Over the past month or so, my social media timelines (well the HR and recruiting ones, at least) have been dominated by discourse surrounding the return to work. As more people are getting vaccinated, social distancing and mask mandates are relaxing, more leisure activities and travel are being enjoyed en masse, and companies whose employees have been working remotely are being called back into the office.
The conversations are, for the most part, insightful and necessary. After all, as talent professionals, we have a substantial stake in strategizing, planning, and executing recruiting and retention policies and efforts.
But there is one topic that has triggered me to the point that I no longer engage or offer a different perspective. It’s that employees would rather quit their jobs than return to physical workplaces…because those workplaces are toxic.
The fact that my extended colleagues are the ones who are not only agreeing with this generalization but also encouraging folks to quit in favor of a hybrid or entirely remote situation is bothersome and doesn’t tell the full story.
The tipping point for me was Bloomberg’s article with its the title: “Employees Are Quitting Instead of Giving Up Working From Home: The drive to get people back into offices is clashing with workers who’ve embraced remote work as the new normal.”
Having read the story and then seeing the conversation centered on the idea that the main reason employees want to stay remote is that offices equate to toxic workplace made me wish we were a little better at not conflating and projecting our own work-life experiences onto the public for whom we’re supposed to be a valuable resource.” In reality, the 28% of employees discussed in this article who are quitting are doing so because they enjoy the privilege of choosing jobs that don’t require troublesome and/or long commutes.
The Privilege of Quitting
Keeping my recruiter realness turned up to 10 demands that I not operate from this place of privilege. What I mean by that is, first and foremost, we are ignoring an entire segment of the workforce who either never left the office or who don’t have white-collar/office jobs. Excluding them from the “new normal” and “return to work” conversations is careless and misinformed.
Secondly, working remotely is not the easiest, safest, or best option for some people. There are people for whom this is an unwanted and undesirable arrangement that disrupts their preferred work-life balance.
Thirdly, not everyone has the luxury or opportunity to quit a job for a host of reasons — and despite how toxic it might be.
The reality is that working remotely 100% does not remove the harm caused by a toxic work culture.
Given that that the job market is volatile and recruiters and HR professionals are reporting how difficult it is to get people to accept jobs that aren’t remote — and that there’s a mass exodus on the horizon because employees are being called back into the office — I want to make it clear that in many cases it’s not the office/work location that’s toxic; it’s the people.
Putting myself back into the equation is necessary at this point; I’ve touched on how workplace culture directly impacts a recruiter’s ability to do their job effectively a few times but haven’t gone into a lot of detail on my direct experiences. It’s time I do that.
My Choices Around Work and Toxicity
The Bloomberg article cites commuting as a reason people give when deciding to quit their jobs. This reminds me of a time pre-pandemic when I had the option to be co-located in two different offices. One was 12 miles away and the other was over 50.
Because traffic here in the D.C. metro area is abysmal if I were to leave the house at the right time to get to the office farther away, the commute time was only a few minutes longer than the office closer to me. So, you might assume that I chose the closer option, but that was not the case.
Instead of enduring a 45-minute, 12-mile commute to a location where I had an office with the other corporate HR, recruiting, and support staff, I opted for a three-day a week, 50-55-minute, 50+ mile commute to a location where I sat in a cubicle among the technical staff whose programs I supported.
The reason? The people and the culture at the farther location were more peaceful and agreeable.
Here’s another example from my own experience: One of the most toxic places at which I’ve worked was 100% remote. Every day I had to mentally prepare and build up defenses to manage the recruiting tasks of the day without getting derailed by microaggressions. It is extremely taxing on a recruiter who values and promotes relationship-building to cringe at the thought of having to interact with their co-workers. Consequently, it was one of the toughest times in my recruiting career, since I had to do so much extra “me work” to give and be my best.
In this case, working remotely enhanced the discord and allowed toxicity to thrive in ways that would have been more easily combated and possibly reduced had I been in the same physical location as those who were causing me harm. So, again, it’s the culture that drove me away, not the work location.
It’s time for recruiting and HR leaders as a whole to look inward. Before we make judgements and offer solutions to why the greater employee populations are leaving organizations, we need to understand why it’s so hard to recruit and retain employees in our tradecraft.
Why are so many HR and recruiting professionals leaving jobs or the field altogether? Overwhelmingly, it’s because we’re toxic too. Change starts from within and over the past year, we had a real opportunity to focus on improving our work and ourselves. But instead of building trust, we implemented policies and procedures that positioned us as watchdogs rather than as resources.Instead of building relationships, we created barriers. Instead of being accountable, we shifted blame. Instead of being proactive, we reacted only when it was already too late.