3 Toxic Workplace Habits You Need to Ditch

You’ve dished it out before, and you’ve taken it.

  • “Well, good morning. Nice of you to finally join us!”

  • “He’s always taking long lunches.”

  • “Wish I could leave at 4:30 every day…must be nice!”

  • “Is he ever at his desk?”

  • “Sure must be great to work from home every Friday.”

  • “Seems like she uses all her sick days to go shopping.”

  • “Oh, she’s home with a sick kid…again. I need to get myself a kid.”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar? We call this “Sludge.”

Sludge is the term we use during Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) training for the workplace chatter that reinforces this idea: people can’t be trusted with complete autonomy. Sludge can be mean-spirited gossip or even friendly banter. We Sludge for many reasons, but at the end of the day it’s meant to either directly or indirectly shame a coworker for not approaching work the way it’s “supposed” to be approached.

Sludge is a powerful force in maintaining the status quo and implies that work only happens at the office between the hours of 9am and 5pm. It follows the formula

Results = Time + Physical Presence.

We say Results = Results. Period.

People can be getting results anywhere, at any time. This tendency to Sludge everyone around us reinforces the idea that anyone who operates outside of the prescribed norms is either goofing off or taking advantage of the system. In a ROWE, every employee has equal parts autonomy and accountability; own your work and get it done like an adult. It’s that simple.

The dusty workplace of old may be slowly but surely losing its firm grip on us, but we still have some toxic tendencies that linger in the cube farms–be they physical or virtual.

Here are three things you can do to clean it out of your lives.

Listen for Sludge

At first, you’ll hear the obvious. You’ll hear what seems to be an innocent comment from a coworker (“How nice of you to join us today!”) and you’ll recognize it as Sludge. Then you’ll recognize yourself in what we call a Back Sludge conversation (as in, Sludging behind someone’s back). This is the Sludge that’s spewed about a co-worker who isn’t within earshot:

Pamela: “How is Steve getting a promotion? He’s never even here!”

Jim: “I know and when he is here, he takes long lunches and comes in late.”

You: “And what about the jogs he takes after his long lunches on Tuesdays?! That’s getting ridiculous.”

The longer and more intently you listen for Sludge, the more you’ll start to hear all of the subtle Sludge not only around you, but that you’re part of.

Point it out:

When you hear these toxic phrases pop up in conversation, politely point it out to the person saying it. Don’t let yourself or someone else feel guilty or judged by an outdated standard. We live in an amazing time where many of us (one day, maybe ALL of us) can own our work and live by the results we achieve, not the desk-time we put in at the office. Stand up and rebel against the system, don’t be a party to it. The accountant who has worked all night on a deadline shouldn’t get shamed by their coworker for “coming in late” and the mom who leaves the office at 3pm to attend her daughter’s ballet recital shouldn’t be questioned by nosy cubicle neighbors about why she’s leaving ‘early’.

An easy way to redirect the conversation when you hear Sludge is to say “Is there something you need?” For example, someone sees you leaving at 2pm and says “2:00? Where are you headed so early?” Your response: “Is there something you need?”  Sludge is stopped dead in its tracks and the conversation is back to results.  Or, Paul says to you “Did you see Allison come in a 10am again today?”  Your response: “Did you need something from her?”  Back Sludge averted. On to more important matters, like RESULTS.

Don’t Sludge to make yourself look good

Sludge gives traditional office dwellers the chance to make themselves look like hard-working, valuable employees, regardless of how well they’re actually performing. Don’t be that guy who throws a coworker under the bus for being 15 minutes ‘late’ or for not approaching work exactly like you do. Focus on results and if you need to make yourself look good, then own your work and get some damn good results for your customers and your company. Focus on what matters, for yourself and those around you.

Working on a team without Sludge is liberating. Guilt evaporates. Productivity increases. Customers rave.

Slay the Sludge and let results rise.

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Jody Thompson

Jody Thompson, along with her partner Cali Ressler, is the Founder of CultureRx and co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Jody is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and bestselling author. She has been featured on the covers of BusinessWeek, Workforce Management Magazine, HR Magazine, Hybrid Mom Magazine, HR Executive Magazine, and the New York Times. You can find her on Linkedin.

Reader Interactions


  1. Ara Ohanian says

    Sarcasm has no place in the workplace. It’s unpleasant and worst it reduces transparency by encouraging people to snipe at fellow workers and not to be honest in what they say. Whether you work in a ROWE or any other environment, sarcasm and sludge need to be banished.



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