What Does Toxic Newsroom” Really Mean?
“That person is so toxic.”
“This place is a toxic dump, why can’t we get more stuff/people/things?”
“I got in trouble, again. What kind of a toxic place does this to people?”
I see and hear the word “toxic” thrown around a lot. It’s a vague term, at least to me, because it’s rooted in personal observations and suggestions from others. It doesn’t seem to have a lot of grips to grab it, examine it and fix it.
It’s not quite a “hostile work environment”, which is actually tied to illegal discrimination and is part of a Federal Labor Law.
“Toxic” seems to be the lesser of the evils, but still pretty evil.
I want to go into this with the mantra many of the News Directors in newsroom across America have heard as part of the Carole Kneeland Project.
“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”
But let’s dig in.
Wikipedia defines a “toxic workplace” as:
“.. a workplace that is marked by significant infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity. Toxic workplaces are often considered the result of toxic employers and/or toxic employees who are motivated by personal gain (power, money, fame, or special status), use unethical, mean-spirited, and sometimes illegal means to manipulate and annoy those around them; and whose motives are to maintain or increase power, money or special status or divert attention away from their performance shortfalls and misdeeds. Toxic workers do not recognize a duty to the organization for which they work or their co-workers in terms of ethics or professional conduct toward others. Toxic workers define relationships with co-workers, not by organizational structure, but by co-workers they favor and those they do not like or trust.”
I decided to ask an amazing group of Journalists in the Facebook Group MMJane and the LinkedIn community what they think toxic really means, what we’re doing wrong, where they can impact the change, and what we’re doing right.
I’ve thought about this article more than I’d like to admit because I don’t want to stir the pot, I genuinely want to shine a light in this darky, stinky, scary corner.
I think I’m just going to list the concerns and add a little perspective when needed.
The gist of the story is this – People want to be heard, valued, allowed personal time to do personal things, and a lot of it crosses over to topics I discussed in the previous MMJ survey of Improving The Relationship Between On-Air Talent and News Directors/Managers.
What’s really missing is the trust an employee has in a boss. Many of the issues and items could be fixed by just trusting the boss, even if you don’t like them. Some of the issues are extremely serious and there might be a higher level you need to reach out to so change can happen.
I had one boss I really didn’t hit it off with very well from Day 1. It seemed everything I said that used to be smart was now stupid. Every influence I had on the team was taken away as a mid-level manager, and people kept coming to me to complain, and I had no voice in “the big office” even when I spoke up.
NOTE: This “boss” didn’t get along with? We still respected each other and have stayed in touch over the years. Mutual apologies were made, and both were forgiven.
Back in those days, you didn’t question the boss. You accepted decisions that were made and moved on. A transition has happened with social media and group texts and different generational experiences that have made it more “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
What I would like to see is a little more meeting in the middle. “I trust you, but I’m a journalist so I might question you.” For all the times I hear or see someone say, “You don’t know what we go through in a day”, I promise you – you have no idea what WE go through in a day. So instead of making it a battle, can’t we just say “We are both working very hard to get our jobs done through all their intricacies and we both want to succeed. How can we do that?”
One sentence in the survey really stood out to me: “Toxic to me means you’re left with a feeling of hopelessness, anxiety on the way to work, and frustration anytime you think about work.”
I asked 10 questions about “toxic” and “low morale” and asked people to avoid generalities like “We are all miserable”. I wanted them to speak from only their point of view. 28 people responded.
And now the headlines:
TOXIC TRAIT #1 GOSSIP & CLIQUES
Here are a few of the answers:
“Sarcastic remarks by younger employees.”
“People gossip, sabotage you, and management is unorganized.”
Gossip was mentioned 8 times in this survey, and newsroom cliques/bullying was mentioned 5 times. Two people accused managers of gossiping themselves.
Look, newsrooms have always been gossip headquarters. What used to be confined to edit bay walls or the smoking area is now spread on social media, group texts, and via memes. What used to be just a vent for steam to re-focus has transitioned into fuel on a fire.
Coincidentally, when I asked what people do to make their workplace a better place, 5 people said they have stopped gossiping. Good for you. Gossip is generally rooted in limited perspectives and half facts.
