Toxic work environments are productivity killers. They zap energy, creativity, happiness and result in high employee absence rates and turnover. Unfortunately, there are many toxic workplaces out there; it can be difficult to know you are in one when it is your daily life.
So what are some of the toxic work environment signs?
High Occurrence of Employee Sickness
When people are working at a place they don’t want to be it is much easier for them to call in sick when they have the first signs of a cold, are feeling burnt out, or like they need a day off. The majority of workplaces have a limited number of vacation days so it is much easier to take an impromptu sick day than saying you need a day off and using a vacation day.
When an employee is truly ill, it is best for them, and the others they workaround, to take a sick day to recover and not spread their illness. If you feel that you are unable to take a sick day, or are contacted while taking a sick day with the expectation to do work or come in, this may also be a sign you are in a toxic work environment.
When sick leave is not doing enough to help ease their stress, employees will end up taking stress leave to get a chance to fully disengage themselves from working. This time is used to address the root causes of the stress and anxiety occurring, with the aim at decreasing the impact this is having, allowing time to create coping mechanisms for the individual to return to work.
High Rates of Turnover
People do not want to stay in a toxic workplace, it is not an enjoyable environment to spend a large amount of your time. In this type of atmosphere, you may see or hear many of your coworkers are job hunting during work time. They may come dressed in more formal business attire and leave for off-site meetings midday to attend an interview. These employees often make lateral moves to raise their chances of getting out of their current environment quickly.
Watch to see what types or groups of people are changing jobs. Do they all report to the same manager? Is it a single working team? Does it cross departments? Or is it company-wide? What do they say/do before they leave?
There are some industries and work environments that naturally have higher rates of turn over. These often include work environments where there is a lack of career growth opportunities or ones targeted at a younger age demographic of employees; this includes part-time or seasonal work.
Belief Your Job is Constantly at Risk
Turn over is not always employee-led. Often time managers will terminate or end contracts of employees that they are unskilled at working with. This can make people feel they are constantly at risk of losing their jobs.
If you feel uneasy or fearful when an unspecific meeting gets added to your calendar, ask yourself why? If it is because you are in fear of a potential consequence or termination this may be a sign.
When people feel their job is at risk they tend to avoid bringing up concerns; this can be targeted towards a single individual or company-wide. Here, people fear they will be disciplined, degraded, insulted or potentially lose their job by bringing bad news. This can be a case of don’t shoot the messenger, meaning the consequence is given to the one that brought the bad news, as opposed to where the issue itself stemmed from.
In some workplaces, this culture of fear is created by the words the company or those around you use. A red flag may be hearing things like;
- You are lucky you have a job
- You don’t know how good you have it
- It’s a good thing you are only part-time
- ___ is lucky they are about to retire or they would be fired
- Don’t screw this up
- You better…
- … or else
Consistently Feel Unheard
When you have concerns or ideas it is great to know someone is there to speak to, it is even better when this person has the authority to address these thoughts and ideas. Where businesses go sideways is when they don’t encourage employees to speak up or when they listen to employees and it makes no change to operations.
There are few things more deflating to a person’s self-worth within a company than when someone brings their thoughts to a superior, they have buy-in and nothing happens past that point. If there is no communication back, or action is taken, it feels like there was no point in having the conversation in the first place. When this occurs time and time again, eventually the employee will stop using their time having these meetings.
Feeling unheard can make people devalued, unimportant, frustrated, angry, afraid of coming to work (if the issue is regarding their safety) and disengaged. Once an employee is at this point it can become extremely challenging to get them back.
It can happen at work, school, home or with friends. Being undermined is a shot at the ego and trust within the relationship. When we think things are all set up and we are aimed towards success and we find out someone has sabotaged or cut off our efforts without our previous knowledge it can be extremely frustrating or angering.
If our efforts become diminished, impaired or hindered it is easy to give up when these behaviors are allowed to be acceptable. A functional and thriving team is there to lift everyone up; when someone is undermining the team they cut off the efforts of others, setting co-workers up for failure.
When these individuals have an issue or suggestion, they don’t necessarily follow the chain of command, they will go to whoever will give them what they want. If the team is about to succeed they may also brag about their efforts to people higher up in the company claiming it as their sole success.
