Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Even typing the words feels a bit taboo, let alone discussing it in depth. Why?
After working with a variety of clients, both individuals and groups, I have a number of theories and there is one word they all have in common: fear.
There is a difference between a crummy environment and a toxic one. One is an inconvenience while the other is debilitating. And when you are in the midst of work, it can be challenging to tell the difference. While many workplaces may lack best practice or have elements of dysfunction, a toxic work environment creates a complex set of systems that are difficult to disentangle. Here are 6 signs that you might be in a toxic workplace.
The Elephant in the Room. It is common practice for people to make excuses for a leader's/leaders' bad behavioral patterns. Often in a toxic workplace, one or more narcissistic or oppressive leaders reside in the mix with little accountability. Unfortunately at the heart of most toxic workplaces, many people feel their job or professional reputation depends on the ability to normalize abnormal behavior.
Physical and Mental Dread. A toxic workplace will slowly (or quickly!) permeate all aspects of an employee’s life. This one is tricky to pinpoint because many of us may dismiss this marker as something everyone experiences in the workplace. You might find yourself saying, “Of course everyone is stressed about work, this is just how it is…” If you wake up with extreme dread, experience strong depressive symptoms, or notice an increase in physical symptoms associated with stress such as headaches, increased heart rate, panic or anxiety attacks or sleeplessness (or excess sleep) you may be coping with a toxic work environment. Though work can create stress, it shouldn’t make you feel stressed all the time.
Intense Coworker Closeness. In a toxic workplace, the coworkers start to take on the mantle of “being in the trenches” together. Collaboration and team bonding is a great part of any workplace culture; however, more than just team connection, coworkers may form a bond from shared workplace trauma. This can sometimes resemble a dysfunctional family unit where different parties attempt to protect weaker members from emotional or mental abuse. This also can create a breeding ground for a scarcity mindset, which can quickly turn closeness into volatile mistrust.
Pervasive Gaslighting. Gaslighting is when one person subtly or overtly makes another person question their own perception, judgement, or memory. It often is a form of psychological manipulation. And if one leader does it, it can indirectly lead to power battles at all levels of the organization. In brief, it’s being told, “I’m not the problem, you’re the problem.” And then slowly starting to believe it. Often others see the gaslighting, but feel disempowered to question it. And if some do question it, they may be labeled as being disrespectful or having a poor team attitude, when in actuality they are operating with integrity.
No One Stays: A Revolving Door. More than just turnover, toxic workplaces tend to have an alarming retention rate, and do whatever it takes to make excuse after excuse to explain it away. If new employees coming into the company recognize the culture as abnormal and leave quickly, this is not a good sign. More than poor onboarding, it indicates that the new employees are not willing to subject themselves to the demands of the environment long term. *note: similar to family dysfunction, some toxic workplaces are able to avoid this indicator by cultivating a tight, familial unit where loyalty is expected. Employees may question their identity without the work unit, and therefore stay if the dysfunction is tolerable or punctuated with other positive compelling factors.
Feedback is Used for Public Shaming. Under the guise of “in real-time feedback”, toxic workplaces create cultures of fear where people worry about being called out in front of their peers, having their competence or work ethic questioned openly. Certain employees may be targeted or backed into a corner with little ability to defend their work in a given situation. Inversely, an invitation for constant feedback is requested as a way to judge and size up staff or justify a variety of half-baked strategies.
If you regularly are encountering any of the above, you may be experiencing a toxic workplace. If you are not experiencing such a challenging environment, you may wonder why anyone would remain with these conditions. The answers are complex, but often people fear not being believed or not having action taken on their behalf. Keep in mind, a toxic work environment doesn’t necessarily indicate an illegal environment. Often the abuse is so slow and steady that it can be hard to pinpoint a single, clear and nuance-free event. So while liability may be present, it often isn’t enough to create concern among senior leaders of an organization.
Pearson and Porath in their article, The Price of Incivility, share that of the 14,000 people they surveyed, half indicated they are treated rudely at least once a week (2013). While that may not be indicative of a completely toxic workplace, it’s enough to question how pervasive this sort of behavior may be. One of the interviewees described her experience as “soul-destroying" (Pearson & Porath, 2013).
In 2017, executives who identified as women, quietly organized and collected comprehensive and anonymous data from colleagues because they were tired of the accepted workplace culture. The data revealed major concerns about the climate of sexual harassment and discrimination amongst some of the highest leaders of the organization (Gino, 2018).
The article states, “The gesture by the Nike workers may seem dramatic, but it was the result of women being ignored by HR as they voiced their concerns" (Gino, 2018).
This is not simply about employee conflict or even workplace dysfunction. Stories like the above demonstrate what toxic workplaces are actually about: power, manipulation and control.
I suggest we recognize toxic work environments for what they are. They are more than a liability concern; they are a moral and ethical issue wreaking havoc on our physical, mental and social health.
I suggest we recognize toxic work environments for what they are. They are more than a liability concern; they are a moral and ethical issue reeking havoc on our physical, mental and social health.
At the core of work is not just commerce but human relationship, connection and community. And therefore any environment that slowly abuses employees, is slowly abusing the core of our society at large. I urge us to not underestimate the cost of this.
I end with the words of Dr. Jeffery Pfeiffer from Stanford Graduate School of Business which perfectly summarize the main point:
“‘We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done (Walsh, 2018).’”
*Please consider sharing this article with your colleagues and friends as a way to encourage your community toward greater workplace health.
Walsh, D. (2018, March 15). The workplace is killing people and no one cares. Insights by Stanford Business. Retrieved from https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/workplace-killing-people-nobody-cares
Gino, F. (2018, May 21). Why it's so hard to speak up against a toxic culture. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/05/why-its-so-hard-to-speak-up-against-a-toxic-culture
Pearson, C., & Porath, C. (2013). The price of incivility. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility
For more details on the Nike case: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/28/business/nike-women.html