7 min read
17 Feb

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works…. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.  

Eleanor Roosevelt 


Various global multi-disciplinary case studies show the bewildering complexity of toxic workplace environments that modern employees have to navigate, in a job market that in itself, due to technological and other developments, has become increasingly complex even without factoring in such internal minefields. 

What constitutes a toxic workplace environment of course depends on one’s views of what is acceptable in such a workplace, and this is, in my view, a dynamic and helpful aspect of the debate if handled correctly. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace conflict, and the very process of dealing with that constructively and skilfully affords the involved parties a wonderful opportunity to build that healthy, mutually beneficial working environment. In this article we will nevertheless look at a few hints of healthy workplace practices in the context of generally acceptable best practices. We will also focus on the question as seen from management’s perspective as well as from the employees’ point of view. 

The toxic workplace is a crucial topic across a range of important debates, from workplace conflict to economic considerations, from productivity to mental and physical health concerns, and a range of other interlinked topics. Anyone who is, or has ever, been on the receiving end of such a working environment will know all too well the physical and mental threats and unpleasantness that come with such a situation, and the seeming despair at any real solution that often accompanies such dilemmas. 

Updating and upgrading our responses 

It is particularly glaring to notice some of the patronizing, outdated and frankly insulting level of “advice” given in some of the discussions on this important topic. This is particularly unhelpful to people seemingly stuck in a working environment where they feel trapped between the conflicts at work and unemployment. Before we then get to modern best conflict practices to help those in that position, let us briefly dispose of some of the clichés and glib pieces of advice that are either self-evident or unhelpful. 

(i) Just get another job 

Of course, this is always a strong consideration. Leave the toxic workplace for a healthy working environment. In the current global job market, and the South African one in particular, this is hardly practical advice for most people. 

(ii)Tough it out 

Of course, again. For most people working life brings with it a certain level of stress and anxiety, and we need to be as resilient as we can manage. But “taking it on the chin” beyond normal and acceptable levels brings about two unacceptable conflict outcomes. Firstly, it tolerates and enables abuse, which is unacceptable on many levels, and secondly it leads to conflict avoidance and suppression in the victim, which has a range of economic and mental health negative results. 

(iii)You can take them to the CCMA without resigning, you know? 

This particularly popular version of “Stand up for yourself” is technically completely accurate. An employee can take her employer to the CCMA or Bargaining Council for a range of workplace conflicts, without resigning. This is quite often the correct strategy to take. In the real world, however, it more often than not simply means the beginning of the end of that working relationship, a result that in the long run may not be in the employee’s best interests. 

Most of the advice that has somehow gained popularity in these scenarios is severely outdated, impractical or shows no meaningful knowledge of modern workplace conflict. Our discussion here should also not be applied without expert advice in cases where serious criminal offences form part of such workplace toxicity, such as sexual harassment, corruption, situations where so-called whistle-blowing should be considered, and so on. Let us then consider a few more practical and battle-tested strategies for the employee caught between the proverbial devil and very real unemployment. 

Management’s strategies 

We can start with a brief look at a few strategies that management themselves can institute to detoxify their workplaces. It is an absurd urban legend that all, or even most, employers run sweat shops that would make Charles Dickens rewrite some of his books. While employers have a sharp eye on their bottom line, toxic workplace scenarios are often created and maintained without senior management even being aware of that, or of more constructive alternatives. Should modern management be open to improvement, or be so persuaded by employees, they can implement some of the following workplace practices: 

(a) Do a confidential internal audit. Listen (properly) to your employees, in a confidential survey. Get the true, undiluted facts showing you perceptions and concerns, and then take your management decisions based on that. It is more often than not refreshing to see the miles between management’s perception of the health of the troops, and what gets said in the passages. This helps also to identify hard to spot and remove internal power centres, cliques and other causes of possibly undetected toxic behaviour. 

(b) Dedicate a few hours to train a select team or individuals in modern workplace conflict practices. Most of the current, so-called modern HR practices are conflict causes in themselves, setting up costly and harmful perpetual conflict cycles in the workplace. This will require small but important tweaks in internal disciplinary processes, and will identify and eradicate most of the classic workplace toxic flashpoints. 

(c) Once you have (b) in place, implement an internal workplace mediation level in addition to your other disciplinary processes. This is the one simple and yet powerful best favour that a modern workplace management team can do itself, with measurable results. 

(d) A lot of popular self-help books tell us that the modern workplace should be a place of openness and effective communication. This is true, in a trivial sense. But actual case studies in the last two years show that this still has to be done in an effective manner, bearing in mind conflict causes and human behaviour. Just having an open door policy will simply lead to a wind blowing through your workplace if not generated and maintained correctly. The same goes for diversity management. Diversity in itself, diversity as a begrudging box ticking compliance exercise actually does more harm than good. To apply and unlock the true power of diversity correctly applied is management’s responsibility, and an exciting adventure if approached in that spirit. The South African workplace is beset by a multi-level range of toxic workplace situations because of this compliance-based approach to what is perceived as the employer’s legal obligations. Changing your lenses will change your working environment. 