You may feel intuitively guarded around this person, not wanting to share information or work with them. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to pinpoint and convey their behaviors to others, here are some warning signs to watch for;
- Snide comments or remarks
- Lying about others
- Inflating their efforts or their contribution to a project/solely taking credit for team successes
- Telling you meetings have been canceled or moved that have not
- Stealing clients
- Inserting themselves into conversations with clients/coworkers
- Attending meetings they have no stake in
- Spreading rumors
- Excluding co-workers
- Picking fights
- Filing unfounded complaints
- Assigning you purposeless tasks
- Having their work consistently reassigned to others
- Others have complained about this person undermining them
Feeling Unsupported/Unable to Grow
Support and growth is a vital element to personal fulfillment and happiness. Within a toxic work atmosphere, employees often feel they are on their own or that they are part of a very small group that is just trying to get through their day together. They do not feel the company is there to cultivate them or their ideas or wants to see them succeed.
When the elements of support and growth are missing, employees have nothing to strive towards and no reason to try. The business will become stagnant as they maintain the status quo.
When employees are allowed to grow, both professionally and personally while being supported by their work, they can add new ideas, vibrancy, and encouragement to those around them. By taking these opportunities away, the workforce has nothing to drive them or encourage them to utilize their brainpower which will ultimately benefit the company.
Culture of “No” or Rejection
You can only hear No or be rejected so many times before you stop investing your time in a person, project or company. This is not the same as saying “No, I have too much on my workload” or “No, I won’t work overtime this weekend”; this is “That’s a great idea, no we are not going to implement it” or “We didn’t ask for your opinion”.
Hearing No and constantly being rejected can wreak havoc on our psychological well being and self-esteem. When these things happen, we feel devalued and start believing that what we think, say, feel or do does not matter. It can create a guttural response as if we are being shunned from the tribe. We feel unwanted and unworthy of acceptance by others causing us to emotionally detach so we protect ourselves.
Different people and personalities react in a variety of ways to criticism. Though some people seem to thrive under pressure, using it as fuel to drive and motivate them, others can be crushed under the weight of negativity. An effective workplace and leadership team can balance criticism with recognition.
Within the workplace, criticism is a necessary part of growth. The danger occurs when the ratio of criticism vs praise, appreciation, and recognition are weighted towards the negative.
The motivation behind the criticism and what the criticism is directed towards also makes a difference. Is the criticism addressing an issue, or is it aimed at the person?
You are so lazy, you only do the bare minimum on your projects
The quality of the last project did not meet the expectations laid out
If you have found yourself developing coping mechanisms for whenever a certain person comes to speak to you or books a meeting with you this may also be a sign there is an issue. Once you develop a mantra when dealing with a person, there is something wrong with the relationship. Some examples of this include;
- This too shall pass
- Just breath
- Don’t let them see you cry
- Their opinion does not matter
- It’s not about me, it’s about them
- It’s not personal
- It’s only a job
Though these may help you cope, and deal with issues in the comment, they also identify the fact there is a bigger issue at hand that may need to be dealt with.
“To those who value words of affirmation, criticism feels like a knife in the heart.”
Issues and shortcomings are bound to arise in any workplace. When they inevitably happen, what sets teams apart is how they are handled and addressed. In a highly functional team, all members can recognize their part in the problem and take ownership of what role they played, focusing on how and then move forward together.
In a toxic work environment, individuals do not accept their part of a problem. Instead, they blame their shortcomings or issues on others, often not seeing their part in the issue or associating their faults to the actions of others. “If she would have done her part, I would have been successful”.
This often becomes exacerbated due to fundamental attribution error, where we judge a set of behaviors to be situational or contextual when related to ourselves and indicative of personality and character when related to others. If we do not meet a deadline it is because we have a heavy workload, are stressed, do not have the right tools to complete the task, etc. If someone else does not do it it is because they are lazy, incompetent, don’t care, unorganized, etc. When people are unable to move away from this way of thinking it can become difficult to not blame others, as the problem always stems from somewhere else.
Lack of Communication
When people feel in the dark about what is happening in their workplace it can lead to a lot of unnecessary efforts being taken, wasting time and resources. Without knowing changes are coming, have been made or the motivation behind the decisions it is difficult to help the management team, company and stakeholders meet their end goals.
The more detached you feel from a company, the more blindsided you become when decisions that affect you are passed down. Sometimes, in these environments, you may not even know a change has been made until you are informed you have done something wrong. Changes in processes, policies, and procedures may fall through the cracks, never to be communicated past a certain point on the chain of command.
In one of my workplaces, there was a form that, when I started, needed to be filled out for each lost receipt. On one occasion my wallet was stolen and with that all of my receipts. After filling out a number of these forms, one for each lost receipt, submitting them to my director for their signature, collecting the receipts from them, scanning the receipts in and finally uploading each individually to electronically submit them I received a call from accounts payable. At this point, they informed me that they have not been requiring this for over 5 years! Yet the template was still on their web page, and no one over those 5 years had ever told me, and I had submitted these forms for myself and others during these 5 years. What a waste of paper, and more importantly time.
