6 Signs of a Toxic Workplace (and how to deal with it)

Life is too short to work for jerks!

That’s how Rachel Feintzeig summarizes the all-too-common struggle of working with a toxic boss– and she’s exactly right. You’d think that, in 2023– when we’re so aware of our rights and our recourse when those rights are violated– that no one would feel forced to remain in a toxic workplace. But the sad reality is that far too many people feel trapped in unhealthy work environments.

In this article, we’ll dig into the factors that make a workplace and a manager toxic, why people are still working for jerks, and how you can reclaim control by removing yourself from that environment.

What Makes a Workplace Toxic?

No job is perfect; no matter how much you love certain aspects of your role or your company culture, there’s always going to be something you dislike, even if it’s just a minor annoyance. But there’s a crucial difference between an actively toxic workplace and pet peeves or elements that are less than ideal. So, what makes a workplace unhealthy? And how can you tell the difference between an environment that is problematic and one that just gets on your nerves?

1. High Turnover Rates

If a company is growing so fast that there’s always a high demand for new staff, that’s awesome. But there’s a difference between rapid scaling and high turnover. Where scaling most commonly involves hiring new employees to fill untapped vacancies throughout the organization, high turnover means that your coworkers are dropping like flies. Frequent turnover is a big red flag of a toxic workplace because it indicates that employees are unhappy or dissatisfied with their work environment, management, or company culture.

2. Lack of Open Communication

6 Signs of a Toxic Workplace (and how to deal with it)

Everyone knows that communication is key, right? It’s one of those slogans that’s repeated so often we almost forget its meaning. But when there are major communication deficits within an organization, it’s a serious wake-up call to the importance of transparency and clarification in the workplace. It’s also one of the key signs of a toxic work environment. No one is a mindreader, so tension and conflict can quickly arise when assumptions are made and details are omitted. In practice, a lack of open communication can manifest in a few unhealthy ways, such as:

– Unclear or nonexistent feedback from management
– Insufficient clarity about your responsibilities
– Lack of collaboration between team members
– Being expected to know policies, deadlines, or requirements that were never expressly communicated
– Unclear expectations from management

No one enjoys working in an environment that fosters miscommunication and conflict.

So, if you attempt to address the problem by connecting with management or your team members and they’re resistant to establishing clear communication, that’s a sure sign of a toxic workplace.

3. Micromanagement and Lack of Autonomy

office manager micromanaging employeeRemember that scene in The Office where Michael complains, “It was my understanding that I was not going to be managed!” That might be funny in the context of a sitcom, but in reality, we all know it’s a totally ridiculous expectation. No one should expect to work with zero accountability, but neither should people be micromanaged or placed under excessive scrutiny.

And yet, micromanagement is an all-too-common trait in toxic workplaces. When employees feel constantly monitored and are given little autonomy in their roles, it can lead to increased stress, decreased morale, and a sense of being undervalued. These feelings can contribute to high turnover rates and a lack of communication among your team, especially if your employees feel that their voices are neither heard nor valued.

So, if you’re an employee noticing high levels of micromanagement in your organization, this may be a sign of a toxic workplace and a hint that you might want to jump ship. And if you’re a recruiter doing your best to hire great people and create a healthy company culture, you can screen for the Michael Scotts of the world by being attentive to candidates’ preferences for a balance between guidance and autonomy during the hiring process.

4. Unhealthy Competition and Lack of Team Collaboration

unhealthy team competitionA little healthy competition can drive innovation and productivity; just think about the Color Wars episode of the workplace comedy Superstore! Dividing the employees between “Team Red” and “Team Yellow” and inviting them to compete for a cash prize brought all the employees together in creative, collaborative ways that illustrate the benefits of friendly competition in the workplace.

But what if that competition were to turn darker? In real life, unhealthy competition in the workplace often manifests as colleagues undermining each other, an absence of collaboration, and an overly competitive atmosphere. Toxic bosses can add to this by playing mind games, pitting co-workers against each other, and arbitrarily praising one person while shutting others down.

Although some managers think creating employee tension is motivational, nothing could be further from the truth. A Superstore-style competition can be awesome, but there’s nothing fun or healthy about manipulating colleagues or encouraging people to distrust each other.

5. Inadequate Work-Life Balance

woman in office stressing outIn 2023, it’s become pretty clear: employees are hungry for a healthy work/life balance.

Workers across every industry are keen to leave their professional responsibilities at work when they disconnect for the day so they can unplug, wind down, and enjoy their personal lives. Although much has been made of this desire, with some employers squawking that this is unprofessional, the truth is that this is 100% normal and okay.

In fact, only the toxic workplaces have a problem with this! Why? Because toxic workplaces often demand excessive working hours and place unrealistic expectations on employees. Unless you explicitly signed up to be on-call 24 hours a day or start Zoom meetings at 4:00 am, it’s not okay for your employer to consistently disregard your work/life balance. It’s also not okay to pressure you into working overtime or make you feel like a weirdo for taking the breaks and vacation days you’re legally allowed.

So, if your boss’ excessive, after-hours demands on your time are causing you to experience symptoms of burnout, stress-related health issues, and a decline in overall job satisfaction, it’s time to recognize the red flags of a toxic workplace and look for another job.

6. Inconsistent or Unfair Treatment

business man hiding for other employeesFair treatment is fundamental to a positive work environment. But in toxic workplaces, employees may experience unfair treatment that manifests itself through inconsistent application of policies, favoritism, or discriminatory practices. In practice, this might mean that people who are besties with the boss receive preferential treatment or that certain people are repeatedly given promotions or perks where others are repeatedly passed over.

But unfair treatment isn’t limited to raises or career progression. It’s also about how you’re made to feel. If you’re experiencing bullying, exclusion, or harassment in the workplace, this is a prime example of toxic and unfair treatment of employees. It’s also important to remember that unfair treatment isn’t limited to management.

Co-workers can treat each other in unfair or inconsistent ways that are also hurtful, toxic, and unacceptable. For a practical example, just think about the way Sandra is treated by every other character in Superstore. The consistent casual bullying Sandra experiences is presented as nothing more than a running joke.

But if you were the “Sandra” in your workplace, that sort of treatment would leave you feeling devalued, isolated, and humiliated. So, if you or anyone you work with is being treated unfairly by coworkers or management, this is a serious red flag of a toxic workplace, and it’s time to leave.

Why do People Stay in Toxic Workplaces?

While it’s true that no one should stay in a toxic work environment, it’s important to be realistic and consider that many people feel like they don’t have a choice. The prospect of being unemployed is scary for everyone, and if you have a family to provide for or living expenses to afford, you may feel as though you don’t have the freedom to wait around for the perfect fit. But while everyone needs a way to earn a living, life really is too short to work with or for jerks. Every human being is more than just an employee; you’re a person who also deserves safety and respect. So, if you feel trapped in a toxic workplace, give yourself the freedom to search for an escape route.

Key takeaways

You don’t have to quit your job without a safety net, but you can have a conversation with us and take advantage of our career solutions. We’ll work with you to offer support in every way we can, whether that means workshopping your resume, brushing up on your interview skills, or connecting you with a job that will be the perfect fit. No one deserves to stay stuck in a toxic workplace, so take the leap and connect with our career solutions team today.

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