Staying up late to finish work. Never taking a vacation. Getting gaslit by managers. A toxic work environment can demoralize and disempower employees, harm their mental health, and cost organizations in turnover cost.
However, many organizations struggle to avoid toxicity. One in 9 workers in the US views their workplace as toxic. Aside from turnover, toxic work environments translate into employees producing lower-quality work and providing worse service to clients.
By understanding what constitutes a toxic workplace, what signs to look for, and how to manage it, you can create a healthy culture that retains employees and motivates them to produce better work.
Table of contents:
- What is a toxic work environment?
- Signs of a toxic work environment
- Toxic work environment examples
- How to deal with a toxic work environment
What is a toxic work environment?
A toxic work environment is a workplace culture that normalizes harmful behaviors, such as gaslighting, bullying, favoritism, and manipulation. In a toxic work environment, workers deal with high stress, interpersonal conflict, few growth opportunities, and decreased productivity.
The term “toxic work environment” originates from the 1970s when some workplaces, such as factories, housed cancer-causing chemicals. In other words, workers in these environments exposed themselves to harmful toxins, thus making their environments literally toxic.
However, the term later lost its literal meaning — becoming a more metaphorical way to describe negative workplace environments.
Signs of a toxic work environment
- High turnover
- Poor work-life balance
- Lack of career growth opportunities
- Poor communication
- Low engagement and morale
- Ineffective leadership
- Unfair office politics
A toxic work environment impacts every facet of an organization, from hiring to client relationships to work-life balance. To evaluate the toxicity of your workplace, you need to understand the characteristics of a toxic work environment and determine if your organization exhibits any of it.
Remember: Your business does not need to show every sign to be a toxic work environment. If you notice even just one sign in your company, it’s time to take steps to address it.
1. High turnover
A mass exodus of workers likely points to a toxic work environment. Research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that a toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to impact attrition than compensation. MIT concluded toxic work environments likely contributed most to the Great Resignation that occurred during the pandemic.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser makes the victim question their perception of reality. Gaslighting in the workplace can appear in a number of ways, such as:
- Managers moving deadlines last minute to sabotage an employee’s project
- Colleagues stealing credit for another employee’s work
- Bosses flip-flopping on what they say
Nearly 6 in 10 workers report experiencing gaslighting at work.
Bullying, whether outright or covertly, also points to a toxic work environment. Workers might gang up on an employee, for example, by insulting their work and questioning their place in the company. However, bullying can take on more indirect forms, such as a manager intentionally ignoring their direct report.
Though bullying might seem like something left behind in high school, 5 in 10 experience it in the workplace.
4. Poor work-life balance
A toxic work environment entails poor or nonexistent boundaries between a worker’s personal and professional life, usually not by choice. Managers might overwhelm employees with work — forcing them to stay up late to finish it. Alternatively, an organization may impose unnecessarily high expectations, awarding those who overwork and letting go of those who burn out.
In fact, 66% of workers acknowledge they have a bad work-life balance.
5. Lack of career growth opportunities
Over 7 in 10 employees want to know about career growth opportunities in their workplace. But a toxic work environment likely lacks or fails to provide employees with growth opportunities. This could look like:
- Managers failing to give employees projects that align with their interests
- The organization refusing to invest in learning and development
- Employees continuously doing repetitive or monotonous work
Unfortunately, discrimination runs rampant in the workplace, with over 6 in 10 reporting they experienced or observed it in their organization. Discrimination usually involves some kind of bullying, except the abuser targets the victim based on their identity, such as their:
- Sexual orientation
- National origin
A toxic work environment likely lacks policies to address discrimination, causing it to fester and make marginalized workers uncomfortable and alienated.
7. Poor communication
Nearly 9 in 10 believe their workplace has ineffective communication, making it a problem across most organizations. Poor communication can include:
- Unclear goals set by leaders in the organization
- Lack of transparency on work progress
- Few face-to-face meetings to relay critical information
- Passive aggressive feedback and criticism
This could lead to employees duplicating work, feeling unmotivated, and failing to adapt to changes in the workplace.
8. Low engagement and morale
Gallup surveyed 67k+ workers and found that less than a third of them feel engaged at work.
