Is Egypt’s work culture toxic?

Originally published on Arab Finance

He left his desk for a minute to discuss the progress of a project with a colleague when he suddenly heard his manager yell, “you are an idiot *Selim,” recalls a 41-years-old journalist, who had been battling a toxic manager for years.

At that moment he looked around and at least two other departments heard the statement. “I asked her what’s wrong and she repeated the same statement,” he says.  “She went on to explain that I named a file incorrectly.” Adding insult to the injury of being cursed in public for an incorrectly named Microsoft file, the document wasn’t Selim’s, and “as far as I could tell, she didn’t mention the matter to the other team member,” he adds.

Selim’s story is one of millions in Egypt, says Lubna Ismail, human resource (HR) talent head and career coach. In many cases, she explains, the problem usually boils down to one person benefiting from management’s inaction.

“This issue is much more prominent in local companies, whether large or SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises),” stresses Ismail.  ”Specifically due to the absence of proper management and HR structure.”

“Lack of rules and consequences for employees with negative attitudes, narcissistic, or ego issues turns them into vampires in the company, sucking energy from good calibers,” she explains. “Employees always leave because of these people.”

Selim the journalist’s story tends to fit within Ismail’s analysis of the Egyptian work culture. “I had the sympathy and verbal support of top management,” he says.  The priority of his entity, however, was to maintain his manager, and more importantly “to avoid rocking the boat any further,” which exacerbated the issue.

When asked if his senior’s negative attitude was only with him, hence top management’s inaction, the 41-year-old journalist explained that his entity had struggled for years with his manager. “Where I work, it is our policy to be politically conscious and my direct manager had strong issues with that,” he explains. “She demanded that we be more aggressive in our writing and ignore our organization’s rules.” While the directors discussed their concerns with her about her direction, he adds, “They never took any serious steps, nor did she ever receive a warning from them.”

Unfortunately, for Selim, this worsened his situation. “Because I am the only one in the team who is the product of the place rather than her hire, this worsened her aggression towards me,” he says, “I always felt that she made it a point to speak to me in an insulting manner, she wanted to get rid of me.”

Selim’s situation continued for five years until his direct manager left Egypt. Despite the difficulty for him to work in the culture his senior fostered, Selim’s primary concern remained to be top management’s lack of response. “I never got the impression that they were addressing my issues,” he says. “I don’t think there were any repercussions for her actions, not even verbally. Nothing ever changed or improved.”

Ismail, the career coach, believes Selim is a major contributor to the deterioration of his situation. “Of course, this is the result of lack of HR and management reaction,” she notes. “However, Selim could have stood up for himself. Loud and rude managers tend to be afraid.”

If Selim would have simply told his senior “you shouldn’t speak to me that way,” or “if you insult me again I will be forced to take action,” Ismail says, she would have backed off.

“This is not technically a 100% professional solution, but it should work.” According to the career coach, in the absence of formal consequences, this approach threatens the toxic employee without giving them further ammunition.

In situations where management is not supportive, Ismail explains, an employee needs to learn to be proactive. “Many people, like this case, are passive and reactive. They need to compile evidence and communicate the existence of an issue,” she says. “However, pick your battles, not everything needs to be turned into an issue.”

Are small-company hierarchies to blame?

It is not uncommon for companies to ignore toxic behavior when an employee is viewed as irreplaceable, says Samia Kasseb, HR director. If, however, management ignores such an attitude they end up with “an ever-expanding situation that will keep reappearing,” she stresses.

Confirming Kasseb’s point is *Amal, a 34-year-old business development manager of an SME. “Ever since an issue at work has been poorly handled by senior management, we have been experiencing follow-up shocks,” she says.

Amal’s company has about 40 employees in total, promoting a collaborative approach that sometimes “comes at the expense of a proper task hierarchy,” she explains. “This creates grey areas all the time.”

The business manager had been heavily involved in one of the company’s projects since the beginning of the year, until one day an executive from another team requested a meeting with her and the owner. “He lost it because he was told by a third-party vendor that I was the project’s focal point,” she explains. “He yelled at me and the owner of the company because I attended a conference call with his team, which the owner asked me to attend.”

According to Amal, this wasn’t the issue. “My manager just sat there laughing, while this person kept on attacking my work in other projects in a downgrading manner,” she recalls.

