Are Vacations Simply an Escape from Workplace Toxicity?

If your employees are taking vacation time just to escape your toxic corporate culture, more manager training may be needed.

Taking vacations is a positive and healthy thing to do. However, employees should be taking time off to rest from their duties and focus on leisure activities they enjoy; their vacation time shouldn’t be an escape from a damaging workplace culture.

But a recent article in Fortune by Paige McGlauflin noted that many employees are using sick days and vacation time to avoid a toxic workplace. McGlauflin writes: “Around 77 percent of workers report experiencing some form of workplace toxicity, according to a survey by outplacement and career coaching firm INTOO. That includes things like managers showing favoritism to some employees over others, workers spreading gossip or rumors about colleagues, and bosses squashing workers’ work-life balance. Of employees who report work-related toxicity, around 44 percent say they have taken vacation time or personal leave to get away from it. Another 33 percent say they’ve used sick time to avoid their toxic work environment.”

Over the course of my career, I have experienced toxic workplace elements. A colleague and I were once talking about a person at our company we both found toxic. Neither of us knew that we had the same feelings about this person. We both felt she appeared to intentionally enjoy upsetting and rattling people. Neither of us felt comfortable confronting her—or our boss about her—because we both also noticed how good she was at playing office politics. We didn’t doubt she would find a way to have us punished for speaking out against her, and that, ultimately, we would not be believed.

Training Managers to Patrol for Toxicity

The challenge of a toxic workplace is the fear that keeps employees silent, even when they are united in their feelings about a particular person. With employees usually too afraid to speak out, it falls to managers to have their antennae up at all times, ready to detect and squash toxicity. That requires training.

Part of regular manager training should include strategies and specific actions managers can take to patrol the corporate culture. A toxic workplace culture is built one toxic employee at a time, so knowing how to identify these individuals is essential.

One potential sign of toxicity I noticed is the hesitancy of employees to argue or disagree with a colleague. Like me, many employees shut down when confronting a person whose motivations they don’t trust. The manager might notice a pattern of other employees disengaging when in a meeting with certain colleagues. That may be because they have learned this person usually gets their way and creates problems for people who try to interfere with their plans. Or it could be that they are just argumentative, and many employees don’t feel it’s worth their energy to engage with them.

In the case of the toxic employee my colleague and I agreed on, our manager picked up on a red-flag trait without even knowing it. He joked that she was consistently a “downer.” Her input was almost always negative, critical, and contradictory. A certain amount of critical input can be OK (i.e., when pointing out areas for improvement), but when there is so much that it becomes a person’s recognizable trait, there may be a problem.

Communication Training

Manager training also may be needed in the areas of communication and listening skills. I once had a manager who I doubted could recall a story I told him minutes before. He much preferred to be the one speaking, rather than listening. He would become noticeably impatient if a story took too long, fidgeting in his seat and even looking away to do other things.

“…the report outlines a few changes HR and managers can make to help support employees, much of which involves developing better listening and communication skills,” McGlauflin writes. “While 42 percent of workers complained that managers or leaders ignoring feedback contributed to a toxic work environment, around 33 percent also said more transparency and communication would create a more positive workforce.”

If an employee tells a manager a colleague is unpleasant to work with, or suggests they should change their approach when interacting with co-workers, it’s best to take that feedback seriously—even if the employee being criticized is a favorite of higher-level executives. Executives will definitely not appreciate the repercussions of the criticized behavior: lower morale and lower productivity from those they interact with.

Do you train managers on what they personally can do at work to monitor and protect the corporate culture?