always running high. The organisation didn’t have an HR leader, or any other senior leaders, so people didn’t know where to turn for help. It took us 18 months to start changing mentalities and toxic work habits.
To this day, we help professionals solve workplace challenges that can feel insurmountable. Toxic norms and cultures are among the hardest issues to deal with, and can make people question their values and competence, and even wonder if quitting is their only option. If you’re feeling similarly, you aren’t alone — study after study shows that these kinds of cultures drive attrition. Other people make or break our experiences at work.
Toxic Versus Irritating
For someone to be considered “toxic,” they can’t just be annoying or unpleasant. We’ve all had colleagues or bosses who we found irritating or didn’t get along with, but that doesn’t necessarily make them toxic. To be toxic, a person or situation must be outside the bounds of normal workplace behaviour. A colleague whose work style and preferences regularly conflict with your own isn’t necessarily toxic. A boss who actively undermines your career progression or a leadership team that encourages cutthroat competition between departments, on the other hand, could qualify as toxic.
This distinction is important because if you go to HR about an issue that is more annoying than toxic, they may be happy to serve as a sounding board or to offer advice — but they’ll approach it far differently than they would something truly toxic. From an HR perspective, disagreements, irritations, or isolated incidents rarely warrant escalation. If there is ongoing friction due to conflicting work styles and personalities, HR will probably advise that you and your coworker find a way to discuss and resolve the challenges. You may receive support from HR on how to have the conversation, with an emphasis on working together to find a solution. For personal support, however, I encourage you to talk to someone you trust outside of your organisation. A mentor, former boss, therapist, or career coach can be a sounding board and an objective partner to help you clarify your next steps.
You may be considering going to HR about a toxic situation at your job. If possible, you should discuss the situation with your manager first to get their input and counsel. HR will most likely ask if you’ve gone to your boss for help, so it’s a good idea to do that first. However, if your manager is contributing to the toxic environment, you should talk to a senior leader you trust to receive an objective perspective and guidance. And if you are experiencing a situation that goes against company policy or could have legal implications, HR should be your first stop.
You may worry that going to HR about a certain person or situation could backfire. Maybe you fear that the toxic person will find out you said something and take action against you. Or maybe you’re nervous that going to HR about a toxic norm in company culture could hurt your career if senior leaders hear about it. These are normal fears, and before you do anything, it’s worth thinking carefully about what you want to do and make sure you understand the possible outcomes.
What to Consider Before Going to HR
As you weigh the pros and cons of speaking to HR, here are three questions to help assess your options.
1. Have I documented what happened?
If you plan to report toxicity to HR, you will need detailed records to clearly outline your claims. Make sure to document the following:
- What was said or done
- The date and time of the incidents
- If there were any witnesses
For example, your record may state: “On Tuesday, July 11, at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET, I heard [insert name] use the following language [insert exact words] within our weekly Webex team meeting. The following people were present: [insert names].”
In addition to documenting any verbal exchanges or physical interactions, it’s important to also have available text messages, emails, photographs, or any other relevant evidence of what happened. Employment lawyers recommend keeping your records at home, not at work or on your company devices. If your employment status changes in the future, you will lose access to your work computer and the emails or records may be deleted.
Documenting the details in advance allows you to provide a full account to HR and specific feedback when needed. A detailed record will also give you the opportunity to cross-reference what you’ve documented against company policies. Finally, since many toxic situations can bring up strong emotions, especially while they’re happening, documenting what occurred will ensure you have a clear, fact-based record to refer to later.
2. What’s my objective?
By the time you decide you need to talk to HR, the toxic situation may feel like it’s becoming untenable. I encourage you to identify your overarching objective in speaking up.
In other words, be clear on what you hope to accomplish. It could be that you need HR to help resolve the issue. For example, the person who is instigating a toxic situation may need professional development training or coaching to address their behaviour. You may also be hoping to bring some accountability to their actions. Or, if there’s an ongoing issue and previous interventions have failed, HR may work with the relevant supervisors to create a performance improvement plan. Clarifying your overarching objective before you act allows you to consider the implications of the potential outcomes, ranging from the best possible response to a dismissive reaction.
Remember, too, that it’s important to acknowledge the remit of the HR team, which is to serve the best interest of the employer. As an employee, any expectations that an HR person will become your primary advocate are unrealistic. This is not personal; it’s just the nature of how organisations operate.
3. Is what I’m experiencing illegal?
Finally, before going to HR, consider whether the toxic behaviour you’re experiencing is illegal.
Dealing with toxic behaviour at work — whether it’s related to harassment, discrimination, ethical concerns, safety infringements, or retaliation — can be deeply distressing. HR departments have a responsibility to ensure that companies adhere to employment laws and regulations. An employer also has a legal obligation to investigate any good-faith complaint of harassment; discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected status; or retaliation for reporting an issue.
If you are unsure if what you are experiencing is illegal, seek out professional counsel. An employment lawyer can answer your questions based on the applicable laws and regulations, assess the evidence, and determine the merits of your claim. If you do have a case against your employer, an attorney can explain the legal process and advise you on how to navigate your interactions with HR.
On the other hand, if what you’re experiencing isn’t illegal but is toxic, I encourage you to explore all the potential options you can pursue that align with the objective you identified. To do this, start by considering whether additional stakeholders might be able to assist. Questions to consider include: Is anyone else impacted by the toxic behaviour? Is my supervisor already aware of it? Are other contingent factors contributing to what I’m experiencing? You may be able to seek counsel from additional stakeholders before instigating a conversation with HR.
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