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Hostile, Toxic Workplace Environment By Fareeha Qayoom

Hostile, Toxic Workplace Environment

By Fareeha Qayoom



n ex-colleague and a good friend recently left his job at a local company because of hostile, toxic workplace environment. (He left his earlier job at a multinational company for this reason as well).

toxic hostile workplace

His so-called mate who had got him the job there in the first place was giving him attitude and was being actively hostile.


I could relate.  Listening to his story, I realized most workplaces I have worked at have been actively hostile, toxic and the bosses (and their sycophants) have been downright rude, insecure, mean and bullying with only one or two exceptions.


I told him it was actually not a big deal. I had grown resigned to this reality and expected to be bullied at work and treated like an android with no feelings. This was no reason in my opinion to leave an otherwise good job because this is the reality in Pakistan.


My friend laughed thinking I was joking. He’s young yet and will learn this the hard way.


No, this is not my ‘cynicism’ talking; this is reality. Adapting (or seeming to play ball) is a better strategy than consistently running away – you lose out each time by walking away while the bullies go on playing their power games till infinity. I have tried that route God knows many times. I have only landed in a worse mess than before. There are bullies and then there are bullies – you can run but you can never hide! 🙂


Standing up to them doesn’t work either. It only creates more toxicity and if the person picking on you is actually your boss, you can never win. Not engaging in their games and not reacting to their provocation might just work if you are emotionally intelligent enough not to react to their petty, mean power games, taunts, sarcasm, rude behavior and downright abuse in some cases (for example, I had a misfortune of acquiring a couple of especially extra-mean bosses once who would sweep off stuff from their desks down to the floor, break glasses and things, scream and shout at the top of their lungs in an effort to intimidate you.)


I unfortunately for me am not emotionally intelligent- I have always been considered insubordinate by such bullies especially when it’s been a question of ethics. I also suffer from ‘foot-in-the-mouth’ disease.


I usually end up saying something politically incorrect (like for example even talking about this stuff). My face is an open book and I don’t get intimidated easily. My normal reaction is to confront the bully. This is not a good strategy. Trust me I know what I am talking about. It only makes them madder and next time, they come back with more force and strategy. Engaging with them actually takes your eye off the ball and ultimately they win because they succeed either way. You leave or they make you leave.


You need resilience and an ability to bounce back each time you are put down publicly and privately without reacting, without defending yourself, agreeing with their decrees hundred percent, especially, when they are wrong and keeping a poker face at all times.


If you open your mouth and tell them they are wrong, they will remember and when things go south ways which they invariably do with them in charge, they will shift blame on you for their mistakes because you know exactly what happened and can expose them to their superiors.


They are trying to break your spirit and self-esteem so they can treat you as badly as they want whenever they want without encountering any resistance. Opposition is futile. Put up and shut up. Take blame for all their stupidity, mistakes, idiocy and negligence and nod yes, when they ask for feedback because they only require one answer – yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.


Besides, after working for a few multinational companies (where the bullying goes on at more civilized manner as there are some rules of engagement), working for a few local companies (where there are none) feels like you have landed in a small insular village with false visions of grandeur far away from civilization after living in a city like New York. He agreed with me on this one because that’s been his experience to date as well, (he too began with a few multinational companies at the start of his career and now he’s on his second local company…).

HBR - corporate humor

So what are the signs of toxic, hostile work environment anyway?

