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5 Ways to Tell if Your Workplace is Toxic (and What to Do About It)

“Toxic workplaces” have become a hot topic of conversation in the world of work. And almost everyone has a story to tell about a bad boss, a crazy colleague or just a terrible place to work.  But how do you tell if your workplace is really toxic, a worse-than-normal place to work, or just a normally stressful work environment?

Having researched toxic workplaces for over the past four years, we have identified common characteristics that, when put together, make a work environment unhealthy for those who work there.  Here are some of the most important factors.

  1. Major problems in communication. An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is that there are significant problems in communication, and often across multiple areas – between employees and their supervisors, from management to departments, across departments, with suppliers, and even with customers.

Problems can be demonstrated by a lack of communication (often referred to as “no communication at all!”) where employees find out about decisions after they have been implemented.  Indirect communication (sending messages through others), withholding information, and giving misleading information are other variations of dysfunctional communication patterns.

Why is communication so key to healthy working relationships?  Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the tasks of the organization is virtually impossible.

  1. Inconsistency in following policies & procedures. Have you ever been a customer in a business where no one really seems to know what they are doing, you get different answers to questions depending on who you ask, and eventually the employee just seems to say “whatever” and does what they want? Then you’ve experienced an organization which has major problems with their policies and procedures being implemented.

When an agency’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency and poor quality follow.  Customers, vendors and employees wind up hating having to deal with the agency and its staff.

  1. One or more toxic leaders in the system. It is not clear whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders – in either case, the two go together. The hallmark characteristic (that becomes evident eventually) is their narcissism.  They are “all about” themselves.  They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around.  And, as a result, they are deserving of special treatment – the rules for everyone else really are beneath them.

Toxic leaders relate to others in a condescending manner, they take credit for others’ successes, and they manipulate others (and information) to ensure that they look good (others don’t really matter.)  While they may appear “successful” for a while, over the long term, their attitudes and actions catch up with them.  Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas; they have a high turnover rate in their department, and they will eventually destroy the health of the organization.

It is important to note that toxic leaders do not have to be at the top of the organization; they often occur in mid-level management and even in front-line supervisory roles.

  1. A lot of negative communication is occurring (and in many different ways). Just like rusty holes in the side of an old car that was driven where the streets are salted in the winter, a toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms.

Grumbling and complaining by employees is common – they can find something to complain about almost anytime.  Then sarcasm and cynicism show up, which demonstrates a growing lack of trust of management and leadership, and turns into a low level seething disgruntlement.  Making excuses and blaming others is commonplace. Eventually, team members either start to withdraw, not interact with others (except in a very defensive manner) or leave the organization.

  1. Your work is affecting your health negatively– physically, emotionally, and relationally. When a workplace is toxic it is, by definition, unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments (especially over a long period of time) begin to see problems with their own personal health.  This can include physical symptoms such as not being able to sleep, gaining weight, and having increased medical problems.

Emotionally, employees become more discouraged which can lead to depression. For some, they are more irritable, “touchy”, and demonstrate problems managing their anger.  Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work.  These symptoms then can lead to increased use of alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances.

You know your work is affecting you negatively when your friends and family start to make comments on “how you’ve changed”, or “you seem stressed” and “maybe you need to talk to someone”.  When our personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on.

What Can You Do?   

If you work in a toxic workplace – one which is poisonous, damaging, and even potentially dangerous to the mental and emotional health of those who work there – there are steps you can take to make your workplace less toxic.  You are not just a helpless by-stander.

First, do a self-assessment.  Ask yourself and consider, “What am I doing that really isn’t that helpful in creating a positive workplace?”

The second pro-active step you can take is to actively disengage from participating in negative interactions.

Beginning to communicate positive messages to others is the third simple step we each can take.  Often, the easiest way is to share your appreciation for your teammates, and the work they do. Realize that not everyone feels appreciated in the same ways; find out what is meaningful to your team members and communicate appreciation through these actions.

Even though you may work in a really toxic environment, don’t succumb to the belief that it is all just happening to you.  Figure out what you can do to not add to the trash and help clean up the air a bit.

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About the author:

Paul White is a psychologist, speaker and trainer. He is co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, the 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace,  and The Toxic Workplace Prevention and Repair Kit.  For more information, go to www.appreciationatwork.com .

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26 Comments

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Joyce

I will be the first to respond to this. I’ve been in a toxic work place for almost 3 years. It now has start to cause me health issues, and stress. Communication is a two-way process. You can’t communicate alone so if the manager refuses to communicate with you, then what? Emailing someone is not always the answer. Toxic is like a disease and it spreads even when you are trying to be positive at work including with team members. I’m about to shut myself down until I can move on.

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C.

