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Avoiding an Abusive Workplace

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
November 13, 2015

PaddockA New York Times exposé in August described the workplace of Amazon as “bruising.” It is worth the time to read the full article. A consultant at Amazon noted that organizations are “turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade.” Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, challenged the Times description. However, some current and former employees said the article was an accurate depiction of long working hours, criticism by managers and sabotage by co-workers.

The Amazon workplace is not for everyone. In a recent recruiting video, one young woman warns, “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.” While some argue that the highly competitive environment of the tech industry demands such workplace practices, the experience of other tech companies does not bear this out. Fortune magazine’s list of the best companies to work for regularly ranks tech giant Google as first.

Most management experts agree that an abusive workplace does not bring out the best in workers or lead to the highest productivity. “Abuse” may be seen as a continuum, from “very” (extremely negative environment) to “not at all” (extremely positive environment). A healthy workplace supports change; see, for example, Christine Springer’s column in the Nov. 6 issue of PA TIMES.

What are the factors you can use to evaluate where your workplace is on the continuum—and to move toward making it a more positive and productive place?  Here are a dozen factors. You may think of others.

  1.  Employees know what their jobs are. They know what is expected of them. This is more than just a job description. They know with whom they work and to whom they report. They know the expected activities and outcomes. They know timelines and deadlines. They also know the limits of their jobs—what they cannot do without specific direction.
  2. Employees know how to do their jobs. They are hired because of their skills and talents, are provided with a comprehensive orientation to the workplace and how work is done, and regularly receive training to keep their skills current. They are encouraged to seek education, training and advancement.
  3. Employees have the tools necessary to do their jobs. These tools are current and support the work of the organization. In the best workplaces, employees have a say in what those tools are—the kind of technology programs, for example.
  4. Employees are regularly told how well they are doing. “Performance reviews” are not annual much-dreaded rituals, but rather are weekly, or at least monthly, conversations with those for whom or with whom they are working. They are told when they are doing things right or wrong and they receive this feedback in a timely manner (as soon as possible after the occurrence).
  5. The rules of the workplace are reasonable and employees consider them to be reasonable. As much as possible, rules are limited in number, are easily understood and focused on positive behaviors expected of employees, rather than a laundry list of prohibited practices.
  6. The workplace is physically safe or precautions are taken to ensure safety. Necessary safety tools and equipment are provided and used. Safety training is provided and required.
  7. Employees are not harassed in any way by other workers, supervisors or central staff. This includes all kinds of harassment: physical, verbal or sexual. Employees understand what constitutes harassment and are able to describe the workplace as welcoming and safe.
  8. Employees are not overworked; except in a real crisis. They are not required to work double shifts, incur significant overtime or skip breaks. This factor is important because it is linked not only to employee motivation but also to the incidence of workplace accidents and errors.
  9. Employees are recognized as having a life outside of work and are supported in those life choices. The best workplaces recognize the demands of family and community, arrange for things like discounts at gyms and outings for families, support opportunities for personal improvement and encourage employees to use accrued vacation leave. In his Oct.29 2015 post on his threestarleadership.com blog, Wally Bock wrote, “The way to reap the rewards of sustainable competitive advantage is to recognize that people lead dynamic and sometimes messy lives….Give people choices. Support the choices that they make and have to make.”
  10. Employees should have some control over their work space—for example, the kind of desk or chair, the use of ergonomic devices and the choice of equipment used in the field.
  11. Employees can identify at least one good friend at work in whom they can confide. This factor is a measure of the general health of the workplace.
  12. Employees know why they are doing their job. They understand the goals of the organization and how their work contributes to those goals. Supervisors provide employees with specific information about how their work is reflected in successes of the organization.

The real test of a workplace is not how management evaluates these 12 factors, but how employees at all levels evaluate them. Indeed, these might form the basis for those monthly conversations (see factor #4).


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin. Susan has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Avoiding an Abusive Workplace

  1. John Pearson Reply

    December 10, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    This is a good list. But based on long experience in a federal agency, I would say the first five are problematic:
    1. Jobs just are are not that well defined anymore. You assign tasks as they come up. it may not be what’s in the job description. Tasks may be different from person to person and over time. I found deadlines frequently had to be adjusted. You couldn’t hold people to them, even your best people, because they had too much to do.
    2. There is always a huge range of abilities for people with the same job description. Some people work independently with high quality. Some require a huge about of supervision and may never perform their job very well. For weak performers, management finds what they can do and carves out some tasks for them. That’s much easier than attempting removal or downgrading. It’s still very difficult to remove career people for performance problems. The public doesn’t get could value from these practices.
    3. My experience was employees rarely had all the tools they need. Manuals and training guides were not up-to-date. Computer documentation was not up-to-date. In-house training was rare. Management was overwhelmed and concentrated on putting out fires instead of updating the necessary documents, which is very time consuming task. Training efforts were frequently off the mark and a waste of time because employees and supervisors had trouble defining exactly what knowledge and skills were needed and we didn’t understand the training that was offered. We would send people to courses that sounded useful but were not.
    4. Few people (supervisors or employees) want to talk much about performance. It’s an extremely touchy topic. I once had an employee appeal a Satisfactory performance rating. One time, I was unable to hold back an automatic promotion I didn’t think was warranted because I didn’t follow all the steps. Sometimes employees are very angry at their rating — especially if they find out someone else had a higher rating. The whole topic is painful.
    5. In the federal government, employees received multiple laundry lists of prohibited practices. Every year, as I recall, we had ethics training, sexual harassment training, IT security training, privacy training, prohibited personnel practices training, and a few other topics. It was all controlled by computer. Management knew exactly what training you had failed to take. The focus was always on prohibited practices because there are so many legislated rules in the federal government. Almost all of this type of training was computerized and the courses were easy (too easy) to pass. I don’t think management wanted employees to spend much time on the training. That’s why the courses were so easy to pass.

  2. Julie Ann Racino Reply

    November 16, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Today’s workplaces in the US have had to face global competition, aging infrastructure in the manufacturing industries, “bad advice” from individuals involved in company takeovers, and “competition” on the job resulting in the loss of jobs internally to companies.

    Workers who have been in middle class management positions, if “returned to the marketplace”, then find that they are to enter the workforce along with the newest hire with no experience. While this practice is against all management and industry advice for multi-decades, the US employers do continue with these practices as do our taxpayer supported state departments involved with rehabilitation, education and employment.

    On the positive side, diversity practices are still promoted in the workplaces, though with little understanding of the changing immigration patterns. The human resource department is responsible for everything imaginable, and in big companies, have been professionally operated.

    However, increasingly, with the rights of employers over workers in ascendancy, these relatively competent workforces could descend into the rulelessness of other areas no long monitored by the labor unions and collective bargaining.

    Thank you to the companies for leadership in sustainability, and for their work on new green energy initiatives – to their own benefit and that of the “collective”.

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