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10 Signs You're in a Toxic Work Environment

Toxic work environments cost billions of dollars every year. In 2019, The Society for Human Resources Management conducted a research study that revealed the cost of workplace turnover caused by negative or toxic workplace culture. $223 billion over the course of five years.

Additionally, 58% of those who quit because of a toxic culture said that their managers were the primary reason they left. That's a staggering cost. Particularly considering that the quality of a work environment is entirely within the control of an organization's leaders, managers, and owners.

58% of those who quit because of a toxic culture said that their managers were the primary reason they left.

A toxic workplace is more than just a job you hate or the result of having a bad day (or month). If you think you might be working in a toxic environment, these 10 signs are the definitive answer you’re looking for.

1. There’s Little (or Poor) Communication From Leaders

Do you feel like you’re always out of the loop? Poor communication can be a sign and a contributing factor to toxic work environments. On the flip side, honesty and transparency are hallmarks of healthy work environments that inspire and engage their employees. Confusing, insufficient, disorganized communication, lack of listening and poor verbal and written communications derail even the most devoted workers, opening the door to the ever-churning rumor mill while damaging morale.

2. You Learn More at the Meeting After the Meeting

Open, honest communication shouldn't only come from above. Everyone should feel comfortable sharing their opinions while in meetings designed to make decisions or discuss important issues. In a toxic work environment, you'd likely hear more about what people think while they're huddled up in their own private meeting after the meeting. Those same people railing against the decisions made or policies enforced were silent during the meeting itself.

This could be a two-fold problem. Is your boss overbearing and no one feels comfortable speaking up? Or are your coworkers more interested in gossiping and being negative than being proactive forces within the organization? Either way, it’s a sign of toxicity at work.

3. There are Cliques and Exclusion

Not every employee is destined to be best friends, but your work should never feel like middle school. Although you (and others) might naturally gravitate together to enjoy breaks and chat between meetings, no one should ever feel like they’re being iced out and unwelcome. Likewise, there shouldn’t be specific groups that always get invited to working on projects without taking experience or talent into account. Cliques and exclusion have no place in the work environment, especially if it’s happening at the management or executive level.

4. Poor Leadership

Have you heard, “You’re lucky you have a job,” being bandied about? Scare tactics and threats are a tool for those who abuse their power to intimidate you into remaining in a marginalized position. In toxic work environments, leaders and others lack the awareness necessary to comprehend that they're treating people in dismissive, disrespectful, and hurtful ways.

That’s not the only way that poor leadership can rear its ugly head. Leaders who micromanage and constantly undermine the decisions you make, correct you and keep you from doing your job. Bosses and supervisors pass the blame on to everyone else and fail to take responsibility. Managers who don’t understand what you do or even remember your name. These are all signs of poor leadership that contribute to toxic workplaces.

5. You Have Limited Opportunities to Grow

Do you feel stifled? Like there’s no way for you to advance or learn new skills? Toxic work environments smother employees and stifle their inner fire rather than stoke the flames of innovation, ingenuity, and excellence. Even if there aren’t many opportunities to advance, healthy work environments helmed by leaders who are invested in their employees’ growth offer workers chances to enrich their skills, engage in continued learning, participate in mentorship and special projects.

6. Underperformers Keep Skating By

There’s nothing quite so demoralizing as watching someone slack off without ever being addressed by supervisors, managers, and company leaders. Whether the boss isn't paying attention or no one feels the impetus to address it, allowing workers to continually underperform without repercussions will have an impact on those who are high performers.

7. Coworkers or Leaders Engage in Gaslighting

Did you know that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse? This psychological manipulation undermines a person’s ability to stand firm in their judgment and perception. For example, if a high-performing, knowledgeable female employee who was constantly passed over for a promotion in favor of underperforming, less-skilled male employees were to confront her manager, a gaslighting leader might suggest that she was paranoid as a way of deflecting blame.

Psychology Today points out that there are multiple forms that gaslighting can take on in the workplace. They include persistent professional exclusion, persistent negative humor, and a persistent negative narrative about employees’ performance based on inherent bias instead of facts.

8. There’s a Lack of Any Clear Vision

It’s one of the more subtle signs of toxicity, but problematic nonetheless. If the leaders in your workplace aren’t able to convey what the goals of the organization are or to provide concrete direction so that everyone understands the big picture and why they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s like a car that lacks a steering wheel. You might travel in the right direction temporarily, but eventually, that car’s going to crash.

9. The Organization CHURNS Through Employees

Rapid employee turnover is a flashing, neon red flag. When people are constantly jumping ship, it’s a sure sign that the working environment is not one that’s conducive to longevity. And it’s likely to continue that way or get even worse. At the same time, if employees are frequently being fired or furloughed, it can be a sign of disorganization, poor leadership and a lack of direction.

10. You Feel Burned Out

The World Health Organization recently came out and defined workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon. If you’re feeling like you’re constantly putting huge amounts of energy into your work without enjoying positive outcomes, if you’re bored and constantly feel like you’re not being challenged enough at work, or if you feel worn out, disillusioned, and uninspired by your job, you’re likely experiencing workplace burnout. And that is a sure sign of a toxic work environment.

In a healthy work environment, employees are challenged and nurtured. The work-life balance is respected and encouraged. Strong leaders understand the negative repercussions of burnout and take positive action to prevent it.

If you’re working in a toxic environment, get out! If you can’t leave your job immediately, start working on your exit strategy. And in the meantime, find ways of coping. For example, find other employees who feel similarly. This gives you an outlet to share information and gain support. Take care of yourself during your downtime by living a full, satisfying life and paying attention to stress relief. Consider pursuing a job that will bridge your time between your current toxic one and your next big career move to be able to leave sooner than later.


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