Trying to take control of the situation, she summarized what was said, repeated it to her manager, and asked him to reply. “He laughed again,” she says. “That’s when the executive decided to go further and insult me.”

“I stopped the meeting, told them this conversation is beneath me, yelled at my manager to address this issue or he has to address another one with me and stormed out,” she recalls.

The company owner later explained to Amal that in order to mend the situation he told the employee who insulted her that he misunderstood her input in the project. “All I am is someone who collects their points and organized them in an excel,” she says. “Not only was he belittling my significant contribution to a project that I invested a lot of effort to help complete, my manager didn’t even address the fact that I was insulted with him.”

Commenting on this case, an HR director in a multinational bank who wishes to remain anonymous believes, “If management and HR do not take corrective actions towards an issue like this one, the solution, in my opinion, is to document these incidents in an email, which is now considered a legal document, and report the matter to the labor bureau.”

To the bank HR director, untackled aggression in the workplace feeds into one main issue: Egyptian labor law has no clear clause about how people speak to each other, about bullying, about values, and ethical limitations in the workplace.

“The matter is so archaic,” she stresses. “The only way to tackle insulting coworkers is to file a lawsuit, completely separate from the company and the labor office, accusing a person of insult and bombardment.

Ismail the career coach agrees, “Legal has to be involved in this issue. You bring in lawyers and they question both employees as well as witnesses.” She also explains that part of this story may be missing, if the business manager is at fault or has previously attacked the person in question, legal involvement would be able to ensure that the correct resolution is reached.

When asked if the technical employee has only attacked or insulted her, indicating a personal issue. Similar to Selim’s case, Amal explained that a few days later the same employee had insulted a consultant and on another occasion used a similar degrading attitude with the owner himself openly during a meeting. “The owner dropped the issue, he is prioritizing progress of work regardless of the elevated risk.”

Ismail believes “these cases are purely upper management’s mistake.” To her, this issue would never happen in a multinational company nor a well-structured local one.”

This problem will remain there, Ismail stresses, because no one has addressed this issue. Management has fostered a “Survival-of-the-fittest environment.”

Amal’s concerns echo Ismail’s point. “At this point, I have no bad feelings towards the team member who insulted me, he isn’t the issue,” she says. “It is the belittling of my work and value in a project, by my own manager, simply to prevent someone from leaving mid-project.”

Exacerbating the problem, the business executive explains that “the same employee kept spreading rumors to my team, and on other occasions asking them to report me to the owner,” she says. “Furthermore, I and my manager learned that the same disgruntled employee manipulated technical aspects in one of my projects to create problems.”

According to Amal, when she requested her manager confront the employee, he refused. “How the owner addressed the issue means one thing, he is terrified to lose this employee, regardless of the cost,” she says. “I have no trust in the owner’s ability to handle difficult issues and protect the company’s progress.”

There’s another angle to this issue that must be addressed, explains Kasseb the HR manager. “It is a must to define the responsibilities of each team member in a project, very clearly and without overlap,” she stresses. “In unstable environments, it dramatically reduces room for conflict if every task is planned and assigned to a specific focal point.”

It’s a one-man show

Decision making in local companies and SMEs tends to be too centralized, explains Ismail the career coach. “This dramatically increases work-culture toxicity,” she adds. “When hierarchy layers are too few in a company, it gives room for issues to remain unaddressed, thus a hostile work environment grows.”

According to the HR expert, when top management insists on managing all employees and tasks directly, disregarding the role of management hierarchy, the risk of a toxic work experience is exacerbated.

This was the case for M.M, a 40-year-old senior accountant. “Even though we are one of Egypt’s largest local corporations, the company operates as a one-man show,” he explains. “We have excellent minds, nevertheless, no one discusses or contests the owner’s decisions, they are all afraid to lose their jobs.”

When everything boils down to the owner’s opinion, if he decides to ignore or mishandles a matter, resolving it comes at the expense of juniors and middle management, M.M explains. “My manager had repeatedly raised an issue with incorrect measures taken by another team, which the owner decided to ignore,” he says. “When it began causing problems, my manager and I were assigned the herculean task of resolving it.”

To the senior accountant, this meant working daily from 9 am to 11 pm during Ramadan (Muslim holy month). “When I complained to my manager that I want to pray Taraweeh (a religious night ritual in Ramadan), he laughed it off and said since when do you pray,” he recalls. “I felt insulted, even though I know there is nothing he could do.”

