For Ría Thompson-Washington, it’s a question that comes up at least once a therapy session — “What is it about me? What did I do wrong?”
An organizer and advocate who focuses on First Amendment and voting protections, Thompson-Washington knows she’s good at what she does — and that her skills and perspective as a queer, Afro-Latinx Black woman are sorely needed in the organizations she joins.
But inevitably, Thompson-Washington said, her managers sour on her, particularly when she questions the way her workplace does things.
She remembers one conversation she had with a supervisor, for example, in which she stressed the importance of pushing back against restrictive voting laws in a certain state. At first, her supervisor told her that they were “never going to be able to do anything about that,” Thompson-Washington said.
She pressed: Just because it’s an uphill battle doesn’t mean you don’t try, Thompson-Washington insisted to her White, female supervisor.
Later, Thompson-Washington said, she was told by another manager that her comments made her supervisor feel attacked — that Thompson-Washington had suggested her supervisor didn’t care about Black people.
“I never used those words. I never implied that,” said Thompson-Washington. Even more stunning for her — she was told she needed to apologize.
Even though she’s no longer with the organization, those experiences have shaped how Thompson-Washington moves through her current workplace. She’s learned how to “self-modulate” — to get quiet when she gets frustrated, she said — and to have colleagues deliver points she wants to make in meetings, because otherwise, she fears, her feedback would immediately get shot down.
“Because I’m a fat Black woman, no matter what I do, no matter how nicely I say it, no matter how quiet I am, no matter if I use my best vocabulary, I’m always attacking,” said Thompson-Washington.
Despite her best efforts, she still worries her managers think she is the problem: “I’m often seen as the troublemaker instead of the person who’s like, ‘Is there a way we could be more inclusive about this?’ ”
Toxic workplaces have been in the news with regularity since 2017, when the first #MeToo stories broke. This summer has been no different: Last week, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced his resignation, following an explosive report from Attorney General Letitia James into allegations of sexual harassment.
“Governor Cuomo’s administration fostered a toxic workplace that enabled harassment,” James said during her announcement of the findings of the investigation.
And in the gaming industry, a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Activision Blizzard earlier this month alleged a “frat boy” culture that was hostile to women.
But toxic workplaces are far more common for women than we might realize, experts say, affecting employees in a variety of industries. And they can have profound effects on workers long after they leave.
“When we talk about toxic workplaces, it is important to define, ‘Toxic for whom?’ ” said Ruchika Tulshyan, author of the forthcoming book “Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work.”
“The toxicity is often centered around people who have historically been underrepresented or marginalized in the workplace, so that’s historically women, people of color, people from the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities,” she said.
To Tulshyan, at the heart of this toxicity is the idea of psychological safety — or rather, the lack of it — for these workers.
Psychological safety is when employees and teams feel like they can “safely speak up, take risks, make mistakes, even fail without there being fear of retaliation, or that they would lose their status in the workplace,” Tulshyan said. It’s been linked to innovation and growth in companies, and might even save lives, such as when a nurse suggests a medical intervention to a doctor, Tulshyan said.
But in a toxic organization, women workers — especially if they’re marginalized in other ways — don’t have the same levels of safety as their White male counterparts, she added.
It’s not always easy to identify a workplace as toxic, Tulshyan noted. People can readily acknowledge that sexual harassment or violence is bad, but pay less attention to more routine behavior: the manager who offers vague or contradictory feedback; microaggressions, like being mistaken for the other Asian person in the office; being excluded from professional and social gatherings; or having your ideas attributed to a co-worker or supervisor.
These mundane encounters with systemic bias have a profound effect on women as they move through their careers, as well as their personal lives.
“We just think that it’s all separate, like your work is your work and your home is your home,” said Tulshyan. In reality, workplace stress can and does show up in your relationships with your partners, friends and children, she said: “There’s a lot of overlap and it really does impact, I think, everything.”
