10 Signs of a Toxic Workplace and Ways to Handle Workplace Issues

10 Signs of a Toxic Workplace and How to Handle Issues

On average, we spend 40 hours of every week working. And no matter where we work or what we do, it’s essential that we enjoy our jobs, coworkers, and the company’s culture. Or, at the very least, it doesn’t stress us out!

Unfortunately, though, toxic workplaces are all too common. It’s estimated that nearly one out of five employees quits their job due to workplace culture, with almost one out of four saying they dreaded going into work.

Sometimes it’s obvious that you’re in a toxic workplace, but that’s not always the case. Here are the signs that your workplace is toxic and how to manage the situation.

What Is a Toxic Workplace? 

A toxic workplace is often characterized as dysfunctional. There tends to be a lot of drama and stress, and they are generally unpleasant places to work.

But a toxic workplace is not the same as a hostile workplace. Though similar, in a hostile workplace, protected groups (like sex, race, or religion) are targeted and harassed. The boss calling everyone incompetent is toxic, but that doesn’t mean you’re in a hostile workplace.

10 Signs You’re in a Toxic Workplace

Working in a toxic culture makes it difficult for you to perform to the best of your ability. Even in a fully remote setting, toxic behaviors can seep in and poison the culture.

Though there are many reasons why a workplace is toxic, here are 10 signs to watch out for.

1. Poor Communication

Written or verbal, communication is a crucial part of a functioning workplace. Though some people excel at one form of communication over the other (and some have trouble with both), poor overall communication within the company often indicates it’s toxic.

Obvious signs include the boss preferring to yell at staff or sending demeaning emails (“Why didn’t you get this done?! Can you even do this job?”). However, poor communication in a toxic workplace can also be subtle.

For example, the company changes strategies or policies but neglects to tell staff until after the changes are in effect. If this type of miscommunication happens occasionally, it’s likely not a problem. But if this is the “normal” way of communicating with staff, it means you’re likely in a toxic workplace.

2. Cliques and Gossip

Toxic workplaces often have cliques that consist of people who are “in” with the boss and those who are not. Those who are in with the boss may be treated better than those who are out because the in-crowd may excuse or accept the overall toxic culture.

Likewise, because a toxic workplace often includes poor communication, many people may gossip. This is done, in part, to share information (which may or may not be accurate) but can also be used to undermine others (yet another sign of a toxic workplace).

3. Excluding People

Even if your company doesn’t have cliques and in-crowds, there are other ways a toxic workplace can exclude staff.

For example, if everyone but you is recognized for their contributions to a project, it might be a simple mistake. But if it happens often, you’re likely being intentionally excluded. Or, you may not be told about meetings that you need to be in on until after they’ve started or even ended.

4. Unmotivated Staff 

Working in a toxic environment can sap your physical and emotional energy. When that happens, you may lose your motivation and start to disengage from your job.

Sometimes, being unmotivated at work is specific to you and your situation. However, when all of your coworkers and even your boss are unmotivated, it’s far more likely your workplace is toxic.

5. Growth and Innovation Problems

Though your company may focus on one core concept or have a specific mission, it should always be growing and innovating within those. If nothing else, market conditions can change rapidly (hello, pandemic!), and your company should be able to adapt.

Toxic workplaces, though, don’t grow or innovate. They stay the course even when they shouldn’t and haven’t taken on any new challenges in a long time.

It’s important to recognize, though, that growth doesn’t mean always hiring or launching new products every week. Healthy companies are often fully staffed with little turnover. A company that constantly launches new products that fail or chases market trends is likely facing an uncertain future.

6. Lots of Turnover

High turnover is often a sign of a toxic work culture. Whether people leave voluntarily or involuntarily, stable companies generally don’t need to hire for multiple positions every single week.

This is not true for all companies, though. Large companies may always have open positions, and seasonal employers will go on predictable hiring sprees. But if you’re in a smaller company or there are suddenly a lot of exits, take note and monitor what’s going on.

7. Lacks Balance 

When work is all you do because it’s expected or even demanded of you, you’re probably in a toxic workplace.

Working extra hours sometimes, though, is not the same as being in a toxic workplace. Occasionally, you may need to work overtime to get a big project done, but the key word is “occasionally.” If “occasionally” turns into “every week for 52 weeks,” then there’s a problem.

8. You Didn’t Get What You Were Promised 

When you interviewed, you were told that the company gave merit raises every year, but it’s been three years, and no one in the entire company has received one. What’s more, HR has never explained the reason why.

