Toxic at the Top: What to do when your Leadership is Rotten

Rose Scott
November 25, 2020

Have you ever left a job because of rotten management? It is one of those intractable problems many people face over their working life: “I don’t want to have to leave but I cannot see a way around the awfulness of continuing to work here.”

Changing jobs (supposing alternatives are available) is a stressful business. Let’s look at a checklist of options that might allow you to stay where you are.

Option One – check policies

Your organisation should have policies on making complaints / dealing with grievances / becoming a whistleblower. Reading all the relevant policies and mapping your issues of concern against them will tell you at least the following:

  • where your problem sits on the continuum of possible workplace issues. For instance, it might show that your issue is a grievance. Let’s say that the you are given unjustifiably poor performance appraisals by your manager. Performance appraisals, rostering issues, interpersonal conflicts; these are typically designated ‘grievances’.
  • what remedies or processes are available to you. For instance, in the case of a grievance over poor performance appraisals, the policy may state that you can ask for a review by a more senior manager or CEO. It may also suggest that a mediation or facilitated discussion between you and your manager can be requested.

Reading on, you might decide that your issue falls under the complaints or fair treatment policy or even that it is of a serious and systemic nature and falls under the whistleblower / protected disclosures policy (workplaces have different names for these things, but keep looking until you are sure you have read every relevant policy).

In all cases, knowing the policies will give you a good idea of your options and how your issue will/should be handled if you decide to take one of the actions suggested by the relevant policy.

Option Two – be forthright

Okay, you’ve read all the policies, but you basically have no faith in the organisation’s disposition to apply policy fairly or hear any criticism of how things run.

Having it out with people in senior management is never an appealing prospect. Power differentials are real and they mean that, for you, what’s at stake might include your future employment / prospects of promotion / peace at work. You may be risking reputational damage too, since most of us rely on decent references to secure new jobs.

However, since you feel driven to looking for new work anyway, it may be worth the risk of ‘speaking truth to power’. There is a chance you will be heeded and change will occur – like all of us, bosses are flawed. The degree to which they want to do better may not be immediately apparent.

If you give them the benefit of the doubt and decide to have a forthright conversation about your concerns, do what you need to do before any ‘difficult conversation’. Prepare, remain calm, state the issues clearly and honestly but without assigning blame and listen carefully to all aspects of the response.

Option Three – power in numbers

So, you have tried honesty before and it did not work. What’s more, you know many of your colleagues have tried and also been stonewalled.

If you are not alone in your concerns about management behaviour, ask your colleagues if they will join you in a group complaint. A single voice raising an issue to management about management is a sad and lonely thing. Two, three or four employees reporting the same experience of management dysfunction is significantly harder to ignore.

Option Four – is there a governing body?

If your issue is with your organisation’s CEO or with all of senior management combined, you may well feel it is pointless expecting them to take action against themselves.

Check the governance structure of your organisation – if it has a governing Board, you might consider sending your complaint to the Board Chair. A Board would not normally interfere in the complaint processes of the organisation they govern, but they have particular responsibilities for the performance of the CEO they appoint.

Option Five – is there a complaints hotline?

If your organisation has an external complaints hotline available, consider using it. Often, anonymous or ‘partially anonymous’ (where the hotline operator keeps your identity confidential) options are available. Worklogic runs the Integrity Line where the staff of subscribing organisations are able to phone through or lodge on-line reports about behaviours of concern at work.

It’s the Vibe

Have you run out of options? Maybe your problem is really with the strategic direction of your organisation, or with its fundamental business ethics. If that is the case, then your options really are narrow: you either leave, or you work your way into management in order to change its culture and direction… quite a tall order.

Or, worst option, you stay as you are and feel compromised and purposeless every working day.

In the best possible world, our work aligns with our personal ethics, ideas and aspirations. As adults, we know that there are times and places and people with whom we must make compromises, sometimes big ones.

Our core values continue to matter, nevertheless. Never lose touch with the vision of a working life that would give you pride and pleasure. Speak-up, compromise, switch, agitate, complain: do what it takes to keep what matters to you real.

About Rose Scott

As our Digital Product Manager, Rose Scott  manages Mooski – Worklogic’s online team training program, based on the latest scientific thinking to boost happiness and motivation at work.

She also managers of Worklogic’s Integrity Line service and ensures that people making a workplace complaint are given a calm and secure reception. 

Please contact us for an obligation-free, confidential discussion to review and refresh the policies at your workplace.

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Integrity Line

Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.