Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Over the years, I've known several people stuck in toxic workplaces. By "toxic" I mean something more than merely dysfunctional, dispiriting, or run by assholes. I mean a place that, like an emotionally abusive relationship, erodes a person's sense of self and denies the reality of her experiences. A toxic workplace is one where you're always at fault, always the troublemaker, always the reason for any confusion, misunderstandings, or screw-ups.

Of course, you could actually be a troublemaker--and your friends and family, hearing your woes, may privately wonder whether that's the case or whether you're not at least exacerbating the problem. You may wonder the same thing. But since a toxic workplace is a place of mass delusion (or a conspiracy to support the delusions of a few), it's hard to know for sure.

Toxic workplaces exist in all fields, but I'm starting to wonder whether they're not worse in academia. Limited mobility makes it hard for any individual to get out, which also means that whatever dynamics or patterns of behavior have been established in a given department or division have been building for a very long time. By the time you appear on the scene, a great many people have a great deal invested in beliefs or behaviors that, looked at rationally, don't make a lot sense. Why isn't there a standard tenure and promotion document? Why does your academic unit operate according to some impenetrable patronage model?

One person's toxic workplace isn't always another's, however, and even among those who recognize the madness of a particular institution's culture, some will be able to tolerate it and others won't. So personality plays some role, but it's not the case that the bluntest or roughest-edged people are the most likely to be penalized; what you see as helpful, collaborative, bridge-building efforts may be exactly what those invested in an arcane and untransparent system find threatening.

I don't have first-hand experience with a toxic workplace--endless paperwork is more my jam--but what I've seen several friends go through has made me feel some of the helplessness of those unwillingly enlisted in someone else's delusion.

The particular stories I'm thinking of aren't mine to tell, but since I know some of my internet peeps have gone through similar experiences and lived to tell the tale, I'm wondering: can a toxic workplace get better? Can it be survived with one's integrity? Or is fleeing the only option?


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I'm one of the folks you mention (though there are so many of us out there). I'm afraid I don't know if toxic departments can detox, but I'd love to listen in on the conversation. I ejected myself from a toxic department several years ago, and I sometimes get updates from friends and former colleagues (they weren't all poisonous), but these are mixed. When I left, the environment was so toxic that the colleagues who supported me refused to complain to the higher-ups in the administration because they feared their more senior poisonous colleagues. Once I left, however, it does sound like they made some good changes. Most recently at MLA 2014 I bumped into a former colleague, who had been a friend and ally at this toxic place, but whom I hadn't seen or heard from in several years. We were both junior professors there. She was overjoyed to see me, exclaiming, "I've missed you so much!" It was humbling for me to realize that in making a clean break, I'd not been able to think that others still stuck there might be unhappy and might miss me.
She told me that the person most responsible for my move had been "knee-capped," but over all the experience of catching up with her was strange. I was very glad to see her again, and happy to talk about research and the conference. I do plan to stay in touch, she's delightful. But she kept returning to the subject of my move, perhaps both to reassure herself that the department had changed (she just got tenure and is not likely to move), and at the same time to let me know in no uncertain terms that she, too, had felt its toxicity, and maybe still does. I hadn't really thought about my move in a year or two, and didn't feel all that comfortable revisiting it. I'm not sure it felt all that good to learn that certain people there think of me now as some sort of martyr.

Historiann said...

Writing about academic workplace bullying was one of the raisons d'etre of my blog back in 2008-2010. (Anyone interested in my thoughts on this in more detail can just go to my blog to search those terms & feast away.)

I think you're right, Flavia, that it's really easy for a good department to turn bad, and very difficult for a bad department to turn good. I also think you're right that the academic workplace is more prone to toxicity for all of the reasons you cite. Absent a Dean or a Provost with the will and an enormous budget (for the hiring of new people & the creation of new departments in which to park the tenured jerks), changing departmental culture is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

In short, I think the best advice for individuals is that yes, they should run away. The toll on your health and personal life is just not worth it. But for those who can't or won't move, they can ally with people of good will who want to turn things around. They can agitate for new hires, and rally around those folks to help them succeed. They can also marginalize the jerks in their department by making sure they don't chair the department or any major committees & by calling out the bad behavior when they see it. This takes a lot of work on the part of the people of good will, but over years it might yield results.

