Signs of a Toxic Work Environment (and How To Handle It)
No work culture is perfect. However, there is a big difference between an imperfect workplace and a toxic one.
Unfortunately, toxic work environments are extremely common, and working in one for eight hours a day—or even two or three—can be emotionally taxing, harmful for your career, and detrimental to your personal life and health.
The signs of a toxic workplace can be subtle or slow to affect you directly. However, it’s important to recognize a toxic environment quickly so that it causes minimal damage. Unless a toxic work environment can be overhauled, you should exit as soon as possible.
Here are some common signs of a toxic work environment.
9 Signs Your Work Environment is Toxic
1. Management is overly controlling or overly lax.
All managers have to keep their team under control to some extent, but some toxic managers take this mandate to an extreme level. They micromanage their employees, bar them from exploring different skills or departments, insist on making all decisions even if it presents a bottleneck, criticize employees for small infractions, and other controlling behaviors that have nothing to do with the business’s needs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a manager who is overly lax will create problems among team members who seek leadership, training, and firm conflict-resolution.
Both of these management styles hinder employees from moving up, learning, or feeling confident about their work.
2. Employees are set up to fail and take blame.
Work environments should be supportive, but some toxic work environments foster an uncomfortable culture of finger-pointing and confusion.
Employees in toxic work environments are often thrust into “sink-or-swim” situations without support or proper training. Inevitably, when these employees experience hiccups or make mistakes, they receive outsized blame rather than help or useful feedback. Goal-posts and expectations seem to change with the winds, making it feel like it’s impossible to succeed.
3. Management is personality-driven instead of business and culture-driven.
Sometimes, a particularly ego-driven manager or CEO makes the business about himself or herself rather than the team or the needs of the business. A manager might be using the business as a platform to become an industry celebrity or dictator of sorts. They then tilt business initiatives toward consolidating their own power or making themselves shine.
This toxic—if not cult-like—behavior can lead to unreasonable and unmarketable goals, bad and distracted business decisions, and a neglected work culture. It can also lead to poor hiring and assignment practices, such as favoring blind loyalty in employees rather than skills or experience.
4. There’s no credit, feedback, or expectations for employees.
Giving credit for good work is a critical component of a healthy workplace. In a toxic environment, managers rarely give credit where it’s due, whether due to negligence or malice.
Similarly, employees in a toxic environment may not get much useful feedback about their performance. In the absence of feedback in addition to reasonable, agreed-upon goals and expectations, employees are left guessing. Performance issues are never improved, and employees don’t have confidence in their work.
5. Forget about giving honest feedback to management.
In a toxic environment, there is no clear outlet for employees to give feedback to management, especially critical feedback that could improve culture. Perhaps management is closed to criticism, or there is no official manager evaluation system, or the HR department – if one exists – does not feel like a safe place to report problems.
6. There is little or no respect for employees’ time or personal needs.
Some toxic employers expect their workers to be on call 24-7. Whenever the boss calls, the employee is expected to drop everything and get to work, even if it’s not necessary for the business. Meanwhile, employees’ reasonable requests for time off or flexibility are rebuffed, punished, or squashed by guilt.
These toxic work structures can wreak havoc on employees’ personal lives, stress levels, health, and therefore their productivity at work. A healthy work environment respects its employees as human beings with needs and boundaries.
7. Dysfunctional systems are permanent.
A healthy work environment will try to address systems that don’t work, such as a communication breakdown that slows production. In a toxic environment, there is no fixing such dysfunctional systems. Perhaps the corporate dogma is too rigid or resistant to change, or the personalities involved make it impossible. This leads to frustration and anger among employees, with no outlet. It also leads to bad or outmoded business practices.
8. Unprofessional behavior is encouraged or displayed by the management.
All managers need to let loose sometimes. However, systemic unprofessional behavior can create a foundation for a toxic environment.
Beware of the manager who gossips with subordinates, has boundary issues, lets workplace bullies go unchecked, blatantly favors or dislikes certain employees, acts like a friend, puts personal expenditures on the company card, gets too drunk at work events, says offensive or inappropriate things, neglects their own job duties, disappears and doesn’t answer emails for long periods of time, doesn’t appear to care, or cares so much that they become overly emotional.
If you can’t rely on the management to set an example and call out bad behavior, the whole structure is broken.
9. You feel bad, confused, depressed, and/or anxious on a regular basis due to workplace issues.
Like a toxic relationship, a toxic work environment has a way of getting into your head and confusing you about what’s truly happening. At best, you may feel aggravated by your colleagues and management all the time. At worst, you experience personal or health problems, you feel like you’re constantly at fault, you forget yourself, your value, and your career goals.
By recognizing that you’re in a toxic workplace, you can spare yourself this terrible struggle and leave for greener pastures.