5 Signs of a Toxic Workspace & What To Do When You’re In One

By ena ganguly

It’s rare to meet queer people of color who have had consistently positive experiences at their workplace, and even more rare to see QPOC owning and managing their own businesses where they get to control their work environment. But, why? After all, we spend a good chunk of our lives at work. Some even say, up to a third of our lives. It sounds a bit depressing, especially if your career isn’t where you want it to be or your workplace is toxic, meaning you don’t feel safe, welcomed, or valued.  

No matter where you work, in the city or in the suburbs, no matter where in the world, and no matter if it is remotely at home or at a consistent location, your work environment has the potential to be toxic, and here is how to recognize and resist:

You are constantly being told to ‘earn’ your seat. 

Your workplace is extremely hierarchical, with those at the top perpetuating a ‘earn-as-you-go’ type of culture, which enables those at the middle and especially the bottom of the hierarchy to be dehumanized and disrespected at whim. Even if you’re closer to the top, you may have felt some of this as a QPOC, because more than likely, the positions at the top are filled by those of dominant groups rather than those of marginalized ones. There is a constant challenge to earn ‘a seat at the table’, but no support is given to face that challenge head-on. Most likely, those at the top gate keep access to the resources you may need to get anywhere near the table they sit at.

When working in such an environment, it’s more important for you to realize that this challenge is unfair and dehumanizing, more than looking for ways to overcome it. No one should be screened and accepted into an organization and then asked to prove why they are there in the first place. They decided you were the best person for the job when they accepted you!  

The ideology that we must ‘earn’ our seat functions from the belief that people are not innately deserving of respect or self-worth. This creates a culture where employees are made to vye for power, compete with one another, and are under the threat of constantly losing and earning the respect of their superiors. This perpetuates a toxic culture, and even more than that, it creates work-related stress.

You are relegated to the background. 

You are not consulted during decision making processes. No one checks in with your schedule when planning meetings, retreats, and/or conferences. You don’t get many opportunities for buy-in, rather, your work looks more like taking on the brunt of projects or doing the work that no one else wants to take on. 

Even if you are asked to give your perspective, the decision may already have been made, and the gesture to ask for your opinion was performative. 

This can also look like silencing or overlooking any concerns you may have about the internal workings of the organization, which especially affects women of color who work in the nonprofit industry. COCo, a Canadian organization, helps us understand this process through the graphic placed here.

Whenever this happens, know it’s not your fault. You have not done or said anything wrong to be treated that way. It’s difficult to navigate certain situations at work, especially if it’s with those who hold your purse strings, so be gentle with yourself in those instances, and know that you deserve better. 

You can also clearly state your boundaries, your capacity, and needs during staff meetings, or set up a one-on-one with your immediate supervisor. This requires you to be bold, decisive, and strong willed, and can be stressful. However, when you can’t make the staff retreat because they booked right over your doctor’s appointment or you had no buy-in on the last major decision at your workplace, you can say that you had a conversation with your supervisor about these discrepancies, so that the staff can’t place the blame on you for not speaking up. 

Remember the wise words of Zora Neale Hurston if you’re ever in this type of situation, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Speak up.

Your supervisors create a pseudo-community culture to make you work harder.

Your supervisors may use certain slogans or mottos to get you to prioritize your job over anything and everything else. 

I recall a nonprofit I worked at that constantly pushed this idea of ‘family’ onto us, so that we would just take whatever hissy fit the President or the Founder had next. For me, I didn’t know any one longer than a few months, and none of them were QPOC, so I really didn’t feel that sense of kinship that others may have forged, forced or not. This idea that we were all family excused some pretty offensive behavior that the seniors exhibited, including harassing and interrogating middle management, ordering people around, acting aggressively towards other people’s cultures and sexual orientations, and so, so much more. Moreso, that type of work culture demanded that we all work around the clock, check our emails after and before work, and drink, breathe and live the work we did from 9 to 5. 

While I was there, I literally saw adults two to three decades older than me coming undone at the seams, because their bosses, such as the Founder, demanded such a commitment to the organization that they no longer owned their time. For that very reason, I absolutely despised working there after a few months, and looking back, I can’t believe I managed to survive there for so long, because that’s what I was doing: surviving. These unreachable work standards create deep suffering in those who must face it every day and enable those who perpetuate it, without ever being accountable. 

None of your co-workers have your back or support you. 

As if it isn’t bad enough that your supervisors may act inappropriately and your work load keeps increasing, there is no one willing to advocate for you when push comes to shove. This can often be because of the aforementioned ideology of ‘earning’ respect, or maybe because you may be one of the few QPOC who work there.

If this is your situation, I recommend finding a similar place like allgo, where you can connect and meet with others who are like you, and can relate to you. At allgo, we don’t gaslight one another or shame or judge anyone for what they have gone through or are currently experiencing, because at least one, if not all of us, get it. Have a space where you can go to, even if it’s your own journal, where everyone gets it, and supports you. This can include therapy, visiting blood or chosen family, or simply taking time off to get away from it all.

If taking time off isn’t viable for you, try meditating, cooking, cleaning, some activity that is immersive and allows you to get your mind off of things and release stress.

There are so many types of toxic workplaces that QPOC may experience, but there are just as many positive, helpful and healthy places we can be to restore ourselves and heal from what never served us. If you are in a situation similar to any of the ones described, I strongly urge you to reassess how important it is for you to stay at your current workplace. 

Sometimes, it is worth it, because we have a plan, we know what we want and how long it will take for us to get there. Other times, it just feels like we are there, just to be there. Then there is the fact that we need to earn a living to pay rent, food, etc. That is all very real, and I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with sticking it out. Just know that you can be deliberate about why you’re there, you can express your needs, and find spaces that are better for you, either in place of the work environment you’re in now or outside of work hours.

What are some tips you have to resist a toxic work environment? Share with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram! 

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