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Dealing with toxic behaviors in a remote law firm

dealing with toxic behaviors at your remote law firm

A toxic workplace is exhausting. More importantly, it’s bad for your health. Dealing with harassment, abuse, disorganization, and other unhealthy workplace behaviors can lead to bigger problems like insomnia and heart disease.

If you’re dealing with toxic behavior at your remote law firm, you already know how frustrating it can be and how powerless you can feel.

Your home is supposed to be the place where you feel most safe, but your toxic work culture makes your home office feel inescapable. There’s no place to walk away.

It’s especially disheartening if you experienced negative behaviors in the office and were hoping for a reprieve when your firm went remote.

So, what do you do about it?

Why does toxic behavior occur to begin with?

There are lots of different reasons for concerning behavior in the workplace. For instance, you’ve probably snapped at someone just because you were having a bad day, right?

Instead of trying to list all the reasons that someone might be acting inappropriately, start with this:

Ask yourself whether the problem you’re facing is happening because of malice towards you or because it’s an unhealthy reaction to the environment.

Someone who starts rumors about you or tries to take credit for your work is probably directing that toxicity towards you. Meanwhile, a person who wears you down by complaining constantly is still toxic, but they aren’t intentionally directing that negativity at you.

No matter the root cause, that kind of behavior has a negative impact on you and the others who work at your firm. You can’t let things continue just because the person doing it doesn’t mean to hurt you.

Identifying and addressing negative behaviors at your remote firm

Sometimes, you’ll experience toxic behavior directly. In other cases, you’ll notice that it’s happening to other people on your team.

Keep in mind that even if you don’t see the same things happening to others, odds are very good that you’re not alone in your experiences. Any problems that you’re dealing with are probably happening throughout your firm.

That’s why it’s so important to take appropriate action to solve these kinds of problems. Since you work remotely, the full extent of the issue might not be visible to everyone in leadership.

Let’s examine some of the most common toxic habits and explore solutions.

Complaining culture

Some firms are mired in a culture of complaining. It’s normal for everyone to share their grievances and unusual to hear compliments or positive sentiments.

Fixing cultural issues is probably something you can’t tackle on your own, but if you work in this type of environment, you can set boundaries to protect your mental health.

Addressing complainers at work

Start by changing your own behavior — stop complaining, no matter how tempting it is to join in.

Once you break your own habit of complaining, you’ll notice that it feels more draining to listen to other people do it. That’s how you know it’s time to set a boundary.

When people want to complain to you, try changing the subject. It’s likely that they’ll insist on continuing their diatribe, so the next step is to gently (but firmly) let them know that you don’t want to talk about problems unless you’re actively seeking a solution. You can say things like:

  • I agree that this is frustrating. I’m happy to talk about possible solutions with you. I’m just not willing to keep talking about this without moving forward.
  • Can we change the subject? This is stressing me out, and we’re not being productive by talking about it.
  • I can see that this is really bothering you. You should talk to someone who can do something about this.
  • Are you looking for a solution, or do you just need to vent? I respect your feelings, but I’m not open to letting you vent to me right now.
  • This conversation isn’t productive and our time is limited. Can we focus on this priority instead?

 

In extreme cases, it’s okay to simply end the conversation.

This is easier to do in a remote environment because you don’t have to physically walk away to end the conversation.

On voice and video calls, you can point to the meeting end time as a hard stop to help manage the topic of conversation. Text chats can be muted, and you can choose not to respond right away so that the other person has time to regulate their emotions.

Over time, your boundaries will become clearer and your peers will learn that you’re not open to listening to complaining.

Gossip

Gossip can be extremely damaging, affecting your reputation, your relationships, and even your career path. It’s even possible that the office gossip is acting with malice and actively trying to hurt the people about whom he or she spreads rumors.

Much like complaining, gossip can be an individual issue or a systemic problem within the culture.

The solution is a little more complex than setting boundaries, though.

You do want that boundary to make it clear that you’re not going to listen to rumors about your coworkers or firm, but stopping the habit entirely might require a more direct approach.

Addressing a problem with gossip

Confronting the office gossip might sound daunting, but if that person is hurting others with their chatty habits, it’s necessary.

You don’t have to be antagonistic. In fact, it’s better if you approach the situation from a cooperative and positive standpoint.

Acknowledge that people really enjoy talking to this person, then enlist their help in making the firm a more positive place to work. Odds are good that they don’t even realize the pain and damage they’ve caused by sharing private or inaccurate information.

If they persist, you might need to enlist help from a leader or human resources at your firm.

Micromanagement

The first step to fix micromanagement is recognizing when it truly is the issue. There are a lot of other things that can look like micromanagement, but are really a normal part of leadership.

Things like expecting you to join calls on time, checking on the progress of work with an impending due date, and recommending improvements to processes are all stuff that a manager is supposed to do.

If your boss is micromanaging, you’ll see that they are a bottleneck for all the work that needs to get done on the team. They want to see or approve everything, and they make it clear that they are the only person who is smart and capable enough to actually do the job. Every detail needs their oversight, and nobody can get work done on time because they’re fixated on minutia.

Addressing a micromanagement problem

Fixing micromanagement means addressing the root cause.

Maybe it’s your boss’ fault. If they feel insecure, have trouble trusting others, act out of fear, or have little experience being an effective manager, the cause of their micromanagement issue is something on their side.

