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Quiet toxicity and workplace safety in NGOs



"Our director is a machine. He never stops working. He says he doesn't expect us to, but when you're getting emails and requests late at night, on weekends, and even on holidays, you feel like you're the bottleneck. You're the one who doesn't care enough."


I was speaking with a friend who works for a large, international NGO with a global presence, thousands of employees and ongoing humanitarian responses in extremely difficult parts of the world. As she described her workplace, I was struck by how toxic it sounded.


When we think of toxic workplaces, we often think of high-pressure corporate environments where people are publicly berated or pressured to do unethical things. However, toxicity in the NGO sector is just as pervasive. The only difference is the way it shows up - less flash-bang and more poisonous drip. But, the end result is the same: people become mentally and physically ill; there is a high turnover rate; morale is low; there are cliques and grumbling; there is disengagement; and people burn out.


We are conditioned to believe that NGOs, charities, and other "do-good" organisations are healthy places to work. We believe that organisations with admirable aims – like eradicating poverty, advocating for the marginalised or fostering more just societies – also have supportive and compassionate workplaces. Unfortunately, we're increasingly seeing that this isn't the experience of many who work for them. As my friend said to me, "we never stop. We're always behind. There's always more to do and we're expected to just get on with it…When you work for an NGO, there's almost more pressure because if you're the bottleneck, it's not that the product doesn't get sold, it's that people don't get food."


How we define toxic workplaces is important. The phrase "toxic workplaces" or "toxic cultures" has become the accepted way of describing a terrible working environment, but there is no standard definition of what constitutes a toxic workplace. If asked, most of us could list visibly toxic behaviours like being harassed, unethical behaviour or being shouted at. But our default to loud toxicity can hide the equally destructive quiet toxicity that is pervasive in many NGOs.


An MIT Sloan Business Review examined 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews of companies in forty industries and came up with a definition of toxic workplaces based on five attributes. These were:


  1. Disrespectful: showing a lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity for others

  2. Non-inclusive: of LGBTQ+, disability, racial, age, gender inequity; cronyism and nepotism and general non-inclusivity

  3. Unethical: dishonesty and lack of regulatory compliance

  4. Cut-throat: backstabbing and ruthless competition

  5. Abusive: bullying, harassment and hostility


What if we applied these criteria to identify behaviours associated with quiet toxicity? We might find:


Disrespectful:

  • People are often short, snappy and irritable in their conversation with each other.

  • People keep quiet if they do not understand something, need further guidance, or see something wrong for fear of irritating others, being labelled a troublemaker or receiving another unprofessional response.

  • There is a lack of communication so gossiping and complaining fill that void.

  • People are afraid to get things wrong, to ever miss a deadline or to let others know when they are struggling.


Non-inclusive:

  • Management and leadership are homogenous in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, class or ability.

  • There are cliques and groups that are consulted and listened to, and others are ignored or marginalized.

  • There are favourites and favouritism.

  • People whose personal characteristics are not considered normative are marginalized or ignored. Phrases like, "we don't have any LGBTQ+ people who work here but if we did, they would be included…" are common.

  • Means of reporting issues are unknown or not trusted.


Unethical:

  • Reports, data and other communications are altered to suit the audience. Donors or regulators are not given the 'whole story'.

  • Labour laws and health and safety standards are not known or followed.

  • Mistakes and reports of wrongdoing are covered up.

  • There is unwritten, unspoken expectation that people will work before the workday begins, after it ends, and on their holidays.

  • Whistle-blowers are silenced, shamed or leave the organization.


Cut-throat:

  • Competition with other NGOs or stakeholders underlies activities.

  • Rude, abusive, or unprofessional behaviours are ignored, accepted or excused because of the nature of the work or the pressure of the workload.

  • Accommodation is not made for people's personal lives – such as being ill, taking care of children or other family members.

  • People work when ill. Taking time off for medical care, counselling appointments, or to get well is viewed as weakness or, “not caring enough”.


Abusive:

  • People are emotionally manipulated into working more or not enforcing boundaries around their personal time.

  • Condescending remarks are made about people – especially related to their work performance or capabilities.

  • Line managers' never have time' to provide feedback, coaching or engage constructively with those they manage.

  • Mission bullying informs much of what happens in the organization, both overtly and covertly.


When I showed this list to my friend working for the large NGO, her reaction was: "I don't think some of those behaviours are toxic, they just seem normal to me." And therein lies the crux of the issue. We have normalized quiet toxicity to the point where it is our normal. We cannot change a problem that we cannot see.


So, how does all of this relate to safety and security? If we take the traditional approach to security which says that threats exist in the environment and safety is simply a matter of identifying them and instructing people on how to deal with them, then not at all. But this approach is out of date.


When it comes to keeping people safe, we know that external threats are only part of the story. The person who engages that threat is just as important. Do they have the mental and emotional capacity to identify a threat, the capability to respond appropriately, and the resilience to recover from it? If they are well trained, and physically and mentally healthy then yes. But those who are, day in and out, slogging through quiet toxicity likely do not.


People in any form of toxic workplace cannot be expected to respond well to safety and security risks as they will not be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. Quiet toxicity thus becomes one of the most serious threats to workplace safety. The question is whether we recognize it and what we choose to do about it. In many places where social sector organizations work, this could be a life and death question.



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