Small Approximations to Create Big Change in Animal Care Work Culture: Overcoming A Toxic Environment

Many organizations across various industries are experiencing what economist are calling the “Great Resignation”, to be honest I feel like our industry has been experiencing large numbers of individuals leaving the field altogether, prior to the pandemic. When looking at the primary reason for why employees leave their organization; Dr. Donald and Charlie Sull of CultureX found that a toxic work culture was the single best predictor, being 10 times more powerful than how an employee viewed their compensation.1 According to their study, there are five behaviors that create a toxic workplace environment. Known as the “Toxic 5” they are disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive. Furthermore, they found that while an organization may have a good culture overall, toxic individuals or teams of toxic individual’s aka “pockets of toxicity”; can have a profound impact on workplace culture. Generally, these individuals exhibit some or all the above behaviors however because they are labeled as either top performers or in management positions over top preforming teams, the behavior is overlooked.  

While we cannot control other people’s behavior, we can ensure that we are not contributing to creating a toxic work environment. For those in a management position, knowing how to spot these behaviors in oneself and our team can help our industry transition into an industry known for valuing the welfare of the people working as much as it values the welfare of wildlife it cares for. I want to share some of my experiences with the toxic 5 and the behaviors that counter them. 

Choosing Respect  

Often, we are waiting for others to treat us respectfully, especially if they’ve done something previously to us that seemed disrespectful, before we will be respectful towards them. I have chosen this behavior in the past, until I heard Dr. Wayne Dyer talk about how “we cannot receive from others what we do not give first”. Being respectful is a choice. With certain people, it is an easy choice, however towards others it is far more difficult. For me, being respectful towards someone, whom I view as having wronged me felt like I was letting them get away with their behavior. I did not view it as a “me” issue; I will be respectful, when they learn to be respectful towards me (completely a “them” issue). When I was being disrespectful towards someone, my behavior showed up as curt, impatient, unkind and all out dismissive towards that person. Result, I have done nothing to be respected for. However, when I challenged myself to choose being respectful towards those that maybe in my opinion didn’t deserve it; I showed up as kind, patient, and supportive. I was choosing to be respectful to them not for their benefit, but out of respect for and in alignment with characteristics I wanted to be known for. Ultimately being respectful towards others is more about how we choose to show up, rather than if the person deserves it. When we are respectful towards everyone, regardless of their behavior, our actions have profound impact on the workplace culture, which can impact our ability to create a fully inclusive environment.  

Fully Inclusive 

I truly believe our industry is trying to improve diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI); however, I recently heard a podcast interview2 with Jodi-Ann Burey a speaker and writer working at the intersection of race, culture and health equity, that really provided a new perspective for me and honestly challenged my belief about the true depths of my inclusiveness. Burey discusses that she is often hired to bring DEI initiatives into an organization, however what this usually meant was; “help us make our workforce look more diverse and inclusive and keep us comfortable in the process”, not “help us be more diverse and inclusive through challenging our beliefs and practices”. For me this basically meant, that while we may be inviting diversity to the table, we may not be willing to listen because of discomfort and lack of self-reflection. When we have a more diverse workplace, chances are that means we will have to reflect on our beliefs, opinions and perspective. We may find ourselves having more uncomfortable conversation around race, gender fluidity, sexual orientation and other pivotal diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion topics. We may need to challenge unconscious bias and be open to changing how we’ve always done things, heaven forbid, admit we may be doing things wrong. This is where I believe the true challenge of inclusion lies.  Being willing to identify these biases, open to reviewing, even changing them can be uncomfortable, and is a necessary step in truly being inclusive. The more we recognize this, the more inclusive we become.  

A recent example for me was while taking my son to Tae Kwon Do class, there was a young person who was giving directions to the other students before class started, while she was a higher belt than those she was directing, her vocal tones and body language seemed very commanding. I (who identifies as a strong woman) almost looked at my son and said “wow, she seems bossy”. I immediately caught myself and instead said, “wow she seems like a confident leader, that’s excellent.” As I sat in my car, ashamed, I reflected on the situation, my goal is to break society standards and systems that marginalize other and yet, some of these standards are so ingrained in us, that they can be hard to recognize, let alone change. First step to inclusion is to realize that the system isn’t broken, to quote Brené Brown “the system works exactly as it was designed to, we need a new system.”  


