“Toxic” Workplaces and the “Poisoned Work Environment”

“This workplace is toxic!” There is no precise definition of a “toxic” workplace. Generally, when people tell me that their workplace is toxic, they mean that the workplace makes them feel bad in some way. They mean that they would rather not be there. A “poisoned workplace” is different.

  • A poisoned work environment can arise from a single, serious act of violence or harassment. Or it can arise from a pattern of less significant incidents. For example, a single sexist comment, taken in isolation, might be disrespectful, but it would probably not by itself make for a poisoned work environment. Yet a series of such comments, repeated over a long period, could well make for a poisoned workplace.

These are the factors that an investigator or adjudicator has to consider in determining whether a workplace has become poisoned:

The number of comments or incidents: The greater the number, the more likely that the result is a poisoned workplace.

The nature and seriousness of the comments or incidents: The worse the behaviour in question, the more likely it is contributing to a poisoned work environment.

The overall context: A single comment or action might not seem inappropriate when considered on its own. However the same behaviour, taken in the context of a series of comments or actions, could be considered part of a pattern of harassment. For example, a single comment about a co-worker’s appearance, while it might be inappropriate, would not make for a poisoned work environment. However daily comments about physical appearance, taken collectively, could well contribute to a poisoned work environment.

The final factor the Human Rights Tribunal adjudicator mentions is the hardest to understand: Have the offensive comments or actions become a “condition of employment”?

This sounds bizarre. No one is asked, during a job interview, if they would be willing to undergo harassment – so how could it possibly become a “condition of employment”?

In this particular case a female police officer described a pattern of sexually charged comments and unwanted actions. The adjudicator found it significant that some of the offensive comments were made by the officer’s direct supervisors. Other supervisors and colleagues, while they didn’t make comments themselves, condoned or minimized the harassment by laughing along, joking about it, or pretending it wasn’t happening. The consequence was that the officer had to “play along” with the unwanted behaviour for fear of suffering consequences, given difference in power between her and those who were condoning the behaviour. This is why the adjudicator found that the harassment constituted a condition of the applicant’s employment.

As part of the resolution process, the adjudicator ordered that the officers and supervisors have annual training in sexual harassment, human rights, and poisoned work environments. It is too late for the applicant in this case. Perhaps it will make a difference for those coming after her.