Joyce, you are not alone. I’ve been there! I’m still recovering. Despite my laughable suit that should have been a slam dunk by the attorney, found out the hard way he was easily bought. Yet part of the problem and his supervisor / mistress had eventually left but not without a very high 6+ figure “bonus”. By the way he was supposed to be deported due to threats made against our security. I was burgled, my computers hacked, and was getting death threats. I had to do a forced resign – collecting unemployment now which they are trying to stop. I am fighting that too. The new building is a joke as it was not built as to VA specifications and we had to evacuate the building a number of times due to “unknown” chemical leakages in the air vent systems. But how to “save money” by kickbacks is how the VA Agency seems to work the best – especially under the Obama Adminisration.

Go Trump!!!! I was not a fan of Trump but he’s not your average political tushy kisser.

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Anon

This is the Milwaukee VA Regional office all the way (Dept of VA). I hadn’t even read the title of the article and upon reading the piece, assumed this was going the way of VA-satire–nope, this is really how my office runs. I will say the ‘bully bosses’ are not as common–there are some very good coaches here. I hid my name to protect against Whistleblower Retaliation (yup, happens here too).

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Liz

Thank you so much for this! It is very timely.

I’m sorry to see that others are going through this. I sadly imagine it is more common than the writer or those of us feeling lack of worth and isolation from our toxic situations realize.

The saying: “People quit bosses, not jobs,” holds very true. My boss is a well-known, loud bully who applies policies inconsistently. There is no local supervision and she has held the holy power of an HR director’s title for a long time. I have been working under her for 3+ years, and a few months ago I (nervously) took a promotion where she is now my direct boss. When your leader cannot listen, respond to logic or maintain an even emotional level when dealing with routine work issues, it’s really hard to function. The toxic behavior is about to drive me out of a job that I am very well suited for (as recognized by large numbers of workers in the organization). There is nowhere to report her policy violations or behavior without risking miserable retaliation. I have tried to have an honest conversation about the behavior that bothers me., but there is no apology and no intent to change. I have tried to meet the behavior with professionalism, but the corrosion and pain is real. Pay raises alone can’t buy happiness.

On the upside, this has caused me to evaluate my career path and gaps in my current skill set. I have already taken steps toward gaining education in those areas.

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Brenda Morris

There are systemic issues of corruption and nepotism in the federal government. The evidence I have amassed is overwhelming, yet the management boldly acts as if their titles alone give them the right to openly violate the federal regulations without consequence. It is prevalent across all agencies. You do not do yourself, your agency, political party or your agenda justice when you operate above the law. Every federal employee needs to stand up now to stop this. Keep a folder and collect evidence. Make sure you print off a hard copy because your management will illegally tamper with emails, etc.

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C.

Nepotism is the main problem. Husband/wife working together sharing and exposing veteran information in public; non-citizens obtaining high positions w/o any experience with a hatred of US veterans and of older women; all kinds of illegalities. Your evidence does get tampered with via home invasions; hacking of computer systems. Answer (one I found out the hard way): Rent a Safety Deposit Box and keep it there.

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Vicky F

I really needed this, new the issue but reading it brings it to a better light. And yes it can cause health issues

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Brenda Morris

Sorry, one more comment. If you are honest and a Polly Anna, do not think that going to the union or the IG will help. It would be great if it did, but my experience is that they are part of the corruption or too weak to challenge management effectively for fear of damaging the relationship. The IG will actually come out with reports that obfuscate the target by wording it in such a way that they really do not say much. They have had years to build a reputation and unfortunately, that reputation is pro management. I honestly see no reason for their existence anymore because of how ineffective they are in confronting issues and how tied they are to whomever is in power. I recall presenting evidence to the intake and I was actually told that it wasn’t big enough and didn’t have a big enough national impact. It involved the Regional administrator of an agency, his partner, unethical practices involving the department of justice and the agency! I told him to change the IG’s webpage then. As employees, we have to stand up. I would like each of you to document issues and by the end of next week take them to your union. Our regional union tries but needs power in numbers. Let’s make January 20th the day each employee, either anonymously or with pride, sends memos to their respective unions documenting the corruption and nepotism. Pass this message on to all government employees. Together we can beat this. Alone they will destroy or try to destroy you. Do you want to end up committing suicide like some of the VA folks after that mess? DON”T LET THEM DO THIS TO YOU. JANUARY 20th pass it on!

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C.

The IG/Unions are worthless. Just overpaid nothings that do nothing for us who are suffering. And yes I’ve witnessed near suicides and one even ended up having a brain tumor due to the high stress. Had the management/Unions do what they are supposed to do, this beautiful veteran, coworker would still be with us. Hopefully the new administration will fix this mess! Our veterans and we coworkers who are not ILLEGAL (VA HAS HIRED MANY ILLEGALS WHO ARE THREATS TO THE US) deserve so much more!

