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When independent investigators reported that former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed several female staff members, state employees, and a state trooper, the toxic work environment of the governor's office became public knowledge and sounded especially familiar to many women.
Retaliation, intimidation, belittlement, and harassment have been used to describe the atmosphere and management style of the Cuomo administration. These describe a work environment that has become so unhealthy that it erodes a team's ability to get work done. Even worse, these behaviors can also spread to other employees who, seeing the bad behavior, believe that "this is how it's done," writes Manuela Priesemuth, a professor of management at Villanova University, whose work focuses on destructive leaders and workplace aggression.
Other signs of a toxic work environment can include intense pressure to get short-term results, lack of appreciation, pessimism, lack of a clear vision, and encouraging dysfunctional competition. A toxic atmosphere can manifest itself physically and have a negative impact on one's health in terms of stress, diminished self-esteem and sleepless nights.
According to a 2021 Workplace Bullying Institute report, 30% of Americans say they directly experienced abusive conduct at work, with 19% reporting they have witnessed it. Forty-nine percent of respondents said that they are affected by such behavior.
Annie McKee, author of "How to Be Happy at Work," advises that when someone is in such an environment, they should do what they can to ensure their own happiness and that opportunities for success aren't derailed. She suggests that the best way to manage this type of environment is to stay positive, remain generous with your time and talents, and model a show of respect for others. ( If the circumstances involve sexual harassment, as in the Cuomo case, then workers should go to human resources, which is trained to deal with such issues.)
In toxic work environments that don't spill over into sexual harassment, managing the situation may require more assertive action. Robert Sutton, author of "The Asshole Survival Guide," and a professor of management science at Stanford University, advises that you may need to speak up for yourself, stand up for your own interests, and report toxic behavior to human resources or the boss.
Unfortunately, sometimes the boss is the biggest instigator of a toxic work environment. What then?
One option is to try some visualization techniques. For example, you might envision a protective barrier around yourself that protects you from toxicity, which can help you feel more safe and secure, suggests Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of "Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life."
If all else fails, another option is to go to HR and ask for help in dealing with the situation. Your HR person should mediate and set a plan in place for correcting the toxic behavior.
Also, Orloff says that when dealing with a toxic boss or colleague you should remember that this is a "wounded person" and you shouldn't take mean behavior personally.
At the same time, there are warning signs that your efforts to stay positive or ignore the toxicity at work are not succeeding. For example, Priesemuth of Villanova says that toxic workplaces can reduce well-being, making a worker feel emotionally drained, and even cause more conflict in their personal lives.
If you find that you're passed over for opportunities, are given unrealistic expectations, or your input is ignored, it may be time to write a new resume and start looking for another job, Sutton says. Life is too short to dread going to work every day.
Kyle Elliott, a career coach and member of Forbes Coaches Council, says he advises clients that if they're unsure whether to quit their jobs or not, then they need to think about their last month at work.
"If they had more bad days than good days, it might be time to jump ship," Elliott says.