According to M.M his company continuously experiences these issues, and it is all due to the owner’s lack of respect for the corporate hierarchy. “Anyone is expected to do any job, there is no structure, and more importantly no appreciation for the extra work,” he explains. “Having such a messy work environment leaves significant room for deficient managers to pawn their work on other members.”

To Ismail, the career coach, the lack of a well-defined structure and system is fertile ground for toxic relationships between different teams, as well as manager-subordinate relationships.

Another case in this regard is that of 38-year-old Ghadeer Adel. She also had issues with a previous one-man-show employer. “There was no hierarchy, if the owner didn’t see the need to address an issue, it remained unresolved,” she notes.

Similar to the case of M.M, the accountant, Adel’s work schedule suffered a lot from the “lack of structure and clarity in task assignments. This often resulted in too many working nights and weekends.”

Sharing the same story is 23-year-old R.M, a financial analyst. “I helped start my former company and things were great until they brought in a new managing partner,” she says. “He would demand long working hours and weekends like it’s a given.” To the financial analyst, working long hours was accepted and normal, however, management demanding it as a right with no appreciation was intolerable.

“The managing partner told us once ‘I’m feeding you,’ when asking us to work longer,” she recalls. “That’s unacceptable, he isn’t doing us a favor. We are performing work and a service to this company, allowing it to generate profit.”

Feeding the one-man-show problem, R.M notes that the same partner “micromanaged everything.” In one particular incident, he called and questioned her about EUR 3 (EGP 56). “While it is his right as an owner to ask about the minor amount,” she says, this was a routine task and not his direct responsibility to follow on. “In addition, if he opened the excel I submitted, it would have been clear that we buffer this amount in international transactions,” the analyst explains.

The excessive repetition of such incidents fostered an environment of mistrust, according to R.M, who adds, “despite the lack of growth opportunities in the company I wanted to stay, but a few months after the new senior manager joined I decided to leave.”

Is the toxic environment label a fad?

Work problems, of course, aren’t just a management issue, explains the multinational bank HR director. “In my opinion, millennials have a much lower level of resilience and patience than that of previous generations,” she says. “There have always been social challenges, but the consensus now is that things should be cool, if they aren’t I am leaving.”

Young employees aren’t used to accepting colleagues who operate differently from them, she adds. “I am not saying there isn’t a toxic environment in Egypt, there is, but it is largely arbitrary, and more often than not it is due to lack of tolerance of others,” says the HR director.

Furthermore, many of the complaints her team receives about rude or aggressive managers revolves around being pressured to meet set targets; questioned about delays or minor issues; asked to do their tasks in a specific way, and other perfectly acceptable requests.

“Younger employees now have much lower resilience than previous generations,” she notes. “They know they can leave their job, stay at home with their parents who will pick-up the tab until they figure out what they want to do next.”

Furthermore, in many cases employees who are complaining from the work culture, when investigated, turn out to be themselves fostering what they label as a “toxic environment”, she adds.

Management age is another factor the bank HR director believes is contributing to the issue. “Now more than ever managers are becoming very young. Some directors are in their 20s, she explains. “While they tend to be exceptional at their job, their people-management skills tend not to fully developed. They didn’t progress from juniors to seniors at a pace that allowed them the opportunity to learn how to deal with all kinds of people.”

Proactive prevention 

A core contributor to these issues is a lack of proper HR operations and structure in companies, says career coach Ismail. “Small companies tend to have more of an admin-HR hybrid, they are not experienced or capable enough to handle issues. They are just there for operational purposes,” she adds.

The first step to address a toxic work culture is to restructure the HR department, Ismail explains, adding, “Despite salary concerns, SMEs need a strong HR caliber to establish a sound system.”

Zooming in on the required restructure to control toxic behavior, Ismail, recommends developing for each role a competency model, which is a guideline that sets out the specific skills, experience, and behavioral requirements.

Additionally, she suggests a behavior interview as a crucial step in the hiring process, the purpose of which is to get a better understanding of how the candidate resolves conflict; his problem-solving skills; attitude with internal and external stakeholders.

For existing employees, however, she proposes a training plan that addresses work attitude and collaboration.

