Buzzing offices once again increase risk of toxic culture at workplace

Workplace corridors are buzzing again with office goers. But the higher attendance has also increased the threat of a toxic work culture.
Camaraderie is key for employees bonding at the workplace. However, cases of workplace harassment, including of a sexual nature, are on the rise, experts who deal with this subject told TOI.
Certain behaviour like bullying, aggression, foul language, a bad boss and sexual harassment can trigger toxicity at the workplace and eventually impact productivity. A big concern for organisations is to sensitise employees — especially new joinees who are experiencing the physical workplace for the first time in three years — on what constitutes workplace harassment. In particular, the distinction between harassment of the non-sexual type and sexual harassment.
Aparna Mittal, founder of Samana Centre, a consultancy which works in this field, said, “While working remotely, you connect with people on a need-basis. When you are in an office space, you absorb a lot that goes around — whether it’s people talking across the floor or general water cooler conversations. For younger employees, including those who joined the organisation just before the pandemic started, all these experiences are very new. Many didn’t get the ‘real feel’ of what an office is like and what one can expect in terms of interpersonal relations. And that includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Some who found the culture toxic are hesitant to come to office.”

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Samana Centre is seeing an upturn in the number of cases — both in sexual harassment (irrespective of gender) and in the general workplace harassment of the non-sexual nature. “Since 2020, it has gone up by 25-30%, based on the number of cases Samana Centre advised on. But the fact that the numbers are rising also indicates that organisations are successful in sensitising people about such matters. Earlier, people would just find another job and quit the organisation if they faced any kind of harassment, rather than register a complaint,” said Mittal.
Out of the total number of cases that Samana Centre received, 60% deal in workplace harassment of the non-sexual type, while the balance 40% fall under the PoSH Act. PoSH refers to the prevention of sexual harassment law — ‘Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013’. Among the PoSH cases, at least 50% are from youngsters who have joined since 2019, said Mittal.
Devika Singh, advocate & founder of Cohere Consultants, said cases of sexual harassment have been on the rise and this is not just about the proximity following employees’ return to office. “Many of these cases now being reported are those where people faced sexual harassment pre-Covid, but when the pandemic started they were happy to be working remotely and did not report such cases. Now, when they are being asked to return to the workplace, this section of employees is hesitant to return to a toxic culture where they faced harassment,” said Singh.
Cohere Consultants, which received an average of 12-15 sexual harassment cases a month pre-pandemic, saw the number reduce by one-third during the peak Covid months. “Since offices have opened up, we have seen the numbers rising again. Currently, we are already seeing the numbers reaching the 2/3rds mark of the pre-pandemic year,” said Singh.
According to data from Cohere Consultants, the number of workplace harassment cases remained high pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. “Younger employees who were hired during the pandemic and are seeing an office culture for the first time, in particular, are unable to make the distinction as to what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behaviour and, in such grey zones, bad behaviour is becoming normalised,” said Singh.
Highlighting how some managers were not able to bring timely help to toxic teams working in hybrid or remote mode, Sujaya Banerjee, CEO of Capstone People Consulting, said, “When monitoring exceeds support, that is called the ‘Seagull style of management’, where instructions are given, and teams are pushed hard for performance without providing clarity and support for execution. Deadlines may be unrealistic leading to a culture of angst and blame. This style leads to other dysfunctionalities of inner groups/outer groups, challenges around psychological safety, and hiding problems & mistakes that are all suboptimal for teams, organisations and performance.”
“Leaders, on the other hand, believe team collaboration has taken a beating as a result of toxic behaviour, monitoring without support and, in many cases, this has been aggravated due to the absence of the immediate manager to resolve these challenges in time and with the gravitas needed,” added Banerjee.
With return to work, Cohere Consultants has seen cases where people are singled out and pressured to come to office whereas other team members are still working remotely, with the intention to target and strategically isolate. There’s a complaint against a manager who called a woman employee to the office while rostering her teammates to work from home. This was to create an opportunity for misconduct and did not go down well with the employee.
As HR teams swing back in action on employee wellness, ex-employee feedback is also being taken. “Several cases are emerging that suggest that people exited on account of harassment during the pandemic. Diversity was also severely hit. I would believe there was much more that was not reported and the numbers we saw were only the tip of the iceberg,” said Singh.
Singh added, “The pressures of the pandemic lead to difficult work circumstances amid deteriorating employee mental health and sparse engagement by HR teams. With people worried about losing their jobs, anonymous complaints, whistleblower cases and employee grievances remained high.”