As Ellen DeGeneres fights claims of a toxic workplace, here are 3 signs you work in one

Ellen DeGeneres during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

On Monday, Ellen DeGeneres addressed allegations made by former employees that her long-running talk show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," had an internal culture of racism, fear, and intimidation as well as sexual harassment. The allegations gained national attention following a BuzzFeed article that reported on the show's "toxic work culture" — and three of the show's high-ranking producers were fired in the aftermath.

"As you may have heard, this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation," DeGeneres said on-air during her show's season premiere September 21. "I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously, and I want to say I am so sorry to the people that were affected. I know that I am in a position of privilege and power and with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show. We have had a lot of conversations over the last few weeks about the show, the workplace and what we want for the future. We have made the necessary changes, and today we are starting a new chapter."

DeGeneres' show isn't the only workplace to face a reckoning over unhealthy office culture over the past few month. Companies from Bon Appetit to the Washington Football Team have been the subject of editorial exposes detailing their alleged toxic cultures.

But not everyone sees their bad boss or terrible colleagues make headlines. More likely, you're struggling to understand if your experience is truly toxic, or even worse, rationalizing toxic conditions.

CNBC Make It spoke with lawyers, labor experts and historians about what constitutes a toxic work environment — as well as how to spot one.

Where the term "toxic" comes from

American workers have protested unfair and unhealthy workplaces for centuries, but the specific description of "toxic" is a newer phenomenon. 

Some historians trace the earliest mentions of "toxic workplaces" to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when an amendment to Title VII, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on categories such as race, religion and sex, was expanded to protect pregnant women. This sparked conversations about the rights of pregnant women exposed to toxins at work.

One of the next recorded examples of the phrase can be found in a 1989 guide to leadership in nursing, which mentions both the potential physical and emotional toxicity of workplaces.

"A toxic work environment operates by 'top down' decisions," reads the guide. "In a toxic work environment, attitudes, values and beliefs are not considered. In a toxic work environment, communication is passive or aggressive or defensive. In a nourishing work environment, we have self-disclosure. And in a toxic one, we hide ourselves." 

The definition of what makes a workplace healthy and nourishing rather than unhealthy and toxic is constantly evolving, but toxic workplaces tend to have a few key characteristics in common: 

1. A lack of respect

"A toxic workplace is one in which employees don't feel safe or respected," says Linda Seabrook, general counsel and director at Futures Without Violence, explaining that while many workers know if they're not being respected, there are also specific warning signs to look out for.

"For example, if you feel the weight of intense hierarchical structures, that is not a good sign. Like, Do I have to let my supervisor know if I'm going to the bathroom? Or if workers don't feel that they have the ability to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation," she says. "It comes down to whether you feel heard and valued and respected."

At Bon Appetit, though there were no accusations of retaliation, current and former staff members described to Business Insider a hostile environment in which people of color had been treated like a "second class." Bon Appetit employees raised concerns that white staff members earned more for on-camera appearances and described a culture of exclusion and microaggressions aimed at nonwhite employees. Former editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport and Condé Nast vice president Matt Duckor later left the company. 

"The reports and descriptions of the workplace culture at BA referenced in [the Business Insider] article are not accurate," a company spokesperson for Conde Nast tells CNBC Make It in response to our request for comment. "An extensive third-party investigation of pay parity found that the team was compensated fairly and that race did not play a factor in compensation. We take all employee concerns seriously and strive to create a diverse and inclusive workplace where employees can be successful."

The reason workers speak out, protest or strike is often about respect, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research and a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and it's "never just about money."

"It is always about fundamental issues of justice, fairness and just not being treated right," says Bronfenbrenner. "Health, safety, respect and dignity are at the heart of that."

2. Retaliation for raising concerns

Another telltale sign of a toxic workplace is an inability to raise concerns, says Ana Avendano, an adjunct law professor at the City University of New York School of Law and the co-founder of Survivors Know, a nonprofit that aims to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. In a toxic workplace, workers "are not really allowed to complain," she says. "If they do, complaints are either ignored, or you're punished for it."

Avendano adds that this red flag is especially common among organizations with a large number of low-income, hourly workers.

But this culture of quieting employees' voices can occur at a wide range of workplaces from fast food franchises to technology companies, says Dr. Alan Cavaiola, professor at Monmouth University and co-author of the book "Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job," including those that offer high wages and good benefits.

Cavaiola points out that workers are also limited in their options for raising concerns when companies require that disputes are settled through private arbitration.

"Binding arbitration is like a get-out-of-jail-free card for corporations because it means that concerns won't go to the justice system but instead will be resolved internally," he says. "I've never heard anything come good from it. It's like the fox guarding the hen house."

This concern has been raised by workers at some of the highest-paying tech companies in the world, including at Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

In 2018, some 20,000 Google workers staged a walkout demanding changes to how the company treats employees — including calling for an end to forced arbitration over disputes — after a New York Times article revealed Google had given a senior executive a $90 million exit package even after he was found to have been credibly accused of sexual harassment. Shortly after, Google announced it would end forced arbitration for sexual harassment or assault claims and in 2019, the company announced it would no longer mandate arbitration in any employee disputes against the organization. Microsoft and Facebook ended forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault claims in 2017 and 2018, respectively. 

California lawmakers passed a bill banning forced arbitration in October 2019, but it was later halted by a federal judge

3. Power imbalance 

Many of the experts CNBC Make It spoke with said that an imbalance of power is a telltale sign of a toxic workplace. Because professional hierarchies and societal structures inherently can create such imbalances, the key is distinguishing when power is used to take advantage of others.

"My definition of a toxic workplace would be a place where employers use their power and leverage to take advantage of and abuse their workers," says Stephen Boardman, communications director for the Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.9 million workers from health care to janitorial services. 

For instance, The Washington Post recently detailed allegations from more than a dozen women that male executives for the Washington Football Team sexually harassed and verbally abused employees at the lowest pay and power rungs, including former cheerleaders and interns. In a statement released following the article's publication, team owner Daniel Snyder said, "The behavior described in the Washington Post's latest story has no place in our franchise, or in our society. This story has strengthened my commitment to setting a new culture and standard for our team, a process that began with the hiring of Coach [Ron] Rivera earlier this year." The team did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's requests for comment.

In order to combat the power imbalances that inevitably impact our work lives — including professional hierarchies, gender, race and sexual orientation — Seabrook says individuals and organizations must actively pursue being "anti-toxic" — a reference to Ibram X. Kendi's concept of antiracism.

"How do we be actively anti-racist at work? And how do we be actively anti-toxic workplace culture?" she asks. "Part of it is expecting bystander intervention and engagement from everyone in your organization.

"But also as the leader of an organization, you have to make an affirmative statement saying, 'This or that will not be tolerated here. We're going to promote transparency. These are my expectations.' And then you have to hold everybody accountable."

The 1999 book "First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently" by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman offers some insight into what actually helps make a workplace healthy, says Cavaiola. Specifically, the book includes 12 questions, originally designed by Gallup, that workers can ask themselves.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

When asked if he has ever heard of a workplace that perfectly met all of these criteria, Cavaiola pauses.

"Um, probably not," he says. "But some seem to do better than others."

But the work of building healthy workplaces is vital, says Avendano

"The one thing that connects us all is work — everybody works in one way or another," she says. "It's one thing that we all have in common."

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