I’m a fan of having someone I can vent to, talk through challenges with, point out my reaction, and look for better ways to handle situations. I love my fellow managers for that – past and present. There are a blessed few who know what a News Manager goes through in a day, and when you have that touchstone it’s priceless. I just have learned over the years to be very careful with WHO I vent to. I also need a few people in my circle who can say “I think that was out of line and here’s why.” I can take it, but I need to hear it from another perspective than my own. My perspective is only one side of a story. My circle of trust is down to about 5 people nationwide.
I’ve said this a lot in my news management career, but the only thing people like more than gossiping about managers is telling the manager what the gossip is. I’m usually rather amused by the gossip that makes it my office and how off base it is in many ways.
“You never wrote up that person who did X, Y, & Z”.
Yes, I did. It was just done in private. Like all disciplinary action should be.
“You aren’t hiring people because you are being lazy.”
No. I am interviewing like mad, on weekends and early mornings, and late nights. Some positions are hard to fill. Sometimes we were on a hiring hold until the end of the quarter. Sometimes the salary is crap. I once had 17 producer candidates in 3 weeks turn me down. I needed this data so I could show it to the purse-strings people above me that “we can keep wasting time or we can raise that salary.” We have a method to our madness. No manager is purposely trying to NOT hire people.
“We need new equipment, and you won’t buy it.”
We do need new equipment, but when I just signed an expense form for ANOTHER camera viewfinder that was broken to the tune of $2500, it’s hard to argue we need better equipment, and the pot of money to buy that just got smaller. Plus, capital is approved once a YEAR. So, we know we need it, but it might be 9 months away.
REMINDER: Anything that costs more than $1000 is generally considered a “capital expense” and needs approval from everyone aside from God himself. Those same people are approving capital requests from other stations in the group and money is tight. So if you need something, make sure it costs $999.99 with taxes because that is approved at the station level.
Gossip and cliques can easily kill the newsroom morale. I’ve been in newsrooms where being the new person is hard, and I’ve been in newsrooms where a new person just means the group got bigger. You have a role each and every day in your involvement in gossip and what gossip you allow. Even quietly nodding while someone complains next to you is giving it kindling wood for the fire. Why not say, “You know, you are sure unhappy a lot. What can we do to fix that?”
TOXIC TRAIT #2: NEWS MANAGEMENT AND ALL THEIR PERCEIVED FAULTS
News Managers, buckle up. This is a rough ride. You are taking the brunt of the blame in this, no matter how much you are “just following corporate orders”. You are getting picked apart at a level you might not realize. I dare say – you need to realize it, no matter how much experience you have, how high your ratings are at any given time, or how many Excellence Awards decorate your wall.
There are several sub-categories under the News Management Section
A. UNEVEN WORKLOAD
“Some people get away with doing less than others.”
“One or two colleagues who don’t follow the rules and they don’t get reprimanded or talked to. Everyone else picks up the slack with no real leadership.”
“Years of unbalanced expectations. Some people are expected to do much more for the same title and money. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
There were at least 5 references to an unfair workload.
I’ll be honest, I can’t speak too intelligently to this because I’ve always been one who “did more”. I was happy with that until the few times I wasn’t. Until I was exhausted and needed a break. What I realized was I needed to do a better job of helping the people who weren’t getting nearly as much done by sharing some of my secrets. I still wanted to be the superstar.
It’s fair to want everyone to have the same expectations, and those expectations should be clear. Sometimes underperformers are on a disciplinary plan that you don’t know about. Some people are better at certain things than others, and it is the manager’s job to work on that to improve the employee or coach them out the door. But we’re always going to have the “go-to” people who can get things done quickly when it comes to big events. It’s a spot you earn, not assume.
I think it’s important to remember the difference between “fair” and “equal”. It’s not the same thing.
“Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” – Rick Riordan
There are always going to be people in newsrooms at different levels of experience. Some people are going to be great writers and others are going to rock live shots. Some people have a great reel, but then it turns out they need a lot more work and assistance day-to-day. We can’t all be at the exact same level of expectations. I had a reporter once who could crank out a GREAT package in less than 30 minutes. Other reporters took 2 hours. As long as the story was good in the end and made slot, I was happy. But if I needed something turned quickly, I was going to the fast reporter.
