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What the Trump impeachment hearings reveal about handling a toxic workplace

There’s no doubt that America’s most high-profile workplace is also its most dysfunctional. 

What the Trump impeachment hearings reveal about handling a toxic workplace
[Photos: DOUG MILLS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images (Gordon Sondland taking the oath); monkeybusinessimages/iStock]

If there’s one takeaway from the House impeachment inquiry so far, it’s that President Trump is a bad boss.

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Setting aside whether he committed a high crime when he pressured Ukraine’s new president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, there’s no doubt that America’s most high-profile workplace is also its most dysfunctional. 

Career diplomats like Marie Yovanovitch were sidelined or ignored. Gordon Sondland was massively unqualified to be ambassador to the E.U. And Rudy Giuliani was running a shadow foreign policy over unsecured cell-phone lines. 

Meanwhile, a parade of witnesses have testified or publicly called out the president’s own managerial crimes, including intimidation, harassment, and his frequent disparagement of former employees. But while the White House may be the country’s most toxic workplace, it also provides some clear lessons for any employee trying to navigate a hellish environment. 

For the record: The witnesses testifying this week are in good company. More than half of workers polled in a 2017 survey said they encountered “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions at work. “The level of toxicity in the workplace is at an all-time high,” Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, said recently. 

Here’s what they can learn from the bureaucratic melodrama playing out in prime time:

Stay cool, even as things heat up

Yovanovitch, a veteran civil servant who preferred to stay out of the spotlight according to all accounts, had a lengthy career in the State Department prior to being removed from her post as ambassador to Ukraine earlier this year. But, as her testimony shows, it’s sometimes impossible to avoid getting caught in uncomfortable workplace situations.

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Her six-hour turn on the stand is an object lesson for remaining calm in the face of repeated bad behavior. As Barry Saltzman wrote in Fast Company previously, “There’s no excuse for addressing this behavior with equally negative behavior. It does nothing but negatively affect workplace culture. Although it provides an immediate sense of catharsis, it’s no substitution for handling it in a professional and decent manner.”

Tell a manager

Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, an expert on Ukraine and decorated war veteran, testified on Tuesday. But even before that, he notified a superior at least twice about his concerns over Trump’s pressure campaign in Ukraine, according to the New York Times. Vindman, who first shared this information in a closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee last month, said that he raised these concerns out of “a sense of duty.”

“When a toxic employee begins to affect others, a first step should be to confront the behavior directly and explore what is truly going on, and then land on a next step,” Stacey Engle, president of training company Fierce Conversations, tells Fast Company. If the behavior doesn’t change, she says it is appropriate, and necessary in many cases, to alert a manager and HR. “If the toxicity heads into the territory of putting an individual or an organization in danger—either physically or legally—concerns should be brought to the top of the leadership chain immediately,” Engle advises.

Always keep the receipts

Today’s testimony from Gordon Sondland, American ambassador to the E.U., shows the importance of having a paper trail when attempting to report questionable behavior and activity. Walking back his testimony from an earlier deposition, Sondland produced both texts and emails to show that both the White House and the State Department knew about a “quid pro quo” between the U.S. and Ukraine.

Engle says that in cultures that tend to tolerate bad behavior, the problems can be more difficult to root out, as often more than one individual is causing concerns. “We recommend having real examples to share when confronting individuals,” she asserts, “and if appropriate, should include documented materials such as emails and text messages.”

Although the government doesn’t operate like a corporate entity, the impeachment hearings could spell the end of at least some of the practices that have flourished to date.

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As for private organizations, Laura Handrick, HR analyst at Fit Small Business, said in an earlier report from Glassdoor that it takes courageous and tactful leadership to root out the source (or sources) of the problem through gathering data and having candid conversations, “But those are the only real remedies,” she said. “It’s only when management hears and addresses the issues causing anger and dysfunction is there any hope of turning the culture around.”

But Engle points out that if the toxicity has reached the leaders of an organization, options for employees are limited. Still she suggests approaching the board of directors if there is one, or alerting an authority outside the company if there is a potential threat to a person or the business. “If all else fails, and you are unable to do your job given the circumstances,” says Engle, “leaving the organization altogether may be your best bet.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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