I say *might*, because one Dean or Provost of ill will or who is merely inattentive can undo all of that good will. So, strategic alliances with administrators is an important thing to consider in this too.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

It took me a while to figure this out, but there are certain people I just need to avoid in my department. Having learned that lesson, things are going much better in my third year at Heartland U. But still, I'm in a small department, so it's hard to avoid people all the time.

Personally, I think that there's a real need to have a couple of people around who you know you can trust. It's important to choose those people wisely.

Flavia said...


In proof of your "there are so many of us" statement, I was 100% certain your comment was from a different, specific friend. . . until I looked at my site stats! I wasn't kidding when I said I've known multiple people in toxic departments.

But you and Historiann raise an important related issue, which is what it means (and how it feels) to be someone who successfully fled when there are people you respect and care about whom you left behind. Self-preservation should always come first, and you can't worry about what your departure might do to (for example) further destabilize a department, college, or division.

But at the same time. . . well, not everyone experiences the same things as equally intolerable (and not everyone is subject to exactly the same toxicity). Someone else's decision to stay or go may be right for them but not for you--and/or the fact that the toxicity of a department has abated enough to leave a friend cheerful and optimistic doesn't mean you'd have felt the same way, had you stayed.

What Now? said...

It was pretty clear to me that my toxic environment (in this case, it was the school's toxicity rather than the department's) wasn't going to change, and history has proved me correct in that. I've never regretted fleeing -- it was definitely a life-saving move for me. But friends who were on the tenure track with me have managed to craft good, satisfying lives for themselves at the school, which makes me glad. In most cases, as far as I can tell, they've disengaged from the larger school as much as possible and have stayed engaged only at the departmental level, which I think is the only way to survive the school in its current state.

All of which is to say that, yes, what was unbearably toxic for me was bearably toxic for them, and we all made decisions we can live with.

Flavia said...


Ah, that does seem like a crucial distinction: larger institutional toxicity can perhaps be survived (at least at some places, for some people) if there are islands of sanity and functionality that one can retreat to. And a basically sane department is probably a stronger bulwark than a few allies here & there.

But I'm very very glad that you're no longer there at SM. And I think occasionally about that bullet dodged.

Jeff said...

I can't say whether academic departments are necessarily worse workplaces than others, but I'd add that a toxic department can also be hell on students, and thus on the reputation of that department for decades.

In the early '90s, I was a new grad student in an English department racked by a scandal that made national headlines. The place was angry and tense, but the worst part for me was the collapse of basic professionalism: one of the two profs in my chosen field refused to speak with the other, partially derailing the life and career plans of a 22-year-old kid. Today, everything I get from that department, including fundraising appeals, goes straight to the trash, and when people ask me about the department and the school, I share my honest recollections. It could be delightfully collegial by now; I've no idea.

We all have our academic anecdotes, I know, but it's worth keeping in mind that, with apologies to Cavafy, someone who's ruining lives in one small corner of a university may also be ruining that department for the wider world.

Servetus said...

I would say it doesn't matter if it can be fixed because you probably can't fix it and if you try, you will just suffer more. Hence: Flee. And get into therapy immediately so whatever effect of the toxicity you inevitably carried away with you can be exorcised.

Anonymous said...

I'm the same Anon as the first comment. I just wanted to add that if it is truly a toxic department, then it's not about avoiding certain colleagues--there is really nothing you can do. My advice (and experience) is to flee before they decide to eject you. I fled the same year my toxic department voted not to renew my contract after my 3rd year--and this is a dept well known for voting off some pretty distinguished scholars (all of whom have since found better jobs). Instead of taking the grace year they offered or lobbying for an appeal, I dove into what jobs were still accepting applications (it was late November) and got the hell out of there. My mistake was wasting too much time before I had to leave, asking my adviser if she thought I should go on the market in my first three years. She said no, stick it out, but I was miserable and sensed something was off. I should have left right away. That said, this experience has made me so much more grateful of what I have, a great TT job at an R1 with amazing, supportive colleagues in a functional department. Sure, there are some colleagues I avoid, but it's a humanities department, after all. Having my crappy experience helped me truly appreciate the normal one I'm having, the normal one we are all entitled to have.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this perspective (though I'm sorry you had that experience)--you're right that the toxicity of a given department/unit/etc. can spill over and affect others as well.