As seen above, little things can have big effects. The time spent on these inefficiencies due to a lack of communication could have easily been used towards much more productive work, which is probably why the change was made in the first place.
If even larger changes are made, the ripple effect due to lack of communication can be detrimental to the organization. Communication is the cornerstone of running an effective, productive workplace. It is important for communication to occur across all departments, levels of authority and between teams ensuring efforts are not duplicated, ideas are shared and people can see how their efforts contribute to the company.
Have you noticed people around you talk about how much they hate their jobs? Is there a general dread of being at work? When morale is down people disengage from their workplace. They do not attend company functions, voluntary training opportunities or join non-mandated working groups/committees.
Essentially people are just punching the clock mentally. They are simply putting in the time but have no vested interest in their work outside of doing what they need to get paid or keep their job.
You do not see people smiling, laughing, chatting, discussing non-work related topics or investing time to build relationships past what is required of their job. It is overall a pretty miserable place to work as no one cares to be there, and they are just waiting to leave.
“Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying ‘Make Me Feel Important.’ Never forget that when working with people.”
― Mary Kay Ash
Gossiping, Clique and the Rumor Mill
When behaviors occur that are intended to cause the isolation of one individual it can create an environment where negativity and toxicity run rampant.
These behaviors, when allowed to occur, create favoritism, breed assumptions, create misunderstandings, cause jealousy, and lead to unhealthy conflict. Relationships are shallow and untrusting. Often people are afraid to speak to the wrong person out of fear of ridicule, rejection and becoming the target of these behaviors.
Some people confuse gossiping for venting. An easy way to check-in as to which you or your coworker is doing is by asking;
|Is the intent to talk through a problem?||Is the intent to get someone to agree with me?|
|Is what is being said based on facts?||Is what is being said based on assumptions and accusations?|
|Is the person’s behavior been addressed?||Is the person’s character being questioned?|
|Are only matters currently related to the issue being discussed?||Are things from the past being brought up?|
|Willingness to look towards future||Only want to discuss what has happened|
|Does it affect the person directly?||Does it have little to no impact on the individual?|
Most people naturally gravitate towards others within their workplace, naturally creating friendships with some people over others. This is a normal occurrence and is not the same as a clique. When a clique forms, it is exclusive and others are made to feel unwelcome when they want to become part of the group. They will tend to work together, excluding others that may want to join in on a project, working group or committee. Where cliques exist, you may notice negative peer-pressure. This peer-pressure encourages you to act unfavorably towards a group or individuals, vote a specific way to impact projects or perform your job at a lower standard than expected, setting others up for failure.
These groups can become highly destructive to the efforts of others when they all decide that their goals and vision do not align with that of others in their workplace. This may appear as post-meeting meetings where only a select group of people are invited to attend and debrief the meeting, potentially undermining the decisions that were previously made. This can derail the efforts of the others in the group creating the possibility of a hostile work environment where cliques team up together creating conflict while trying to push through what they deem a priority.
Out of gossiping and cliques, though at times occurring all on its own, typically comes rumors. These rumors are often seeded in assumptions and rarely based in fact. They grab people’s interest, focusing attention on the individual spreading them, feeding their ego.
These can include budget and staffing increases/decreases, relationships between co-workers, behavioral accusations, etc.
When remarks and stories are made up for the sole purpose of undermining another person’s, or the companies, credibility, and character it can cross the line into defamation.
Lack of Skilled Management
Though a team can get through with unskilled management, it will struggle to thrive. When there are unclear expectations, focus, and vision, the staff are left making things up as they go along. Businesses where people don’t understand what they are working towards and what role they play within that often lose focus and the motivation to excel.
Without a set of clear expectations, employees do not know what successful and unsuccessful performance looks like, they lack direction and become self-managed, often wasting their efforts.
By giving a business a clear vision and focus, staff can typically drive towards an end goal, or at a minimum, align their efforts towards something that will benefit the company.
There are different types of leaders that will foster an environment of toxicity, even when expectations are set, the focus is directed and there is a clearly laid out and established vision. Some of the most identifiable examples of this are;
- Aloof – managers that are disinterested or uninvolved in what is happening within their organization and team
- Micro-Manager – when a manager spends time focusing on every detail of how others are doing their jobs and completing tasks
- Hot-Head – explosive personality where bursts of anger and upset can occur over minor issues of seemingly little impact or importance
- Bully – degrades and demeans others around them. Minimize the efforts and intelligence of others, calling into question their commitment and value. This often makes people feel isolated and incompetent
- Dictator – makes all the decisions about what, where, when, why, how things are done, and who will do them without allowing input from anyone else
- Tyrant – these managers are inflexible, controlling, and threatening. They show disrespect and ignorance towards opinions and facts they do not agree with, even when true
Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.
