7 signs of a toxic workplace and what to do when you see them


Employee health, safety and wellbeing is high on everyone’s agenda. Mandatory OHS courses, lunch time stretching sessions, fruit bowls and low-emission equipment are just some of the ways we try to take care of our workers. However, difficult personalities will ignite the workplace and do more damage than a non-compliant office toaster. It’s imperative that you can spot each of these 7 signs of a toxic workplace. 

There is a wealth of research and anecdotal evidence on the mental and physical health repercussions of absorbing toxic people’s venom. These range from insomnia, chronic stress, depression, high blood pressure, panic attacks, heart palpitations and cold sores, to name a few. Those experiencing psychological stress at work double their risk of cardiovascular disease. It all comes down to recognising the 7 signs of a toxic workplace. 

Does each company have at least one toxic worker who poisons the air for everyone? I suggest nine out of 10 people would say ‘yes’. I recall a particularly toxic person: When she was away, it was like being blasted with fresh air when you’re mid-hike in the Amazon jungle. We all walked around with a spring in our step and smiles on our faces, and when that person resigned the sighs of relief could be heard the next city over.

But seriously, how can you discern if your office is truly toxic, a below average place to work, or just a really stressful work environment?

After soliciting the feedback of peers and colleagues and doing some research, here’s my take on the most common traits of a toxic workplace.

1. Inequality is rife

Number 1 of the 7 signs of a toxic workplace is special or preferential treatment. This fosters toxic behaviours. I’ve seen technically brilliant or gifted employees get away with murder (not literally, but you get my drift) just because they’re a high performer. There’s a set of rules for them and another for everyone else. Often the toxicity stems from one individual who treats everyone with contempt, intimidating and humiliating almost everyone on the payroll.

2. Nest of negativity

Mean and vindictive, this group of employees feed on each other’s negativity and covertly bad mouth most change initiatives. Grumbling and complaining by employees is common. But when sarcasm and cynicism become the status quo, the ballooning distrust causes employees to withdraw, avoid interactions with others and eventually they leave the organisation.

3. Sabotage over service

I toured the DMZ (demilitarised zone) in Seoul, South Korea recently. It was cold, overcast and gloomy – yet the US soldiers escorting us wore dark sunglasses. I asked why. They recounted a tale where one North Korean soldier felt a South Korean soldier looked at him with malevolence. It ended in shots firing. Looks can kill – you can often glean hostility in a co-worker’s eyes. They probably won’t shoot you, but they will go out of their way to sabotage anything you are trying to accomplish. I wonder how much time we all waste in ‘ass-covering activities’ such as detailed engagement records, email confirmations, cc’ing all and sundry in, and keeping multiple hard copies, you know, just in case.

4. The prodigal son or daughter

Some managers have clear favourites who receive additional benefits. It could be financial bonuses, special trips, training or more time off. Often these favourites work their way up the corporate ladder faster, irrespective of merit. They get more face time with key decision makers and are regularly praised in public.

5. Culture clash

This happens when the people who are hired are clearly mismatched to the job or the organisational culture, often because someone high-up in the company puts in a good word. These friends are hired because, hey, research shows we like people who are similar to us. Suddenly, you find yourself forced into accepting a newbie whose entitlement mentality has tainted them from the start.

6. Stalin is on staff

Fiercely intelligent with a great capacity for evil, Stalin is a metaphor. There’s often a Stalin-like figure in many businesses. They might not have a senior role, but they wield power and influence through years of service and competence. Over time, others have learned to distrust this political powerhouse and manipulation maestro. Sadly, too often management trusts that Stalin has the company’s best interests at heart, oblivious to the harm being caused.

7. Leader-led loopiness

This is an individual who is the antithesis of what a leader should be. They are only looking out for number one – prime motivations being the pursuit of power and money. They erode boundaries by ‘befriending’ one or two employees, thus creating anxiety for those who are excluded. Employees are encouraged to inform on one another, creating a hyper-competitive dog-eat-dog culture. This loopy behaviour soon filters down the ranks, and pretty soon, it becomes part of the culture. Run a mile when “it’s just how things are done around here,” becomes a tagline.

It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario: Do toxic leaders create toxic workplaces? Or do toxic workplaces attract toxic leaders? In either case, in the case of most of the 7 signs of a toxic workplace, they go hand in hand.

These so-called leaders are narcissists. They think they make or break the organisation and are the best thing since sliced bread.

While these leaders might initially appear to be ‘successful’, their damaging attitudes and inappropriate actions will bite them in the long run. Through single-handedly obliterating trust and teamwork, the sky-high turnover rate in their teams will eventually erode the health of the entire organisation.

When people outside of your workplace notice you’ve changed or seem stressed, it’s time to take a cold hard look at what’s going on. You are not a spectator incapable of taking action. Life is short, and there’s certainly more to it than where you work. Once you’ve recognised some of the 7 signs of a toxic workplace, conduct a self-assessment, identify what you will and won’t tolerate, determine your options, weigh up the pros and cons and finally … make a choice.

Who’s worked in a toxic workplace and survived to tell the tale? Feel free to share your experiences by commenting below.

