Toxic workplaces are everywhere, but minimum wage workers know them well

A migrant worker works in the Salinas Valley near Salinas, California, U.S., March 30, 2020.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Over the past several months, high-profile organizations — from The Ellen DeGeneres Show to Bon Appetit to the Washington Football Team — have been the subjects of editorial exposes for having toxic workplace cultures.

But when CNBC Make It asked lawyers, labor experts and historians about how to define a toxic workplace, several argued that it was crucial to look at the struggles facing minimum wage workers, many of whom work in dangerous environments where their health and well-being is in jeopardy

"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. "There are differing levels of toxic workplaces. To me, Ellen DeGeneres doesn't define toxic workplaces."

In the worst examples, Boardman argues, managers "are calling ICE on their employees so that they don't have to pay them for the day.... [Or] the janitorial contractor that only hires illegal immigrants so that he can pay them less — that to me defines a toxic workplace.

"This is not to, in any way, lessen what happened with Ellen DeGeneres," he says, instead simply suggesting that the definition of toxic workplace should also include the conditions uniquely faced by low-wage workers. 

Boardman stresses the country's minimum-wage workers are the most likely to face toxic work environments. Minimum wage jobs are disproportionately held by immigrants; women; Black and Latino workers; and young workers — characteristics that can exacerbate inequalities in the workplace. And low-wage workers are among those least likely to have emergency savings and without a strong social safety net, many are forced to put up with unhealthy or unfair working conditions.

"When you're a low-wage worker and you are new to the country and you don't have other options for work, you will put up with more to continue to be able to pay your rent and feed your family," Boardman says. "Look at what is happening to farm workers in California right now. That's a toxic workplace because they're literally breathing toxic air. They're in 110-degree heat, they're not getting paid properly, they don't have health care, they're forced to work in clouds of smoke."

Common signs of a toxic workplace include a lack of respect, an inability to raise concerns and an imbalance of power. But these red flags are especially common among organizations with a large number of low-income workers, 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. 

Avendano points to the fast-food behemoth McDonald's, where workers have long raised concerns about sexual harassment, as an example of a workplace where employees feel unable to speak up about concerns.

"Workplaces like McDonald's, where the economic inequity is so great between the boss and the worker, inequities get amplified because workers are expected not to complain. Often those are the kinds of workplaces where you find the most harassment — racial and gender harassment — the most abuse," she says. "I had one woman [who works at McDonald's] tell me that she was told by her boss to put on her big girl panties and stop complaining. That's a toxic workplace.

"People who work in these kinds of jobs often don't have any power," Avendano says. "They don't have a voice. They are not really allowed to even complain. If they do, complaints are either ignored, as in most instances of complaining about harassment, or you're punished for it."

"McDonald's USA has a deep commitment to ensuring employees at corporate-owned and franchised restaurants have a safe and respectful work environment for everyone," reads a statement from McDonald's in response to CNBC Make It's request for comment. "We've demonstrated our continued commitment to this issue by consistently offering various Safe and Respectful Workplace Trainings to educate and empower individuals working at McDonald's brand restaurants across the country with important information, resources and training to support professional, safe and respectful work environments."

McDonald's workers are joined by other activists as they march toward the company's headquarters to protest sexual harassment at the fast food chain's restaurants on September 18, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Similar actions which took place around the country and were touted as the first-ever nationwide "strike" against sexual harassment in the fast food industry.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Corporate structures, in which low-wage workers are the bottom rung of a rigid professional hierarchy, can also create toxic conditions. 

"When you have a very strict hierarchical structure, that can't help but lend itself to toxic power dynamics,"  says Linda Seabrook, general counsel and director at Futures Without Violence. "If you are the administrative assistant, you're the one with the least power. Therefore, ergo, you're the one who's most vulnerable, and often that person is not only a woman, but a woman of color and all of those other dynamics, like racism and sexism and misogyny, come into play."

These hierarchies can create a culture of disrespect — a common sign of a toxic workplace — specifically for low-wage workers. 

Seabrook explains 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?"

To address some of these concerns, Seabrook says organizations can invest in horizontal organizational structures and 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."

Boardman says unions, which allow workers to organize around collective goals, should be part of the solution as well. "Unions start to change this power dynamic," he says. "What unions do is balance the playing field."

"Capitalism is the problem," he adds. "But I don't know if we're going to have that radical of a shift."

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