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Warning Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

Last updated

5 September 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Lara Leganger

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A toxic workplace environment is one of the leading causes of employee burnout and the intent to quit. Toxic culture is a breeding ground for negativity, conflict, and stress. This causes employees' decreased morale, engagement, and job satisfaction.

Workplace toxicity can seriously affect an employee's physical and mental health. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize the signs of a toxic workplace and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.

What is a toxic work environment?

An organization with a toxic work environment has negative behaviors like bullying, manipulation, and yelling deeply rooted in its culture. Mistrust, discrimination, lack of productivity, infighting, and high stress levels become the norm. All this creates an environment where employees feel psychologically unsafe, which, over time, can lead to depression and anxiety.

In a toxic workplace, employees feel like they will be humiliated, rejected, or punished for sharing ideas, speaking up, raising concerns, or voicing objections. They feel trapped since they don’t want to face discrimination and rejection, but they need the job and must show up for work.

Toxic workplaces can also cause people-pleasing behaviors among employees, leading to burnout and erosion of self-esteem. When an employee feels undervalued and unsupported, they might resort to people-pleasing as a coping mechanism or in hopes of gaining approval or recognition.

What are the signs of a toxic workplace?

It is sometimes hard to know if your workplace environment is toxic. Employees struggle to identify toxicity in their workplace because they assume such environments are normal and may even get used to them with time.

Defining the signs of a toxic work environment can be tricky because an environment can have different effects on employees depending on working style, work history, and triggers. However, common characteristics of toxic work environments can help you determine if you are in a toxic workplace.

Here are a few signs to watch out for:

No boundaries around work

Toxic workplace cultures often glorify and normalize the absence of healthy boundaries, encouraging employees to put their work ahead of everything else. For instance, managers may push themselves to exhaustion and burnout, and expect their subordinates to follow suit by staying late in the office or responding to emails and messages during off hours and weekends. 

The trait is often visible early, and job seekers should look for it during the recruitment process. For example, if a hiring manager gives you a task on Friday evening and expects it to be completed by Monday morning, or has you taking calls during night hours, those can be red flags.

People don't trust each other

In a toxic workplace, the lack of trust among the employees is evident. For example, an organization can have management offices facing employees' desks to monitor their daily activities. Or it may be a workplace where managers constantly demand reports to check on what employees are doing.

The lack of trust between colleagues results in toxic teams that underperform and lack motivation.

No room for mistakes

Toxic work environments are blame-heavy, with no room for making errors or learning from them. Mistakes are not viewed as an opportunity for growth but feel like a belittling of status and roles in the organization.

Employees who make a mistake are criticized and scolded for their failings. In such an environment, people do whatever it takes to avoid blame and stay ahead of their workmates.

This kind of culture is often hard on juniors and new hires who are still learning and constantly face the pressure of striving for excellence.

People treat each other with contempt

Contempt is also rife in toxic workplaces. Managers assert superiority toward team members and establish a right to judge their actions. For instance, a boss may ignore an employee's suggestions, only to pick them when another person offers the same idea later.

A boss might also constantly look over an employee’s work and provide comments with no substance, intended as personal attacks on their subordinates’ working style.

Unhealthy interpersonal relationships

How people within a work environment interact with each other often indicates the emotional health of the workplace. Employee body language and interactions show a picture of their energy in the workplace.

In a healthy workplace, employees chat, share jokes and memes on social platforms, and smile during breaks. The opposite is true of a toxic work environment. Employees appear stressed and don't engage in friendly, casual conversations. Bosses don’t engage with employees, listen to their views, or provide guidance.

No support for employee growth

Toxic workplaces don't provide support or mentorship and leave employees to figure things out alone.

Such a culture affects entry-level employees since they receive little support and are often left to work alone, leading to discontentment and demotivation. They have no idea of the opportunities available to them because no one is coaching them. This leads to career stagnation.

Virtual workspaces make it easier for teams to disconnect from their managers, worsening the situation.

People frequently feel gaslighted

Gaslighting is when other people make you question your perceptions, sanity, or feelings. The behavior leads to toxicity in the workplace and harms the equity and inclusion practices in the workplace.

For example, a manager might assign a project to a team and state its specific goal and methodology. However, during the project's review, the manager may question the team's chosen approach, forgetting or misremembering their initial brief. Employees start questioning their competence and, with time, dread working on projects.

People regularly experience physical symptoms of work stress

In a toxic workplace, mental stress can affect you physically since you’re always on high alert. The workplace has a fight-or-flight culture, and employees are constantly scanning for danger and threats from colleagues.

Being in such a state for a long time affects your physical health, and you may begin to experience anxiety and depression symptoms, including sleep problems, digestive issues, aches, panic attacks, and fatigue.

People are disengaged, and turnover is high

In a toxic work environment, people may shut down mentally and disengage from their work, team, and company. Employees have fewer interactions with each other, lack motivation, and are often tired from burnout.