I had an eye-opening moment as a News Director when I realized that I do a lot more of certain items than other News Director’s out there, and it’s not a judgment or good or bad. Nobody really tells you “Here’s what you can and can’t do as News Director.” I know how to work a newsroom computer system, I can write a digital story, I post to our social media, and I dig into the analytics of it. If there is a system, I know how to work it or I want to learn how to work it. I’ve seen and heard of bosses who don’t know how to log in to their newsroom computer system or even know the web address is of the CMS. Now we don’t all “do the same things”, but we have the same job. I’m sure they do things I don’t do.
If you feel you get more work “dumped on you” just because you can bring that up to the boss. Get their perspective. Bosses, take a good hard look at whom you lean on more than someone else, and if that someone else can get a chance to shine.
B. YOUR CONCERNS AREN’T BEING ADDRESSED BY MANAGEMENT
“When you bring concerns to managers several times and nothing is done.”
“Toxic is when you are not comfortable reaching out to those people in your office who are supposed to be respectful to you and understanding of your questions, concerns, fear, or misunderstandings.”
“Toxic is acting like you want employees’ feedback then as soon as we finish talking saying ‘That was nice, we’re doing it my way’ or worse – straight up saying your opinion doesn’t matter because you aren’t management.”
I feel this. I once had a boss that no matter what concern I brought up, this person would just stare at me and not say anything. At all. When I would press it, I got a generic answer like “Ok.”. It was unnerving! Look, I can handle a “you are off base there” or “you keep bringing this up and it’s not something I think is worth addressing at this time”. Then I have a decision if I suck it up or take it to the next level. But saying NOTHING literally made me feel not heard.
However, when we do say something, the survey says we need to use better words. We need to show we are listening and give feedback about the concern.
Here’s where we meet in the middle – if there is a concern and it has to do with a personnel issue, we can’t talk about it. If there is a concern that management doesn’t feel rises to the level of “We need to fix this now!”, we need to say that and explain a little bit of why. There might be other priorities the boss has or THEIR boss has. If we had to address every concern every day and every time, there’s generally someone on the other side who will then start with concerns of their own about the change.
We have to choose the battles we face. But you should feel like you are being heard and things are being addressed as needed. It might not always happen on your timeline, and a reminder doesn’t hurt, but sometimes the answer is just “No”. Sometimes the answer to ME is just “No” when I rise a challenge up the ladder. I got clapped back at just this week for sending an idea that I thought was worth sharing, but it wasn’t received well. I get it. I was hurt too. However, I took the feedback I was given and filed it away in my head to better learn to communicate in the future.
We are paid to make tough decisions, and you need to know that your concerns being voiced are no less important to us if we can’t or don’t act on them right away.
I once had a situation where I would write teases for my newscast and the promo producer would use my teases for the nightly promos. Of course, my concern I addressed was “They are stealing my work! This is plagiarism!” I complained no less than three times, and finally, I was told by my manager and the other manager “We don’t get why you are so upset. If that’s the best way to tease a story, why does it matter when it airs?”
Oh, my journalist friends, I was HOT under the collar about that. Someone was being allowed to TAKE my copy and use it as their own work and I was not going to allow it. Instead of fighting the battle again and again or risking getting in trouble, I just started writing my teases in a private folder or writing them after the topical deadline. That way my work was preserved, and the topical person had to do their own job. I was happy to give guidance if asked, but I sure wasn’t going to keep handing over my work. I let it bother me much more than I should have, but they were the bosses and they got to make that call. So, I sucked it up.
You aren’t always going to like a boss’s response to your concern, but it doesn’t mean you should not bring up concerns when they come up. You need to know 1. How big of a deal this is to you and others 2. How often you want to revisit this topic 3. When the battle is over and accept it or raise it to a higher level.
I think one suggestion made in this survey is right on target: “Make a task force of reporters to discuss issues we are facing.” This is GREAT. It’s a group speaking freely about common challenges, allowing bosses to see group issues and not just one person’s preference for how something gets done. Ask your boss if you can spearhead this group. Be part of the solution, not the problem.
C. MANAGERS HAVE “FAVORITES”
“When they make their favorites obvious and don’t give everyone opportunities.”
“Managers play favorites. I sat in an editorial meeting where the News Director excused themselves and grabbed a big breakfast delivery for two people in the room. They began to eat in front of the entire team instead of waiting 10 minutes until it was over. No, they didn’t work an earlier shift. You’re either part of the ‘in crowd’ or you aren’t.”
