Work Place Red Flags (and how to deal)

Is it me? Is it like this everywhere? Can I do anything to make it better?

It’s not uncommon for attorneys to question their sanity in the face of a dysfunctional work environment which is all too common in the legal industry. Today we are digging into endemic toxicity in the legal industry to help you better understand whether your workplace is a danger to your mental health and long term well-being and what to do about it.

As you may know, in the Collective we have spent the entire month of March exploring the ins and outs of relationships. This month we are exploring a related topic: how to transform relationships and start advocating for ourselves. This month’s newsletter and podcast episodes are packed with actionable steps to help you start taking action to transform toxic workplaces and relationships and start using your voice more effectively.

It may come as no surprise to many of you that a 2022 study in the MIT Sloan Management Review cited toxic work cultures as the top driver of employee attrition. The study concluded that toxic work cultures drove employees out the exit door faster than job insecurity or lack of recognition for performance. The report noted that the leading contributors to toxic work cultures include: failure to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers feeling disrespected; and unethical behavior.

This study sheds light on several red flags that should not be ignored and may very well indicate a toxic work environment which could wreak havoc on your well-being and productivity. Below are a few of the common toxic characteristics identified by studies and ones that I see most often in my own experience working with hundreds of women lawyers:

Common Red Flags in the Legal Industry:

High Turnover Rates: A consistently high turnover rate can indicate that employees are not satisfied or are experiencing difficulties in the workplace. Not only does high turnover rate indicate significant workplace challenges, it also suggests higher pressure and workloads on those continually left behind due to ongoing attrition issues.  For those of you entering the job market or looking to make a move, asking about turnover rates can be critical in avoiding this sign of a toxic workplace. 

Poor Communication: Lack of open, honest, and transparent communication between management and employees, or among team members, can create confusion, misunderstandings, and resentment. IMHO This one is all too common in the legal industry. Productive feedback is rarely provided and passive aggression is generally the preferred approach. This toxic characteristic not only makes it difficult for you to hone your skills and understand your strengths but ultimately is detrimental to your clients.

Micromanagement: Excessive control or micromanagement by supervisors can stifle creativity, demotivate employees, and create a sense of distrust. Micromanagement in the legal industry makes it difficult to complete work efficiently and effectively but also prevents attorneys from developing their own approach and style within their practice. Over time, this leads to senior attorneys who are insecure in their abilities to operate independently.

Lack of Work-Life Balance: Expectations of long working hours, constant availability, or pressure to sacrifice personal time can lead to burnout and decreased job satisfaction. This one needs little explanation. If you look around at your coworkers and do not see a single person whose life you would like to emulate, there is a good likelihood that the organization has a low tolerance for healthy work-life balance.

Unclear Expectations: When employees are unsure about their roles, responsibilities, or performance expectations, it can lead to stress, frustration, and feelings of incompetence. This issue becomes particularly prevalent as attorneys advance in their career. As you become more senior and approach partnership, your responsibilities should similarly evolve and there should be a clear understanding of what is required to advance to partnership. Where those requirements are undisclosed or amorphous, the situation is ripe for further discussion and clarification or a speedy exit.

Resistance to Change: An organization that is resistant to change or innovation may become stagnant, hindering growth opportunities for employees and the company as a whole. This has become more and more common in the legal industry. In my experience, today’s generation of attorneys are unwilling to accept “this is just how we’ve always done things” or to tolerate firms that are unwilling to concede any need for growth or evolution. I have witnessed countless attorneys leave firms due to stagnant hiring practices, lack of DEI investment, archaic return to office policies, and inflexible (or nonexistent) family leave protocols. If you see an organization seemingly stuck in the dark ages my recommendation is to have frank conversations as early as possible to best understand the organization’s willingness to evolve.

Lack of Support for Growth and Development: When opportunities for learning, training, and career advancement are scarce, employees may feel stuck and unfulfilled in their roles. This toxic trait exists at all levels of the legal industry from baby lawyers looking to develop fresh new skills to young partners wanting to understand business development and management. If your workplace is not willing to provide that level of support and mentorship I strongly encourage you to explore alternative avenues for support.

While the foregoing are just a handful of the toxic characteristics identified in recent studies and that I have witnessed in the legal industry, there are countless others that is simple Google search can highlight.

Identifying these red flags as early as possible and taking steps to address them is crucial for fostering a healthy and productive work environment. If you find yourself disconnected from your workplace struggling to access motivation and disengaged from your work, you may be suffering the side effects brought on by a toxic workplace. Overcoming a toxic workplace can be challenging, but it’s essential for your well-being and professional growth.

 What to do in the face of toxic workplaces

  • Identify the toxic behaviors: Be aware of your organizations toxic traits.
  • Maintain professionalism: While it’s important to address toxic behavior, it’s equally crucial to remain professional. Avoid engaging in negative behavior yourself and focus on your work.
  • Seek support: Talk to a coach, trusted colleagues, or friends outside of work about your experiences. Sometimes, simply sharing your feelings can provide relief.
  • Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between your work life and personal life. Don’t let toxic behavior consume you outside of work hours.
  • Document incidents: Keep a record of any incidents of toxic behavior, including dates, times, and details of what occurred. This documentation can be helpful if you decide to escalate the issue.
  • Address the issue directly: If you feel comfortable, consider addressing the toxic behavior directly with the individual(s) involved. Check out the podcast this month to learn how to have difficult conversations and negotiate on your behalf.
  • Talk to HR or management: If the toxic behavior persists or escalates, consider discussing the issue with HR or management. Present your documentation and express your concerns about the impact of the toxicity on your well-being and productivity.
  • Seek alternatives: If the toxic environment persists despite your efforts, start exploring other job opportunities. Your mental and emotional health should not be compromised for the sake of a job.
  • Focus on self-care: Engage in activities outside of work that help you relax and recharge. This could include exercise, hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or seeking therapy.
  • Know when to walk away: Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a toxic workplace may not change. In such cases, it’s important to prioritize your well-being and consider leaving for a healthier work environment.

Want more on these topics? Check out this month’s newsletter and related Lawyer Life Podcast episodes where we dig into to how to transform relationships and how to have difficult conversations!

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