6 Signs a Workplace Is Toxic (And 3 Times It's Not)

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
June 21, 2024 at 12:33AM UTC

The word “toxic” is tossed around a lot these days, but it shouldn’t be used lightly. Toxic people are bad news—and working in a toxic environment (even remotely) can have seriously negative consequences.

“Toxic workplaces can lead to myriad issues including stress, which can exacerbate mental and physical health problems for employees,” says Melva Tate, MBA, president and senior HR consultant at Tate & Associates. “These environments often result in decreased productivity and high turnover rates.”

It’s important to understand what “toxic” really means. A truly toxic workplace isn’t just unpleasant; it’s a workplace where people are able to act however they want—and in extreme circumstances, an abusive way—without facing any consequences, creating an environment of fear and distrust.

“Toxic cultures develop when people aren’t held accountable for their behaviors,” says Karin Hurt, founder and CEO of leadership development firm Let’s Grow Leaders.

How do you know if the issues you’re dealing with at work are typical challenges that come along with almost any job—or if your company crosses the line into toxic territory?

Here are six signs that a workplace is toxic—and a few instances that, while not ideal, don’t necessarily point to toxicity:

6 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 a textbook case of bullying, and whether you’re being bullied by one person or a number of people within your company, it can make you feel unwelcome, unwanted, and unsafe—and it’s a definite indicator of a toxic workplace.

“Bullying is indeed a sign of a toxic workplace; it indicates a culture where aggressive behavior is tolerated or overlooked,” Tate says. “This can erode trust and morale, inhibit collaboration, and signal to employees that their well-being is not valued by the organization.”

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 that’s through biased hiring, firing, or promotion decisions or outright verbal or physical abuse—it’s a clear signal that the workplace is toxic.

“Discrimination and harassment are definitive signs of a toxic workplace, as they create an environment of inequality and fear, undermining respect and dignity at work, and can lead to legal and reputational consequences for the organization,” Tate says.

Discrimination or harassment can happen on an individual or a systemic level. If the discrimination or harassment is coming from a single person or small group of individuals, reporting the issue to leadership could help. However, if leadership allows (or participates in) discrimination or harassment of any type, the environment is toxic—and not an environment you want to be a part of.

3. There’s sexual harassment.

As mentioned, harassment of any type is indicative of a toxic workplace, but for women, sexual harassment can be especially toxic.

Sexual harassment includes everything from overt harassment (for example, a manager making unwanted sexual advances to a direct report) to more covert offenses (for example, a manager telling sexually charged jokes that make other people uncomfortable)—but whether overt or covert, this type of harassment clearly indicates a toxic work environment.

“A workplace where sexual harassment is not promptly and effectively addressed creates an unsafe and hostile environment for women,” Tate says.

4. Leadership is unethical.

Company culture starts at the top—and if your company is run by toxic individuals, the culture is also going to be toxic.

“Truly toxic leadership will almost always create a toxic culture,” Hurt says. “People watch and emulate what their leaders do.”

As such, “If leaders exhibit unethical, self-serving, or abusive behaviors, it can permeate through the organization, leading to widespread negativity and dysfunction,” Tate says.

Toxic leadership can take a number of forms; for example, perhaps they have put invasive policies in place and are actively monitoring communication you thought was personal—which, while legal, can create a culture of fear and distrust and encourage managers within the company to similarly monitor their employees. Or maybe your CEO exhibits abusive behavior, regularly screaming at their staff—a practice managers within the company then emulate with their own teams. Whatever the case, if leadership regularly acts in a toxic way, it’s going to foster toxicity across the company.

5. Sexism runs rampant.

Another indicator of a toxic work environment? Sexism—or women being treated differently than their male counterparts.

“If women are consistently paid less, overlooked for promotions, or excluded from important meetings, it indicates a toxic environment that undervalues the contributions of female employees,” Tate says.

Similar to sexual harassment, sexism may be overt—like a manager saying they’ll only work with men because “men are smarter.” However, this kind of discrimination “happens in other subtle ways, too,” Hurt says. For example, a male manager stealing credit for their female employee’s contribution to a project or always expecting female employees to clean up after a meeting.

Overt or covert, sexism is a clear sign that the work environment is toxic.

6. There’s no such thing as work-life balance.

Work-life balance can be an issue for everyone, but because women are more often caretakers, work-life balance and flexibility can be even more important—and if a company doesn’t acknowledge or honor that, it can be a sign that the culture is toxic.

“If a workplace does not support or acknowledge the unique work-life challenges women often face, especially with regards to family and caregiving responsibilities, [including] children and parents, it can be a sign of a toxic workplace that does not respect personal boundaries or the need for flexibility,” Tate says.

3 signs your workplace isn’t actually toxic

1. You’re not happy with specific assignments.

In a perfect world, you would only have to work on assignments you’re excited about, but that’s just not realistic. At some point, everyone needs to work on projects they’re less-than-thrilled about, and that doesn’t mean the workplace is toxic.

“None of us get to work exclusively on the most enjoyable tasks,” Hurt says. “Assignments you dislike are a part of work.”

One thing to keep in mind? While occasionally having to work on projects you don’t like is just a part of having a job, if you sense there’s something bigger going on or you see a pattern emerging—for example, that women are consistently assigned tedious projects while their male peers get to work on more exciting assignments—it could point to a larger issue.

“However, if assignments are consistently unreasonable, exploitative, or are given with the intent to marginalize, it could point to toxicity,” Tate says.

2. Your coworker is annoying.

Even if you’re the kind of person that gets along with everyone, at some point, you’re likely to have a colleague that, for whatever reason, gets on your nerves.

“If you work with people long enough, you will have a coworker whose personality quirks, taste in music, or communication style annoy you,” Hurt says.

Just because your coworker annoys you doesn’t mean that your work environment is toxic.

“An annoying coworker alone does not define a toxic workplace,” Tate says. 

That being said, if the irritation you feel at your coworker goes beyond petty annoyances (like talking too much or playing music too loudly) and genuinely offends or upsets you, it might be something to explore.

“However, if this annoyance stems from behavior that is disrespectful, unethical, or violates workplace norms, it could contribute to a toxic atmosphere,” Tate says.

3. You were passed over for a promotion.

You put in a ton of work in hopes of getting promoted to a higher position,but when the time comes, your manager lets you know they opted to go in another direction. Does that point to a toxic work environment?

It depends.

“Being passed over for a promotion is not inherently a sign of a toxic workplace; it could be due to a variety of factors including merit, fit, or business needs,” Tate says. In those situations, you were passed over for a promotion for a legitimate reason,so while it might feel disappointing, it’s not a sign of toxicity.

On the other hand, “If the decision is consistently based on favoritism, discrimination, or retaliation, it could be symptomatic of a toxic environment where promotions are not based on fair or transparent processes,” Tate says.

The bottom line

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.

Looking for more insights on what makes a toxic work culture—and what to do if you find yourself in one? Check out this article from The Muse on signs you’re in a toxic work environment, and what to do about it. 

Deanna deBara contributed to the latest version of this article.

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