“I blame our managers and our clique of favorites.”
I was once called “The Golden Child” and that I could do nothing wrong in the News Director’s eyes. We openly talked often in the office and we had a lot of common interests, so we shared jokes. What nobody really saw was this News Director was VERY hard on me – behind closed doors. This person knew when I was having a “bad day” or was “mailing it in” and called me on it regularly. Nobody saw that. They saw that I was “The Golden Child”. I pitched ideas for special reports, and I got to do them. People complained, “she always gets to do the fun things!”. But, it was my idea – why shouldn’t I be doing it?
Another time I was hired at a station and a certain group of people wouldn’t be remotely nice to me. It simmered a bit before it boiled over. I confronted the “leader” of this group and it turns out they thought I was part of a “clique” in the newsroom because I worked in a market one of the anchors came from. They thought I was that person’s pawn. I didn’t even know this person before I got there, and I explained that. Apologies were made, and I still consider that person a great friend and one of the best director’s I’ve ever worked with in this business.
Reading this, I had to question “Do I have favorites?” because Lord knows I’ve been accused of it. To me, the perceived “favorites” are the ones who come in and regularly talk to me. The ones who bring up issues AND solutions. The ones that struggle and ask for help. The people who overachieve and SHOW it to me just in case I missed it. I can’t make people want to come into my office and talk to me, I can only say “The door is always open!”. I actually spend time thinking out how to bond with the people who don’t come in and talk to me. Plus, sirens sound in curious minds across the newsroom when I saw “Can I talk to you?” I try to get ahead of it “Hey can we talk for 15 minutes tomorrow? Nothing bad, just want to touch base.”
I used to have someone who came to my office and would sit down and talk non-stop. I would hear stories about fishing and hunting, two topics that made my stomach turn, and I just had to sit and listen in the spirit of “good communication between departments”. I was accused of being a “favorite” of that person, nobody realizing I felt trapped in a conversation that was pushing my workday into my evening because of the time I was losing.
Think long and hard about “what makes that person a ‘favorite’?”. I’m sure there are cases where this is a real thing, I’m not doubting what several people said in the survey. I’m just trying to offer a little perspective on their observation.
Managers, I would ask that you evaluate the perception of “favoritism” in your own newsroom. It’s really bothering some people.
D. IF YOU CAN’T SAY SOMETHING NICE…
This was a BIG one. Probably one of the most “toxic” traits listed in my survey. Managers who nitpick, criticize, and give negative feedback, and rarely – if ever – give positive feedback.
“I feel underappreciated. I feel as though my work and my colleagues as MMJs will go to the moon and back EVERY DAY. We get all the angles. We write creatively. We do our research. We meet deadline. And yet, it is still never enough. We are only ever told what we are doing wrong. I feel like I am bad at my job because all I ever hear if negativity. And criticisms are delivered terribly, in a belittling manner. That, on top of long hours, no breaks, and low pay has resulted in low morale.”
“Hearing only complaints from managers and not noticing anything good you may have done.”
“Toxic in the newsroom is feeling never being good enough for your boss. Our boss is a micro-manager and she jokes about it. But it creates so much toxicity in the newsroom. You can never meet her expectations.”
“Toxic to me is no matter how hard you work you still don’t feel valued. Managers create unrealistic expectations, contradict themselves, and don’t create a space that makes you want to show up and give your all.”
“Managers and leaders who spend more time bringing you down than helping you up.”
News Directors, managers, corporate people – listen. This is something we need to address. I know I’m guilty of it as well, and I can admit it, but more importantly – I can get better at it.
It’s a great step to take as an employee to let managers know how you like to get feedback. I once was so upset I wasn’t getting feedback and I was told “no news is good news.” So, if I wasn’t getting the feedback I was supposed to assume I was doing great. That was directly what I was told. I didn’t like it, but I knew that meant that when I got called in, it was because of something I did wrong and could prepare for it.
I also asked regularly if I could do anything better, how to take it to the next level. I scheduled quarterly feedback sessions with anyone who would put me on their calendar to talk about my performance and newscasts.