Years ago, the organization I worked for, officially installed a timecard system, prior to this, we would write down our time in a notebook. One of my teammates was confronted by our Director because she seemed to be the only person getting overtime. When digging deeper the organization discovered, that most of us were not recording our time accurately. We were working well beyond our shift, but only writing down our shift hours, basically lying to the organization, whereas this person was accurately recording her time and almost got in trouble for it.   In our industry, if an organization is accredited, the accrediting body does a regular site inspection before granting accreditation, they don’t just take the organization at their word. Are they doing what they say they are doing? This process gauges if the integrity and ethical practices of the organization are in alignment with the standards established. Integrity in all we do, is the goal and when working to shift from a toxic culture to a healthy culture, integrity is essential, but not always easy. In the albeit innocuous example I gave above, it was easier to write down that I worked 8-4:30, than to track my time. With that said, then I’d have to admit to myself that maybe I wasn’t using my time effectively and I wouldn’t be able to identify myself as a “truly dedicated” team member (“look how hard I am willing to work and not charge the organization, what a saint”). This collective choice set others up for failure, because we were not getting the resources we needed to succeed, setting ourselves up for burnout, injury as well as the potential for legal ramifications towards the organization. It took a lot of courage for my teammate to practice integrity. Once word got around what, why and how these changes were being made, she got flak from other keepers, she was judged for valuing her time and called greedy.  Another example could be, we say that safety is a top priority, and so run safety drills based on the accreditation standards, in my experience most of us tend to run the minimum number of drills. To be honest, we are meeting the established safety standard but do we truly value safety? Is the behavior in integrity with the claim? When team members call for more practice for drills, I usually hear (and am guilty of saying myself) is, of course we’d love to run more drills, but it takes so much time away from animal care, or what I have also seen and done is, during drills maybe instead of physically responding, I stay in the barn and continue to clean, but say over the radio I am getting guests to safety. It’s easy to point fingers at other’s lack or imperfect integrity, but sometimes the most effective action is to look in the mirror and start there. If we all work to practice integrity in everything that we do (even when it’s inconvenient), the workplace culture benefits. 


Collaboration in the workplace seems obviously beneficial; however, cutthroat behavior is often rewarded over collaborative behavior especially when referring to a toxic rockstar. Examples of cutthroat behavior could include purposefully setting a teammate up to fail, gossiping, passive aggression or backstabbing teammates, gaslighting or undermining colleagues. This is often seen in the “meeting after the meeting” activities. Individuals in a meeting start discussing a challenging topic, a few people share their opinion and then a decision is made, everyone nods their heads, but then after the meeting, individuals get together to discuss why it won’t work, that they are not on board, maybe even complain to their team that this wasn’t their decision, so we just aren’t going to do it. I’ve unfortunately seen it play out multiple times, heck in my younger days, participated. I had a keeper confess to me that when they come across another team member’s mistake, they’d write it down, but not say anything. Then if they make a mistake or get in trouble for something, they’d bring out the notebook and point out everyone else’s mistakes!  Then went on to say that the team struggles with trust!  

Collaboration is about the team doing well together, it is putting the team before one’s ego or need to be right or even the best. Some ways we can shift to a more collaborative culture: 

  1.  Be curious and ask question 
  1. Take time to get to know those you work with, what are their preferences, values or personality styles. 
  1. Be willing to engage in productive conflict 
  1. Practice listening to understand rather than respond.  
  1. Be willing to be vulnerable, by admitting weakness and mistakes.  
  1. For those in leadership/management positions: model collaboration between departments and within the team. 

Kindness as a strength 

When we treat others respectfully, strive for true inclusiveness, practice integrity and work collaboratively with each other, abuse shouldn’t happen and yet it does. I have witnessed or been on the receiving end of verbally abusive behavior from colleagues or managers. I’ll be honest most of my experiences happened in my military career, but there were a few instances during my zoo career that I witnessed which were eventually addressed. As someone who (in both military and zoo careers) has had team members scream, cuss out, demean and treat others disrespectfully; it creates a culture of fear, dread and all out sick to your stomach feeling.  When confronted, I have witnessed these individuals say, “that’s just who I am”, “people need to suck it up and not take it so personally”, “this is a tough career, toughen up buttercup”.  In my experience, too often those individuals at the receiving end keep quiet, maybe they report it once or twice, but if nothing appears to have resulted from their report or the behavior escalates, they either deal with it or leave. As professionals who work with animals, compassion and empathy should be important characteristics of any employee in our industry. With that said, these characteristics don’t stop at the animals, they need to be expressed with the humans too! Treating others with kindness is not a weakness but a strength. Kindness doesn’t mean we let people walk all over us, demean us or judge us. It means setting respectful boundaries about how we expect to be treated and how we can be expected to treat others. Kindness is respectfully communicating and holding each other accountable for our actions, even when we are having a bad day. 

At the end of the day, toxic culture is prevalent in many companies3, often in small pockets within the organization. Culture change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes individuals at all levels across all departments working together.  If each one of us took time to evaluate how we are showing up, recognizing when we are exhibiting one of the toxic 5 and work to develop more cohesive and beneficial behaviors, we could create a work culture that values people just as much as it values saving wildlife and wild spaces. 

Until next time 


  1. D. Sull, C. Sull, and B. Zweig, “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Jan. 11, 2022,  
  1.  Brené Brown, “Jodi-Ann Burey and Ruchika Tulshyan on Imposter Syndrome “, Dare to Lead Podcast, Oct. 10,2021, Spotify 
  1. “The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace Culture,” Society for Human Resource Management, September 2019. 

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