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7 Signs of a Toxic Workplace and How to Address Them

A culture of fear, high-stress levels, & negativity often characterizes a toxic workplace

Nick Schurk

by Nick Schurk - June 15th, 2023


In an era where employees spend a significant portion of their lives at work, the atmosphere of their workplace can significantly influence their happiness, productivity, and overall mental health. This article explores one of the most detrimental work environments – a toxic workplace. Recognizing the signs of a toxic work environment is critical to safeguard employees' well-being and maintaining a healthy, productive organization.

While toxicity in the workplace is hard to manage, address, and identify, it is of utmost importance that we take the time to confront it head-on and deal with it promptly.

Our organization has a set of core values, one of which is "Assume positive intent." Whenever things get toxic in the team, we address the issues with our team as humans and employees. We ask many questions to understand if the toxic behavior is just a reaction to something a team member has problems with or if it is based on malice.

Gordana Sretenovic
 Co-founder, Workello
Co-founder at Workello

6 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

A culture of fear, high-stress levels, and negativity often characterizes a toxic workplace. Recognizing the signs is the first step toward addressing the problem. Let's dive into some of the most common symptoms:

1. High Turnover Rate

A high turnover rate is one of the most visible signs of a toxic work environment. Frequent employee departures indicate dissatisfaction with the working conditions. An organization constantly losing its workforce typically struggles with issues like poor management, lack of growth opportunities, or a hostile work environment.

2. Lack of Communication and Transparency

In a healthy work environment, management communicates regularly and honestly. Employees are aware of company strategies, changes, and decisions. When this flow of information is disrupted or non-existent, it can breed trust and clarity. Lack of transparency from leadership often results in rumors, misunderstandings, and employee disengagement.

If we're speaking from an internal perspective, identifying toxicity can be tricky. Externally, you can just look for levels of turnover to determine what is likely a toxic workplace, but from the inside looking in, you need to focus on different things.

My biggest tip is to look for sources of conflict because of communication breakdowns. A lack of clear and transparent communication creates opportunities for resentment and toxicity, so doing a communications audit around your work processes is an excellent first step toward addressing toxicity.

Dragos Badea
CEO, Yarooms

3. Micromanagement

Micromanagement is another classic symptom of a toxic workplace. It indicates a lack of trust in employees' abilities and undermines their confidence. Constant scrutiny and control over every small task reduce employees' motivation and creativity and increase stress levels, affecting their performance and mental health.

4. Discrimination and Harassment

Any form of discrimination or harassment is entirely unacceptable in the workplace. However, these behaviors are often overlooked or inadequately addressed in toxic environments. Suppose employees feel threatened or uncomfortable due to race, gender, age, religion, or other personal attributes. In that case, a clear sign of toxicity must be dealt with promptly and decisively.

There is no way to address toxicity piecemeal. Removing it starts with a full culture diagnosis and a plan for altering the culture. Changing culture is hard, slow, and inevitably involves discomfort and upset. It requires identifying the shared assumptions and beliefs at the organization's heart and creating new ones as a group. Then, once those beliefs are dismantled, the behaviors accompanying them need to be identified and replaced. None of this is easy.

Amie Devero

 5. Lack of Work-Life Balance

When employees are consistently expected to work long hours, skip breaks, or respond to emails late into the night, it suggests a lack of respect for their personal time and well-being. A persistently high workload and no work-life balance can lead to burnout, negatively impacting the employee's health and productivity.

6. Burnout and Excessive Stress

Excessive stress and burnout are serious indicators of a toxic work environment. If employees frequently complain of fatigue, decreased productivity, or loss of passion for their work, they may be experiencing burnout. This is often a result of excessive workload, lack of support, or constant high-pressure situations.

7. Toxic Bosses and Employees

A toxic boss can create a harmful environment through practices like favoritism, belittlement, or unreasonable demands. Similarly, toxic employees, with their negative attitudes and behaviors, can cause significant harm to team morale. Both can severely impact the work culture and lead to a toxic workplace environment.

6 Proactive Steps for Addressing Toxic Workplace Culture

Addressing a toxic workplace requires both immediate and long-term measures. It involves shifting the entire work culture to a more positive and inclusive direction. Here are some proactive steps organizations can take:

  • Implementing an Open-Door Policy: An open-door policy encourages employees to communicate their concerns without fear of retribution. It builds trust between management and employees and fosters a more transparent work culture.

Practicing an open-door policy is always encouraged, whether you're a member of the leadership team or a consultant, to help create an inclusive workplace. Showing genuine interest in what employees say helps develop a sense of trust and goodwill that positively impacts the workplace and combats toxicity.

Julie Blomsterberg
People Consultant, Bonfire Women, Work Friendly
  • Assuming a Positive Intent Approach: This approach assumes that everyone in the organization is trying their best and has good intentions. It promotes a positive atmosphere and encourages open, respectful discussions.

  • Hiring for a Positive Attitude: While skills are essential, a positive attitude is equally crucial. By hiring employees who are not only competent but also have a positive outlook, companies can nurture a healthier work environment.

Addressing toxicity in the workplace starts with the recruitment process. Our internal hiring process has included a quantitative and qualitative assessment to see how candidates react under pressure and explicitly pressure-testing emotional intelligence and judgment in professional situations.

These parameters ensure we hire employees who contribute to a positive work environment. Being selective in the hiring process—screening for a positive attitude and emotional intelligence—pays dividends for workplace culture.

Lara Roizen
Project Manager, ECA Partners
  • Conducting a Communication Audit: Regularly assessing the effectiveness of internal communication can help identify any gaps or issues. It can also ensure that all employees feel heard and informed.

  • Establishing Fair, Transparent Policies: Clear, fair, and transparent policies can prevent favoritism and discrimination. They provide a solid foundation for a healthy work environment.

Toxicity infiltrates the psyche in an impactful way. The path to identifying toxicity is to have open lines of communication and be in touch with your team. Make observations of interactions and reactions within your office.

Once a source of toxicity is identified, ensure you have a fair and transparent policy and walk the person through the process to end their behavior. Be clear about the consequences and actions that need to be taken.

Jarir Mallah
HR Specialist, Ling App
Jarir Mallah, HR Specialist, Ling App
  • Diagnosing and Altering Workplace Culture: Recognizing and addressing toxic elements in the work culture is essential. This involves training managers, offering employee support, and promoting a culture that values respect and fairness.

Final Thoughts

A toxic workplace harms employees and the organization. Recognizing the signs of a toxic work environment – high turnover rate, lack of communication, micromanagement, discrimination, lack of work-life balance, excessive stress, and the presence of a toxic boss or employees – is the first step towards addressing the problem. Taking proactive measures can help foster a healthier, more positive, and more productive work culture. Remember, a happy workforce is a productive workforce!

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