What is there that the employee caught in such a toxic workplace environment can do as practical, actually available strategies in addition to what we have discussed above? Again, we point out that any of the solutions we discussed in the beginning may well be the best strategy for you. After obtaining expert advice and considering your position, you will make that decision. The following is a list of a few examples of strategies that may assist the employee in that position. 

Employee’s strategies 

In addition to the above possible options (and discussing their possible implementation with management), the employee can consider the following strategies: 

(a) Consider communication failures. A large number of workplace toxic cultures exist simply because employees accept them as given, immutable workplace realities. Reactions ranging from grim acceptance, union demands or lawyers’ letters are all doomed to failure, and simply cause defensive and often hostile reactions from management, setting up further spirals of workplace conflict. Depending on the dynamics of the situation, consider individual or even small group informal discussions with management, in a constructive and non-threatening manner, without even at the early stages demanding resolution, but simply bringing real problems to senior management’s attention. This often works wonders with workplace bullying, favouritism, and unintended management practices that may cause offense or operational difficulties. Let management know what the problem is, give them an opportunity to work with it. Recent workplace legislation makes workplace discussion forums and informal processes mandatory, so existing conflicts can be raised and resolved simply by making use of such requirements. 

(b) Allied to the problems in (a), a lot of workplace toxic environments are caused by a lack of personal boundaries. See to it that management understands your boundaries, obviously as those boundaries in turn fit into your operational duties. Clear communication often here removes toxic workplace problems relating to incompatible senses of humour, work ethics, unexpressed expectations and so on. 

(c) Do yourself the favour of becoming conflict competent. This can be done through your own studies, or get yourself a conflict coach to work with you in private. This will enable you to understand not just the symptoms of conflict but also their causes, you will know how to understand and assess your particular conflict and exactly what strategies are available to you, you will learn a range of interpersonal conflict skills, you will become proficient in understanding and using interpersonal conflict skills relating to nonverbal communication, persuasion, conflict de-escalation and a lot more. With your conflict competence will come conflict confidence, and in this manner you will in all likelihood be able to manage and resolve your own workplace toxic environment. This removes the discussion from generalities to your own tailor-made conflict solutions, and it is of course a valuable life skill that you retain outside of its workplace application. 

(d) Try to correctly identify and then isolate the cause(s) of the workplace toxicity. If it is structural or operational, management may be unaware of it. It is however often one individual, or a small group of people who cause and perpetuate the problem, and just in identifying this your problem is all of a sudden no longer so much a work problem as a Mr. Jones problem. All of a sudden this may give you valuable perspective and possible options. 

(e)As difficult as this may seem at the time, try to change your experience of the problem as something being done to you, as a problem solving opportunity. Conflict case studies show clearly how perceiving ourselves as the victim of some big organization shuts down our creative thinking. See what a problem solving attitude brings to the table. If presented correctly most management responses to that approach will also be more constructive. 

(f) Use the power of us, the strength in numbers, the value of a concerted, organized campaign of dealing with the problem. For various good reasons, employees often suffer in silos in silence. Management can, and will, far easier dismiss one squeaky wheel than if an organized and widely supported submission is made to them in a dignified, respectful and competent manner. 

(g) Flowing from this, learn how to effectively escalate a conflict. Workplace conflicts benefit tremendously from a patient, structured escalation, using internal structures and processes while the problem is being addressed by management. This includes the careful keeping of records, the skilled use of internal processes, lobbying and other conflict skills. It sometimes takes more than one knock on management’s door to get the attention that a workplace conflict deserves. 

(h) Perspective. Maybe the most difficult, and certainly the most unpopular item of advice is the reminder that sometimes the “toxic workplace environment” with all those “gaslighters” is just me not doing my work, or me not fitting in to the larger operational picture. Case studies and modern conflict research clearly show the serious workplace conflicts caused simply by different intergenerational expectations, worldviews and work ethics. This means that the workplace conflict is very real, but it is not intended as such, and the various opposing parties both/all actually believe in their positions. Here, having the conflict skill of assessing and managing identity conflicts will be a great asset. Either way, just spend a few minutes assessing your own role in the conflict as honestly and openly as you can manage. Can you see the position from management’s perspective? What would you have done in their position? An honest assessment here can bring much needed perspective, save you much strife, and even offer one or more additional solutions or strategies to the situation.


Unresolved, cyclical workplace conflicts are extremely difficult conflicts. Given the crucial importance of our jobs to most of us, and how that impacts our families, our financial security, our present and future well-being, our physical and mental health, these conflicts in my experience often amount to some of the most serious and most harmful conflicts that people will experience in their lifetimes. 

As our brief discussion has shown, there is much that can be done. It takes patience, bravery, careful strategizing and a certain level of knowledge and skill, but workplace conflicts in those toxic environments can be avoided, improved or resolved. Do not avoid or suppress the conflict, and know that you can improve it through strategies such as the ones we have discussed. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Dangerous Magic: Essays on Conflict Resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), especially Chapters 3, 5 and 14 

2. Various applicable articles on the blog www.conflict-conversations.co.za  

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

Andre Vlok 

February 2024

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