Eventually, the unhealthy work environment forces them to leave the organization at high rates.

Effects and cost of workplace toxicity

Toxic workplaces can have many effects on employees and the organization. These include:

  • Disengagement and disconnection among teams

  • Low employee morale and enthusiasm

  • Damage to employee mental and physical health

  • Decreased productivity and inefficiency

  • Higher turnover rates

  • Wasted human potential and resources

  • Legal trouble from unpleasant, unproductive, or illegal behaviors

  • Damage to the brand's reputation

How companies should deal with a toxic environment

A toxic work environment is pervasive, and organizations must address it early before it has far-reaching impacts. Read on for some ways companies can address workplace toxicity.

Focus efforts toward leaders

Leaders need to take action and create a positive work environment by managing conflict and addressing problems before they arise.

Companies must invest in upskilling their leaders, provide training in conflict management, coaching, and intervention techniques, and ensure managers use these skills to improve the work culture.

Rethink employee training

Companies should provide training on toxic work behaviors to ensure employees understand culture-building aspects like civility, respect, and intervention techniques. When employees are sensitized about bullying, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace, they can recognize and appropriately respond to these issues, creating a respectful and inclusive work environment.

Encourage speaking up

For a positive work culture, there must be open communication between the management and employees. Managers should take employee reports seriously and commit to creating a healthy work environment.

Companies can encourage employees to speak up by creating anonymized platforms to share and report information.

How employees should deal with a toxic work environment

Here are a few tips on how to deal with a toxic work environment.

Consider your options

In a toxic workplace, employees usually face two options:

  • Stay and endure

  • Find a way out

While leaving might seem like the obvious option, circumstances such as financial constraints and limited job prospects might make staying necessary. Evaluate your options and come up with an action plan.

Reclaim your agency

Nobody chooses to work in a toxic workplace; you’re not to blame if you find yourself in one. In such situations, it helps to take back power and look internally by asking yourself the following questions:

  • How should I react when confronted with toxic behaviors?

  • What can I do to change the situation?

  • What is stopping me from leaving?

Answering these questions will help you make the right decisions and find a healthy work–life balance. Going to therapy can also help you understand how a toxic workplace affects you and how to protect yourself from similar situations in the future.

Address the point of conflict

If you choose to stay, identify the points of conflict, be it a team or manager, and talk with them. Conversations allow you to talk about the issues relating to toxicity and offer your opinions and feedback to the people involved. Go into these talks with examples of toxic behaviors and describe their impact on you.

Although this approach might be a short-term fix to the existing challenge, it can provide relief. Conversations with people who can influence and change the cultural dynamic in the workplace may lead to positive change much sooner.

Ask yourself who can help you

Having someone to support you as you navigate the challenges of a toxic workplace is important. Their emotional support, guidance, and practical advice are invaluable. Choose someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart.

For example, if your family depends on your salary, involving them as your main support may introduce additional stress and potentially impact their judgment. It's better to turn to an ex-colleague or friend not directly involved in your workplace dynamics.

Have compassion for yourself

Many people in a toxic work environment try to toughen up and endure it. But no job is worth sacrificing your mental, emotional, or physical well-being.

Imagine you’re offering advice to a close friend or family member facing the same situation. What would you advise them? This approach can help you distance yourself emotionally and gain a clearer perspective to make more rational decisions that prioritize your well-being.

Plan your exit

If addressing the issues in the workplace does not work and nothing changes, you may decide to leave. Carefully plan your exit. For example, before resigning, explore internal transfers or lateral moves within your current organization; there might be opportunities for positive change. 

Also, evaluate your financial situation to determine whether you can afford to quit right away or need to find another job first. Do you have enough resources to cover your expenses during the transition period? Polish your resume, submit job applications, and prepare for potential job offers. Provide appropriate notice to your current employer and exit gracefully.


What can cause a toxic work environment?

Workplace issues such as constant criticism, unhealthy communication, favoritism, and gossiping can breed negativity, resulting in a toxic workplace environment. 

What are some examples of toxic behavior in the workplace?

Common toxic behaviors in the workplace include bullying, harassment, unfair treatment, blame culture, discrimination, work overload, and micromanagement.

How do you survive a toxic work environment?

In a toxic work environment, maintain your professionalism and, above all, prioritize your mental and physical health. Set clear boundaries, speak up, and get management/HR involved. If nothing changes, explore other job opportunities and plan your exit.

Is it OK to quit a toxic work environment?

Yes, it's absolutely OK to quit a toxic job. Your health and overall well-being come first.

How can we reduce toxic work environments?

Creating a healthy work environment requires a collective effort from employees and management. Employees should respect each other, communicate effectively, and report any toxic behaviors. Employers should lead by example, promote open communication, and address bullying and harassment.

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