Or, maybe your company switched to remote work during the pandemic and said that you could continue working at home for part of the week. But it turns out that “part” means four days a week in the office, and the one day you’re at home, there’s a mandatory in-person meeting.

Though a verbal agreement doesn’t always constitute a contract, when your company says one thing but does another and doesn’t even try to explain the reasoning, you’re probably in a toxic workplace.

9. You’ve Stalled Out

Your coworkers are getting promoted, learning new skills, and tapped for plum projects. You, on the other hand, are not.

There could be legitimate reasons why your coworkers are moving ahead instead of you. But if you’ve talked to your boss about taking on new projects or specifically asked what you can do to move ahead and nothing is panning out, that’s another sign you could be in a toxic workplace.

More: How to Get Promoted: 3 Important Steps

10. You Have the Sunday Night Blues

Finally, having a case of the Sunday Night Blues is the best indicator you’re in a toxic workplace.

Sometimes called the Sunday Scaries, when you’re winding down from the weekend, do you feel anxiety gnawing away at you? Is there a pit in your stomach when you think about going to work for the next week?

If the answer is yes, you’re probably in a toxic workplace.

5 Ways to Cope In a Toxic Workplace

Once you’ve recognized you’re in a toxic workplace, you may feel helpless. However, there are ways to cope with the situation.

1. Talk About It (Carefully)

It’s possible your company is not aware of the toxic culture. Sometimes, toxic behaviors are normalized and accepted because so-and-so is “just that way” or “we’ve always done it like this,” and no one has ever addressed the situation.

Consider speaking with your boss or HR and point out that what’s going on isn’t great and is hurting morale. They might be surprised to learn that people are unhappy and there are problems.

However, use this approach cautiously. Not all employers are open and receptive to employee feedback, and speaking up could put a target on your back. And even if you’re 100% right about the situation, it’s entirely possible the company will blame you (“you’re blowing things out of proportion,” “you’re not a team player”), which could make work even more toxic.

2. Find Ways to Vent

If discussing the toxic workplace culture is out of the question, find a way to vent your frustrations. Talk to trusted coworkers who can identify with your experience. Or, speak with others who have experienced similar workplaces and can offer insights or are just willing to listen.

3. Engage in Things That Bring You Joy

Help yourself battle the stress and anxiety of being in a toxic workplace by engaging in activities that bring you joy. Practice yoga, volunteer at the animal shelter, play softball with friends…anything that makes you happy and helps take your mind off work!

4. Keep Records

Sometimes, figuring out if you’re in a toxic workplace or a hostile workplace is tricky. Likewise, in a toxic workplace, you could be fired one day “just because.”

Keep records of toxic behaviors you observe or experience. If nothing else, writing things down and reviewing them later can help you objectively evaluate the situation to help you see if you’re really in a toxic workplace or not.

5. Look for an Exit

Finally, the best way to handle a toxic workplace that likely won’t change is to leave! As soon as you realize you’re in one, start looking. Update your resume, talk to your network, and get the job search ball rolling.

How to Explain Why You Left a Toxic Workplace

It’s normal for an interviewer to ask why you’re looking for a new job or why you left your last one. As part of your interview prep, come up with an answer that helps explain why you left (or are leaving) a toxic workplace without actually saying, “It’s a toxic workplace.”

1. Don’t Badmouth

This tip applies in any job interview, but especially when you’re explaining why you left a toxic workplace, don’t badmouth your employer. If your answer sounds like everything that went wrong is the employer’s fault, there’s a chance the interviewer may think you’re covering something up and that you’re the real problem.

2. Keep It Brief

Hiring managers don’t want a long, in-depth explanation of why you’re looking for a new job. They are expecting a brief but professional answer that sums things up.

The trick to explaining a previous toxic workplace is to make it sound like the job or company wasn’t the right fit for you, not the other way around. So, briefly mention the situation without getting too specific:

  • “The company is small, and I’ve gone as far as I can in my current position. I’m looking for a role that has more growth and learning opportunities.”
  • “The company shifted its main product line. As a result, my duties shifted, and the job no longer aligned with my long-term career goals.”

3. Change Topics

After explaining why you’re looking, shift the focus back to the opening and why you applied. Talk about what excites you about the company or the role, or mention how this position fits in with your career plans.

More: How to Answer “How Do You Handle Working With Difficult People?”

Time to Detoxify

Identifying that you’re in a toxic workplace can be super easy, while other times, it’s not so clear. Knowing the signs to watch out for can help you identify the subtle signs of a toxic workplace and signal when it’s time to move on.

Don't forget to share this article with friends!