You can’t do much to fix that. Decide whether or not you’re willing to keep working with that person.

However, micromanagement could be a response to your behavior, too. Ask yourself honestly: have you missed a lot of deadlines? Do you communicate and keep other people in the loop about what you’re doing? Have you struggled to focus on the correct priorities? Are you habitually late to meetings or slow to respond to questions?

The fault may lie on both sides, and it’s important that you own that. The first step towards addressing micromanagement is to handle your personal issues.

From there, it’s time to open the lines of communication.

  • Over-communicate about the status of ongoing cases. You might even consider giving an update at the end of every day that summarizes what you worked on.
  • Ask for more clarity about top priorities and work on those things first.
  • Ask more questions about expectations when you take on a new case or goal.
  • Set aside time to respond to pending emails, messages, or requests each day. Make sure that nothing goes unanswered until the next business day, even if the response is that you’ve received the message and expect to work on it after completing a higher priority item.

Stealing credit

Few things are more frustrating than doing great work only to have someone else try to take credit for it.

Even if you speak up immediately, this feels like a no-win situation. By claiming credit for yourself, you risk looking like you’re the one trying to take credit for work or ideas to which the rest of the firm contributed. Plus, other people will blame you for creating a confrontational environment.

In many cases, lack of credit is accidental. Your peers or managers might not have thought about it. Consider whether you need to take action, and if so, speak up in a private setting.

However, if someone is regularly claiming credit for the work or ideas that you put forth, that’s a larger problem that must be addressed.

How to deal with credit-stealers

There are a few different scenarios that might occur.

If you regularly work with a team and someone else tends to be the spokesperson, they might not think to give credit to the other people who work with them. This happens a lot with leaders in all industries — they present the work that their team did and accept the praise without naming specific people or passing on the credit.

Examples like this are usually a matter of an innocent mistake. Talk to that person privately and let them know how you feel. They probably don’t know that it’s important to you.

Occasionally, though, you will run into someone who intentionally takes credit for other people’s accomplishments in an effort to schmooze their way to the top.

It’s wise to give them the benefit of the doubt and raise your concerns privately, but if this is truly what’s happening, they might not stop. In that case, start keeping careful documentation of the work that you do.

Go to their boss when you have real evidence that they’re trying to claim credit for work that they didn’t do. Hopefully, having proof will give leadership a way to take appropriate action.

No matter how or why credit-stealing is happening at your firm, pay attention to the work that others do, too. Go out of your way to credit people for their accomplishments, and if you notice that one of your peers is the victim of credit-stealing, speak up for them in the moment. They might just do the same for you later.

Ignoring boundaries for personal time

Since working from home has become more common, so has the expectation from some business leaders that their team should be available at all hours.

Maybe your boss sends dozens of emails as they’re putting in extra time in the evening, or perhaps you get calls and texts early in the morning and late at night.

Some of this bad habit comes from leaders who grew up in a culture that rewarded those who came in early and stayed late. If you’re there when the boss arrives and still there when the boss leaves, you’re obviously the hardest worker, right?

In truth, putting in more hours does not help you get more done. Your productivity drops sharply after 50 hours in a week.

Working too many hours puts your health at serious risks, too. Studies show that working too much overtime increases the risk of hypertension, heart disease, depression, chronic infections, musculoskeletal disorders, and even early death.

In other words, you really can work yourself to death.

What to do when work crosses your personal time boundaries

The most effective way to protect your personal time is to keep work at work.

Uninstall your work email from your personal computer and cell phone. Use a different phone number for business and personal use, and after hours, turn the ringer off on your work phone. If you work from a home office, set up in a room with a door you can close at the end of the day.

If you have peers or managers who have gotten used to you responding at all hours, let them know that you won’t be available after 6 PM. Use an auto-responder and/or a status message to remind them that you won’t answer their message until the next business day.

This might be tough for you. The always-on culture at a lot of law firms is highly stressful, but also addictive. It’s scary to unplug when you’re used to being reachable at all hours.

A tech detox might help make this easier for you. For a detailed guide on how tech detoxing works, plus tips on how to do it without negatively impacting your career, download our free eBook.

Other things you can do to improve your remote work environment

Toxic behavior from your team can wear you out, but ultimately, you can’t control the actions of other people.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that you can control.

If you find working from home too isolating, consider a coworking space membership. Your firm may even help pay for it. Coworking spaces are great options for those who are energized by being around other people.

On the other hand, if your home office isn’t quiet enough, consider changing your setup to make it easier to be productive. Invest some time into your workspace so that the time you spend there is comfortable and valuable.

Another smart strategy is to intentionally build relationships with others at your firm.

Remote professionals must work harder at this since we’re not in the same space as our peers. Invest some time into getting to know your teammates, even if you’re all busy. You can respect their time (and yours) while still creating personal connections.

Most importantly, you can improve your time at work simply by acknowledging that you chose this job, and you can just as easily choose a different one. While you probably don’t find job-hunting enjoyable, it can be empowering to realize that a new job in a different environment is always an option.

Hang in there. You’ve got this.

Author

  • Rachel is a writer with a passion for storytelling. She has worked with a broad scope of topics, including legal news, women’s rights, personal injury law, and trends that may affect one’s practice.