Illustration by Hunter French

'My Co-Worker Says Our Company Is Toxic—But Is She the Problem?'

"Since day one, Jane has constantly complained about our workplace, mostly to our other co-workers while the supervisors are off duty."
July 15, 2020, 3:15pm
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

I’m three months into this great new job that I’ve spent a lot of time in education and unpaid internships to prepare for. I’m so excited to finally have it! It’s a high-pressure job that requires a lot of attention to detail.

I was assigned to a trainer, “Jane,” who’s been here five years. At first we had a bit of a personality clash, but we’ve moved past that and I’ve come to value her as a very skilled employee who is a fair and patient trainer. I’ve gotten high praise from her and our supervisors, so everything seems to be going well.

However, since day one, Jane has constantly complained about our workplace, mostly to our other co-workers while the supervisors are off duty. (We’re on shift work, so probably 75 percent of the time we don’t see our supervisors.) I have noticed that there has been a lot of turnover in the past year; two employees quit in my first two months. Also, there's this weird culture where each person seems to think they're the only one who does any work or is competent. People tend to jump to conclusions about each other's intent or state of mind when a mistake is made and, on the flip side, take it very personally when a mistake is pointed out. The tension seems especially pronounced between Jane and the two managers in charge of our section.

So far, I like everyone and don't really understand where all this tension comes from, so I'm hoping to just keep my head down and be positive and friendly in the hopes that I won't get sucked into it. But how do I know if it's only a matter of time until my supervisors start singling me out, as Jane seems to think has happened to her, if this is a generally toxic workplace, or if the problem lies with my trainer?

There’s a big clue in your letter that makes me think the problem is at least partially with Jane, and that’s the fact that she started complaining to you on day one and has complained constantly ever since. That’s toxic behavior, and it’s not something that level-headed people generally do.

To be clear, I’m not saying that level-headed people never complain about work! They do. But they’re usually more discreet about it, and definitely have better judgment than to unload their complaints on a new hire’s first day. They also don’t voice their complaints incessantly, because it’s annoying and unpleasant to the people around them to have to hear the same things over and over, and it will eventually affect their professional reputations.

So if nothing else, we know that Jane has bad judgment and is doing her own part to make your work culture pretty negative.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate problems in the work culture, though. Based on what you described, it sounds tense and combative and weirdly adversarial. Does it stem from your managers, as Jane seems to think? Maybe! Managers bear a lot of responsibility for the culture of the teams they manage, and if they haven’t spotted the problems and worked to fix them, that’s a problem on their side.

And who knows, it’s possible that your company is truly the worst! But even if it is, Jane’s behavior would still be weird, and I’d be wary of aligning yourself with her based only on her own word rather than things you’ve observed for yourself.

Plus, having inept management doesn’t mean that it’s a matter of time before they single you out for mistreatment. That’s a very specific charge, and if you haven’t seen any evidence of it beyond what Jane has told you… well, I’d be pretty skeptical. Jane sounds so profoundly unhappy with the job that it’s hard to take her as an unbiased source. Plus, if Jane herself is being targeted, that might be less due to arbitrary, punitive managers and more because Jane is a chronic complainer who’s regularly injecting negativity into the work environment. I’m not arguing your managers are good managers (it doesn’t sound like they are)... but nearly all managers, good or bad, would have a problem with Jane’s behavior. So it’s unsurprising that her relationship with your management is tense—and she might be extrapolating negative conclusions from that which won’t apply to your own experience there.

Ultimately, the way to sort out what’s really going on here is to watch and make your own observations. How do managers interact with people? What kind of guidance and feedback do they give? Do they welcome open dialogue, or is it all top-down? How are decisions made, and how do they handle disagreement? How is good work recognized and rewarded, and how are problems addressed and resolved? ( Are they addressed and resolved?) But don’t be heavily influenced by Jane’s take on things—stand back and observe and form your own judgments. Maybe your conclusions will line up with Jane’s after all! Or you might realize Jane is right about some things but the intensity of her reaction is off. Or you might decide you have an entirely different take on what’s going on.

If you do decide it’s a toxic workplace, at that point you’d need to decide how you want to respond to that. Some people can work in weird environments and let it mostly roll off them; other people can’t, and that’s entirely legitimate too. What you don’t want to do is get frozen where Jane seems to be—in the “this is awful and I want to tell everyone how awful it is” stage.

For now, though, the key thing is to trust yourself and what you see and experience firsthand. Don’t get overly influenced by someone else, especially someone whose judgment already seems questionable.

_Get more good advice from Alison Green at **Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.**_