Five Signs of a Toxic Workplace

Go-getter Gaithri Raj writes about healthy work environments and work-life balance for Go Get the World. You can reach her through our contact page with your questions or blog post ideas about this topic.

Most of us already know that work takes up almost a third of our lives. So doesn’t it make sense that we make that time as stress-free and even-keeled as possible?

Don’t misunderstand me. All work has some stress and chaos. That’s just part of the routine, and stress—good stress—is normal for us Go-Getters.  Many of us like to work in environments where things move rapidly and our success depends on our firing on all cylinders. But bad stress—the kind that results in sleepless nights, nausea, anxiety, and migraines—signals a toxic work environment. Toxicity in the workplace doesn’t just damage your health, it can derail your career.

So how do you recognize a toxic workplace before it makes you sick? How do you decide when to stick it out and when to move on? 

Here are five examples of workplace toxicity, and some suggestions for how to respond. By learning the signs and knowing what to do, you will have the power to change your life–and maybe even someone else’s.

1. You see evidence of inequality and exclusion.

  • Do you hear culturally insensitive comments or sexist jokes being shared or circulated without a raised eyebrow? 
  • Are your attempts to include all employees questioned and then dismissed?
  • When you speak up about insensitive behavior or discrimination, are you told you’re overreacting?

Systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination happen when people who may not even think of themselves as discriminatory act in ways that adversely affect or unfairly benefit a certain group. When these behaviors go unaddressed (or worse yet, are rewarded) in the workplace, the perpetrators never learn that what they are doing is wrong. 

Woman overhears man congratulating other man
Discrimination is illegal.

What you should know: Federal law makes it illegal to discriminate by race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It’s also illegal to retaliate against someone who has complained about any kind of discrimination. If your employer demonstrates an open and blatant disregard of the law, it is a clear sign that you’re in a toxic work environment.

2. You’re not in ‘The Club’.

  • Do you see that only certain, but not ALL, individuals have access to software or information that they need to succeed in their jobs?  
  • Are there unspoken rules or processes in your workplace that only certain team members know?

When only certain people are provided with critical information that allows only them (and not the entire team) to succeed, there is an existence of workplace cliques. Unfortunately, this type of environment gives clique members perceived power (and cover) to actively participate in the collective bullying of non-clique members by belittling them or minimizing their contributions. In the worst cases, clique members may engage in gaslighting, which can take the form of denials, creating confusion, or outright lying to non-members.

Man peers through office window at coworkers.
Workplace cliques allow people to exert an inordinate amount of control over others.

What you should know: A workplace clique environment allows certain people to exert an inordinate amount of control over others, and if left unchecked, can do immense harm to their targets and the team as a whole. If you see evidence of gaslighting, differential treatment of team members, or managers who condone (ignore or dismiss) bullying, then you are seeing signs that your work environment is toxic. 

3. You’ve been given the old bait and switch.

  • Are you doing something completely different from what you were hired to do?  
  • Does your job change from week to week? 
  • Do you find yourself in meetings where questions remain unanswered and uncomfortable silences fill the room more often than not?  
  • Is the director or manager of Team A blaming Team B for something that Team A was clearly responsible for?

Lack of clarity about your role is another glaring warning sign of workplace toxicity. If you have no parameters for your job, there is no real way to know if you are succeeding. Likewise, your managers can claim you are not doing your job well if they have never told you what they expect in your performance.

Woman stares in confusion at computer screen.
You should know what your responsibilities are.

What you should know: Having clear knowledge of what is expected of you and what you can expect from management allows you to thrive and do well. Your manager should be clear about what your responsibilities are, and should be held accountable for what he or she does and tells you to do. If you find yourself facing constant changes in the direction of the work, or if there is a general undercurrent of confusion, then you are witnessing glaring warning signs of an unhealthy environment.

4. You are required to be a corporate robot.

  • Is the company branding valued to the point that your agency focuses on efforts that promote a certain image in the news, marketing videos or on social media?
  • Are you told what to do, wear, and say at events? 
  • Are there unrealistic demands on your personal time to participate and advocate for your company, and if you say no, are you accused of not being a ‘team player’?

Some companies choose to invest more energy into how they are perceived than how they really treat their employees. So, they might attempt to exert control over other parts of their employees’ lives outside of work.

Woman looks incredulous at man.
Making demands on your life outside of work is controlling behavior.

What you should know: An employer that attempts to place this much control over its employees is clearly doing it for a reason, and whatever that reason may be, it is certainly not healthy for the employees.  Your time is valuable and you should have a say in how that time gets allocated outside work hours. Employers who make demands on your life outside of work are overtly exerting their power and control over you, and that is toxic behavior. 

5. You feel isolated and unsupported.

  • Does your employer value perks like on-site massages, weekly donut deliveries or long vacations more than ensuring that all employees are treated equitably? 
  • Have you been shut down by your manager whenever you’ve raised your concerns about the work environment? 
  • Does your human resources (HR) department ignore or even reward negative behavior with accolades and promotions?

If your manager cannot be relied on for support, or is the cause of workplace toxicity, you should have the option of filing a grievance with Human Resources. If there is no HR department, or worse, the individuals who work in that department are the root cause of workplace problems, then you have an unsafe work environment.

Woman sits outside HR department
You should have the option of filing a grievance with Human Resources.

What you should know: In addition to recruiting and managing benefits, Human Resource Services exists to handle employee complaints, offer mediation, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Benefits, and employee wellness benefits. Companies that exceed 50 employees should be hiring trained and certified SHRM ( Society for Human Resource Management) professionals who understand human resource policies, the importance of privacy, and how to protect confidentiality of the employees.

Steps for Change

If you recognize any of the scenarios described above, you can take action to improve your situation. Knowing the signs of a toxic work environment is your first step to change. Here are some other steps you can take, and others you should avoid taking, as you make your way to a better work-life.

  • DO: Write down times, dates, events and pertinent information about events that seem toxic.  This will help you objectively review the information at a later time without viewing it through the lens of a stressful event.
    • DO NOT: Actively engage or challenge the individuals involved, unless confronted. In that case, bravely stand your ground and state the facts.
  • DO: Remain neutral and complete assignments.
    • DO NOT: Participate in similar toxic behaviors. You don’t want to condone or repeat this cycle of mistreatment.
  • DO: Listen. To your friends. Your family. Your body.
    • DO NOT: Ignore the symptoms. Heartburn, unexplained illness, sudden nausea, and general fatigue are all signs that something is terribly wrong, and it’s time to get out.
Two women happily working together
You deserve a supportive and encouraging work environment!

Employee performance suffers when people are afraid or unwell, so do what you can to improve your workplace, and then move on if your attempts are unsuccessful. Avail yourself of other resources to help guide you in your decision making, too. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Bullying. The Workplace Bullying Institute has links to videos and books that explain bullying and what you can do about it.
  • Interpersonal work problems. There are many therapists who specialize in helping people navigate difficult work issues. Psychology Today’s website offers a great search engine to find licensed therapists in your area.
  • Employee rights. To understand your rights and protections under U. S law, consult the website of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Human Resources. The Society for Human Resource Management is the professional organization for HR management. Its website has numerous tools and resources available on topics such as labor relations, benefits, and diversity and inclusion.

Do you have other suggestions for dealing with workplace toxicity? Let us know and we’ll send you some GGTW swag.  (And you may even win a prize!)

3 thoughts on “Five Signs of a Toxic Workplace

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