The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) is a painful illustration of toxic workplace culture. It is also a powerful reminder that any company, no matter how successful, is subject to fall when it lacks moral integrity, has no system of checks and balances, intentionally avoids transparency, and is too disillusioned to have a crisis management plan in place. The film describes how the C-level staff was able to build the 7th largest company in the United States through unethical dealings that received support and backing from both governmental agencies and the largest financial institutions. The directors included interviews from former employees who walked the audience through both the rise and fall of the corporate giant. One of the saddest outcomes from the corporate’s deceit and greed was the job loss of the company’s 20,000 employees. The employees did not only lose their jobs but their pension and retirement funds as well.
As I watched this tragic story, I realized that although the Enron story unfolded across the national media, there are many organizations (both for-profit and non-profit) that function very similarly and experience almost identical consequences. The most challenging aspect of these layoffs is that they often happened in groups of two or more people. This issue created a volatile and hostile working environment. As observed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety is one of the basic needs of an employee to perform at his or her best. The violation of the safety of the staff created a toxic culture. In Rick Brenner’s article, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Project Organization’s resources are the lowest level need of the Project Hierarchy of Needs. If a project lacks the primary resources it needs to achieve its objective, then resource issues capture the attention of the people on the project. All other concerns become secondary. Issues of safety, quality, efficiency, even requirements receive less attentiveness than they need. People adopt strategies that are designed to resolve resource issues, and these strategies become their primary concern. If companies are going to sustain quality employees and meet long-term objectives, then safety must be a primary goal. If this goal is met the organization will thrive and develop a positive, non-toxic culture.