Signs you're in a toxic workplace

While many workplaces are well-managed, some are difficult to navigate. A passive-aggressive boss or co-worker, inappropriate comments, actions to significantly increase or decrease your workload, malicious gossip, or unclear communication can result in clashes in the workplace. It can contribute to stress and even long-term health conditions. 

While there are avenues for resolution if your supervisor violates your terms and conditions of employment or you’re being harassed at work, sometimes, a dysfunctional workplace isn’t doing either. It's more of a case of "death by a thousand cuts."

Is there something you can do other than start looking for another job?

What are the Signs of a Toxic Workplace?

Here are some common signs:

1. You don’t trust each other. A key sign of a toxic workplace is a lack of trust. You don’t trust your leader to support you or the rest of the team. You don’t trust your co-worker as they’ve taken credit for what you’ve done, passed their workload to you, or are granted projects generally in your purview. Co-workers who are only out for themselves and their agenda create a lack of trust in the workplace and disrespect between team members.

2. There is a lack of communication or miscommunication. You often don’t get the necessary information to do your job, or there’s no feedback loop on the work you have been doing. Passive-aggressive or negative communication in your work group or by your leader expects you to reply to emails, texts, and team messages during non-work hours. Another red flag is if there is no open communication or if you have to be exceptionally guarded or reserved in your responses.

3. Favouritism, Bias and Partiality. This might be a leader who focuses on developing and promoting specific employees, promotes their friends over high-performers or is not equitable with mentorship. It could be a leader who allows only one similarly-ranked team member to act with more authority or control over their colleagues’ jobs and projects. There might be rules that apply to some co-workers but not others. Leaders who hire and promote their friends and former colleagues into higher level roles can also enable a toxic work environment.

4. Cliques, Exclusion or Gossip. An example here is when colleagues have a large collection of inside jokes or go out and grab coffee together, while excluding others in their team. Another is when co-workers constantly gossip or complain about other team members behind their backs.

5. Problems with Leadership. This could be when you approach your leader about any of this behaviour and it isn’t being adequately changed or addressed. It could also be when a micromanaging supervisor corrects you in front of others, undermines your decisions or keeps adding to your workload with no sign of relief. And when team members don’t speak up or ask questions and automatically agree with their supervisor, this could also be a sign that they are not confident in their leadership and may be fearful to ask questions or engage in honest discussions. 

Why are Toxic Workplaces Harmful?

A toxic workplace can lead to several challenges for individuals and for the team or department leader. Here are some examples 

For the individual:

  • Constantly mulling over your toxic workplace and trying to figure out how to make things better often leads to endless non-work time discussing this with loved ones, anxiety, lack of sleep and excessive stress. Chronic work tension can lead to burnout, illness and depression and reduced performance at work.
  • Fear being seen as a troublemaker or antagonistic to leadership and colleagues, exacerbating their already difficult working conditions.
  • Constantly working overtime to avoid conflict resulting in a severe lack of work-life balance. 
  • Fearing that your professional development and growth in your career may be stifled. You might begin to feel a lack of worth, damage to your self-esteem, and/or a lowering of your motivation in your workplace.

For the department and leader:

  • You may experience a false sense of harmony in your team, and underlying issues will flare up when you least expect or want them to.
  • You’re experiencing low engagement, presenteeism, quiet quitting or absenteeism among your team. You may have a high or rapid turnover in your department and lose talented professionals.
  • Your team may not be motivated to complete projects and need a lot of incentive to work together.

Strategies to Help with a Toxic Workplace

For the individual:

You may want to create techniques and strategies to cope with the situation.

  • Find a work friend. A work friend can help you cope with difficult situations and make the work day more bearable. 
  • Create firm boundaries with your work and personal life. Give yourself the time to disconnect from work and reconnect with your loved ones. Take your vacation time. Create a fulfilling life outside of work and do things to actively reduce stress. 
  • Make sure to document emails, meetings, comments and decisions. If dysfunction turns into bullying and harassment or retaliation, you have evidence to take to APSA. 
  • Take control of your career, map out where and what you want to do and actively volunteer or take steps to further your overall career goals, that way, when you can look for work, you’re at the top of your game.

For the leader:

  • Get ahead of the problem before it gets bigger. If you are receiving feedback from your employees, that’s good because they don’t consider you the cause of the toxic work environment. They, however, expect you to fix the problem.
  • Create and execute a plan to fix any issues to prevent the same problems from happening again. It's, of course, difficult to make more than a general recommendation here, as so many situations are unique. Still, it's important to have a conversation with team members, before implementing changes to the current status quo. You may also wish to receive guidance from us here in APSA or your HR business partner.
  • Increase employee input and feedback into processes and systems and create a fair, equitable way to report issues. “An anonymous employee feedback system is a great way to seek input from your employees on the policies you have implemented, but it also allows employees to report any misconduct that they are hearing or seeing in the workplace,” says ClearForce CEO Tom Miller (see Forbes article below). “This allows for honest, direct feedback from employees to leadership, allowing them to take action for culture change.”