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If You Answer Yes to Any Of These 7 Questions, Your Workplace Is Probably More Toxic Than You Think


The year was 1944, and the Allies were at war. In Washington, the precursor agency to the CIA had an idea on how to help.

Their plan: Write and publish a how-to guide to toxic workplaces, and smuggle it to sympathetic workers behind enemy lines who hoped to sabotage the Axis from within. 

Not everyone could carry a gun or blow up train tracks and military installations, the thinking went, but they could make their workplaces so inhospitable and inefficient that they might slow down the Nazi war machine.

The guide was called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. You can read the whole thing online, today. 

What’s most fascinating is how many of the things that we complain about in business today were almost the exact same things that Allied spies advised doing to create toxic workplaces eight decades ago.

In fact, if you’re running a business, it’s worth asking whether any of your employees seem to practice these behaviors regularly. 

Do they insist on holding meetings when less-intrusive means of discussion will do?

“Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done … When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible–never less than five.”

Do they talk on and on and on, at length?

“Make ‘speeches.’ Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate ‘patriotic’ comments.”

Do they insist on revisiting things that have already been decided?

“Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions. … Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.”

Do they treat colleagues and the people who report to them unfairly?

“To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.”

Do they seem to have constant excuses for not working?

“Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can: when changing the material on which you are working, as you would on a lathe or punch, take needless time to do it. If you are cutting, shaping or doing other measured work, measure dimensions twice as often as you need to. When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary. Forget tools so that you will have to go back after them.”

Do they seem paralyzed and unable to act?

“Advocate caution. Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow-conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on. … Be worried about the propriety of any decision–raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

Do they have a hard time working with colleagues?

From the sabotage guide: 

“Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker. Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned. When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.”

Do they set fires at work, or else call in false police reports to send emergency workers to the wrong parts of the city?

OK, obviously this one would go beyond just creating a toxic workplace, and the fact that they’re on the list is a reminder that the sabotage guide was in fact intended for warfare. 

But, if some of the other items on this list seem a little familiar, maybe it’s worth an investigation. You might realize your workplace is more toxic than you think.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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