Much of the time when I am giving direct “constructive” (read: negative) feedback it’s because of something huge – something legal like not disclosing third-party content, wanting to know why a live shot died, or it’s the third time someone missed slot. There are certain things we have to react to right away.
But we aren’t trying to be Miranda Priestly.
But we can, and clearly SHOULD do better at celebrating your victories. You should also celebrate your victories with us. For example, this past week I was attending virtual IRE, and I was out of the office. Yes, I tried to watch the news when I could, and I was in some of the editorial meetings, but I would love it if someone would text and say “Hey! Check out my package today! That was a BEAST and I liked the way it turned out!”. We aren’t all-knowing, all-seeing beings who watch news around the clock. Sometimes we need to get a “bump” that you did something well that we didn’t see.
I think you are completely within reason to say to your boss “I feel like I only get negative feedback, and I really thrive on celebrating what I do right.”
As managers, we also need to see good behavior and reinforce it. To quote Kevin Benz of i-Media strategies, when you see something good done say out loud in front of everyone “Do more of THAT in the newsroom. THAT is how we do it here.”.
Being a journalist, I wanted to dig into this a little more and find some data better understand what works.
Harvard Business Review posted a story in 2013 that did a study on this very topic. Long story short – the right “mix” of praise vs. criticism was nearly 6 to 1. That means for every 6 positive things you say, you are allowed one piece of criticism to get the best results from personnel and financial standpoints.
That’s a good number to start at as we re-work the way we give feedback for a generation that is hungry for more feedback but wants it more balanced.
There are going to be some bosses who are thinking “What? I have to say six nice things before I can give criticism? C’mon!”. Believe me, I know that thought concept, but the more I open my eyes and ears to facts and data with supporting input from employees, the more I understand what motivates my team. It’s not just the paycheck (we’ll dive into money later).
E. RESPECT THE PRIVATE TIME
“Guilt-tripping into working days off, being very cagey about time off, not respecting journalists personal time.”
“A place that frequently calls you in on your day off because they’re short-staffed but refuse to hire more people.”
I think we all face this at one point or another. I addressed this a little bit in my article “Am I Working Right Now?”
It’s hard to know when to unplug, and some of you are better at it than others. The younger you are, in general, the more important it is to you. You didn’t grow up with unrealistic expectations of workload and how “first in, last out” was a mantra.
Gen X’ers may have started the work/life balance, but it really was more “Work Hard. Play Hard.”
Millennials have turned it into an art. Some Businesses can accommodate that in many different ways. What I wouldn’t give to have a Nap Pod at work when I’m just dead tired or Mario Cart in the breakroom to blow off some steam.
I think it’s a good idea to set your boundaries with your boss. Let them know how you best like communication on your days off. Maybe it’s an email so you can check it if/when you get to it. Maybe you hate phone calls.
There was once a big story in Las Vegas a reporter had been working, and an update came in on a Saturday, this person’s day off. So we gave it to the reporter of the day. I got a nasty phone call from the reporter who was off saying “That’s my story and I want to do it!”. I was trying to respect that person’s personal time, and that person felt I was giving their story away. I knew the boundaries moving forward were a little looser for this person than others.
Sometimes we have to call you on your day off, for whatever reason. I’m not going to apologize for that, but I can apologize for those who regularly get called and bugged about things that aren’t relevant or can wait.
It’s good for bosses to see that this is an issue with some of you. It’s good to stop by the office on your Friday and say “I’m off the next two days, and I need to decompress. Unless it’s urgent, can I get a break from getting called?” or something like that.
We all should have a time and space that is precious and ours. We should defend that space like the last animal trying to get into Noah’s Ark. Just be clear where your boundaries are and communicate that.
F. AND THE SCHEDULES ARE A MESS
“Switching schedules with zero notice leaving reporters confused and tired.”
First of all, I’ll say doing schedules is the most thankless task ever. Nobody ever says thank you, but they always say “screw you” if you make a mistake or don’t give them their time off.
A little behind-the-scenes action on this. We approve time off at whatever regular intervals it is, I always did an “I’ll approve/deny within a week of submission, barring the holiday season (because those are always a monumental task).”
You’d think it would be that easy, right? I sure did when I started schedules. It’s not. There are the people who ALWAYS plan last minute. There are the people who “assumed” they had a holiday off even though they didn’t request it. There are those who change their plans relentlessly. There are those who don’t fill out the form right. There are those who book a ticket before getting approved and them coming begging for leniency.
