21 definite signs of a toxic workplace (+ coping tips)

Updated on August 19, 2023
signs of a toxic workplace

Sometimes it is easy to spot the signs of a toxic work environment. But in other cases, a company might seem like the perfect workplace from the outside.

And it could take you weeks or even months to realize that there is something wrong.

Companies can have complex structures and complicated internal dynamics. And complex work environments can become chaotic if left unchecked for too long.

This leads to all sorts of unpredictable problems that could be incredibly difficult to pinpoint and fix. Eventually, a chaotic and poorly structured work environment could become quite toxic.

On the other hand, there are companies that have been built upon a toxic work culture and shady practices.

Here will take a look at the underlying conditions that contribute to a toxic work environment and show you how to identify signs of a toxic workplace.

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace has numerous factors that negatively affect the well-being of employees. These factors are usually attributed to company culture and practices, or the problematic behavior of individual employees.

A toxic workplace is generally described as a “hostile” work environment. There are 4 major groups of underlying factors that contribute to a toxic work environment:

  • Toxic behaviors of employees
  • Toxic managerial behaviors
  • Toxic organizational climate
  • Toxic social factors

Each of these groups of toxic factors could be present in a work environment to varying degrees and could significantly impact the well-being of employees.

What are the signs of a toxic work environment?

What are the signs of a toxic work environment

Every workplace setting is unique and has endemic problems and internal struggles. So it can be hard to distinguish a work environment that is toxic from one that is chaotic and poorly structured.

That is why it is important to pinpoint multiple toxic workplace conditions and dynamics to come to a conclusion. So what are the signs of a toxic workplace that you should be looking for?

1. Poor company reputation

A company with a poor public image and lots of negative reviews would probably be highly volatile on the inside.

2. High voluntary employee turnover rate

People rarely leave a good job on a whim. A high turnover of employees suggests that after a certain period of working for the company, people figure out that the conditions are not ideal.

3. Devious politics and fraud

Be mindful of Internal company politics that negatively impact the company’s user basis or a particular target demographic.

(If you have realized that the company you work for is scamming its customers or it is exploitative in any way that is illegal, then you should leave and consider reporting them.)

4. Unfair policies

The presence of company policies that have been specifically designed to sanction or come at the expense of employees.

5. Winning at all costs

This is one of the classic signs of toxic work culture. This type of work mentality is a major red flag. If profit is what matters the most, then the well-being of employees is most likely an afterthought.

6. Changing priorities and targets

How are you supposed to achieve a certain target at work when it is constantly changing, and becoming more and more difficult to reach every month?

How are you supposed to do your best work when the priorities are always changing and you can't focus on doing one thing right?

7. Communication problems

All large companies experience communication problems. But if such are present between coworkers and managers who work closely together, then this is a sure sign that something is wrong.

8. Leadership and management problems

If all previous signs are present within an organization, then this indicates that it is being poorly managed.

It is very likely that the decision-makers are quite toxic themselves and they are poisoning the work environment for everyone else.

9. Abusive supervision and exploitation

You might notice that higher-ups and middle-management employees resort to manipulation and abuse in order to fully exploit their subordinates.

10. Lack of company direction

Company culture on its own is meaningless without a clear understanding of how a company is trying to make the world a better place.

11. Lack of work-life balance

Companies that truly care about their employees usually develop internal wellness programs and educate their workers on achieving work-life balance.

The absence of such initiatives strongly suggests that employee well-being is not a priority.

12. Favoritism and nepotism

Are certain employees treated better than the rest just because they have a special relationship with the higher-ups? This could lead to workplace jealousy and drama.

13. Shirk responsibility

It seems that nobody is ever responsible for the numerous problems that arise on a daily basis in the office. There are always a ton of excuses and lots of finger-pointing.

14. Dishonesty and lack of trust

You might notice that some coworkers and managers resort to mental gymnastics, manipulation tactics, and lies to achieve their goals. Naturally, it is hard to trust people in such a work environment.

15. Rudeness and aggression

Some of the employees and managers have a rude demeanor. Others could be quite aggressive at times, causing severe distress to other employees.

16. Grouping and exclusion

Some coworkers form workplace alliances and purposefully exclude others from their clique. Such division between coworkers could create communication barriers and harm teamwork.

17. Personal conflicts

With all these underlying toxic conditions and volatility, it's no wonder that conflicts between coworkers and managers happen so often.

18. Excessive gossip

Sure, there is a little bit of gossip going on at every company. It is human nature. But false rumors can quickly spread through excessive gossip and cause unpleasant situations.

19. Incompetence and laziness

Some coworkers and managers are able to get away with doing less work. On top of that, some are downright incapable of doing their job properly.

20. Workplace harassment

Yes, some people can be rude and insensitive. But there are individuals who engage in harassing behavior toward their subordinates and coworkers.

So how come the company isn't doing anything to put a stop to such unacceptable behavior?

21. Toxic employees

Sometimes the work environment is not the problem. The problem is certain individuals who “poison” the work environment through their behavior. Here you can take a look at our complete guide on dealing with toxic employees.

How to deal with a toxic work environment

How to deal with a toxic work environment

There are certain steps that you take in order to limit the impact that the toxic work environment has on your life.