The therapy advice is good (and is something I've urged my own friends in such situations).


Yes, I quite agree. As I noted in the post, a toxic environment is one that (to mix a metaphor) changes the whole climate of a place. It might begin or be rooted in just a couple of individuals, but it requires the collaboration or collusion (passive or active) of a bunch of people. A toxic individual is a bad thing, but alone he or she doesn't a toxic workplace make.

Flavia said...

I should add, to Fie (whose comment I think Anon's last was responding to): it's really great if one can recognize that what one might previously have believed to be a toxic workplace is actually just a single isolated person or two, who don't have undue power and whom one can avoid. In one's first year or two on a job, it can be hard to tell whether this is the case, because you don't know all the networks of alliance or whether what one delusional person is telling you is what others also believe.

But, to reiterate: if you can manage fairly happily just by avoiding a couple of people, then it's not a toxic workplace. (Though it might still be flawed or difficult or even a place you don't want to stay long-term.)

Anonymous said...

I'm in a department that was historically toxic, like for decades, but which has become a completely amiable and functional place since the early 2000s mass-turnover of the faculty. i can still gauge the shellshock of some of the (now) senior female faculty, who had it worst in the 90s, but now receive the respect and authority they deserve. a stronger union and a good collective agreement has certainly helped as well. i hope we don't go toxic again!

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of a toxic workplace, as opposed to a merely difficult one is important. There is, as you say, a difference between having a horrible boss or a few bully colleagues and having a pervasively toxic institution .

My rough definition of a toxic workplace would be a place where you cannot do the right thing. You cannot ensure the appropriate and professional outcomes. Appropriate professional behavior is not rewarded, or is even punished, while unprofessional behavior finds widespread support. In the worst case scenarios, you repeatedly put yourself in positions where doing the right thing is not tenable.

(And I am not taking about occasional instances here. I'm not talking about losing a departmental argument over curriculum, so that the "wrong" people win, or about arguable tenure cases going the wrong way. I'm talking about carefully-discussed curricular changes being overturned capriciously. I'm talking about tenure processes where the rules of the game are endlessly shifting. I'm not talking about a few bad apples, but about a blighted tree.)

How do you maintain your integrity in an environment where integrity is not rewarded, or where it is perceived as active insubordination?

The best-case scenario is that you carve out a space, one unit or program, where you CAN do things right. Maybe your school is sick but you and your colleagues can stick together and make your department healthy. I'd call this the Limbo scenario: a corner of hell reserved for the undamned.

In a worse scenario, you are powerless to effect positive change, and all you can do is keep your head down and interact with the outside world as much as possible. You can maintain a research profile, and connections with colleagues in your discipline. And, once you're tenured, you can maintain your personal integrity. I'd call this the Boethius model: in prison with the consolations of philosophy. I'm not sure how long this is sustainable. It has to corrode morale.

In the worst model of all, you can't even preserve your integrity by opting out, or opting out is itself turned into a source of wrong. You can't turn down the spot on the administrative task force or your department will be punished; once you're on the task force, you can't say the things the administration needs to hear. You have to cut the budget or see the program cut. You have to "fix" the curriculum to the students' disadvantage. By definition, this scenario erodes your personal sense of integrity, because it does not permit you to exercise that integrity. And I don't know how long anyone can function in such a system.

Flavia said...

Anon 10.58:

This is a heartening story. I'm glad for you and your colleagues!

Anon 5.52:

My rough definition of a toxic workplace would be a place where you cannot do the right thing. You cannot ensure the appropriate and professional outcomes. Appropriate professional behavior is not rewarded, or is even punished, while unprofessional behavior finds widespread support.

This is an interesting description of what it must be like to be a relatively senior or tenured person in a toxic workplace--someone shielded from the worst kind of harm or retaliation (such as nonrenewal or tenure denial), but not for that reason unaffected by the atmosphere. I'm sorry if it comes from first-hand experience.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that my experience of private career colleges (in Canada) is that they are by and large abusive and exploitative as a matter of course -- especially to their students, but instructors too.
No oversight, no accountability, no workplace laws...
My nightmare has myself & partner within months of losing our house, after I took a hiatus from academia to do some training so I could fund the rest of my doctorate.
There are places yet more toxic than academia -- and people there are paying to be abused. At least in a workplace you're not paying your abuser to abuse you.