So, here’s the managers’ debate – and I want to use some of your examples from the survey.
“Guilt-tripping people into working days off” vs. “Being cagey about time off” vs. “Being low-staffed at any point.”
Okay, so Employee 1 doesn’t want to have to work their days off, but Employee 2 wants time off and wants an answer and Employee 3 doesn’t want to work extra when the staffing is low.
To make time off happen, those three people need to happily exist, and do you see how it’s impossible? If I approve Employee 2’s time off, I might need to ask Employee 1 to fill in that day. If I opt not to because I know that makes Employee 1 unhappy, then I answer to Employee 3, who is now mad there is a staff shortage and has to work extra. If I wait to figure out how to balance the time off for Employee 2 and not leave us short-staffed, it’s called “cagey”. Endless, thankless cycle. And someone’s always mad, while two others might be okay.
Here’s what I suggest on this. First of all, talk to the person who does schedules, maybe Employee 1, 2, and 3 go to the schedule manager and have a conversation during a calm moment.
It might go like this:
EMPLOYEES: “The schedules never come out on time and it’s frustrating. We get called in often on a day off, we don’t get a lot of notice about schedule changes, and I’ve been waiting three weeks to see if I can have that week in August off.”
MANAGER: “The schedules are always out two weeks in advance. I approve them as I can. I am really busy and can’t always do it on a specific day.”
EMPLOYEES: “I know we all have a lot of work to do, but can we set some kind of process for when time off gets approved, and a hard deadline for time off requests, like a month in advance?”
MANAGER: “I tried that, but several people always make last-minute changes or have things come up, not to mention the sick calls to balance out, and it doesn’t help morale when I’m denying time off for one person or everyone is confused because three schedules have come out.”
EMPLOYEES: “Then just deny the time off if it’s not in the window of time to be approved.”
MANAGER: “Ok, but remember when you had that baby shower you forgot about for your college friend and you needed time off at the last minute, should I have denied that?”
EMPLOYEES: “Well, no. There are exceptions. But.. in general.”
MANAGER: “But everyone thinks they are the exception.”
This is where you can say “Okay, let’s set some limits that everyone has to follow. Even me.”.
I feel the stress when the schedules aren’t updated as well because I can’t look ahead to planning things like “beat days” or special projects. It’s up to the News Director to set a policy of approval and time off and schedule deadlines and stick to it.
You shouldn’t have to always be wondering if your days off are going to change, and it falls largely on employees to follow procedures. Don’t go behind the backs of managers and “coordinate” a sick day, don’t re-work the schedules yourself.
If the schedule isn’t posted on time, bring it to the bosses’ attention. I don’t always know when the schedules are updated or posted. I generally just need to look a week or two ahead. It’s okay to let me know something is wrong and I can address it.
G. RUDE/PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE/STRESSED OUT
“Yelling or being rude in the newsroom during stressful situations.”
“Passive-aggressive as a communication style.”
Show me a newsroom that has no passive aggressiveness flying around and I’ll show you a unicorn. What started as sarcasm and was witty transitioned to passive-aggressive comments. Now more feelings are getting hurt by these comments.
Look, I’m a master at sarcasm. I can quote Airplane! with anyone, and I love good banter.
At the same time, I see the looks I get if I say, “Can I be News Director today?” when someone comes in and, in my mind, tells me how to do my job. Then it turns into (insert nasally voice here) “She said ‘Can I be News Director todayyyyyyy?’” in a private moment between colleagues.
Some people take the banter and run with it, others get hurt. Sometimes you don’t know which is which until days or weeks later when you realize that person is still holding onto that “thing” you said that one day.
I was in a new workplace once and there was a person who treated me horribly. I confronted the person about it and said “Since I’ve gotten here, you dismissed my ideas, responded to me with disdain, and argued every single point I’ve made. You have not been very welcoming and it’s bothering me.”
This person, who had been nothing but aggressive toward me said “That’s aggressive.”
I felt I was being direct and attempting to get to the root of a problem. This person thought I was being aggressive, despite written and team witnesses toward me that echoed the exact same thing. Who’s right and who’s wrong in this?
