Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: Restaurant Edition
This article was originally published on April 3, 2018. It has been updated periodically for relevance.
When we talk about an unsavory work environment, we often use the adjective “toxic” to describe it- and for a good reason. “Toxicity” implies danger, poison, sickness, and even (when taken to its literal conclusion) death. In turn, toxic substances and environments are those known to do us harm, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Imagine the signage you’d see on a nuclear waste site: Skull and crossbones. “Danger!” and every other cautionary tactic to warn people of the risks inside. Similarly, work environments can be noxious to one’s health and don’t come with the easy-to-identify warnings they should.
Working in the restaurant business, you know the importance of maintaining a germ-free space. If you’re running a filthy kitchen, your food quality will suffer, as will the guest experience and overall rep. If your environment is toxic, no one will want to work there, and you’ll never create coherent synergy in your restaurant. In determining your restaurant’s status, you should look for these signs of a toxic work environment.
Non-Stop Discipline/Non-Existent Recognition
Sometimes referred to as the “all carrots, no sticks” dilemma, any environment that places heavy emphasis on mistakes and little upon achievements can be toxic. However, in restaurant work, procedure and protocol are essential for a healthy workflow, so this is not to say there’s no room for correction or redirection in managing a restaurant.
What we do suggest, though, is that you pay attention to the types of criticism that are most prevalent in your work environment, as well as the overall frequency. If you’re only ever told what you do incorrectly and never what you are doing well, it can be challenging to know where you stand, creating feelings of anxiety and resentment that don’t help anyone improve. Also, remember that in the heat of the moment, criticism (and emotions!) can fly. So don’t let one bad day sour your entire attitude, but do look for patterns in how you receive criticism.
Practice the rule of “sandwiching” criticism with praise. You won’t always be in a position to construct this on the restaurant floor, but try to structure your criticism with praise, critique and then follow up with further positive recognition. Help your employees know why you’re redirecting them, that it’s not to make them feel bad but to help them get better at their job. Give actionable criticism, and refrain from personal criticisms: focus on actions. Something else to remember: if your employees only associate meeting with you as a cause for panic and alarm, there could be some inconsistencies in your recognition/rewards pattern. Finally, don’t hesitate to recognize “wins.” Let employees know that you’re an observer; you call out the good and the bad.
Griping, Griping, and more Griping
We’ve all had those workdays that push us to the brink of our sanity. We’re certainly not denying the cathartic value of an outright gripe session with your coworkers. Maybe it’s a quick vent on the 8-top table with the screaming kids or the guest who keeps sending back the omelet because it’s not “California style” enough – we get it. The red flag to identify: when your coworkers cannot talk about anything else and use every non-working moment on the job to express their displeasure with it. Pay attention to why they’re griping. Are the complaints “acute” (related to a specific instance?) or more generalized? Consider that your restaurant’s work environment is probably fairly toxified if your coworkers are this consistently dissatisfied, catching them in an endless feedback loop of negativity. Finally, remember that complaining isn’t inherently wrong, but when it becomes the sole state of someone’s existence, it will sap the energy and will of any team.
While you cannot eliminate griping outright (let’s be honest: you need a release valve), you can help show empathy, so employees don’t feel alone or isolated. On stressful nights, do your best to be encouraging. Acknowledge the obstacles, but don’t give clearance for “throwing in the towel” on decorum. When an employee has a nasty interaction with a customer, try and boost them up. These acts of empathy and teamwork help foster a feeling of team unity, one which will supersede “gripey” feelings when the heat turns up. Be a source of inspiration for your employees by not griping when the going gets tough.
If you find your team constantly wracked with stress, you might try some stress management activities and worksheets. Seriously! These structured exercises help you ground and center yourself, a few minutes of respite from the rigamarole.
Are your coworkers and teammates regularly calling in sick? Are there recurring upheavals in the schedule with disruptive absences? Do you see coworkers who are working while they’re sick (they should not be!). Yes, some emergencies and health issues are unavoidable, especially during some seasons. However, what you should look for is the general morale of your coworkers on a day-to-day basis. If everyone is consistently sick all the time, your figurative workplace toxicity may be manifesting itself in a viral reality.
Genuinely toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout, fatigue, and illness. In addition, high levels of stress, primarily when sustained, are demonstrably bad for the human body.
If you find you’re always scrambling to cover for unexpectedly absent employees, there really could be more at play than the typical “restaurant turnover is naturally high” principle. Your employees may be actively avoiding coming in.
First and foremost: do you know who your superior is? If you needed something from them, do you know how to contact them? Do you have the type of relationship where, if anything were amiss, you’d be able to discuss it with them? Are there resources in place for you to communicate with your managers? Ultimately, a massive sign of workplace toxicity is an inability for employees to communicate with their bosses. One-way communication, where directives and rules rain down from the top, but feedback cannot return, is not only unpleasant but ineffective.
If you find that you’re ever discouraged from contacting your manager about anything or made to feel like a bother for doing so, you may want to evaluate. Yes, a manager is busy and isn’t at your beck and call. Furthermore, they won’t always agree with you, but a workplace that lacks two-way communication is a toxic one.
Consider how your employees address you: are they proactive in coming to you with concerns or problems? Do they communicate with you? Do they tend to “ask forgiveness or permission?” Are they avoiding you at all costs?
If so, it may be time to send out a signal that you’re open to communication. Maybe you can set up “office hours” or some portal through the company intranet to schedule a time to see you. If there’s a perception that you’re unapproachable, work to reverse it by proactively approaching employees.
Lack of Clarity, Muddy Direction
When you first start a job, there’s always a bit of a learning curve as you adapt to the “rules” and expectations. However, if you feel you’re often confused with the direction that instructions change “at will,” and you’re usually expected to “read the mind” of your superior, you may be in a toxic work environment.
Try and determine the expectation here. Do you have a clear example of what’s “correct?” Do you know where you went wrong? If you find that you’re often making mistakes yet can’t quite identify what’s “correct,” then you really can’t improve. Try and find where processes and expectations are outlined and documented, or seek clarification. If you cannot get an explanation or you’re discouraged from soliciting it (see the last point), take note.
If your employees keep making small, “careless” errors yet never bringing any concerns to you, it may be your communication style that’s lacking – not your employees.
Establish a culture where employees feel comfortable asking questions and seeking clarification. Document all your processes clearly and work them into your training program. Have all your employees complete the same training program and update it regularly.
Signs of a Toxic Work Environment — Final Thoughts
Trust your gut. Identifying workplace toxicity isn’t an exact science like determining nuclear toxicity, but your instincts are a powerful tool. If work causes you to feel panic, anxiety, sweaty palms, and illness, it could be your body telling you something. Job stress is entirely unavoidable, but toxicity isn’t.
Be proactive in identifying toxicity through your job-seeking efforts. When interviewing for a new position, ask questions to get a feel for the manager/employee relationship and their communication style. It’s your chance to survey them! Ask to see the bathrooms and kitchen and take note of the shape they’re in. The idea is if these “less significant” things are in order, the more delicate details will be as well. David Lee Roth/Van Halen had the right idea. Ultimately, think about the way this job will make you feel in the day-to-day grind.
Restaurant work is stressful and filled with wild cards. Of course, you can stack the odds in your favor, like a kitchen display system, to automate your kitchen processes. Still, it’s critical to identify which rigors are “part of the job” and which are toxic red flags you should avoid outright.
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About the Author
Dylan Chadwick is a Content Marketing Specialist at QSR Automations. He has incredible hair and receives inquiries for model work daily. He graduated from Brigham Young University with an English degree and journalism focus and loves to write about death metal.