Does Your Work Day Play Out Like a Teen Movie?
I loved teen movies during my young adult years. Whether it was a cheesy coming-of-age film or long-winded TV drama with a non-existent plot, I devoured them all. I enjoyed the exaggerated hilarity and thanked my stars that my high school experience was a minor inconvenience in comparison.
So you can imagine how surprised I was when a few weeks into my job, I started living an actual teen drama. And in all the worst ways possible.
Toxic work places can take on many forms, some so subtle, you’ll barely notice you’re in a bad environment. But if you spot the following not-so-subtle behaviours and signs at your workplace, it may be time to have a serious conversation with HR about your future at the company.
1. “On Wednesdays we wear pink!” (Mean Girls, 2004)
A company’s culture is formed through the amalgamation of its vision, core values and the behaviours that are rewarded or punished. The aim however is to get buy-in from the employees and allow these behaviours to emerge organically. Many companies try to force cultures onto their staff. Management mandated parties, outings, family events etc were all the rage at my organisation.
A few engaged, but many were essentially forced to join the festivities and the candid moments with colleagues didn’t feel earned. Instead, the atmosphere became uncomfortable as the staff flashed frozen smiles and pretended to love the culture. Those intent on moving ahead in their careers pretended the hardest and management didn’t have a clue.
Fun at the workplace should come from genuine interactions and moments of camaraderie shared between employees. That outweighs any photo-op picnic that the management may have planned. Forced fun and culture feels more like a facade created to hide the true nature of the company and its inner workings. What’s worse — it’s often no fun at all.
2. “I made you and I can break you just as easily.” (Jawbreakers, 1999)
Gossip at the workplace is not a new phenomenon. We have all had to deal with it at some point. But when rumours and gossip start to impact your role, career progression or your overall well-being, it’s time to take action.
At my workplace this rumour mongering impacted not only my work but also my relationships with colleagues. The tabloid-like discussions became woven into the very fabric of the work culture making it difficult for the newbie to navigate around it. Impressions were set for us and reputations built or destroyed based on everything other than the work we did. I couldn’t avoid it if I wanted to.
Gossiping and spreading rumours creates unnecessary drama at the workplace. It leads to distrust between employees and managers, low morale and decreased productivity. It’s essential to differentiate between generic, harmless gossip and the real personal, hurtful stuff. The horrible labels and catty behaviour are best left in high school.
3. “You are an outfit repeater.” (The Lizzie McGuire Movie, 2003)
You would think peer pressure stops existing after high school, or at most, college. But you’d be surprised at how many workplaces have intense peer pressure.
At my job it revolved around working hours. My manager and a few colleagues would stay back quite late. This led to everyone else following suit irrespective of whether they had any work to. An unspoken rule was formed that correlated the number of hours spent at work with the dedication and commitment of the employee. Anyone who acted otherwise would attract resentment from the rest and was often banished from office cliques.
Peer pressure at the workplace can take on a life of its own if left unchecked. While positive peer pressure is something that exists and can have fairly good outcomes, negative peer pressure gets nasty real quick. Without concrete policies that enable employees to make their own decisions, the workplace devolves into the “that’s how we do it here” zone.
4. “Whoa. He didn’t even card us, dude.” (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989)
A common trend in teen movies is kids doing disproportionately reckless things to gain some personal benefit — popularity, a date, a contest win etc. There is a recurring theme of the ends justifying the means and we rarely see these characters face the consequences of their actions. However, in real life there should be no fairytale ending for people who jeopardise others for personal benefit.
A great way to judge company culture is to see how management addresses unethical or problematic behaviour at the workplace. While minor errors with no lasting impact can be addressed with training or coaching, more serious lapses of judgement should be met with appropriate response.
I knew my manager to let serious offences slide simply because the people who committed them generated big revenue for the company. A good organisation should have a set of values it abides by and should actively encourage employees to emulate those values. Letting a few individuals get away with their transgressions for groundless reasons cheapens the dedication the vast majority have towards company values.
It encourages the idea of some people being more equal than others and promotes a culture of entitlement among the “popular” crowd that we hoped we would never have to see in adult life.
5. “You ask me one more question and I’m beating the shit out of you.” (The Breakfast Club, 1985)
Feedback is essential for the growth of any person or organisation. Receiving constructive feedback helps us understand where we are and work towards where we want to be. It helps us set standards, check our progress and stay grounded.
A former colleague had found a bottleneck in a regular process that was causing delays in service. Being on the front lines, she was having to deal with irate customers yelling at her on a daily basis because of said delays. When she raised the issue to someone a few levels up in the hierarchy, she expected that the person would use his position to take appropriate steps to resolve it. Instead, she got chewed out by her line manager for having the audacity to use that tone with her seniors.
Any company that wants to encourage innovation, employee initiative and an entrepreneurial mindset must engage positively with its employees. Falling back on classroom mindsets of “don’t ask questions, just do as you’re told” is a sure-shot way of transporting yourself to the nauseating torture chambers of 11th grade Chemistry (a personal demon).
Most of us either have, or will be investing a substantial portion of our time and energy into our work. Therefore, it is not only our privilege but our right to make it as pleasant and fulfilling an experience as possible. This can only be done by recognising what constitutes a healthy work environment and what to leave behind.
Re-watching my favourite teen movies as an adult, I came to realise that many of the behaviours depicted are petty, immature and mostly unnecessary. Thankfully the main characters generally have an epiphany where they recognise the same and finally grow up. It’s time we as individuals begin to recognise the signs, have our personal epiphanies and walk away from work cultures that we have outgrown.