Organizational Culture: Identifying and Addressing Toxic Managers

Organizational Culture: Identifying and Addressing Toxic Managers

It may only be August, but with Halloween decorations already showing up in stores it will not be long before we are [hopefully] attending holiday parties and watching our favorite holiday movies with the family.  In my house, there is an annual tradition after Thanksgiving to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This classic comedy contains the epitome of a toxic manager in that Clark Griswold’s boss Frank Shirley is oblivious to the needs of his workforce and manages with an iron fist.

We have all worked for a “Frank Shirley,” and as we move deeper into the 21st century we are learning more and more about the negative impact toxic management can have on organizational culture. More and more we are learning the importance of ridding the workplace of “Frank Shirley’s,” and in order to do so, it is first important to identify their presence.

How to Identify a Toxic Manager

The first step in identifying a toxic manager is to listen to the feedback of your employees. Many organizations have confidential hotlines or other channels such as digital suggestion boxes dedicated to addressing employee grievances. If the same name or names keep coming up in complaints it is likely there is a toxic manager in your organization. Another approach some organizations take is conducting exit interviews when employees leave. This helps employers determine the reasons for the employees’ departure.

Because toxic leaders often make their presence known, and manage with a “loud” style, identification is often not difficult, either by simple observation or through outright employee complaints.  Some of the types of complaints frequently heard about toxic managers include “aggressive,” “abusive,” “micromanager,” “takes credit for the ideas of others,” “lacks empathy” and “belittles others.”  None of the foregoing are positive characteristics, and it is easy to see how working for a toxic manager can lead to a host of negative consequences for the employees who have to suffer working for such people on a day-to-day basis.

Is Toxic Management Illegal?

In 2015, California enacted a law requiring training on “abusive conduct in the workplace.” Without going into the statutory definitions of the behavior, California essentially wanted managers (and as of 2019 non-managerial employees) to be aware of what bullying and abusive management was, and how to spot (and hopefully correct) it. Interestingly enough, however, abusive conduct is not in and of itself illegal under California, or any other state (or the federal) law.

While some elements of toxic or abusive management illegal workplace harassment if based on a protected class such as race or sex, simply berating your employees or micromanaging them is not (in isolation) illegal. So for all the increased focus on the negative impact toxic managers have on employees, if the behavior itself is not illegal, why should employers aim to eliminate and correct it?

Negative Impacts of Toxic Management

In the COVID era, employees have left the workforce at a rate employment law professionals have never seen. Employee retention has become such a problem that employers are scrambling to find staff for their businesses at all levels of organizations. Further, employees are no longer willing to tolerate abuse and toxic management, and are filing complaints with state and federal fair employment agencies at ever-increasing rates. In addition to formal complaints, the number of days of missed work and mental and physical ailments occurring as a result of toxic management is at an all-time high. But perhaps most importantly, the negative effect on organizational culture that stems from working in a toxic environment is of increased importance where labor is short and retention is difficult.

What to do next?

In order to best rid your organization of toxic managers you must first deal with them upfront. Syntrio suggests you send abusive managers to anger-management counseling or other forms of self-help to correct the situation. Additionally, you should modify your employment policies to ensure there is zero-tolerance for abusive management. While we have discussed the legality of abusive conduct, there is nothing prohibiting you from actively demonstrating that your business will not tolerate this sort of detrimental behavior. Lastly, your organization should strongly consider implementing training on civility and respect in the workplace as part of a combined cultural improvement effort that goes with your harassment prevention training, discrimination training, and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Syntrio welcomes the opportunity to discuss how we can design a hotline and education program that will help your organization identify toxic or abusive behavior within your workplace and then take active steps to remedy it. We invite you to contact one of our account executives today to see how our services can vastly improve your organizational culture.

Since 2007, Jonathan has practiced labor and employment law, with a focus on litigation, individual plaintiff and class action discrimination, harassment, and other employment-specific cases as well as focusing his practice toward advising employers on preventive practice. Jonathan has presented over 100 live employment discrimination and harassment prevention training courses across all 50 states.

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