I remember my first experience with a toxic workplace. I had just started out in my career in a mid-sized company. It had about fifty-odd employees—all managed by a tight-fisted lady boss.
Though my role was fairly junior, I was critical to my department’s operations. I had my direct superior—a disorganised young lady with an acerbic way with words—and her forgetful boss, a brash middle-aged man who cracked disgusting jokes. Above him, sat the lady boss.
So yes, in one of my earliest jobs, I found myself three rungs from the CEO, who fortuitous or otherwise, spotted my job application and hired me. I’d presumed the reason I got hired was because I accepted a salary below the industry average. Little did I expect, I was hired to join a battlefield while learning to master Workplace Toxicity 101.
On my first day, over lunch at the kopitiam opposite our industrial estate office, my disorganised lady superior and her forgetful, joke-telling boss inundated me with stories about their CEO—the lady boss who hired me. My plate of nasi lemak had yet to arrive.
In just one hour, case studies about her cronies and her management style filled their conversations, much to a stunned, wide-eyed and wet-eared assistant like me. I only realised, much, much later on, that the reason they were doing that was to get me on their side.
Because I was hired directly by the CEO, I was perceived as her lackey. I was to become her eyes and ears on the ground, listening in on what was really happening among her staff. Despite the company having only fifty people, she was very much a temperamental introvert, preferring to rule from behind her office desk, where deadlines and financial spreadsheets mattered more.
Three months into my job, the joke-telling boss took a liking to my personality, orchestrated the sacking of my lady superior, got me promoted to replace her, and positioned me, front and center, as the blue-eyed boy to the CEO. Blindsided didn’t even come close. I became his indirect mouthpiece to promote departmental ideas to her (expedited approvals and the such), and she became our unfiltered source of inside news, before anyone else knew (there were other competing departments). Fearing I’d lose my job if I crossed either lines, I was stressed and strung out most of the time. Everything I said, did, and shared in meetings had to be carefully crafted with sensible precautions. I quit after two years, graduating from toxicity class 101.
So yes, from an early start, I learned that workplace toxicity doesn’t follow gender, ethnicity, wealth status, or geography. It is a work culture, that if recognised and condoned by the head of a department or the CEO, will be perpetuated by loyal followers to the detriment of their colleagues. In any work environment, there will be under-performers, slackers, trouble-makers, and paperwork short-cutters. Unless the department head or CEO clamps down on them, using a combination of automated system checks, trusted indicators, an unwaveringly strict hand, and crystal-clear communication, toxicity is bound to happen.
These days, instead of saying negative things about a coworker in the cafeteria, gossip is going digital. Different office cliques and sub-cliques, within self-created WhatsApp groups, are rife with hearsay, conjecture, and bad-mouthing, even after office hours. The faces may look straight in the conference room, but the private messaging groups are all filled with wisecracks.
– 82% said they had experienced toxicity from their direct superior or colleagues in their careers.
– 40% of them experienced it weekly, while 33.3% experienced it daily.
– 67% of them have experienced this: “Everyone has to agree with the boss. Anyone who disagrees is perceived as a troublemaker.”
– 50% of them have experienced this: “Someone, somewhere in the office is always sucking up to someone of a higher rank (giving praise, buying gifts).”
– Another 50% of them have experienced this: “Your direct superior, department head or CEO has a great tendency to yell at people and you’ve seen it first-hand.”
– Yet another 50% of them experienced this: “The reports don’t match, you flagged it out to your direct supervisor and he/she said, ‘It’s just the way it is.’”
– 47% of them felt helpless and had to quit the company mainly because of toxicity.
– 27% of them ate lunch alone because they ‘didn’t play by the rules’.
Don’t take my word for it. Kantar’s Inclusion Index, released in September 2019, surveyed 18,000 people in 14 countries across 24 industries (including 1050 employees in Singapore). It found that Singapore ranked second-highest, between Brazil and Mexico, for workplace bullying (the 14 countries included US, Canada, Italy, Netherlands and Spain).
News such as the ones here, here and here, paint the impression that workplace toxicity is usually due to a volatile CEO. The CEO of the company usually sets the vision and long-term goals, but his or her day-to-day behavior, mood swings, and inability to stand firm on decisions, especially in front of his or her C-level executives or employees, decides the cultural tone of the workplace from the top-down.
I’ve seen, first-hand, how infectious it can be. For someone like me, who has experienced office politics more frequently than I’ve showered throughout my life, I usually steer clear of getting involved the first chance I get. In Hokkien, it’s called ‘siam’. The best way to avoid being infected by toxicity is to focus on my job, deliver the results, and not get into trouble with human resources. But it doesn’t always work out this way. I’m required to interact with different department heads, work with many different people, and help underperforming co-workers.
I also know the easy-to-win clients have been given to someone else instead. Someone who has been consistently underperforming for the department for years but is highly favoured by the department head. So, before my superiors, I get asked leading questions aimed at painting the coworker in a very negative light. Questions as innocent-sounding as, “How often do you see this coworker reporting into office throughout the week?” Or damaging ones like, “When you tag-along with this coworker to meet customers, do you speak most of the time, and he just sits and listens?”
