What Is a Toxic Workplace?

A toxic workplace environment can make work unbearable for your employees and cause turnover.

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Here are signs of a toxic workplace to look out for, and how to address them when you see them

Everyone has had at least one horrible job. From low wages to mean bosses and much in between, there’s plenty that can make a job awful. Part of that equation is fit — not every job is right for every person.

But there are some things that make work unbearable for everyone and a toxic workplace environment is one of those things. Perhaps your office has become especially negative lately and you’re not sure what to do about it. Maybe you’re on the leadership end, took a look at what’s causing attrition at your company, and were surprised to find out that a toxic workplace is happening right under your nose.

Whatever the reason, here is a crash course in toxic workplace environments and what can be done about them.

What is a toxic workplace?

The thing about a toxic workplace is that there isn’t one all-encompassing definition. Instead, it’s a colloquial term that’s used to refer to a workplace (usually an office environment) that’s chiefly characterized by conflict and drama.

A toxic workplace is about more than someone just not liking their job or being dissatisfied with a boss or coworker. The distinguishing factor of a toxic work environment is that it’s felt by almost everyone, even if the particulars of what feels exceedingly toxic to one person doesn’t exactly match the way another person feels.

For example, in a toxic work environment, things like drama, favoritism, and gossiping are common symptoms. One person might be most bothered by the drama while another is irked by the favoritism. But what it all adds up to is an environment so unpleasant to be in and so difficult to succeed in that people leave because of it.

One way to think about a toxic workplace is like this: If there are recurring issues (often those rooted in personal battles) that consistently get in the way of productivity, then chances are you have toxicity issues at your business. If you have employees at any level who are more concerned with power or status rather than work performance, you might have a problem on your hands.

One important thing to remember about toxic workplaces is that they exist on a spectrum. An overly negative office and be toxic as can one that’s characterized by more serious offenses like harassment and discrimination.

The cost of a toxic work environment

1 in 5 Americans had left jobs in the previous 5 years because of a toxic work environment. SHRM estimates that the cost of that turnover is roughly $223 billion.

In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released a report titled The High Cost of a Toxic Workplace. Their findings revealed that 1 in 5 Americans had left jobs in the previous 5 years because of a toxic work environment. SHRM estimates that the cost of that turnover is roughly $223 billion.

That cost comes from the cumulation of everything from absenteeism and turnover to those that stem from discrimination and harassment. “Billions of wasted dollars. Millions of miserable people. It’s not a warzone — it’s the state of the American workplace,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the president and CEO of SHRM.

employee yelling at employee

What causes a toxic workplace?

Just like the definition of a toxic work environment, the causes can be equally unique. Naturally, incompetent managers and leadership can quickly lead to a toxic work environment. From derailing the hard work of their teams to promoting based on personal preferences, the control that those in leadership and management positions have make them prime factors in a toxic workplace.

One finding from the SHRM report was a “critical skills gap at the management level”. One cause they identified was a lack of the soft skills that are necessary to really listen to, communicate with, and lead their teams. The report also found that most employees hold managers more accountable for toxic workplaces than leadership or HR.

But employees can create a toxic environment, too. From gossiping to spreading negativity and complaining constantly, coworkers can be a source of toxicity as well. Have you ever had a co-worker who seemed to sabotage or undermine everyone else to make up for their poor performance? That probably felt pretty toxic, right?

Then there’s the company culture factor. A corrupt company culture and quickly and easily do toxic damage to the employees who comprise the business. If employees can’t succeed by doing their jobs well and, instead, they have to befriend decision-makers or work until 10 pm every night to get ahead, it’s easy to see how that environment can be toxic for most people.

How to identify a toxic workplace

Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all definition for a toxic workplace, there’s no tired and true way to identify one. You have to keep your eyes and ears open to all possible signs.

First, it’s going to be difficult to identify a toxic workplace if you don’t have solid methods for obtaining honest feedback from your employees. Whether that’s managers filtering up insights gleaned from one on ones or a consistent employee satisfaction survey system, you have to have open avenues for communication. The key is to genuinely care about — and take seriously — the way your employees feel and the things they have to say.

It’s going to be difficult to identify a toxic workplace if you don’t have solid methods for obtaining honest feedback from your employees.

Classic signs to look out for

While toxicity can take many forms, Fast Company’s executive board has outlined some classic signs to watch out for:

  • Fear of retribution. Fear is no way to run an office. If employees make decisions based on fear, that’s probably a pretty toxic way to work.
  • There’s always going to be some office gossip, especially among employees who are also friends. But when it gets out of control and impacts work, then it’s time to redirect communication through proper, professional channels.
  • Body language. Sometimes it’s not in what people say, but what they do. Look at your employees’ body language during meetings. Do they laugh, smile, and engage with each other? Or do one or two people do the talking while everyone else sits nervously and silently on the side?
  • Reserved employees. In healthy work environments, employees and teams engage with each other. They have conversations and debates about the work and how to best get it done. They ask questions and challenge each other. In a toxic environment, on the other hand, it’s not uncommon for employees to simply shut down.
  • A lack of trust between colleagues. Backstabbing and selling people out are seriously toxic behaviors that can stem from a lack of trust between colleagues. If people opt to do everything themselves rather than rely on or collaborate with their co-workers, there could be some toxicity at hand.
  • No confidence in leadership. If leadership consistently fails to follow through on addressing the issues they say they will, problems will continue to fester and spiral downwards into a toxic work environment that no one wants to stay in.
  • Inflexible communication. We all have our preferred ways of communication. When you’re a leader or manager, it’s important to be open to all kinds of communication styles. The more open doors you have, the better the chances are that you’ll hear of an issue before it gets out of hand and taints the company culture you’ve worked so hard to foster.
  • Disengaged employees. This is one reason why employee engagement surveys are so important. Once a toxic workplace gets you down, it’s hard to have energy left over to put towards work in a place that you dread going to.
  • Unclear work boundaries. A workplace is toxic if there’s an expectation that you’re available 24/7. Most people have and enjoy a life outside of work. If there aren’t clear boundaries between working hours and non-working hours, toxicity can arise.

Additional signs to  look out for

But what about if you’re not even sure whether or not you’re in a toxic work environment to begin with? Again, there are no telltale signs, but here are a few common ones to look out for:

  • Chronic stress. If your stress levels are always high regardless of what’s actually happening at work, you might be in a toxic work environment. We all stress over big meetings or presentations and the like, but if that stress is pervasive the cause could be the work environment and not you.
  • You dread going to work. Work is, well, work. Not everyone loves going to work when they could be traveling or hanging out with their loved ones instead. But this isn’t just the regular “work sucks” feeling. It’s an actual dread that consumes you every night as you think about going to work the next day and every morning as you get ready to go.
  • High turnover. If your colleagues are leaving left and right, they could be feeling the same impacts of a toxic work environment, too.
  • Social issues get in the way of work. There’s a social element to most jobs that can certainly be distracting. But when social issues rise to the level of cliquiness and exclusion, that’s probably toxic.
  • Stagnant growth. If you get passed up for promotions in order to pave the way for the boss’s friends or your job simply shows zero interest in your professional growth and development, it could be toxic for you.

Check in with your employees

As mentioned above, workplace toxicity exists on a spectrum that can range from gossip and cliquiness to full-blown harassment. On the more serious side of the spectrum, if any harassment-linked behaviors are present, you have a problem with your workplace.

But other factors that contribute to workplace toxicity can be harder to pinpoint. The best thing you can do is ask your employees, whether that’s through one-on-one meetings, employee surveys, or another method altogether. Chiefly you’re looking to identify whether or not your employees feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated at work.

Of course, there will always be one-off incidents to handle, but keep your eye on frequency. If these things are common or habitual — especially among managers, leadership, or anyone with power in your company — then your workplace could very well become toxic.

employees talking in meeting

How to address and reverse workplace toxicity

This is where the rubber meets the road. Everyone says they won’t stand for a toxic workplace environment, but because it can be such a tricky, delicate, and complicated problem to sort out, sometimes leadership opts to simply do nothing.

If you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and do they work it takes to address a toxic workplace, here is what you should consider:

  1. Take responsibility. If you’re in a leadership position, you have blood on your hands even if it got there passively. Even if you’re not committing the blatant acts that rendered your office a toxic one, it happened on your watch. So, step one is both acknowledging the problem and taking responsibility for it.
  2. Learn, listen, and observe. Next you need to go into information gathering mode. How did we get here? How long has it been like this? What do your employees need to make things better? Now is the time to listen and observe rather than immediately react.
  3. Re-establish security and stability. The thing about a toxic work environment is that it can be a really insecure place to work. Once you get a handle on how toxicity is flowing at your workplace, you have to set up clear parameters around the behaviors that will no longer be tolerated as well as consequences to go with them. Then — yep, you guessed it — follow through is key. Once effective consequences are in place, things can start to return to normal again.
  4. Create consensus. Just like toxicity drags everyone down, everyone has to be on board with making things better — especially managers and those with power, whether it’s formal or informal. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to be involved in the turnaround process if they’d like to be.
  5. Stay involved and lead by example. This isn’t a one and done kind of thing. It’s also not a good idea to fully delegate this work, either. Creating a healthy company culture is largely the responsibility of leadership, so you need to be prepared to see this through until the end. In the meantime, it’s critical that you lead by example. This way everyone knows that the expectation is that everyone, from the top down, contributes to a healthy workplace environment for all.

None of this is easy, but it is worth it. There are all kinds of consultants and professionals who you can engage if this feels like too much for you to tackle on your own. The goal is to get to a healthy office environment again — there’s no shame in needing help to get there.

A toxic workplace can be an insidious issue, but once you have a hold on it, the key is to put systems in place to make sure it doesn’t seep in again. These solutions will look different at each unique business. The key is to identify what works for you and your employees and then stick to it.

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