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Passionate about people
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Passionate about people

I have worked in a number of medium to large Organisations in a number of industries, where the toxic workplace is as a result of the leadership.

Being an HR professional and understanding the impact of this, I have had the courage to raise this in a professional manner, with a view to assist in coaching on the principles of natural justice and best practice. In all cases this has resulted in me being bullied out. What does one do when these circumstances arise?

Sam
Guest
Sam

I have worked in a #7 Leader-led Loopiness environment. Now that I’m away from it, would have made a classic case study high-lighting the importance of ‘run…run as fast as you can’ if you ever find yourself in that situation. Employees were encouraged (and rewarded!) to tell-tales on their fellow co-workers and during my time there I was witness to 4 good employees being emotionally crushed (all with expensive HR ramifications). When I decided enough was enough and spoke up I too became enemy number 1. I ended up leaving and it was the best thing I could do for… Read more »

Davin Shellshear
Guest
Davin Shellshear

There have been a number of articles recently on the topic of toxic workplaces such as ‘Identifying and Navigating toxic cultures’ by Andrew Brown, and ‘3 Ways To Change Toxic Tendencies at Work’ by Jody Thompson, etc. To really understand toxicity, we should step back into the context of the organisation and the individual/ team displaying ‘toxic behaviour’ and ask – What objectives and outcomes does the organisation want from the individual/ team, and to what extent are the behaviours consistent with the organisation’s requirements. Those objectives should include the well-being of co-workers and other members of the organisation. Toxicity… Read more »

Geena Naryan
Guest
Geena Naryan

Toxic Work Culture – Work Place 7 November 2016 This article is based on A reflection on my work experiences and of others who practiced toxic work culture and those who were subject to toxic work culture What is Toxic Work Culture or Toxic Work Place If you are experiencing or have experienced any of these situations than most likely you were or are in a Toxic Work Culture. A toxic workplace/ work culture has high level of some of these factors or as mentioned below some of the reasons that contribute to Toxic Work Culture: 1. Gossip – where… Read more »

Dan Erbacher
Guest
Dan Erbacher

Identifying the above-listed characters is easy. Being able to do anything about it is another matter. I previously worked in the public sector for many years, and its departments are beset with many incompetent bullies who have been promoted to positions way above their level. Mind you, I am not saying the private sector is any better or worse. However, taking action against such persons is almost impossible for the following reasons: • Managers will always trot out the line that they are using ‘reasonable management action’ and will be supported by the organisation. • You are not just taking… Read more »

More on HRM

7 signs of a toxic workplace and what to do when you see them


Employee health, safety and wellbeing is high on everyone’s agenda. Mandatory OHS courses, lunch time stretching sessions, fruit bowls and low-emission equipment are just some of the ways we try to take care of our workers. However, difficult personalities will ignite the workplace and do more damage than a non-compliant office toaster. It’s imperative that you can spot each of these 7 signs of a toxic workplace. 

There is a wealth of research and anecdotal evidence on the mental and physical health repercussions of absorbing toxic people’s venom. These range from insomnia, chronic stress, depression, high blood pressure, panic attacks, heart palpitations and cold sores, to name a few. Those experiencing psychological stress at work double their risk of cardiovascular disease. It all comes down to recognising the 7 signs of a toxic workplace. 

Does each company have at least one toxic worker who poisons the air for everyone? I suggest nine out of 10 people would say ‘yes’. I recall a particularly toxic person: When she was away, it was like being blasted with fresh air when you’re mid-hike in the Amazon jungle. We all walked around with a spring in our step and smiles on our faces, and when that person resigned the sighs of relief could be heard the next city over.

But seriously, how can you discern if your office is truly toxic, a below average place to work, or just a really stressful work environment?

After soliciting the feedback of peers and colleagues and doing some research, here’s my take on the most common traits of a toxic workplace.

1. Inequality is rife

Number 1 of the 7 signs of a toxic workplace is special or preferential treatment. This fosters toxic behaviours. I’ve seen technically brilliant or gifted employees get away with murder (not literally, but you get my drift) just because they’re a high performer. There’s a set of rules for them and another for everyone else. Often the toxicity stems from one individual who treats everyone with contempt, intimidating and humiliating almost everyone on the payroll.

2. Nest of negativity

Mean and vindictive, this group of employees feed on each other’s negativity and covertly bad mouth most change initiatives. Grumbling and complaining by employees is common. But when sarcasm and cynicism become the status quo, the ballooning distrust causes employees to withdraw, avoid interactions with others and eventually they leave the organisation.

3. Sabotage over service

I toured the DMZ (demilitarised zone) in Seoul, South Korea recently. It was cold, overcast and gloomy – yet the US soldiers escorting us wore dark sunglasses. I asked why. They recounted a tale where one North Korean soldier felt a South Korean soldier looked at him with malevolence. It ended in shots firing. Looks can kill – you can often glean hostility in a co-worker’s eyes. They probably won’t shoot you, but they will go out of their way to sabotage anything you are trying to accomplish. I wonder how much time we all waste in ‘ass-covering activities’ such as detailed engagement records, email confirmations, cc’ing all and sundry in, and keeping multiple hard copies, you know, just in case.