For the bank HR director, the way around most of these issues is to set a comprehensive and strict Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that include values, ethics, measures taken by the employee to maintain great calibers, growing the knowledge base of other team members, among others. “Of course, all of these KPIs must be tied to salaries and bonuses, this way everyone will abide by them,” she notes.

Ismail the career coach, however, is against tying salaries to behavior for two reasons, the first is subjectivity. HR can’t uniformly quantify behavior and attitude KPIs across all employees, she explains.

Secondly, and more commonly, “this approach typically results in employees faking an attitude change two months before the yearly appraisal,” she says. “Going back to their formal normals after their evaluation is complete.”

However, Ismail strongly believes in a gradeless behavior appraisal system. “The purpose here is to foster a healthy working environment,” she notes. “Opening up a communication channel with all candidates, allowing them to notice that there are issues, and allowing HR to determine the right course of training needed.”

Another issue that fosters tension at the workplace, the bank HR director explains, is the lack of clarity about compensation and financials in general. “In Egypt, it is common practices to hide people’s salaries, bonuses, and any increase in either,” she says. “Everybody eventually finds out these things, and due to the ambiguity, people feel underappreciated and act out.”

She further adds, “If there is a standard tier structure based on experience and education, combined with a unified reward system that is shared with everyone, financials wouldn’t cause any internal issues.”

Cases: How to resolve toxic behavior

Other than preventive measures, companies need to establish a system for dealing with existing employees who foster a toxic culture, beginning with an investigation of the underlying causes, explains Ismail.

“The first step is to eliminate any personal issues,” she says. “We are human beings, what if the person is going through a horrible personal loss?”

One of the cases Ismail handled was of a “significantly toxic” employee. “The first step was to face him with all the complaints received,” she explains. “Turns out he was struggling with his wife’s cancer and it was becoming increasingly stressful for him to meet tight deadlines.”

The second step from there, according to Ismail, was to eliminate the stress-causing issue. “We temporarily re-distributed tasks, assigning all those with strong due dates to other team members, while he took on the tasks with a more relaxed delivery timeline,” she explains.

“Taking such steps allowed the problem-causing employee to feel valued and completely change his attitude at work,” she notes.

On the other hand, if the person isn’t going through difficult personal issues, Ismail stresses the need to create an action plan for the toxic individual. “Once the complaints are discussed with the employee and HR discovers no real underlying causes, the person in question is given three months to amend his attitude,” she explains.

After the three months, the employee’s teammates and seniors are interviewed about the caliber’s attitude, performance, and output, Ismail says, adding, “This always works as they feel closely monitored.”

Kasseb, the HR director, listed the same steps as Ismail when addressing a difficult employee, adding that “if behavioral issues still exist the employee’s promotion is paused, and if the situation persists after that we consider letting them go.”

Generally, the HR director believes the sequence of addressing a toxic work environment begins by normalizing employee-HR communication. “It is perceived as uncommon to report an issue a direct manager has failed to address,” she explains. “It has a stigma around it; something which also exacerbates existing issues.

One of the cases shared with Kasseb was that of a 35-year-old employee who wished to remain anonymous, he had suffered from a rude senior. “I once left my manager a note about errors I found in another team member’s work, came back to the next day to find her response on a sticky note on my desk,  “You are a lazy sloth, you should have doubled checked this before [sending it to me].”

This was one of many situations the 35-year-old employee found himself in. “I was afraid to react,” he said. “I knew if I did I would be penalized.”

When asked about top management and HR’s reaction to these allegations, he replied that his senior was deemed irreplaceable and therefore, if the issue was formally discussed with her “I could lose my job, just to maintain her.”

According to Kasseb, “When the issue involves a cleaver or indispensable employee the matter becomes very challenging.” In situations like this, she believes that constructively communicating complaints would help mitigate the situation.

“Simply discussing acceptable and unacceptable behavior, squeezes out bad attitudes from the company,” she elaborates, adding “If managers are aware that communicating concerns with HR is an encouraged practice, it helps to further control their negative behavior.”

The following step in cases like this is coaching, according to Kasseb. “We bring in experts who perform a 360 assessment, a type of evaluation that includes all partners that deal with the employee even customers.”

One final ingredient Kasseb recommends is transparency. “Gossip in general always increases toxicity levels,” she says. “That’s why it is our role to communicate well with all involved parties, this way nothing is left ambiguous or untackled.”

 By Nadine Abou el Atta

*Some names have been changed at the request of sources.