I’m a Leadership Coach — This is My No. 1 Red Flag That a Client's Workplace is Toxic

I’m a Leadership Coach — This is My No. 1 Red Flag That a Client's Workplace is Toxic

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Amy Elrod-Lahti528
HR Professional | Coach | Consultant/Advisor
April 23, 2024 at 5:11AM UTC

There’s an old saying that “into each life, some rain must fall." Unfortunately, the saying rings true for workplaces–sooner or later, we’re bound to experience a toxic one. 

Toxic organizations aren’t intentional. No business owner ever starts out saying, “my goal is to create a workplace where employees are miserable.” Instead, toxic workplaces evolve as one bad decision compounds and leads to more bad decisions over time. Toxicity is contagious, and as bad behavior is tolerated in one part of the organization, the behavior spreads and eventually begins to seem normal. People can actually forget what normal behavior looks like. 

For example, leadership might leave a toxic employee in place because they’re producing good results. That employee makes everyone around them miserable, and people either must leave the organization, or develop their own toxic coping mechanisms to survive. I have likened it to when a leak develops in the roof of a house; rather than fixing the leak, the homeowners paint over the water stain, put wallpaper over the bubbling pain, then put plywood over the peeling wallpaper. But there’s rot underneath all of those cosmetic fixes, and it will have to be addressed before the entire structure collapses. 

Unfortunately, in my job as a consultant, far too often I’ve been called in at the point when the organizational structure has collapsed under the weight of toxic culture rot. There are few options available other than trying to rebuild from scratch. 

But how do you, as an employee, know you’re dealing with a rotten organization before you ever even go to work there? We, fortunately, have lots of information these days to inform us about what organizations are like from the inside – online sites like Fairygodboss, Glassdoor, Indeed and LinkedIn can tell us a lot. I highly recommend using information from those sites to inform decisions about where to work. While some companies like to dismiss employees writing negative reviews as “disgruntled” or “bad apples,” to me, data speaks for itself. One or two negative reviews of a company should be taken with a grain of salt; dozens of negative reviews indicate a problem that needs to be addressed. 

It is very tempting to look at a company that seems great, but has a lot of negative online reviews, and think “it won’t be like that for me” or “it seems bad, but I bet I can help fix it.” If you’re having these kinds of thoughts, I encourage you to ask yourself a corollary question: “Is it possible I’m being overly optimistic here?” 

Aside from online reviews, the number-one signal that an employer has cultural problems is how hiring managers act in an interview.

I have told job-seekers many times that just as you are supposed to be on your best behavior and putting your best foot forward in an interview, the same goes for the interviewers. Everyone involved in the hiring process should treat an interviewee with respect and display appropriate enthusiasm, etiquette and positivity in conversations. So, if you find yourself in an interview with an interviewer who:

  • Is 10-15 minutes (or more) late to the interview, and offers no explanation or excuse as to why
  • Seems bored, disinterested, or detached; spends the interview looking at their phone or their computer monitor
  • Interrupts you or asks blunt or rude questions
  • Challenges you in an impolite or combative way about the information on your resume, or your response to a question
  • Seems distracted or unfocused; asks you the same questions repeatedly, or doesn’t seem to listen to the answers you give
  • Gives off a generally bad vibe; you get the sense they are unhappy or dissatisfied (or that you will be unhappy and dissatisfied working for them)

Please give very serious thought about continuing with further interviews, or taking the job if it’s offered to you. 

Speaking from extensive personal experience coaching people in toxic organizations, in the worst toxic workplaces, for even the most motivated and resilient employee, eventually, the day-to-day burden of operating under toxicity becomes a heavy emotional load. Employees get to the point where they can’t “turn off” the coping behaviors they use with their coworkers. They use the same defensive mechanisms, counterattacks and surgical strikes with complete strangers in inappropriate contexts. 

If you’re talking to someone who is so numbed to toxicity that they can’t adapt their behavior for a one-hour interview, take that for the warning it is. Coupled with data from other sources – namely, online employer reviews and your gut instinct – evaluate whether this opportunity is worth the stress it’s likely to bring. And bear in mind: there are lots of organizations out there who offer great opportunities for employees and don’t burden people with the weight of toxic culture.


This article was written by an FGB Contributor.

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