We can definitely work on the words we use and how we approach topics. I try very hard to hold back sarcasm to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. I do feel sometimes like I’m holding back part of my personality. Trying to find a balance is tough. Here’s what I can promise you. No boss intends to hurt someone’s feelings. No boss means to be freaked out or be rude. We aren’t perfect. Allow us some grace, and when we apologize for it (if we do), accept the apology.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of it. I once had a boss tell me, as I was expressing a concern about what I thought was a serious issue, “You need to stop worrying. You worry all the time. It’s too much” as he turned his back to me at his desk. I walked out SO hurt. The next time this boss said the same thing to me, I decided I wasn’t going to swallow the hurtful words any longer. I said “When you tell me to stop worrying, what I hear is that you are telling me to stop caring. And I refuse to do that.”
I don’t know what good it did, but I felt better saying it.
Bosses, we need to get better at knowing what words hurt and what words help. Employees, we need you to tell us when we’ve crossed a line in your book. Maybe not in the moment, maybe a few days later in a calm moment. “I just want you to know when you said X, Y, Z to me the other day, it really bothered me. I felt disrespected. I know we get stressed out, but it really made me not a good employee the rest of the day because of that comment.”
Just the other day I was in a meeting with a team of people on my staff. One person had been off a few days, and we had breaking news that day and a newer person was filling in. I was trying to give a compliment and what came out was all wrong, and I suspected it as the words left my mouth and I knew it when I saw the face of the person.
Here’s what I said “You would have been so proud of (new employee). They did this and that and the other thing. We barely even missed you!”
What I was TRYING to say was “You should be happy you can take time off and know that you are covered and not feel guilty about being off when the crap hit the fan.” What was heard was “We don’t need you because someone better is here.”
The day went on, and the hecticness of my work life picked up, and there was a pit in my stomach. When I had the time, I went to find the person I knew was upset. She wasn’t there, so I texted her.
I just felt so bad about this, and it’s going to help me use better words in the future. It helps when we know what we say hurts. A lot of us are “old school” and came up in this business in a different environment. Help us understand where your boundaries are so we can be better.
THE COMMENTS THAT JUST GUTTED ME
Some of the comments in this survey really hit me in the stomach, the heart, and the soul.
“Toxic is when you feel disrespected and undervalued in a way that threatens your mental health. You even begin to dread work.”
“An environment that affects your mental and physical health. For example, you’re no longer sleeping or eating because of whatever stressors are at work or you feel physically sick at the thought of going to work or you feel like you would rather get into a physical-harm accident than go to work.”
“There’s a difference between being honest in a manner that encourages and supports change and growth and being honest in a way that makes your employees feel dumb and like you shouldn’t be in this profession.”
“Personally, I see low morale especially with journalists of color. We’re not heard or valued. I’ve talked to current and former Black talent from my station and gotten the same story: I had to leave for opportunities. Many of them went to larger markets to get the opportunities our management said they weren’t ready for in our newsroom. Black talent does not get the same support or praise as our white colleagues. And we’re also not given the benefit of the doubt. It’s criticize first, ask questions later.”
“When managers and co-workers consistently make racist comments or comments that include micro-aggressions against black people or other persons of color.”
“In my newsroom, journalists of color generally have a harder time getting those opportunities.”
We HAVE to do better than this, managers. You HAVE to take care of yourselves, employees.
This week at IRE I learned about a new tool for journalists who have been exposed to trauma, cover trauma, or just need some help unique to our crazy field of choice.
It’s called the JOURNALIST TRAUMA SUPPORT NETWORK. Check it out if you need help. Use your health insurance to get counseling. You aren’t weak for needing or wanting that. You are trying to navigate tough waters.
Here’s a good read about studies done on journalists of color in newsrooms. The results might surprise you. Also, they might not, sadly.
WOULD MORE MONEY HELP ANY OF THIS TOXICITY?
Survey says…. Not really.
“I think a big piece of the toxicity is feeling overworks and undervalued and underpaid.”
“I think paying some of the people around me would help the environment. Our producers are underpaid. That limits the quality we can recruit and retain. That creates tension with on-air talent, producers, and EP.”
PLEASE KNOW THIS IF YOU TAKE NOTHING ELSE AWAY FROM THIS, YOU CAN EFFECT CHANGE
It’s what you were born to do. You tackle tough topics, break them down, investigate, and find solutions for viewers. Give your newsroom the same energy if it’s not there.
