3 stories of lives shattered by a toxic culture (and vice versa)

toxic culture
Girard Dorney


written on April 20, 2017

An organisation’s culture is a powerful thing. It can be the source of increased engagement that helps achieve business goals. Or it can be a cause of high turnover, as the stress it produces makes employees want to quit. And in some extreme cases it’s so bad that employees whole lives unravel, even after they’ve left. Here are three stories with lessons on what can happen when there is no HR, or HR fails employees.


1. ‘She-E.O.’ harassment and toxic culture ruins employee confidence

Thinx, an outwardly sex-positive and body-positive organisation that makes “period underwear” (underwear that seeks to protect women from stress and anxiety in public when menstruating), was founded by self-described “She-E.O.” Miki Agrawal. As described in New York Magazine, she seems to have been anything but respectful of boundaries.

A former employee of the company filed a complaint with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights alleging that Agrawal, among other things, touched her breasts, made numerous comments about them, regularly got changed in front of several employees, conducted video-conference meetings while in bed (seemingly while naked), fat shamed, and expressed sexual interest in an employee.

Agrawal, and the company, have denied any wrongdoing, though the ousted CEO has admitted that her company lacked an HR infrastructure for too long. This might be an understatement.

According to the complainant, Chelsea Leibow, she often approached the organisation’s closest equivalent – two “culture queens” who had no HR background or training, whose job it was to handle employees’ concerns about the company. But nothing changed, perhaps because they were only empowered to pass on complaints, or sit and listen to them.

When asked by New York Magazine why she didn’t leave her job voluntarily (she was fired, she believes, for complaining too much) Leibow said that she loved the mission of the company but “it was hard to distinguish the success I was having in my role there from my own self-worth, and I was scared about leaving. I doubt myself, like a lot of women.”

(For more information on how to fight a toxic culture, check out our HRM debate.)

2. Workplace investigation ruled to be the cause of a heart attack

The South Australian Employment Tribunal has found that an employee’s depressive disorder and subsequent heart attack were caused by a workplace investigation. They granted that the now-60 year old was healthy and engaging in daily exercise when he was informed that staff had complained about his behaviour.

According to OHS Alert, pending the investigation, he was suspended on full pay, banned from company resources and talking to staff, and escorted from the premises. Feeling upset and unable to respond, he used an employee assistance program to engage a psychologist for six sessions but his condition deteriorated.

Tribunal Deputy President Judge Peter Hannon said: “He ceased to attend to his self-care and his appearance, and completely ceased participating in his exercise routine. I find that as a result, he went into a downward spiral both physically and mentally. He developed a severe and chronic depressive illness. The heart attack occurred in the context of ongoing chronic stress.”

The man was awarded medical expenses.

(To find out how to conduct a workplace investigation, read our guide.)

3. Personal problems ruin a workplace

Of course, sometimes the problems can go the other way and workers’ personal lives can destroy a workplace culture. This is more likely in smaller operations where the managers of a company are married or in a relationship.

Recently, the Family Court refused a husband’s application to have his wife banned from the premises of their family business because the toxic nature of their marriage might damage their shared asset.

Justice Shane Gill found that he couldn’t discern who was at fault, with both “laying the disquiet in the workplace at the feet of the other”, but that at least one employee found the husband’s behaviour troubling.

“In summary, it may be said that the effect of the removal of the wife from the workplace may improve the workplace, but I cannot tell if that would provide a net improvement. Even if it does remove the direct husband and wife conflict, it may well cause other harms to the running of the business.”


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One thought on “3 stories of lives shattered by a toxic culture (and vice versa)

  1. Early and appropriate intervention will usually prevent situations of conflict and bullying from escalating to a level where it is far more difficult to resolve.

    Unfortunately, many companies resist bringing in professional mediators, or training their staff in Respectful Workplace Behaviour (Anti-Bullying & Harassment), not wanting to spend the money and believing that ugly situations will work themselves out.

    With their heads in the sand, management often neglects their duty of care at the risk of harming both the employee and the organisation. The result can be extreme, with workplaces becoming toxic, staff taking stress leave, or suffering in silence and becoming disengaged and unproductive. Resignations increase and then there are recruitment and training costs. Productivity suffers. Workers suffering from psychological and physical harm may sue their employers.

    Internal investigations often result in unsubstantiated findings, as other workers resist speaking up about bully colleagues – fearing retribution or simply because they don’t want to get involved. Many will defend a bully, or join in with them, so the bully won’t harm them. This makes bullies very powerful and allows them to be promoted to the highest levels of management.

    As an independent workplace mediator myself, I have often found that nobody in the organisation wants to be responsible for the relatively small cost of mediation coming from their budget. Then they wait until real harm has been done and the situation far more difficult to resolve. The damage has been done!

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