3 Signs a Workplace is Actually Toxic — And 3 Times It's Not

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

“Toxic” is a word that’s thrown around frequently these days. This is dangerous because toxic people are bad news — in some cases, even harmful. The same goes for a toxic workplace, which, as you might guess, is usually filled with toxic people.

A toxic workplace is more than unpleasant. It’s one where people are fearful and distrustful. It goes far beyond simple discomfort.

So, how do you know if your workplace is truly toxic? Here are signs to be on the lookout for.

3 signs your workplace is toxic

1. There is bullying.

Your manager or coworkers put you down all the time. They yell at you in front of others. Sometimes, it’s not even about work-related issues. They belittle your ideas and make fun of you.

This is bullying, clear and simple. Whether it’s come from one person or multiple people, it’s an incredibly upsetting position to find yourself in. You feel unwelcome and unwanted. And you’re certainly in a toxic workplace

2. There is discrimination and/or harassment.

Discrimination on the basis of certain defined groups, such as sex, race, sexual orientation or gender identity, is illegal. If it’s happening in the workplace — whether in hiring, firing or promotion decisions; verbal or physical abuse; or otherwise — it must not be tolerated and it’s grounds for a lawsuit. It’s also a clear indication that your workplace is a highly toxic one — and probably a culture you don’t want to be a part of.

3. Leadership perpetuates a culture of distrust and general fear.

This is a bit harder to pinpoint, but you tend to know if and when leadership is perpetuating a culture of distrust. Perhaps they have put invasive policies in place and are actively monitoring communication you thought was personal. While this is legal in many cases, it doesn’t mean the practice isn’t harmful to general morale and the overall culture — you very well feel like you’re operating in a Big Brother environment.

3 signs you’re workplace isn’t actually toxic

1. You’re not happy with specific assignments.

We all receive assignments that are boring, tedious or difficult to complete. Still, this doesn’t mean your workplace is toxic — it means you don’t like some of your tasks or responsibilities. If this is just an occasional thing, it’s best to just deal with it, as long as you generally enjoy the rest of your job. If it’s becoming a pattern, then perhaps it’s time to consider looking for a different role, either within your organization or elsewhere.

2. Your coworker is annoying.

Perhaps you have a chatterbox coworker who just won’t stop talking your ear off. Or, there’s someone who chews their gum really loudly. Maybe your cubicle mate constantly wants your attention.

Again, we all deal with difficult or obnoxious coworkers sometimes. Hopefully, you have other colleagues you get along with and there’s just that one irritating person. But an annoying coworker does not a toxic workplace make. 

3. You were passed over for a promotion.

This one is a little more nuanced because in some cases, it could be an indication that you’re in a toxic workplace. For example, if you believe discrimination played a role in management choosing another candidate for the promotion, then that’s a definite red flag. 

At the same time, if you were passed over for a promotion because the other person has seniority or because of other factors that relate to performance, results and/or work ethic, then it just means you may not have been the best person for the job — as disappointing as that is to come to terms with.

It is important to understand the difference between a toxic workplace and an unpleasant one. While you don’t want to find yourself in either, a toxic culture is most likely taking its toll on your mental and/or physical health, and it’s critical to get out as soon as possible. The latter, while not enjoyable, probably isn’t an emergency situation, although if you’re unhappy, why stick around?