You can stop gossiping. You can bridge the gap with your boss. You can explain yourself. You can help someone who isn’t performing well. You could save a job for someone. You could be seen as a leader among peers. Yes, it might get uncomfortable, but so is chasing down the Governor to ask the question he keeps dodging.
Too many people in this survey think they can’t change the environment, but I promise you – you can. You might not be able to turn it on its head, but you can certainly make a more positive impact each and every day.
You wouldn’t let the police get away with terrible behavior, and you wouldn’t give up at “no comment”, would you? Don’t let your voice go unheard in any newsroom.
I asked if people felt comfortable talking to their boss about a toxic issue or low morale. Too many people said, “No, I just suck it up and gossip about it later.” It’s not going to get any better if you don’t bring it up.
There were also three people who said they wouldn’t go to Human Resources because they don’t feel they would get any help there.
“HR won’t do anything about it and the person then takes it out on whoever reported or complained about them.”
“No one trusts HR.”
“I don’t trust HR to do anything. They’re there for the company, not the employee.”
I can unequivocally tell you that is not true, and I’m sorry if you’ve had that experience. There is always a higher level of HR to go to in any company. Retaliation, at least in every company I’ve ever worked for, is against company policies. I’ve been on both ends of HR issues, and I can tell you – the work is thorough, private, and complete. You might not see instant results, but there’s always a record of the complaint. Should more complaints come, sirens get sounded.
Let’s talk a little about how disciplinary action works or even just a basic concern brought to the attention of HR. Generally, disciplinary action goes from verbal warning, written warning, final written warning, termination (with the hopes that somewhere in there the behavior improves.) You will be asked to provide proof, witnesses, and any other supporting data. Then those people will be talked to and asked to provide supporting data. The person who is being accused will get to say their side and they will provide their data. At some point, you might be in a meeting with the person you are accusing and an HR rep or a manager. You can request whom you would prefer to be in this meeting “I’d like to have HR in this meeting so we can better resolve it as I feel you are biased in this situation.” You should take notes of the meetings you have and write yourself an email about what was discussed. Date it and put it away somewhere safe so you can review it should the problem arise again.
IF I CAN JUST ADD ONE MORE THING
Give your boss a break. The break you want us to give you. Understand we are doing more with less as well. Understand we are fighting battles you never see. Know that we want all the same things you want. We want to pay you more. We want you to be happy and fulfilled in your job.
We juggle so many things in a day that, clearly, we are missing some of the rooted issues in our newsrooms. Our workload doesn’t negate that we are not doing everything right, but it does make us a human trying to balance unprecedented challenges, all the while we are worried about all of you on top of our own worries.
We follow corporate orders while dealing with “boots on the ground” problems. We signed up for that. We didn’t sign our life away to a job with endless needs. We have to make decisions best for the newsroom, station, and company. Sometimes that’s going to conflict with the requests of employees.
We are held accountable in rooms you don’t see. We are held accountable with every rating book and digital analytics chart. We defend you to the viewers who email us. We protect you from comments that are really just plain mean. I once had a big disagreement with an employee, and two hours later I was still asking for this person to get a raise. To me, it was a bad moment in a relationship, but it didn’t define the relationship. To that person, I had lost all of their trust and support.
We really want you to be the best you can be, even when the words come out completely wrong. You don’t have to like your boss, but can you at least trust them that much? When we apologize, please accept it and don’t hold that grudge.
If we’ve messed up, you can talk to us. I promise you, you can. Schedule a time.
I challenge anyone reading this article to this one thing – for one whole week – don’t needlessly complain about anything and don’t allow others to complain in your space. Turn the complaint into action if you can. See how that feels at the end of the week. In this same challenge, schedule a time to talk with your boss this week. Tell him or her how you are doing and what concerns or questions you have. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel at the end of the week. You might be surprised at how well that conversation goes. Bring someone with you if you need moral support. I had someone do this to me one time, and at first, it was weird to me as I was thinking “Why can’t this person fight their own battle?” but when I realized it was the ONLY way this person felt comfortable coming in, I was happy to be able to have the conversation no matter who was brought in.
Just one week could turn the ship around. I’d love for you to message me and tell me how this turned out.