  • Closed, tense workplace environment, people don’t smile or greet each other
  • There is no trust, team spirit or ethics or fair play
  • Anything you say will be used against you
  • Witch hunts are conducted frequently and the fall guy is hanged out to dry publicly,  funnily enough, the scapegoat is usually not the real culprit
  • Front line and mid-tier staff work silently with their heads down, the atmosphere is quiet but not peaceful quiet, but dangerous quiet , (like calm before a storm or like deep still waters with dangerous undercurrents)
  • Verbal attacks and abuse is the norm from senior management
  • Management plays favorites and frequently sets departments against each other
  • Sarcasm and taunts are considered normal
  • Ganging up and picking on someone is the favorite past time, in fact, making fun of people is considered funny, some people are victimized regularly
  • Many cliques of power are formed around key ‘bullies’ who play God with new comers, outsiders and misfits
  • Back biting and gossiping sessions and frequent in-group meetings outside the corridors, or near the water cooler or smoking areas is the norm
  • The victims of bullying are expected to do two or three people’s work and receive little or no appreciation or credit
  • Stealing ideas and taking credit for them is the norm by bosses, senior managers and coworkers
  • Senior managers are very territorial and regularly engage in turf wars and obnoxious behavior
  • Some staff is reprimanded on even minor errors but others are allowed to get away with murder, in other words, discrimination is the norm
  • Bosses and team members deflect responsibility or shift blame for failures to their subordinates and coworkers
  • Subordinates are frequently asked to lie or cover for them
  • Subordinates are asked to falsify data, reports or documents
  • Subordinates are harassed for sexual favors
  • Interoffice romantic relationships are allowed to develop or an office affair is expected to be covered up by the coworkers and staff
  • Gender discrimination is the norm – there is disparity of men to women ratio, (no equal opportunities) and women managers are frequently disrespected (expected to make tea or make the calls or do clerical work on behalf of fellow -male- managers present at a meeting or some other demeaning or meaningless task is assigned which -male- managers are not expected to handle etc. for example my current boss who happens to be woman was once asked by her boss to look after the house keeping at the workplace – ensure the general cleanliness level of the place!)
  • Some coworkers are allowed to miss deadlines and affect your productivity
  • A coworker or boss is allowed to routinely tell tasteless, bigoted or sexist jokes and you are expected to laugh (in fact, one workmate once advised me in such a situation,  “Hansna Parta hai Fareeha” translation: ‘You have to laugh Fareeha – if you want to survive’)
  • Bosses and coworkers rely on fear and intimidation to get their work done
  • Staffs’ health is put on risk because of unsafe work conditions
  • Staff is frequently threatened, verbally abused or physically assaulted
  • Coworkers and bosses interrupt your work, invade your space and help themselves to your storage space, files, tools or equipment or feel free to waste your time for hours
  • Constant gossip, political games and spying
  • Backstabbing and manipulation, obvious hypocrisy
  • Dysfunctional work processes are designed, established and enforced by the resident bullies  which don’t make sense
  • Deadlines are never based on realistic goal setting, but instead are totally illogical.


So how do you recognize bullying at the workplace?

It’s bullying if someone (an individual or a group) consistently, knowingly and on purpose causes hurt, distress or harm to another person or a group of people who feel helpless to respond in kind.


I think it’s a natural phenomenon, if you are different and or in a minority, the ‘predators’ in power or in the majority would think you are fair game.


Bullying is running and consistent episodes of discrimination, disrespect, demeaning behavior, social rejection or dislike, acts of nastiness, spite, aggression, intimidation, verbal abuse, premeditated arguments, deliberate disagreements and calculated fights against a person or a group of people who can’t or won’t respond in kind and are therefore vulnerable to being victimized.


Signs that you are being bullied at work


At work

  • No matter what you do, you are never left alone to do your job without interference
  • All your team members leave on time while you stay late at work because you are suddenly and frequently at short notice assigned with more urgent but pointless tasks that no other team member will ever be asked to undertake, (that are not part of your job description). You are made to do that work first in detriment to your existing and routine workload which you have to do also by sitting late at work to complete on time, you are not allowed any assistance either
  • A pointless but urgent task is especially assigned an hour before the official end of the day
  • You are frequently asked to do menial tasks regardless of your rank or work experience; you are not allowed to delegate or reassign them to your subordinates because they have a lot to do, in fact, why didn’t you help them by making that call or filing that paper or writing their report for them?!
  • Self-interest over company interests
  • Low morale, frustration, anger and resentment
  • If you are able to complete your assigned ‘irrelevant’ tasks with impossible deadlines on time, frequent faults are found to make you redo that work again and again so you still can’t tackle your routine workload in daylight hours and go home on time
  • If you fall behind for any reason with any of your real workload which you rarely do, you are publicly berated by being asked ‘what do you do all day anyway except– ‘fill in the blank here – or ‘you don’t have any work to do anyway so why don’t you do this as well?’
  • You are frequently interrupted from important work to participate in surprise meetings to manage some emerging crisis which has nothing to do with you, where you have to watch others including the resident bully interact and show off how busy and important they are by wasting your time and then leaving you with series of meaningless tasks which by rights they should handle themselves as a fall out and outcome of that meeting, your input is not welcome or necessary, in fact, opening your mouth for any legitimate reason can frequently invite trouble and humiliation
  • You are frequently made the fall guy for their mistakes to their superiors and coworkers
  • You are consistently held responsible for and yelled at for things that are not under your domain, your responsibility nor part of your job description
  • Long inconvenient surprise meetings are called by your boss with no results other than further humiliation
  • Favorite staff or your boss feel justified in screaming or yelling at you in front of others, but you are snubbed, belittled and punished if you try to retaliate in kind
  • If you firmly confront your tormentor to stop the abusive behavior, you are accused of needlessly getting ‘excited’ and told to not speak at all or pipe down or stop ‘annoying’ them by defending yourself
  • You are consistently accused of incompetence, negligence or stupidity despite a history of objective excellence, typically by someone who cannot do your job, let alone their own
  • Frequent name calling, talking down to, giving you the “silent treatment,” Sexual harassment, making up unrealistic rules, not letting you have any autonomy, harboring unrealistic job expectations, frequent use of threats or ultimatums, and prohibiting personal objects (family photos, etc.) in the workplace all are some of the typical behaviors practiced at your workplace
  • Only numbers count and there is no room for advancement
  • The management is Authoritarian, dysfunctional bosses and coworkers are protected
  • Your request to transfer to an open position under another boss is mysteriously denied


