Is your workplace ‘digitally toxic’? Here’s what to do

Most of us are online in some way for work now – whether it’s a team group chat, or your work is entirely remote.

So what we know as ‘toxic’ behaviour at work isn’t just what happens in person. Toxic behaviours can be just as harmful in digital conversations as face-to-face ones, and they are more likely to be left unresolved, experts say.

With more of us working remotely — and many of us feeling lonely or vulnerable — this can be a problem.

SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read says digital toxicity can include bullying, sexism, racism, low levels of trust, secrecy, gossip, harassment, yelling or arguing, unwelcome jokes, or even being put on the spot during an online meeting.

Alongside these behavioural issues are procedural ones, such as micro-management due to a lack of trust, unclear role definitions, low boundaries or no boundaries, or boundaries that are not honoured, she adds.

"When we move to a digital work environment, a lot of these behaviours fly under the radar and go unchallenged. We just don't see or feel the human in front of us."

Communication has changed

Technology has changed the boundaries between our work lives and personal lives. Research for SEEK shows 47% of employees agree the lines between work and home life have become more blurred in recent years, with 14% feeling pressured to respond to work emails or phone calls after hours.

This makes us more susceptible to digital toxicity, says Hiam Sakakini, founder of The Culture Equation, which helps companies create positive cultures.

"We switch between answering a work email to replying to a personal message on WhatsApp. As a result, communication has become less formal, less professional. Even words intended positively can be misinterpreted."

Sakakini says you know you're experiencing digital toxicity when you feel hurt.

"Even those microaggressions, the ones you aren't aware of until you reflect later, they're still painful. You can feel less valued or even attacked."

This has the knock-on effect of making people less engaged and less motivated, she says, which impacts them as well as the company.

Ways to deal with digital toxicity

1. Approach the person in question

"Assume good intent," Read says. "Humans generally want to connect and they want to do good work. This also makes it easier to deal with the issue."

She advises going to the person who initiated the behaviour as a first step. "Tell them you felt uncomfortable with the content or the tone,” Read says. “Say something positive, such as the fact you've always had a good working relationship, and say you wanted to check if they needed anything from you.

"Most of the time the person was in a hurry, didn't realise they had upset you and will be mortified to know they had."

Sakakini adds it can be useful to refer to the company's core values by saying something like, "I thought this company was about respect and collaboration".

2. Take the issue higher

If the toxic behaviour you’re experiencing is more severe, you may need to go further to get help.

For example, if it's aggressive or racist or it seems there was bad intent, you may need to go higher to your manager or HR. This means treating it in just the same way as if the toxic behaviour was face-to-face, experts say.

3. Set your own boundaries

We often assume that someone else, like our manager, will set boundaries for us – whether that's in the digital space or otherwise. That's often not the case, Read says.

"The only person who can say you're unavailable at a certain time or on a certain day is you." But how you share that message is important, she adds. "Deliver it with respect and confidence in an assertive and helpful tone. For example, 'I've noticed there are a lot of out-of-hours exchanges, and I know for me to work at my best, I need some breaks'."

4. Create standards with your team

Your workplace should provide training or at least clarify expectations around using technology, Read says.

"A company should state that it expects the same level of respect, courtesy and transparency in online channels as it does face-to-face," she explains.

You could also see if you can set expectations and guidelines together with your team. For example, you might agree to have difficult conversations face-to-face, or to pause and take a short break before sending any digital communication if you’re feeling frustrated.

5. Consider your options

If left unresolved, digital toxicity could lead you to feel increasingly stressed, and ultimately, burned out.

If you've tried the above steps and you’re still experiencing digital toxicity in your workplace, it may be time to consider finding a new role, Sakakini says.

"Look for a company that aligns with your values, which should detail what's acceptable and unacceptable. You want to work in a workplace where people are encouraged to speak up and call out bad behaviours."

Where to go for more help

A negative, online work environment is one thing, but if what you’re dealing with could be bullying or harassment, there are places you can go to for more information and help:

Everyone has the right to feel safe and respected at work.

Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published March 2023.

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