Recently, I posted this question to online groups that I moderate, “What comes to mind when you think of toxic workplaces?” Sadly, but maybe not surprisingly, the responses I received were overwhelming and disturbing. People had so much to share about toxicity in the workplace, both on the emotional and physical levels.
Here are some of the themes that kept repeating in their responses:
- Employees feeling devalued
- Crying in the ladies room, or even in staff meetings
- Bullying, micromanaging by management and even reverse bullying 
- Anxiety and rampant gossiping
- Back stabbing co-workers who will sell out fellow employees, even placing false blame
- Fluorescent lighting, poor air quality, mold, rat poison, second hand smoke, and even toxic factory chemicals
While any one of these examples is concerning to say the least and could drastically impact work cultures, the definition of a toxic workplace according to Wikipedia is equally if not even more disconcerting. They define toxic workplaces as a work environment that is marked by significant drama and infighting, where personal battles often harm productivity. 
[This word cloud was created from the responses of my online groups and our workplace wellness program graduates when asked: “What comes to mind when you think of toxic workplaces?”]
Breaking Down the Details
In the US, workplace bullying has become a hot topic: in fact, twenty-six different states have introduced bills defining workplace bullying and offering guidelines for dealing with and punishing this kind of conduct.
Various Occupational Health and Safety organizations have studied toxic workplaces, and found them to be frequent causes of “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.”  Many of these violent acts, which may even include mass shootings, can be linked to workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying and infighting can come from either direction: top down or bottom up.
For example, in some cases, toxic managers have been known to use their position of power to belittle or instill fear in their employees, often to further their own agenda, career or the organization’s bottom line. They fail to appreciate, however, that positive reinforcement earns more productivity and loyalty than negative energy.
By comparison, while toxic employees are not in a position to fire management, they are still capable of derailing healthy work cultures. They typically look out for themselves first and foremost, often defining work relationships based on opportunities for personal gain and advancement. They may feel no duty to perform well for their company, and often lack a sense of obligation or compassion towards their coworkers or employer. This caustic energy can totally demotivate co-workers, disrupt work environments, and impede a collaborative and harmonious work culture. Toxic employees often support who they ‘like’ and ignore those they don’t; and may not be above unethical behavior if they think it can go unpunished. 
Hallmarks of A Toxic Environment
While every office culture has its own dynamics, there are some sure-fire ways to tell if you’re stuck in a toxic work environment. Inspired by an article in Psychology Today, I created a summary of some of the more concerning hallmarks of toxic and growth inhibitive workplaces as I see them. Do any of these resonate with you, or perhaps depict your own workplace? 
- You Hope to Go Unnoticed. When workers are afraid to stand out—whether it be for a mistake, a suggestion or even for excellence—that’s an immediate sign of a problem. If staff feel their input is unwelcome, so many growth opportunities are lost. A brilliant new idea will never be heard in an office where employees fear ridicule or retribution for speaking up or questioning the status quo. And, this certainly quashes any hope of employees taking pride in or ownership of corporate growth and success.
- Bullying earns rewards. We just spoke about the different types of office bullying; now, imagine an office in which the bullies are rewarded: toxic workers keep getting promoted and toxic managers never get reprimanded or replaced. That kind of environment would certainly be disheartening for team members looking to do their job in a healthy and productive manner.
- Bureaucracy reigns supreme. Productive employees who are passionate about their jobs like to get things done. If every initiative requires 30 signatures, votes or special motions before it can even be considered, even the most dedicated of individuals is likely to give up and stop trying to make improvements.
- Zero Growth Opportunities. When a workplace offers no advancement opportunities, or has no recognition programs in place to reward excellence, even the keenest of employees will lose motivation. Chances are, employees stuck in this kind of workplace will be secretly searching for new employment opportunities, ideally in offices where their efforts are noted and appreciated.
- The Bottom Line is all That Matters. In organizations that value the bottom line over all else, toxicity is inevitable. Budget cuts will often be implemented without any regard for their effect on the overall quality of work or impacts to employees. Highly skilled employees will be let go in favor of newer, younger or cheaper labor. No one will ever feel safe in their job, and most will be in search of an exit strategy. And, you can certainly wave good bye to any accrued culture-building or corporate wellness related gains.
How it Feels to be in a Toxic Workplace
Hopefully, all of these warning signs have helped you see how toxic workplaces are the enemy of productivity, employee retention and organizational/employee well-being. But nothing makes this problem more transparent than hearing from workers who have, themselves, been stuck in unhealthy work environments.
In my research on this topic for our future book, a contact of mine recently shared: “My old company was toxic, which played a role in my decision to leave. Emotionally it was toxic because of the stressful work environment, and because HR was only there to protect the company from lawsuits. When HR investigated my complaints (which also included physical stressors that led to my illness), four weeks later they determined that it was not a hostile work environment and that I needed to either quit complaining about the toxins and health effects, or find a new job. I chose the latter.”
Clearly, employee retention and toxic work environments cannot coexist for long. While it may feel impossible to stay in a toxic workplace, there are, thankfully, ways to cope and mitigate the impacts to your job, work performance, and health —without having to take the drastic step of leaving your job. We’ll address coping strategies (and ways to cultivate positive, healthy work cultures) in Part Two of my toxic workplace series.
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About the Author:
Lisa Kelly, President, Workplace Wellness Centre of Excellence (a division of KWC Inc.), has been cultivating healthy changes within workplaces and with personal clients for over 20 years. Through her “Workplace Wellness Leadership Certification Series” and Executive Wellness Leadership Programs, Lisa’s mission is to create an innovative and collaborative landscape for global workplace wellness that fosters employee-driven, results-oriented wellness solutions that benefit employers, employees, and communities at large.
 Examples of Reverse Bullying: https://www.afr.com/news/policy/industrial-relations/employers-fear-rise-in-reverse-bullying-20130611-jhph4 and https://www.hrreporter.com/article/7688-reverse-bullying-management-teams-deserve-protection-too-guest-commentary/