‘Toxic’ label gets used too quickly

04/21/2014 8:55 PM

04/22/2014 5:55 PM

Recently I read an article on how to deal with toxic people in the workplace. Frankly, I found the advice to be, well, toxic, at least when it comes to workplace diversity.

I don’t fault the writer of the article; she was getting most of her advice from a book written by a psychiatrist. But psychiatric advice has its limited place in the workplace.

There are occasionally people who behave in such disruptive, illogical and dangerous ways that it’s the wise thing for supervisors — through extensive consultation with the Human Resources Department — to suggest help.

But those times are extremely rare and need to be handled with extreme care.

On the other hand, the notion of “toxic people” in the workplace gets tossed about a little too much for my taste.

At work, people can generally be evaluated on only two scales — how they personally make you feel and how that person affects the work to be done.

Sometimes those two evaluations overlap. But not as much as people think.

You personally not liking a co-worker does not make him toxic.

You having a problem with the decisions your boss makes — even when you find people to agree with you — does not make her toxic.

Sometimes an employee or work colleague can engage in styles of communication that rub people the wrong way. But that doesn’t make most of what they say wrong or even inappropriate. It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of toxic.

Giving advice such as “don’t expect them


to be difficult” is a sure-fire way to stop listening to someone before he starts talking. In personal relationships you can do that because the ramifications are just that, personal.

But discounting or minimizing someone every time you deal with him because you deem him toxic can contribute to a poisonous workplace.

And it’s easy to do. All of us do it at some point: Someone we personally can’t stand — for good reason or not — says something and we instantly invalidate it mentally or engage in oral or written push-back.

But it’s not productive. And you contribute to a toxic environment as surely as the person you call toxic.

Here’s the other problem I have with the practice of quickly labeling someone toxic: People disproportionately assign the label to people who have the fewest numbers or least power in the workplace.

For example, we’ve all heard people refer to someone as a complainer (the “old school” label for toxic) but how often do we hear people discuss the legitimacy of what the person complains about?

Maybe the workplace does have the safety issues the person mentioned. Or frequently does skirt the law in personnel decisions that the person complains about.

Dealing with so-called toxic people by asking them such questions as “Do you really believe what you just said?” may sound like a grounded, reasonable thing to do.

Or it may unleash a stronger wave of toxicity in your workplace as people take legitimate offense at how you choose to deal with them.

Sometimes the high road is the high road. And sometimes it’s just someone looking down on you, trying to be superior.


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