Employees go through the expected day-to-day activities, but feel too demoralized to go beyond the bare minimum. In fact, disengaged employees produce work with significantly more errors than their motivated counterparts.
Burnout — or a syndrome that stems from chronic workplace-related stress — has emerged as a common problem for professionals, with 89% experiencing it in the past year alone. Burnout in the workplace can emerge from a number of factors, such as:
- Failing to take adequate breaks or vacations
- Consistently working overtime
- Not addressing mental health concerns from the onset
- Feeling unable to control one’s schedule or number of assignments
10. Ineffective leadership
Business leaders shape the culture of a workplace — 84% of employees cite bad managers as the source of unneeded stress.
As an example, an executive might fail to create adequate policies to address bullying or discrimination in the workplace, which causes it to fester. Or they might fail to communicate transparently, which trickles down into managers doing the same.
11. Unfair office politics
In a toxic work environment, office politics often determine who gets promoted or receives compensation adjustments instead of work quality. For example, managers might pick favorites, setting their friends up for success while setting up those they dislike for failure. Office politics can manifest in other ways, such as:
- Workers forming groups and cliques
- Employees gossiping and spreading rumors
- Managers blaming employees for missing goals
Toxic work environment examples
Toxic work environments could include a number of signs or a select few. For example, a workplace might have excessive burnout but no instances of bullying. Workplaces can exhibit different characteristics of a toxicity, and examples might look more in the middle as opposed to strictly good or bad.
Consider a company that struggles with communication. Leaders refuse to meet in person, instead conveying important messages via email and Slack. When workers find themselves unsure over certain initiatives, they feel disempowered to ask questions — which causes confusion and misalignment across the organization, decreasing productivity, demoralizing workers, and causing them to question their place in the company.
A toxic work environment could also involve frequent discrimination. Consider a hypothetical company that ignores creating zero-tolerance policies, leaving room for bad actors to lash out. Consequently, a manager favors their male direct reports and picks on female employees, handing out important tasks to men and menial ones to women.
The women on the team feel incapable of making a difference, causing them to look for other jobs and to reduce their productivity.
Although many workplaces feature bits and pieces of toxicity, some can encompass the entirety of a toxic work environment. Consider a company that creates unnecessarily high expectations, which forces employees to either overwork or get fired.
On top of that, office politics determine who gets promoted — with managers favoring their friends and putting aside other workers. This kind of toxicity makes the organization unsustainable, as employees likely get fired or leave frequently and warn others to avoid working there.
How to deal with a toxic work environment
If you recognize signs of a toxic work environment, you can mitigate its effects by taking action sooner rather than later. As a business owner, you have a responsibility to set the tone for the organization.
You can fix a toxic work environment by doing the following:
Communicate your intentions: If you have a toxic work environment, employees likely already know. So, instead of fixing it behind closed doors, communicate your intentions. Let the organization know you recognize the problem and want to fix it.
Assert your company’s mission and values: When communicating with workers, emphasize your company’s core values and mission. Remember to explain the purpose of the company, why your organization does what it does, and what that means for employees.
Create a safe space to report bad actors: Not every employee contributes to a toxic work environment. Often, a manager leverages their power against lower level employees. To address these abusers, create a safe space for employees to anonymously report them.
Once you receive reports, follow up. Ask them to share their experiences, what they would like you to do, and whether you can do anything to amend the situation. Get comfortable with letting employees go if their actions have harmed others.
Conduct exit interviews: When an employee leaves, they likely have their reasons. So, when an employee quits, conduct a thorough exit interview. Through that process, you can identify why they left — whether they experienced bullying, wanted more compensation, or felt demoralized.
Survey employees regularly: You should also get a pulse check on how current employees feel in your organization. Ask them what the organization can do better in, whether that means offering more learning opportunities or dealing with communication issues.
Hire with culture in mind: If you hire employees without culture in mind, this could inadvertently create a more toxic work environment. Instead, ask prospective candidates about their values and see how they fit in with your company culture. Why do they want to join your organization? How will they fit in with existing employees?
Create clear company policies: Without policies that cover bullying or discrimination, employees might feel unsure how to deal with it when they experience or witness it. Start by creating a strong zero-tolerance policy, detailing how your organization views discriminatory practices and how it plans to deal with it when it happens.