4. The prodigal son or daughter

Some managers have clear favourites who receive additional benefits. It could be financial bonuses, special trips, training or more time off. Often these favourites work their way up the corporate ladder faster, irrespective of merit. They get more face time with key decision makers and are regularly praised in public.

5. Culture clash

This happens when the people who are hired are clearly mismatched to the job or the organisational culture, often because someone high-up in the company puts in a good word. These friends are hired because, hey, research shows we like people who are similar to us. Suddenly, you find yourself forced into accepting a newbie whose entitlement mentality has tainted them from the start.

6. Stalin is on staff

Fiercely intelligent with a great capacity for evil, Stalin is a metaphor. There’s often a Stalin-like figure in many businesses. They might not have a senior role, but they wield power and influence through years of service and competence. Over time, others have learned to distrust this political powerhouse and manipulation maestro. Sadly, too often management trusts that Stalin has the company’s best interests at heart, oblivious to the harm being caused.

7. Leader-led loopiness

This is an individual who is the antithesis of what a leader should be. They are only looking out for number one – prime motivations being the pursuit of power and money. They erode boundaries by ‘befriending’ one or two employees, thus creating anxiety for those who are excluded. Employees are encouraged to inform on one another, creating a hyper-competitive dog-eat-dog culture. This loopy behaviour soon filters down the ranks, and pretty soon, it becomes part of the culture. Run a mile when “it’s just how things are done around here,” becomes a tagline.

It’s the classic chicken and egg scenario: Do toxic leaders create toxic workplaces? Or do toxic workplaces attract toxic leaders? In either case, in the case of most of the 7 signs of a toxic workplace, they go hand in hand.

These so-called leaders are narcissists. They think they make or break the organisation and are the best thing since sliced bread.

While these leaders might initially appear to be ‘successful’, their damaging attitudes and inappropriate actions will bite them in the long run. Through single-handedly obliterating trust and teamwork, the sky-high turnover rate in their teams will eventually erode the health of the entire organisation.

When people outside of your workplace notice you’ve changed or seem stressed, it’s time to take a cold hard look at what’s going on. You are not a spectator incapable of taking action. Life is short, and there’s certainly more to it than where you work. Once you’ve recognised some of the 7 signs of a toxic workplace, conduct a self-assessment, identify what you will and won’t tolerate, determine your options, weigh up the pros and cons and finally … make a choice.

Who’s worked in a toxic workplace and survived to tell the tale? Feel free to share your experiences by commenting below.

12
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Passionate about people
Guest
Passionate about people

I have worked in a number of medium to large Organisations in a number of industries, where the toxic workplace is as a result of the leadership.

Being an HR professional and understanding the impact of this, I have had the courage to raise this in a professional manner, with a view to assist in coaching on the principles of natural justice and best practice. In all cases this has resulted in me being bullied out. What does one do when these circumstances arise?

Sam
Guest
Sam

I have worked in a #7 Leader-led Loopiness environment. Now that I’m away from it, would have made a classic case study high-lighting the importance of ‘run…run as fast as you can’ if you ever find yourself in that situation. Employees were encouraged (and rewarded!) to tell-tales on their fellow co-workers and during my time there I was witness to 4 good employees being emotionally crushed (all with expensive HR ramifications). When I decided enough was enough and spoke up I too became enemy number 1. I ended up leaving and it was the best thing I could do for… Read more »

Davin Shellshear
Guest
Davin Shellshear

There have been a number of articles recently on the topic of toxic workplaces such as ‘Identifying and Navigating toxic cultures’ by Andrew Brown, and ‘3 Ways To Change Toxic Tendencies at Work’ by Jody Thompson, etc. To really understand toxicity, we should step back into the context of the organisation and the individual/ team displaying ‘toxic behaviour’ and ask – What objectives and outcomes does the organisation want from the individual/ team, and to what extent are the behaviours consistent with the organisation’s requirements. Those objectives should include the well-being of co-workers and other members of the organisation. Toxicity… Read more »

Geena Naryan
Guest
Geena Naryan

Toxic Work Culture – Work Place 7 November 2016 This article is based on A reflection on my work experiences and of others who practiced toxic work culture and those who were subject to toxic work culture What is Toxic Work Culture or Toxic Work Place If you are experiencing or have experienced any of these situations than most likely you were or are in a Toxic Work Culture. A toxic workplace/ work culture has high level of some of these factors or as mentioned below some of the reasons that contribute to Toxic Work Culture: 1. Gossip – where… Read more »

Dan Erbacher
Guest
Dan Erbacher

Identifying the above-listed characters is easy. Being able to do anything about it is another matter. I previously worked in the public sector for many years, and its departments are beset with many incompetent bullies who have been promoted to positions way above their level. Mind you, I am not saying the private sector is any better or worse. However, taking action against such persons is almost impossible for the following reasons: • Managers will always trot out the line that they are using ‘reasonable management action’ and will be supported by the organisation. • You are not just taking… Read more »

More on HRM