Understanding the Toxic Workplace: What It Is, How to Spot It, & What to Do About It

toxic workplace


Understanding the Toxic Workplace: What It Is, How to Spot It, & What to Do About It

Let’s talk about the toxic workplace.

You wake up at 5:45 a.m., hit snooze, and groan deep down to your toes. Even after two cups of coffee, a hot shower, and a quick breakfast, you still dread logging into your computer to start the day’s work. It’s not just today. You’ve been feeling like this for months. When will things improve?

We can probably all relate to this scenario. Not all of us have found our career purpose and total career fulfillment. Most of us strive to move in that direction, but there are days when we feel disgruntled, lethargic, and unmotivated about work.

We all go through phases when work isn’t enjoyable. In this scenario, we can’t discern if you’re simply unhappy in general or if your environment at work is moving you toward anxiety and depression.

One thing is clear, though: if you wake up dreading every single moment at work, something needs to change.

toxic workplace insights

What’s the difference between a truly toxic workplace and one you simply don’t enjoy? What are the recognizable traits, and what causes a workplace to go toxic?

How to Identify a Toxic Workplace

Defining “toxic workplace” isn’t as simple as it seems. Let’s consider multiple definitions.

What does a toxic workplace look like? Understanding the telltale signs of a toxic workplace can help you identify one (and avoid aligning yourself with one).

Toxic Workplace Traits

Here are some characteristics of a toxic workplace environment.

However, first note that every employer goes through difficult times. They may make a poor hiring decision by bringing difficult people into the mix or experience difficulties when implementing big changes to programs, processes, and people management. 

Keep in mind that everyday difficulties aren’t the same as toxic workplace environments because of three key determining factors. 

One, the majority of the employees in a toxic workplace feel psychologically unsafe.

Secondly, toxic behaviors and traits become intrinsic to the workplace, not a novel moment or experience. Lastly, you’ll know if your workplace is truly toxic if you have already tried multiple remedies and ways to address your concerns to no avail.

toxic workplace tips

If you see a pattern of several of these traits, you’re probably in a toxic workplace environment.

  • Low morale
  • Lack of enthusiasm, motivation, or positive energy
  • Unclear workplace roles
  • Miscommunication or lack of communication
  • Chronic stress or high levels of stress
  • Employee burnout and high attrition rate
  • Unprofessional interactions, including gossip, drama, yelling, passive-aggressive comments, bickering, and backstabbing
  • Poor leadership (micromanagement, absentee leaders)
  • Unrealistic and unfair expectations of employees
  • Exclusion of others professionally or personally
  • A flurry of activity with a lack of actual progress or productivity

Sound familiar?

If your workplace environment feels psychologically unsafe, or you experience at least half these red flags regularly and feel intimidated about addressing the issues, you’re probably in a toxic workplace.

The Roots of a Toxic Workplace

We know what a toxic workplace looks like and feels like. But how does a workplace become toxic? What are the root causes of toxicity?

Experts and researchers have identified the following root causes of a toxic workplace.

  • Personal greed
  • Poor leadership
  • Leaders who are not mindful enough to assess their own part of the problems
  • Power struggles
  • Poorly designed jobs and unclear roles
  • Ego, manifested either as insecurity or excessive pride
  • Unhealthy leaders or employees
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Misguided workplace beliefs
  • Exclusion and intolerance
  • Incivility
  • Selfish attitudes and behaviors
  • Lack of value, respect, recognition, and consideration of others
  • Ostrich syndrome (refusal to acknowledge or address conflict)

Some of the root causes of toxicity in the workplace have to do with interactions with others and group dynamics. For example, workplaces that emphasize individual contributions and roles over organizational goals, mission, and values tend toward toxicity. 

However, as you may have noticed when reviewing the list of roots of a toxic workplace, most causes start with individuals (whether leaders or not). This is one reason why each individual in every workplace must take personal responsibility to regularly assess their own attitudes, behavior patterns, and professional relationships.

toxic work

What to Do if You’re Stuck in a Toxic Workplace

After reviewing the definition of a toxic workplace, learning about its traits, and gaining insight into the root causes of toxicity, you may have recognized that you’re working in a toxic environment yourself. Now what?

For many, the solution is to evacuate. The MIT Sloan Management Review found that a “toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is ten times more important than compensation in predicting turnover.” That statistic, along with many others, indicates that we all want to work in healthy environments, and we’re willing to start over again with a new job search if necessary in order to find a healthier environment.

If you’re stuck in a toxic workplace, leaving might be the best option. Before you leave, though, be sure to take stock of your options.

  • Assess your own part in any conflicts or ongoing problems.  You might need to ask others their perspective on the situation to clarify how you may be making a bad situation worse.
  • Be willing to own up to your part of the problem.
  • Consider talking to your manager or a human resources leader about how you’re feeling.
  • Ponder potential solutions. Before you meet with HR or your manager, consider what possible solutions you might propose to solve the problems.

Don’t neglect your responsibility to report major violations of rights, workplace retaliation, abusive leaders, and harassment. Even if your report does not lead to the culprits being fired, your willingness to speak up and step forward may help others do the same or give others the courage to leave the toxic workplace environment.

If all else fails, it might be time to launch a job search. If that’s the case, be sure to check out the resources available at Lensa.

Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace partners with mission-minded organizations to build better workplaces through soft skills solutions. Bethany aids leaders in strengthening workplace relationships through communications consulting, training, executive coaching, keynote presentations, & career coaching. Bethany enjoys presenting research at conferences and contributes regularly to major publications & recognized podcasts, including Glassdoor, College Recruiter, Zip Recruiter, Jobscan, FlexJobs, the New York Daily News, BusinessTech, Human Resources Online, Life After Teaching, Love Your Story, The Conversation Guy (10 Minute Mindset), Everyday People Podcast, The Success Chronicles, and more.

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