It’s rare to find a perfect work environment. But if you are looking for a new job, you want to make sure that you move into a work culture that isn’t toxic.
As a job seeker, be on the lookout for signs of a toxic work environment before and during job interviews. Ask questions of past employees, read employer reviews, and ask open-ended questions during the job interview.
If you are employed and feel burned out or stressed all the time, these may be symptoms of working in a toxic work environment. While we all feel some level of stress at work, you want to at least be aware of what is causing your stress.
The stress from working in a toxic work culture doesn’t just impact you. Your friends and family may notice a change in your behavior and attitude. You don’t want your stress to spiral out of control and ruin both your work and personal life.
You’ll learn what red flags to watch out for so you don’t find yourself in a toxic work environment.
Table of contents
Toxic work cultures happen for a variety of reasons – poor leadership, lack of communication, lack of respect, but more importantly, it happens when our psychological safety is threatened.
The Need For Psychological Safety
Symptoms of an unhealthy work setting stem from our need for psychological safety. When employees don’t feel valued and respected, they exhibit behaviors that permeate throughout the organization. This results in a toxic work environment.
Psychological safety is “a workplace where one feels that one’s voice is welcome with bad news, questions, concerns, half-baked ideas and even mistakes,” says Amy Edmondson, Organizational behavioral scientist at Harvard, in CNBC Make It.
Research has proven that organizations with psychological safety see increased confidence, creativity, trust and productivity from their workforce.
So why wouldn’t every organization work on this? Creating a work environment where everyone feels heard and respected requires training and development at all levels within the organization – and this takes time as well as money.
Signs Of A Toxic Workplace
Toxic work environments can display themselves in many ways. It’s not always as easy as identifying a racist or sexist worker. Sometimes, toxicity takes the form of favoritism, punishments, or dismissive comments.
Sometimes stress and burnout are cyclical or seasonal which isn’t necessarily a sign of an unhealthy work environment.
It is up to each job seeker to identify both the obvious and subtle signs of a bad work environment and determine if taking a toxic new job is worth the risk.
Review this toxic workplace checklist to see the behaviors and signs to watch out for.
1. Lack Of Enthusiasm
One of the ways to see if there’s the workplace is toxic is by evaluating the energy and enthusiasm of the employees. If they are dragging themselves into the office from the parking lot, not saying hello or greeting each other or look like they are unhappy, then they probably are not enjoying the workplace. Anyone looking at an unmotivated office feels the vibe of discontent. This is a clear sign of a toxic work environment.
2. Employees Feel Left Out Of Communication Loop
When employees don’t know what’s going on, they fill the void of information with rumors. If an employee doesn’t have the most current information, they may miss a deadline and get reprimanded by their manager. Inefficient communication is not only demoralizing, it can endanger the health and safety of employees. Organizations with poor communication strategies are a sign of a negative work environment.
3. Work Deadlines Take Priority Over Emotional Well-being
When results are more valued than the people, it leads to employees feeling they are disposable or not important. This shows a disregard for the personal needs of employees. Whether it is ignoring the importance of work/life balance or lack of sensitivity to family or personal situations, employers who don’t show empathy and put their people first risk earning the reputation of a toxic workplace.
4. Technology Gets In The Way Of Getting Things Done
It could be that the organization’s technology is outdated or not everyone knows how to use the new technology yet. In either case, when technology gets in the way of getting things done, it’s a sign that the organization may not be investing in making their business better. You may also hear the excuse “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Watch out for this sign that the company is not adjusting and adapting.
5. Leaders Are Invisible
An invisible leader is not leading. They may not be reinforcing the values of the organization or are not communicating their vision. When leadership, at any level, is not visible, not communicating or not leading, it leaves employees feeling alone, disconnected and vulnerable.
6. Confusion And/Or Dysfunction
When employees don’t know what’s going on or hear mixed messages about plans, this leads to confusion. Dysfunction can also happen when roles are unclear or there are sudden changes with no clear goals. A work environment that lacks trust has ineffective communication, or is dealing with power struggles is certainly not healthy.
7. Unfair Policies & Unequal Enforcement of Policies
Morale will suffer if employees feel policies are unfair or that they are being treated unfairly. This can be the “star” employee who can do no wrong or it could be a woman who feels her sexual harassment claims are being ignored. Without fair policies or an inclusive work environment, it’s easy for a toxic work culture to form.