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Joyce

Illegal working for the Federal Government. How did they pass a background check and clearance?

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pamala swinnea

I was just reading this, and thinking of my daughter working for a prominent company who was bought out by a non-industry company in the private sector. Chaos ensued. My daughter had to reach a point of crying, driving to work, to realize how toxic her job was and how nothing she personally did in her line level position was going to overcome the barriers and negative styles of her immediate supervision. I recommended IMMEDIATELY finding any other job, even taking a paycut, to ESCAPE that soul sucking organization. WHY? because it was really the only thing she could control and have a path to a better outcome and a fresh start.
She exited without 2 week notice, and the transition led to two promotions and management within a 90 day period. It was confirmation that SHE, as an individual, was shackled in her previous position and had no path of advancement in the old organization. It wasn’t about her…it WAS about that organization and its behavior at that time. Its really sad, because it used to be a fabulous place and a great company to work for. Be prepared to admit when the “fit” no longer exists. Quitting is not “being a quitter”…it’s admitting that your role and purpose for being there really does “fit you” anymore. MOVE ON!

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Brenda Morris

If you are personally suffering as a result of government waste, fraud, abuse, discrimination, or retaliation. Google “resilence”. There is training that will hopefully save your life, your self esteem, and your physical health and well-being. There are things you can do to help yourself. I would not suggest expecting your friends and family to understand what you are going through because they clearly raised you and operate on the foundation that the government has rules that are followed. They cannot believe what has happened to you or the government’s response. The stress intentionally caused by management will affect you and your family more than you can fathom. If you have children and have raised them to be honest and fair, they will not understand why simply presenting facts to management will not cure the problem; they will not understand the effects of stress that have literally changed their parent. See a counselor who is familiar with whistleblowing. Don’t trust management, even folks you thought you knew. Your colleagues are most likely cowards and trying to keep their jobs and do not want to stand up. They are just thankful that it is you and not them. Don’t judge them too harshly. And remember, the holocaust happened because of people like your colleagues who would not stand up.

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Brenda Morris

To all non EPA Region 8 federal employees, I sent this to my entire region. If you are afraid, use me and say, “hey, look what this lady sent.” SEND IT TO YOUR ENTIRE AGENCY

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Anonymous

I did. Then my tires were flattened, I was Interigation that it was believed I was going to shoot my work force. The fabricated lies numerous and unbelievable. All co workers told keep mouth shut. Nothing to be discussed between anyone. Character ruined among all peers. Grievance and claims to EEOC intercepted. Given reprimand after reprimand, suspended, many absence without leave. All leave denied. For 4 years now. Was terminated. Told unfit for duty. Charged thousands of dollars to prove I was. 2 months no pay. Lost home and 5 years savings sent to mortgage company. I can go on and on. I had hoped to save my agency. Make a difference. I JOKED WITH MY FAMILY IN THE BEGINNING about, “If you find my brakes cut or I disappear like Erin Brockovich” It isnt a joke. My management and Administration are nothing but a gang of narcissist. I am an idiot who when applying, told my child to apply too. We have both been completely miserable since starting to work there. All because I defended a co worker 2 months after starting there. No doubt these post are monitored. You are asking for my email. Is that to tamper with my personal stuff too? It already is.

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Brenda Morris

Your story is by far one of the worst I have heard. I have experienced similar things. Regardless of your religious belief or no belief in a higher power, I would ask you to ask Michael the archangel to protect you and help you find a healthy , happy life now. That’s my belief and then state every day “I hope that the energy they put out into the world comes back to them tenfold.” I promise you things will get better. Unfortunately, the VA disgraces itself and its purpose when it uses PTSD as an excuse simply because you fought for your country . My agency pulled the same bull. They cause the stress…. They cause the anxiety and do it intentionally . I went to my doctor early on and he agreed to testify on my behalf that I have never been diagnosed with PTSD. I asked him to monitor me so I didn’t actually experience PTSD. I have gone through a lot of stress in my life, but what helped me here is trying to continue to be who I was before this. I was kind and generous and loving and the more I practiced that with colleagues and strangers, the less power they had over my soul. Personally, I feel sorry for them. They have lost their souls. You have not!!! It is much harder to find something good about them when you cannot stand to look at them or listen to them, but it saves you. Believe me, the fantasies you have about getting revenge are perfectly normal but you should never ever put those into practice because then they have won. Yes, anyone in their right mind would feel negative thoughts about them, and want to fight them because your incredulity is true and correct, but the trick actually is to show them as much goodness from you as you can muster. My belief in a higher power has saved me, but their expectations of professional behavior in the face of their evil influences is not even close to being realistic. I love you because of what you have gone through. Your colleagues have to maintain within themselves a reason to justify their working for such a dirty place and therefore like a liar that convinces himself that he is not a liar and really believes it even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary , your colleagues will never understand unless or until they experience something similar. They will because the universe provides a response to people’s focus and intentions. That is why you must ….must….stand in your truth and ask those that love you and those you know and don’t know to tell you they love you and those of us that have gone through this love you very much and do not want you to live in anger and hate but live and happiness. It is your God-given right and you deserve it. I do not know you but I send you love.