Keep in mind that you are dealing with your own unique set of circumstances so consider each step carefully before you take any action.

1. Determine the source of workplace toxicity

Sit down for a moment and think long and hard about your job.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea about what are the most unpleasant factors that you are dealing with at work.

It’s important to pinpoint the sources of workplace toxicity in order to shield yourself from them and work toward eliminating them completely.

2. Limit your exposure to toxic workplace factors

Do your best to shield yourself from aspects of your work that affect you negatively.

For instance, if you find that some of your coworkers are problematic, then limit your communication with them.

Another good example would be a boss who contacts you outside of work and asks you to do work. Simply don’t answer their calls and messages – do only the work that you are being paid to do.

3. Unwind properly after work

The worst aspect of working a toxic job is that negative thoughts and emotions follow you around even outside of work.

This means that your toxic job could begin to affect other areas of your life, such as your relationships with friends and loved ones.

That is why it is important to properly disengage from work and forget about the worries you have in the office.

If you are unable to chase away negative thoughts and emotions, then you can take a look at our complete guide on dealing with work rumination.

4. Offer feedback to your boss and HR

Even if you are an entry-level employee, your voice matters and you should be able to give feedback to your boss and HR staff.

(If the company you work for doesn't care about what you have to say, consider that to be a sure sign of a toxic workplace.)

In fact, why not show them this article and ask them what they think?

Keep in mind that sometimes workplace toxicity is caused by internal communication problems and poorly defined roles and responsibilities within the company.

So speaking to key decision-makers within your company could be a step towards eliminating toxic practices and behaviors at work.

5. Take the lead if you are a key decision-maker

Depending on your position in the company, you might be able to make significant changes in order to eliminate or at least reduce workplace toxicity.

For instance, if you are in middle or upper management, then you could speak with your subordinates who are the most problematic and give them proper feedback.

Also, you might want to speak to other key people within your company and ask them what they think about the rising levels of workplace toxicity.

Perhaps together you can bring forth the necessary change to build a more harmonic workplace that is conducive to great work and success.

Should you quit a toxic job?

You should quit a toxic job if you are not particularly reliant on it financially because the negative effects that you are experiencing will immeasurably affect your well-being as time goes by.

The chronic stress of working a toxic job might lead to anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

The negative effects of toxic work environments are well documented. So if you see no hope of change anytime soon, then you should take steps towards finding a better company to work for.

Here you can take a look at our complete guide on how to quit a toxic job in case you have a hard time letting go of all the financial security and benefits that it offers you.

How long to stay in a toxic work environment

You could probably stay in a toxic work environment for 1 or 2 months until you stumble upon better job opportunities that match your career goals and financial needs.

However, if you are suffering severely due to the negative effects that you are experiencing, then you should quit ASAP.

You might be able to endure toxic work conditions for a month or two through sheer mental fortitude and unshakable patience.

During this period, keep an eye on potential job opportunities using social media channels and job application websites.

The bottom line is that it is best to leave a job that treats you badly as soon as you stumble upon a good opportunity.

When to quit a toxic job

It would be best to quit a toxic job as soon as you notice that it is affecting your overall well-being and personal life because the adverse effects that you experience are likely to get even worse with time.

Of course, another big factor to consider is your financial situation as you might be highly dependent on your job.

If this is indeed the case, it would be wise of you to take steps toward securing another job or another reliable source of income before you quit.

My advice on identifying a toxic workplace

If you are looking for a job and going on job interviews, you can do yourself a favor and carefully research the companies that make you a job offer.

Also, you can ask the interviewers certain questions and gauge their reactions. Here are a few examples.

  • “How come the position I applied for is open?”
  • “How come the employee who previously had this position left the company?”
  • “Should I expect to be contacted often outside of work?”
  • “How often do you update your targets?”
  • “Do you have an internal wellness program?”

However, if you are already working, then you should think carefully about how you feel about your job and the aspects that you don’t like about it.

Not everyone is lucky enough to work a job that they love but everyone deserves to work under ideal conditions.

So take the time to figure out if you have a problem with the characteristics of your job or if you are indeed facing a toxic workplace.

Frequently asked questions about a toxic workplace

How can I protect my mental health while working in a toxic environment?

Prioritize self-care, such as exercise, sleep, and hobbies. Consider speaking to a mental health professional, and set boundaries to separate work time from personal time.

What are the legal steps I can take if I am experiencing harassment in a toxic workplace?

Document incidents in detail, consult with an employment attorney, and consider filing a complaint with your local labor authority or human rights agency.

How can I tell the difference between a challenging workplace and a toxic one?

A challenging workplace pushes you to grow and provides support, while a toxic workplace consistently undermines your well-being and lacks respect and fair treatment.

Are there any signs of a toxic workplace to look for during a job interview?

Look for vague job descriptions, high turnover rates, negative reviews online, and observe how employees and interviewers interact and speak about the company and each other.

How can a company recover and change after being identified as a toxic workplace?

The company should acknowledge the issues, engage an external consultant for an unbiased assessment, implement new policies, provide training on workplace behavior, and establish clear channels for reporting and addressing issues.

Written by:
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galin office topics square
co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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