Published: 23 November 2022
A toxic work environment is one that is affected by infighting, bullying, drama, and animosity to the point where it impacts worker morale and productivity. One good definition of a toxic work environment comes from Henry G. Harder and Shannon Wagner of the University of Northern British Columbia. They wrote in the book Mental Illness in the Workplace: Psychological Disability Management:
“Toxicity is synonymous with poisonous. Toxins are agents that act to produce serious injury or death once inside the system. Applying this definition of toxicity to the workplace, toxic work environments are environments that negatively impact the long-term viability of an organization.”
A toxic work culture can severely impact business operations and result in low morale and high staff turnover. And, of course, working in a toxic environment can impact a person’s mental and physical health, and bleed over into their personal life, increasing your stress levels, which can have all kinds of nasty outcomes, like insomnia, heart disease, depression, and anxiety.
How can you recognize a toxic work environment and what can you do about it if you work in one?
Here are 11 signs of a toxic work environment:
Bad online reviews
If you’re looking into a company, online reviews are a good way to learn about the culture. Websites like Glassdoor provide the opportunity to leave anonymous reviews of workplaces, which give good insight. If you’re already working somewhere and suspect the environment is toxic, checking what other people are saying can help you determine whether it’s just you or there is really something going on.
People aren’t happy to be there
Are there smiles and a generally good feeling in meetings and in the workplace – whether on site or remote? You can often tell from a workplace vibe if people are happy to come to work. It’s not usually hard to read a room and sense when people are disgruntled and unhappy.
An indication that people aren’t happy is that they simply don’t show up. Reasons for workplace absenteeism include bullying and harassment, burnout, stress, low morale, heavy workloads, stressful meetings, and feeling unappreciated. People are also absent when they’re looking for a new job and going on interviews, which they're not going to share at their current workplace.
Are people are often quitting or getting fired or laid off? People tend to stay longer when they like where they work. If people are quitting – especially if they haven’t been there long – that is a sign that something is rotten in Denmark. And if people are often being let go, that is a big sign of something amiss. Workplaces with good cultures keep their people.
A workplace where people are talking trash about their colleagues behind their backs is a toxic environment full of toxic people. Gossip is hands-down the most toxic social behaviour. It damages reputations and can kill careers and relationships. Engaging in workplace gossip shows a lack of judgement and a dissatisfaction with one’s own life and work situation and people do it when they are feeling insecure. A place where people are happy and engaged is a gossip-free workplace.
Sometimes schoolyard bullies grow up to be workplace bullies. According to Healthline, some examples of bullying include: targeted practical jokes, continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason; threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse, and overly harsh or unjust criticism. Obviously not all criticism or feedback is bullying, and it’s important to know the difference. But we often know when we are being bullied.
Too many meetings, often with little to no follow through
Too many meetings can make life stressful, driving employees to tune out and lose motivation, which impacts productivity and work quality. Even worse is when you spend hours in meetings with everyone talking a good game and then there is no follow through and nothing that is talked about gets implemented afterwards. This happens when communication is disjointed and systems are broken throughout the organization, and when leaders are disconnected from their employees and people are overworked and ultimately disinterested in the outcome for the company.
A culture of disrespect
Do people greet each other with courtesy and show respect for each other’s space and time? Do they give good lead time on projects and honour each other’s calendars? Respectful relationships are expected in a good work environment and disrespectful relationships are toxic. Examples of disrespect include not listening, interrupting, and overstepping boundaries. Extreme examples can be yelling, insulting, mocking or teasing, demanding unpaid overtime, and working people to the point of burnout because there is no respect for their time or personal life.
You only get feedback when it’s negative
A good culture is one where managers check in with their teams regularly to ensure things are running smoothly and that the teams have the tools and resources they need to do what needs to be done. It’s also one where good work is recognized, appreciated, and called out. A toxic work culture is one where the only time you get feedback is when it’s bad.
Favouritism in leadership
When good people are being passed over for promotion in favour of less talented or dedicated workers who are buddies with the existing management team, that is toxicity at work. It’s important to be likeable and to build relationships with senior leadership, but when that is the only thing leading to promotions while hard work and dedication are going unrecognized, you know you’re in a bad place. Good workplaces recognize both interpersonal relationships and good work.
Lack of communication
Can you talk to your boss and do you feel like you can approach people with questions and issues? Or is your manager often incommunicado or are you afraid of what the response you will receive if you ask too many questions or the wrong ones? Bad managers are absent and difficult to talk to and/or they lead with intimidation. A good workplace is one where communication is open and ongoing.
There are a few options for you and they start with talking to your manager. This works best if your manager is not the one who us toxic, of course. If things are difficult with coworkers, try approaching your manager to find solutions. Outline specific examples of problems or incidents and talk about how these can be addressed. Try to stay level-headed and calm, rather than getting upset or angry. You may also approach Human Resources for the conversation.
Unfortunately, these conversations often go nowhere because the management, and even HR, are part of the problem. You have to decide, first, if the attempt is worth the effort and take it from there.
Note that, opening up the conversation with management or HR may put you in a precarious position because you could be branded a problem and a flight risk. And if the conversation goes less than well or if you don’t think it worth having, you may have to just distance yourself from the company culture and continue doing your job as best you can. At the same time, start updating your resume and putting out feelers for a new position. Don’t jump ship before lining up a new role, unless you have no choice.
Nobody should have to stay in a toxic work environment, so do what you can to look after yourself and move things in the direction you want to go.