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Peggy

It is not always the manager that is toxic. I have about 6 people that work in my area that are so negative and loud that they bring others down. When you point blank ask what can I do to make this better and you get nothing, what are you supposed to do. They do their job but make people around them anxious and feel bad as well. Very frustrating as a leader.

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Anonymous

Along with toxic management we have toxic employees as well. Most are those who started day one when agency was started.

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Brenda Morris

Please know that this behavior is group emotional bullying and just because you are a manager doesn’t mean that your staff can get away with this. Try the technique in my other comment. People feel guilty. Be vulnerable – it is not a weakness but a strength that actually scares them. And, I know managers that I respect too. No one staff or management is immune. This is hokey, but I love you too and I am sorry you are going through this.

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C.

Your remedies do not work, as they were being tried before time and time again. We even had informed the supervisor of such goings on and we were targeted. It did affect our health in which one did finally succumb (die) due to the toxicity. Nothing was done. Except when yours truly became a whistleblower and my life was then threatened by the sources of the toxicity. I had to bring in an attorney due to the discrimination. Which in the end resulted to me being forced to resign or terminated. They were calling it Retirement at 57. However, those who were over 50 were also targeted by the same mindset. Even though part of the toxic problem was herself over 50 but since she was a part time psychiatrist and promotor of suicide she was excused. When this was brought out to the press, with the evidence, the local press turned a blind eye. Perhaps under Trump’s Administration the Federal AGencies will be audited and the garbage finally taken out. The end of discrimination towards women and all should finally be here. Even AFGE did nothing to protect us. Today, I cannot work full time and have been diagnosed with PTSD; high tremors and blood pressure due to the stress brought on by the San Francisco VA’s management that has made the Phoenix VA look like Disneyland.

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Joyce

I am so sorry to hear this. But thanks for being brave in the mist of threats. As a veteran who uses the VA in WDC, I am so ashamed of what they put their employees through. Thanks for the insight.

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Brenda Morris

I am so sorry you went through this. And you maybe right that the remedies I suggest don’t work. But I do recommend staying steps ahead of them. I got my neighbors involved too. They monitor traffic in the neighborhood and watch my house and document anything dealing with a perimeter around my house. That and a security system should stop the burglary aspect. At least you will have evidence.. Don’t talk about what they have done to you like tires slashed mentioned by one person … They will use it to make others think you are crazy . Document it. Use your cell phone to take pictures of your computer screen when they have rigged your computer . They cannot operate in the light. So you must not stop bringing it to the light. It stinks! Who would’ve thought. Now my acting RA has given permission to employees to take annual leave to protest Trump. She has failed to say that this may be a very bad idea because of the appearance of no neutrality in government. Don’t be surprised if the naive do it and suffer later.

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Profile Photo Christine Deng

Great post! This is very helpful and sheds light on the downward spiral a toxic workplace can cause and unfortunately it has an adverse effect on health as well. I find the tips to overcome toxicity quite useful.

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Profile Photo Violet Ungemach

Awesome post Paul! This is a great resource to those who may not realize if their work situation is fair or not. I also like the section where you reference a self-assessment, which can really help to identify if you are happy with your job or not. Great thoughts overall!

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sophia

Listening to you Feds talk, makes State Government jobs sound like a professionals dream. So sad! I always wanted to work for the Fed’s. I might rethink!
But yes, I see all the benchmarks on toxicity here working for the State. I do apply the recomendations for staying positive. And the one thing I have my eye on is becoming a Union Spokesperson for our department. I’ve heard these volunteer positions become up for grabs. I figure at that point I will have access to the rules. Its crazy that I havent been given access to the contract, even though I’ve requested a copy on numerous occasions. So I guess I concur that the Union folks could be of a higher calibur.
I guess I’d like to say, don’t let the A**h****s take you down! Keep your head down and make your plan of escape whatever that form may take! Your family and health is more important than any particular job where you work for anyone other than yourself. Theres always only so much you can do. And dont sell yourself short. Keep trying to do good, even if only you alone knows it. That way, in the end what goes around comes around, and good will come your way.

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