Undoing the damage of a toxic work environment

Marie G. McIntyre
Tribune News Service

Q. I recently left a company where the environment was extremely toxic. Because our behavior was constantly scrutinized, I never dared to voice an opinion about anything. My new company has a totally different culture, however I can’t seem to get over my bad experience. I frequently feel paranoid and find it difficult to trust anyone. How can I become a normal employee?

A. The aftermath of working in a toxic firm can be similar to post-traumatic stress.

Fortunately, you have already taken the first step toward recovery by recognizing that your self-protective impulses are no longer rational or necessary. Next, you can begin to modify your behavior by identifying the specific situations that trigger your anxiety. This will allow you to decide in advance on a healthier response.

If you have helpful and trustworthy colleagues, you might even consider requesting some feedback, without elaborating on your earlier troubles.

For example: “One thing I really love about this company is the emphasis on teamwork. In my last job, collaboration was actually discouraged and everyone operated independently. Now I’m learning to be a team player, so if I can improve, please let me know.”

Altering established patterns can be tough. But if you become more open and trusting, your colleagues are likely to respond in kind, thereby reinforcing your new behaviors.

Q. I recently got in trouble for playing a game on my cellphone. In the business club where I work, maintaining a professional image is extremely important. While working the registration table, I began playing the game during a slow period. One of our managers saw me and emailed my boss.

Although I know my behavior was unprofessional, I believe this manager was out to get me. Should I talk to my boss about the manager’s hostile attitude?

A. The only thing you should tell your boss is that the game-playing was inappropriate and will never happen again. Criticizing the guy who reported you would just make a bad situation worse.

Correctly or not, this manager apparently felt that contacting your boss was preferable to approaching you directly. Mentally tagging him as “hostile” or “out to get you” will only lead to future problems. So instead of overreacting, put aside your resentment and just regard this incident as a valuable lesson learned.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.”


Twitter: @officecoach