8. Employees Stop Caring About Their Work
When an employee regularly misses deadlines or flat out refuses to deliver and this goes undisciplined or unreported, it creates an unhealthy workplace. Employees seldom start a job lacking motivation. It happens over time. Unhappy workers become apathetic employees and it’s a sign of an unhealthy working environment.
9. Your Boss Is Never Around When Needed
It’s frustrating when you need to ask your boss a question and they aren’t around or haven’t responded to your emails and texts. Employees who try turning to their boss for help but don’t get a response become discouraged by the lack of communication. They feel like their boss doesn’t have their back or doesn’t care about them. And this leads to fatigue, burnout and stress which are all symptoms of a negative work environment.
10. Growth Or Learning Is Stifled
You want to take on greater responsibility or get experience using new skills but you’re turned down or delayed. When you’re turned down or denied the opportunity to grow or learn new things it’s difficult to feel engaged. When you are unable to achieve career goals or fulfill personal values it can lead to dissatisfaction with your job. This can also result in unhealthy work behaviors.
11. Gossip, Backstabbing & Exclusion
An organization filled with gossiping employees is not a healthy work environment. When not addressed, this chatter can lead to exclusion and even backstabbing and bullying in some circumstances. Be on the lookout for an organization full of gossipers.
12. High Employee Turnover
A sure sign things are not good inside an organization is high turnover. People don’t stay in a job very long if they are miserable. It could be any combination of toxic work behaviors that result in employees leaving. It may be poor leadership that fires instead of fixing problems.
Working in a toxic environment leads to stress and stress causes illness. Absenteeism is a result of sick, dissatisfied or unmotivated workers. Either you know it first-hand or can see this is a pattern in the organization.
14. Conflict With Your Ethics Or Values
Have you ever been asked to do something borderline unethical? Maybe you’ve been commanded to fudge numbers or lie to a client. When employees feel that their values or ethics are being challenged, it’s hard to want to do their best work. Poor leadership is the primary cause, but this can trickle down to employees.
15. Lack of Feedback
No feedback or negative feedback leads workers to doubt their abilities. They’re less likely to innovate or suggest new ideas. And employees who don’t get feedback will be hesitant to put forth the effort to do their jobs. A breakdown in timely, honest communication erodes employees
16. Fear of Failure
If you notice employees not taking risks, it’s probably because they were reprimanded or criticized for failing. In a work culture that doesn’t embrace failure, it is seen instead as a flaw, there is little incentive for employees to try new things or even suggest trying new things.
17. Can’t Sleep Or Get Out Of Bed In The Morning
Are you regularly having difficulty sleeping? Pay attention. If this continues beyond an initial stressful event, it’s your body’s way of saying you need to make a change.
What You Can Do About It
You have two choices when it comes to a toxic work environment, stay or leave.
If you choose to stay, you will either have to ignore the toxicity or confront it.
For many, the thought of confronting a toxic boss is not something they are willing to do. If you are up for the challenge because you want to make your work situation more tolerable, here are some suggestions.
Tips For Fixing Toxic Behavior
I’ve always believed in trying to address a problem directly before going up the chain of command. There may be exceptions but in most cases, it’s worth trying as a first step. I also think every employee can follow the rule: “see something, say something.”
No matter what your level of authority, you have the right to address unhealthy behaviors that contribute to toxic work environments.
- Offer to deliver training or create instructions on new technology
- Suggest leaders communicate more often
- Discuss your needs and goals with your manager
- Address your manager’s communication or behaviors and how they impact your work
- Talk to HR about updating policies to be more inclusive
- Put a stop to the gossip
- Model the behavior you expect from others
- Tell a coworker when their words are offensive/not appreciated/inappropriate
- Show co-workers you care (offer help or offer to listen)
- It is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Take a risk.
- Offer to be a mentor
Leave If You Must
Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons of staying in a toxic job, you may decide to leave.
How soon depends on how badly you need a job and paycheck. Always try to have a job lined up first. It’s always easier to find a job when you have one. If you absolutely can’t last another day and need to quit, realize it could take 6-9 months (sometimes longer) to secure a new job.
Learn what to do when you’re in a job you hate.
A Good Workplace Is Hard To Find
A workplace where empathy, feedback, and clear goals have been set and are on full display is hard to find. That’s why it’s important to recognize some of the red flags of a toxic work environment – so you make the right choice and find a job and company where you’ll be happy.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.