The reason is simple. Employees, if they do not conform to the DNA of the department (ie. cue department head’s interests and expectations), are usually marked as outliers. For example, if the head is single and usually stays out after work expecting the company of his or her staff for dinner and drinks (or KTV), that’s part of the DNA. Any staff who perpetually declines with family reasons, disinterest, or illness, is usually one frown away from being branded an outlier.
If the head has the chance to remove outliers, especially when the outlier is struggling with his or her targets, it’s a no-brainer. In an environment where departmental performance is compared with other departments, flashed through a Keynote or PowerPoint slide in front of C-level executives and the CEO every week, the head has every impetus to want to act on it quickly. It’s stressful; it’s business, but it breeds toxicity.
If it can happen once, it can happen again. The next incoming co-worker HR brings in will have his or her profile pinned on a dart board and scrutinised the same way, like a scene out of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. ‘Potential scapegoat’ can almost be heard down the hallways.
These days, instead of saying negative things about a coworker in the cafeteria, gossip is going digital.
I really like my job, I want to stay on as long as I can in my job, I love my colleagues, I’m having fun hanging out with them, but I know some things are happening within the department that shouldn’t be happening, and yet, I choose to close an eye. It’s like hearing a couple arguing next door night after night, and there’s a baby crying, but you convince yourself it’s the way they are, the baby will eventually get used to it, and you’re better off not knocking on their door and getting punched in the face.
It’s a social norm in Singapore, really. We are afraid to intervene in other people’s business because we were taught very early on it’s none of our business. It happens in the workplace too. The stakes are such that if I try to adjust the spotlight, the spotlight might end up on me. More often than not, if I eventually confront my supervisor about it, I will get either the usual ‘we’ll look into it’ or ‘stick to what you’re good at’ motherhood statements. After some time, I’ll feel disheartened and decide to leave quietly, while the toxic culture persists without reproach.
This happened when I was promoted and became responsible for a division with a group of staff under me. By the time I realized it, it was already too late.
Once, I got a phone call from a VIP in the company, demanding vital information—which I did not have, but my staff did. I knew my staff was on vacation with his family; I had no choice but to call him because my supervisor was waiting on the other line. I felt bad after that because the vacationing staff had to stop over at a Wi-Fi café, hook up his notebook (which he was subtly encouraged to bring along), and send me the information. My supervisor was impressed by my efficiency to deliver, but not my staff. He quit after he returned from his vacation.
There were also the little things, like forwarding emails to my staff after office-hours, not because I expected them to respond immediately, but because I knew I would not have time to do it when I got to the office the next morning.
Yes, only if you put yourself in a position where you know you’ll clearly get infected. Can you fully avoid it? I’m not entirely sure, but one recipe I usually recommend is to ‘act blur’. If you’re asked something that would incriminate a fellow colleague, you just say, ‘I don’t know leh,’ and you’re in the clear (conscience-wise). Though seriously, you’re still indirectly complicit.
Can you be cured of it?
Yes and no. Yes, if you leave and join a company with lower levels of potential toxicity. No, if you choose to turn a blind eye to it and condone it through inaction among your colleagues and staff. Just pay a visit to a website like Glassdoor.sg, and you’ll read tons and tons of comments mostly related to toxicity in the workplace.
In my honest opinion, no. Unless every employee is a clone or robot, different people have different perspectives on how the same problem can be solved. What are these problems? Well, just off the top of my head: dwindling sales numbers, high absenteeism, chronic sick leave amongst staff, loss in market share, difficulty in finding the right talent, difficulty in retaining the right talent, competitors, demanding clients, dishonest vendors, longer sales cycles, digital disruption … the list goes on.
Can it at least be suppressed if the CEO of the company is not volatile, but compassionate and forgiving?
In Singapore’s working environment, maybe. But a CEO is also just a cog in the company’s larger wheel of boardroom directors, C-suite executives, investors, partners, shareholders, and customers. With social media the way it is, he or she cannot hide from any bad press without stepping on the wrong foot. A CEO who prioritises a toxic-free environment among his employees will sooner or later have the challenging task of balancing that against external toxicity from other stakeholders. The nature of business, especially if it’s large with many hands in the pie, is what it is. A CEO, in all his or her vanity, can never please everybody.
One former boss I know said, “If a CEO wants to make everyone happy, he might as well sell ice-cream.” Ask Steve Jobs, or at least, his biographer.
The nature of our competitiveness in driving economic growth breeds not just external competition among companies, but internal ones among colleagues and departments. There will always be someone trying to leapfrog over you, take over your lucrative clients, earn the favour of your direct report, and bad-mouth you behind your back. Some might think my observations will solve the problems I’ve listed above. But for the rest of us trying to earn an honest living, most of the time, it does not. You’ll just quit (or wait till the department head, his or her cronies, or CEO, is replaced with someone hopefully more benevolent and protective), and then the cycle resets and resumes.
Like I’ve said. It’s like the flu. In this context, we don’t need face masks to know it’s contagious.