In a popular article for the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, Tulshyan and her co-author, Jodi-Ann Burey, argued that “impostor syndrome” — the fear that you are not worthy of your accomplishments and must constantly prove yourself — was an explicit effect of being marginalized at work.
The piece struck a chord, spurring conversations in women’s alumni groups and prompting women to write Burey and Tulshyan messages saying they were quitting their jobs. The article seemed to give women permission “to stop blaming themselves for everything that happened,” Burey said.
Clinical psychologist Kathleen Shea has studied workplace bullying for decades, helping businesses and academic institutions, as well as individuals, address workplace conflicts. Shea has also worked in abusive environments herself: At one point, while working at a “major university,” she carried a fake briefcase with her to prevent people from stealing her research. All her “good ideas,” Shea said, she kept in her “real briefcase” in her car.
Toxic workplaces have the ability to chip away at a worker’s self-esteem over time, creating cognitive dissonance or “outright disassociation,” Shea said.
“They’re in a brain fog going to work because they don’t feel like themselves,” she added. In cases of workplace bullying, people can have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, which can manifest as workplace avoidance: coming in late, taking more sick days.
Burey warns that this workplace stress has real effects on the body: “Stressors related to our identity erodes us over time. … We are physically different as a result,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that stress is just something that you can have a day at the spa and just undo.”
Melissa, a 38-year-old librarian working in Texas, knows this well. Even though it’s been years since she’s experienced workplace bullying, she described herself as “more scared than hopeful” about work.
Her toxic workplace didn’t start off bad, according to Melissa, who is being identified only by her first name because of safety concerns. She liked working around books and found “library people” to be quirky and interesting.
But then her boss began “micromanaging” her, she said: keeping track of how much time Melissa spent on her breaks, tracking her “every move” when she would enter data into the online system. It felt like the moment Melissa would make a mistake, her supervisor would be at her cubicle.
Then, she said, her managers got verbally abusive with her: calling her “stupid” or telling her she should “know better” when she would mess up. She had difficulty taking the sick or vacation leave she earned because her managers would get upset every time she tried to take time off, she said.
Melissa has since moved on, but the job still affects her: She is wary of supervisors, anxious about if and when they will start to “play mind games” with her, she said. She wondered if this was simply what all were jobs were like.
If you are working in a toxic workplace, psychologist and executive coach Lisa Orbe-Austin advises you to develop an exit strategy.
“I’m not a big believer in sitting in the toxic work environment, seeing what you can do to make it better,” said Orbe-Austin. “You can clearly report things and advocate for change within, but you also have to take care of yourself, too.”
On an individual level, this means acknowledging what happened and seeking a mental health professional to help you process and make sense of your experiences, Orbe-Austin said. Sharing your experiences is key to letting go of any related shame, as is calling out toxic behavior when you see it happen to others, but Orbe-Austin cautioned against venting too much with co-workers, which can be counterproductive if you aren’t actively trying to leave the situation.
Burey emphasized understanding what triggered you in past workplaces, and having an honest conversation with your current manager to help get you on the same page and set up norms for how you will work together: sharing how you like to be managed, and what makes you feel good and energized.
But remember that the onus on fixing a toxic workplace really falls to the people in power, Tulshyan and other experts said. Tulshyan would like to see more attention paid to “ineffective managers” and not just to “top-tier awful ones.” Often, she said, ineffective leaders enable terrible behavior from others in the workplace.
Orbe-Austin, who has given a TED Talk on her own experiences with toxic workplaces, called for a “revolution against the toxic work environment.”
“Not many managers actually go through thorough and useful executive coaching or management training. And it should be a requisite, because you’re dealing with people and their lives,” she said.
Leaders should be on the lookout for signs of toxicity in their organizations, such as a lack of collaboration, cliques, bullying and a fear of speaking up.
“You have to be conscious of what’s happening — and the dynamics move fast,” she said. “What you’re seeing on the surface is probably a small fraction of what is occurring. So if you’re seeing something, it’s likely bigger.”