Why do so many workers remain silent about toxic work behavior?

workplace disputes Fairness in the workplace can range from issues of inclusiveness to diversity and beyond. Taking steps towards becoming a fairer organisation isn't just good for your employees, it’s good for business too. Here are three important reasons why you should treat your employees with fairness. 

Virtually every American worker has been the target of toxic work behavior at some point in his/her career and, yet, the majority of us never report it.  The result is stress, anxiety, and lack of fulfillment for the employee and turnover, reputation damage, productivity loss and in some cases, lawsuits for those employers who don’t realize there’s a problem until it’s too late.

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re certainly not alone.  Warble’s recent Workplace Experience Study found that 63% of American workers admit to having witnessed behavior they view as disruptive to the culture, productivity or business that they never reported to HR or to management.

What is Toxic Work Behavior?

Toxic behavior comes in a variety of shapes and forms.  It can range from the severe and unequivocal to the more subtle or passive aggressive.  But in all cases, toxic behavior refers to conduct viewed as harmful or disruptive in nature.

When behavior is deemed universally egregious, or even illegal, typically it is much easier to identify and is therefore more likely to be reported. When the behavior is subtler in nature it can be harder to identify and often leads to a lower likelihood of being reported.  Interestingly, Warble’s study found that 78% of people think that the most common disruptive work behaviors are done in subtle or passive aggressive ways.

Only 30% of respondents identified sexual harassment, violence, discrimination, theft or fraud as having a high impact on their company vs 60% of people who identified behaviors that are often thought to be softer infractions – unethical behavior, incompetence, bad attitude and poor management skills – as having a high impact.  Ironically, the likelihood of a respondent to report a subtler harmful behavior was was much lower than the likelihood to report the more egregious (40% vs 60%) despite the perceived impact on the business and culture being greater.

Why Don’t People Talk About Toxic Behavior

When asked why they did not report harmful behavior either experienced or witnessed at work, most people identify multiple contributors as the reason why.

  • 46% of people don’t believe any action will be taken
  • 39% of people fear being labeled overly emotional, weak, or petty
  • 38% of people remain silent because the offender is their manager
  • 38% of people fear retaliation
  • 32% of people don’t trust HR
  • 26% of people fear losing their job
  • 20% of people have trouble describing the behaviors

In most cases, people fail to report due to some a combination of fear or apathy.  They either feel they would put themselves at risk or that it isn’t worth the effort because nothing will be done.

These feelings create a vicious cycle for employees and employers alike.  An employee sees bad conduct, and does not report it so management is unaware and nothing happens.  This reiterates a sense that accountability is lacking – which reinforces the feelings of fear and apathy.

This cycle is one of the biggest contributors to culture problems and high attrition rates in companies. For employees, the stress can be too much to take – 46% of respondents to Warble’s study have quit a job at some point in their career because of a disruptive co-worker or manager. It can take 22 months1 to overcome the stress and anxiety that results from this treatment.

How Can These Challenges Be Addressed?

The data (and most workers’ experience) shows that there is a gap between what is happening in the business and what management sees.  The recent efforts to highlight issues like harassment and discrimination at work can help, but do not entirely solve the problem.

Employers need to do more to ensure that there are clear, consistent and known behavioral policies and expectations in the workplace. They need to make sure they are taking a more proactive role in providing a means to collect and encourage feedback from every level of the organization.   Regular employee surveys, allowing for anonymous reporting of issues, and providing direct communication lines and open doors to executives can help business in collecting more feedback. Some of the most forward-thinking business are hiring individuals whose sole responsibility is the creation and protection of a healthy work culture for everyone.

If you are looking for a job, reviewing how employers prepare and respond to personnel problems when you are job-seeking may save you a lot of stress later.

If you are currently employed, you can encourage your existing employer to reconsider its policies before you even witness or experience harmful behavior.   When you do encounter inappropriate work behaviors you can submit a high level anonymous report directly to an offender’s boss at Warble.work. They will notify the manager once multiple people have identified a problem with an individual.

Letting your employer know that employees don’t feel comfortable providing feedback may open their eyes to the need for change. Or, at the very least, it can confirm for you whether your company will support you if you become a victim.

This guest post was authored by Carolyn Holliday

Carolyn Holliday is a Baltimore native and a seasoned marketing and ecommerce executive with over 20 years experience helping both consumer and B2b companies grow their brands and digital footprints. She has extensive experience in setting the strategic and product direction for companies’ web and digital marketing efforts. She has launched and managed over a dozen ecommerce businesses, spanning from fashion and retail to security, printing and telecom.

After two decades working across various industries and brands, Carolyn has noticed that successful companies all seem to share one common characteristic – a healthy culture where employees feel valued, supported and empowered to help drive towards the company’s mission. Her goal with Warble is to simultaneously support both the business and the worker by enforcing a system of accountability for all.

Carolyn holds a Bachelor of Arts from Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut and a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. She currently resides in Baltimore County, Maryland with her family.


1-Ouimet, Maeghan, (2012, November 15), The Real Productivity-Killer: Jerks, retrieved from https://www.inc.com/maeghan-ouimet/real-cost-bad-bosses.html

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.