Ask Ellie & Jill: Toxic Work Environments

Posted on September 30, 2020

Ellie and Jill

Ellie and Jill are two anonymous ELGL members who answer your questions about HR and workplace issues. Submit your question for their attention at

Dear Ellie and Jill –

I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines about the toxic workplace at the “Ellen” show. I’d like to say I’m surprised (Ellen is so happy! There’s so much dancing!) but I’m currently working for a city that’s very similar. We may look great from the outside, but the organization is a mess behind the scenes. Backstabbing, gossip, competition, innuendos – you name it, we’ve got it. But here’s the problem: I’m in a leadership role and can see this unfolding in several departments, but it’s not my direct job to solve this problem. What should I do? 


Deflated Department Director

Dear Deflated –

We have worked in organizations like you’ve described, and can personally attest to the fact that over time, your ideas of what constitutes acceptable professional behavior can morph, and you can find yourself putting up with, and even contributing to, an environment that you would never admit to condoning. 

Let’s face it – workplace culture isn’t something that can be fixed overnight. But – in your role as a department director, you are in a position to make a meaningful difference by aggressively modeling appropriate workplace behavior and working to create a healthier environment in your own department. The following steps can help you along the way.  

  • Name the Issues – and Identify Their Source

What specifically is “toxic” in your org? You mention issues of backstabbing, gossip, competition and innuendos. This is a good first step. It can be helpful next to think about who specifically is engaging in these behaviors and what systems, structures, and behaviors are promoting them. 

For example, in an organization that one of us worked in, the relationships between City Council and senior staff were challenging and full of mistrust in both directions. As department directors were filing in and getting settled at the weekly senior staff meeting after City Council meetings, they would often engage in gossip and smack-talk about what the  Council members said, did, or wore the night before. 

The CAO never joined in, but didn’t shut down the conversations – which created a sense of tacit endorsement. This normalized the us vs. them dynamic between staff and Council, and contributed to the difficult relationships. 

And once you’ve pinpointed the issues, is there an appropriate venue for you to share them in? A weekly department director meeting? Check-ins with the leadership team? 

Fellow ELGL member Mike Skibbe wrote this article about radical candor and local government, and this is a great place to start thinking about how you engage with your peers who are directly responsible for the employees creating toxic work environments. Are there ways you can talk to them about this, both from a position of caring about employees, and also caring about their department’s (and their own) success?

  • Find Your People 

You certainly can’t be the only person in your organization who is uncomfortable with the current climate. Think about who else in City leadership or in your own department can you work with on this to address toxic behaviors? Ideally there is another department director or two that can help you champion change. 

This doesn’t mean you need to convene a formal workgroup or committee – but perhaps you all can grab a (real or virtual) coffee periodically and talk about what you’re seeing and what you can do to address it. Toxic environments thrive when being negative is the only way to feel accepted or part of the group. If you provide an alternative -a way for people to feel accepted and embraced while being positive – your efforts will be more successful.

  • Be the Change

Ways to do this – 

  • Own it – the Ellen apology was half-assed. While she took responsibility for what happened in her organization, she didn’t publicly acknowledge that there was a problem or that she contributed to it (as a leader, even doing nothing is an issue).
  • Immediately call out toxic behavior when you see it – i.e. don’t let things slide. For example, immediately shoot down gossip when you hear it “Wow. I’m sure Janie would be devastated to hear that’s what you think of her.”
  • Really listen to what your staff and colleagues are saying and experiencing – What is at the heart of the backstabby behavior? Is a lack of formal recognition and clearly defined expectations what is leading people to tear each other down (the only way to look good is to point out how someone else has done wrong), is there an undercurrent of favoritism either with favored departments/functions or favored staff?  
  • Create clear expectations & deadlines – Be  intentional about creating clarity in your department. This means no secret deadlines, clear definitions of what “success” looks like, and no  uncommunicated expectations.
  • Administer consistent consequences –  Toxicity festers when people perceive that there are no consequences for behaving badly. Don’t be afraid to lean into this part of your management responsibilities.. 
  • Don’t promote favoritism or an “in-crowd” – Don’t add to the negativity by giving your staff the impression that you’re playing favorites. Model inclusivity whenever possible.
  • Pile on the positive reinforcement – When you see folks actively working to improve the culture of the organization, praise and support them, even the small moments.


  • Toxic Workplaces Can Define Your Org’s Legacy

Similar to how we might not look at Ellen’s dancing as all that happy and delightful now that the inner workings of her show have been shared, it’s important to remember the longer term reputational effect that your toxic workplace is creating.  (Admit it: you can think of a city or county right now that has a bad reputation.)

We already know that the local government community is very small. And it’s getting smaller as we form an even stronger network with our digital connections via ELGL and other groups. You’ve likely already heard of organizations that are “not great places to work,” or “don’t promote from within” or “the department director is an ass.”

We encourage you to think about what this toxic work environment is doing to your organization’s longer term ability to recruit and retain talent, and if you’re becoming the type of organization that makes people cringe and encourage people to not work for.  Because that happens all the time, and overlooking toxic behavior that’s not your responsibility can quickly turn into a much larger problem as your organization does succession planning and recruitments.

We hope this approach is helpful. But also would be remiss not to say that sometimes the best way to affect change is to vote with your feet. In this pandemic economy, finding a new job might not be possible right now, but don’t forget that you have options – and not all workplaces are like this – and you’re allowed to walk away. 

That tendency of toxic workplaces to skew your perception of what’s normal and acceptable can operate like Stockholm Syndrome. Sometimes perfectly reasonable people can get stuck in a toxic organization because they think they have to stay, or they mistake longevity with loyalty. You have options – and the biweekly ELGL job newsletter can help you remember what they are. 

Good luck, Deflated. We’re cheering for you. 

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