At home:

  • Days off are spent drained, exhausted and lifeless
  • You frequently procrastinate and put off your favorite activities
  • Your desire to do anything is gone
  • Fun with family is no longer appealing or enjoyable
  • You are putting on weight even though your diet or lifestyle hasn’t changed
  • You feel miserable, stressed out, distressed, and consistently under pressure  (you might also develop physical aches and pains and your blood pressure might sky rocket as well, or you might start turning prematurely grey)
  • You can’t stop obsessing about work at home



Why do bullies bully?

According to some studies, bullies bully because they want to gain status, popularity, a following, domination and control over their peers or they bully because of psychological reasons like they feel insecure, or are envious of the victim, or are a product of bad upbringing or are from dysfunctional families and do not know of a better way to communicate when in power or have a sadistic streak and like to see others in pain, or lack empathy, or were the victims of bullying themselves.


Contrary to popular belief, bullies do not lack self-esteem, they have natural leadership qualities, have some clout and a following and a few close friends that egg them on or encourage such behavior and excesses.


This is one reason, Pakistani society sets great store in creating an excessive perception of power so they don’t get preyed on at macro (nuclear capability) and micro (living beyond their means by creating false visions of wealth and creating an elaborate influential clan system and powerful relationships by arranged marriages) levels. Exposing your weakness invites the predators. Unfortunately, some perceptive predators break the powerful façade and still pick on you; hence, anarchy on the streets, at the workplace and at home.


Bottom line, any one of the above listed issues indicate toxic workplace environment and should not be tolerated, according to Linnda Durre, the author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace.”


Unfortunately, most employees (including myself now!) believe that these problems are the cost of staying employed and must be endured instead of hopping from job to job looking for a cure.

After all, if they are going to treat you like a mindless drone, you should be able to treat them like a mere paycheck and nothing more. Input is equal to output.



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Fareeha Qayoom
Fareeha Qayoom
Publisher and editor-in-chief of Tkfr.com and former print editions of The Knit-Xtyle Fashion Review (tkfr), a trade newsletter for the textile and apparel industry of Pakistan. In short, Publisher, editor, and a blogger. In addition, she has served as Managing Editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, print and web editions (2015-16). Total of 7 editions were published under her leadership by ITU, Punjab's first public technology university under the license of MIT Technology Review (USA). She has also managed Value Mag in the same capacity, a real estate and lifestyle magazine for Value TV - 2008-9. Published freelancer for The News on Sunday 1994-96. Fareeha has over 21 years of solid management experience – of managing brands (like Harley Davidson, Munsingwear, Chaps, Chaps Ralph Lauren etc.,), Retailers (like Target, Mervyns, Kohl's, Marks and Spencer etc.,), customers (VPs, Product Managers, Unit Managers, and Buyers), and products (apparel - woven, knits, men's, women's, children's, Print and online publishing units), projects, teams, and processes, information, content, and data, staff, vendors, and time. Versatile and adaptable with international exposure, communication and language skills (oral and written), and a consistent track record of achieving company targets and objectives, plus a MA in Political Science from Punjab University, a MSc in Economics from La Salle University, Louisiana, USA, and a BA in Economics from Kinnaird College for Women.


  1. more reading?


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  2. Bullying can take a number of different forms. The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Building Respectful and Safe Schools (2010) identifies four types of bullying.

    1. Physical bullying
    Physical bullying includes hitting, kicking, tripping, pinching and pushing or damaging property.

    2. Verbal bullyingVerbal bullying includes name calling, insults, teasing, intimidation, homophobic or racist remarks, or verbal abuse.

    3. Covert bullyingCovert bullying is often harder to recognize and can be carried out behind the bullied person’s back. It is designed to harm someone’s social reputation and/or cause humiliation. Covert bullying includes:

    • lying and spreading rumors
    • negative facial or physical gestures, menacing or contemptuous looks
    • playing nasty jokes to embarrass and humiliate
    • mimicking unkindly
    • encouraging others to socially exclude someone
    • Damaging someone’s social reputation or social acceptance.

    4. Cyber bullyingCyber bullying is overt or covert bullying behaviors using digital technologies. Examples include harassment via a mobile phone, setting up a defamatory personal website or deliberately excluding someone from social networking spaces. Cyber bullying can happen at any time. It can be in public or in private and sometimes only known to the target and the person bullying.

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