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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

A toxic workplace in a pandemic is even harder on marginalized employees

By In diversity & inclusion, Uncategorized, workplace On October 7, 2021


A toxic workplace brings down collective productivity for everyone. It typically causes lower morale, increased anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and anger. It causes a real harm to health.

Long term, the loss of productivity, lack of retention of good workers, increased healthcare expenses, and damaging lawsuits hurt everyone. However, the path of damage is especially hard on women, BIPOC workers, workers with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ workers. 

For these minority employees, it’s not just additive, it’s multiplicative.

The research is clear. Toxicity in the workplace is especially harmful to traditionally marginalized workforce members.

Workers planning to exit, higher among minorities

The recent Work and Wellbeing Survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association bears this out in very stark terms. Two in five workers say they intend to change jobs and for minority employees it’s even higher.

• Hispanic and Black adults are more likely than White adults to say they intend to seek employment outside of their organization in the next year (58% and 57% vs. 37%, respectively). 
• More than half of LGBTQ+ employees intend to seek other employment in the next year (56% vs. 43% of non-LGBTQ+ employees). 
• People with disabilities are more likely than those who do not have a disability to say they intend to seek employment outside of their company or organization in the next year (63% vs. 41%). 
• Those who say they have experienced or witnessed discrimination in their current workplace are more than twice as likely as those who haven’t to say they intend to seek employment outside of their company or organization in the next year (68% vs. 33%). 

SOURCE: Work and Wellbeing Survey

Many POC workers, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ workers would describe it as cumulatively traumatic, when every minute of every day you are made aware that you are perceived as “less than” in some way, and then ultimately treated as such. 

The cumulative impact of a toxic workplace

The long-term effects of a toxic work environment take a major mental and physical health toll. This manifests in higher blood pressure, compromised circulatory systems, disrupted sleep cycles, and many other physical aspects. This leads to all the outcomes that go with poor morale, heightened stress, depression, and anxiety.

In essence, unhealthy environments create unhealthy people, and these effects are greater for marginalized workers.

The pandemic has, in some ways, exacerbated toxicity for minority employees.

Think about all the issues that make just getting to work more of a challenge for many non-majority groups. Research tells us that no matter how much equality has been attained over the last 50 years, women are still the primary caregivers for most families.

Effects of the pandemic

When we add Covid to this context and ask who’s been doing the caretaking for all the people who are sick, it’s been largely women. 

On the other hand, lockdowns have created some unexpected positives, including opening doors to other work.

Remote and hybrid work modes have taken people out of the immediate work environment, and, for some, that’s been a positive change. For some there’s the opportunity to work from home in an environment where you have more control over how you do your work, when you do your work, your exposure to other people and your time with family.

It’s now easier for marginalized employees to leave

For others, it gives an opportunity to seek different employment because it really wasn’t an option to work remotely previously.

Some women have used time at home to get online training so they could get other jobs, to think outside the current situation. They get into other lines of work that are more sustainable and can provide regular paychecks. And oh, by the way, maybe it will be less toxic.

What can leaders do to help eliminate toxic workplace issues?

Clean up the toxic environment for all. This includes any work-related behavior that causes harm to worker health, happiness and/or wellbeing.

Some of the indicators of a toxic work environment include:
• Harassment and bullying
• Arrogant leadership
• Unfair policies and unequal enforcement
• Lack of transparency
• Poor communications
• Damaging gossip/rumors
• Ethical shortcuts
• Disregard for any work-life balance
• Lack of empathy
• Poor staffing and burnout
• Unrealistic work demands and expectations
• A lack of valuing worker input

It’s basically a climate of disrespect and aversive behavior where people are not able to do their best. It enhances anxiety and depression and negatively affects productivity, job satisfaction and engagement. It is an ultimate statement of disrespect as the norm.

Leadership and management need to recognize that expectations about the workplace are changing and evolving rapidly, and they need to do everything possible to retain their talent. 

Remote video conferencing has helped, by giving a window into peoples’ lives. Now many CEOs have seen people at home trying to educate their kids, care for sick parents, make dinner and working and producing full time. There is finally recognition that there are a full range of different life experiences for employees and that work, and family issues are not isolated for most workers.

Ultimately this is good not just for marginalized workers, but for everybody. We’re rethinking work. Employees have more say today than previously and work flexibility is becoming the new normal. 

Successful organizations will work harder to build healthy and flexible work environments.