— Leonardo da Vinci
Sometimes people can handle completing more work within their day than others. This is part of people’s varying strengths and competencies. Where issues occur is when there is a strain put onto one person while others have limited responsibilities and expectations, yet are assigned the same role and growth opportunities within the company.
The culture to “Phone it in” or push tasks off to others can produce resentment in the other employee and they will start to exhibit these behaviors as well. To identify this, listen for yourself or co-workers to say thinks like;
- I’ve been here for X number of years, it’s time for others to learn to do it
- I’m almost retired
- We can just outsource that
- That’s not my job
- I have too much to do (when they do not)
- Can’t you see how busy I am
- I don’t have time for this
- I’m too busy for meetings
- What are they going to do… fire me?
People with this mentality would rather delegate tasks then ask for help, or have to learn it themselves. Some ensure their desk is messy so it looks like they are working hard or fill their calendar with blocks of time to ensure no one books their calendar. I have even seen someone print a large yearly calendar of all the things they do in a year, including deadlines so they can reference it to prove why they are telling you no if you ask for their assistance in completing a task.
An Expectation to Work an Unreasonable Number of Hours or During Your Off-Time
In the era of technology, most of us can be constantly connected should we choose. With this has come too the expectation from some employers to be just that; always on and always connected.
Since we can now FaceTime our children to say goodnight or text our families we will be home late, we are staying at the office longer. When we do get out of the office companies then continue to contact us on our company paid cell phones and computers to complete “urgent” tasks and address “time-sensitive” issues.
The lines between work and home are becoming blurred to the point that vacations are becoming working vacations and unless you completely unplug you are bound to get sucked in.
The downside to unplugging is that toxic workplaces will reprimand employees for using their time away from work as just that, time away from work. They ask employees to work well over their required hours of work, typically with no way of accurately tracking these informal on-call hours or one-off requests.
On a recent trip to a theme park during a family vacation, one of the directors I know spent over two hours in the parking lot in a meeting while his wife and children were inside and enjoyed the park. Not a great way to spend your vacation or foster relationships with your spouse or children, yet it was an expectation of his employer to be available for calls, even during his vacation, including when out of the country.
Allowance of Unacceptable Behavior
All of the aforementioned is only able to affect the workplace when it is tolerated, allowed or encouraged. The attitude of “That’s how they have always been” or “This is just how things work here” fosters a toxic work environment.
Some workplaces are still struggling to adapt to the new definition of what is acceptable within the workplace. Discrimination, bullying, harassment, encouragement or ignoring of fighting co-workers and a generally negative attitude hold these workplaces back. These behaviors can create long-lasting damage to those who pass through their company resulting in negative impacts on areas outside the organization.
If a direct supervisor is unwilling or unable to address your concerns, you may need to explore other options including going to HR or someone above your supervisor. Regrettably, the people in these areas do not always have the skills to handle the situation or feel like their hands are tied; or that the individual is in a grey zone where they can make excuses for their behaviors.
If you feel that no one through the agency is there to support you, or address your legitimate concerns there may be issues much larger than you will be able to take on by yourself.
Changes Outside of Work
“When a workplace becomes toxic, its poison spreads beyond its walls and into the lives of its workers and their families.”
When we are over-stressed and dealing with issues at work, no matter how hard we may try, it can become very difficult to keep our work and personal lives separate. As the workplace becomes increasingly toxic, some ways the effects on us may appear are;
- Decreased patience
- Negative perceptions or attitude
- Lack of sleep
- The feeling of constant tiredness
- Weight loss/gain
- Loss of appetite
- Isolating behaviors
- The dread of going into work
- A feeling of being unsafe to go into work (when there is abuse or harassment)
Often those closest to us feel the burden of our work. If people are commenting that they have noticed any of the changes above, or any other new negative behaviors, it may be worth assessing the level to which your work-life is affecting you. Don’t let your toxic work-life create a toxic home-life, creating a negative cloud over your everyday existence.
“I’m now much less of an asset to the company than I could be. I keep my head down and for self-preservation just do my work with little conversation with anyone. Yet the irony is this: in my self-preservation, I’m actually destroying myself. In bottling up my unexpressed feelings, I’m making myself sick emotionally and physically.”
If you find yourself wondering if you are in a toxic work environment I highly recommend Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment(affiliate link from Amazon), it is a great read.