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Articles / Majors & Careers / How to Identify a Toxic Work Environment -- and What to Do About It

How to Identify a Toxic Work Environment -- and What to Do About It

Krasi Shapkarova
Written by Krasi Shapkarova | Dec. 3, 2019
How to Identify a Toxic Work Environment -- and What to Do About It


No matter the career you pursue, you'll have days when stress can stretch you to the maximum. Each workplace comes with its own issues and becoming frustrated with a process or person is normal, but if your workplace has one or more of the five characteristics listed below, you may be in a toxic environment.

Disengaged Colleagues

At work, you spend most of your time with colleagues, and their work ethic, attitude and personality can impact your experience. You will grow by collaborating with colleagues who are smart, work hard and challenge you to perform at your best. Unfortunately, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, only a third of employees are actively engaged; of the rest, 16 percent are actively disengaged and "destroy what the most engaged employees build," and 51 percent are simply there, clocking in and clocking out with no attempt to deliver value. Being an engaged employee surrounded by disengaged co-workers is one sure way to find yourself in a toxic environment that stunts your growth.

Disengaged employees discourage you from going above and beyond because you'll make them look bad. You'll hear them respond to initiatives with "that's not my job" or "I wasn't hired to do that," and they'll often do what needs to be done only if higher-ups tell them to. Their negative attitudes make you hate your job, even when you are dedicated and passionate about what you do. They seem to be in a constant state of disgruntlement and welcome any proposals or ideas with sarcasm and cynicism. Such colleagues do the minimum to stay employed and can't be trusted to jump in and contribute. They increase your frustration, not your satisfaction.

Unsupportive Manager

Along with your co-workers, your direct manager has a significant impact on your experience at work. "People don't quit jobs, they quit bad managers" is an oft-voiced saying for a reason. Managers have influence employees' growth, and if you have one who micromanages, doesn't respect your personal space, doesn't celebrate you and your success, and most importantly, doesn't care about your professional development, you will find yourself in a toxic workplace.

"In every role, there are certain expectations," says Meghan Irving, an environmental engineer, "but if your boss is not interested in allowing you to grow above and beyond the tasks assigned, it's probably time to look elsewhere." Whether you are just starting your professional journey or already have a few years under your belt, you want a manager who is invested in your growth, who understands what your needs are and where you see yourself going, and who empowers you to make that happen.

Toxic Leadership

As damaging as disengaged colleagues and unsupportive managers could be, both may be symptoms of a larger problem: toxic leadership. A leader who is openly aggressive, demeaning and demanding creates a toxic workplace, but toxicity doesn't have to be this obvious. Does your institution have a leader (or leaders) who behave differently when facing staff internally and when facing external stakeholders? Do they encourage employees to openly express concerns or is your voice stifled because you fear negative repercussions? Do the leader(s) seem to only be concerned about their image or reputation?

Look at the people closest to your organization's leader(s). If they seem to be walking on eggshells, worried that any misstep or a slide out of order in a PowerPoint can get them in serious trouble, you are not in an environment that embraces trust, transparency, inclusion, respect and fairness. A toxic leader makes people feel afraid, not valued and respected. A toxic leader takes actions in conflict with the values and mission found on the organization's website.

Value Misalignment

Though many job seekers may disregard the pursuit of a meaningful career as a frivolous desire, research shows that doing meaningful and fulfilling work is an essential element of your overall well-being. Finding meaning doesn't imply you need a job that saves lives; in many cases, to enjoy a higher quality of life and be more productive, you want to engage in work that aligns with your values and helps you contribute to a larger purpose. When there's misalignment between what you value and what your employer values, even if your pay and rewards are great, you'll find your workplace toxic. If your employer reinforces practices that negatively influence people, local communities or the environment, the work will soon take its toll on your well-being.

Nonexistent Work-Life Balance

"In any job, you may at times be expected to work on urgent issues and stay late, but when you are constantly cancelling plans with friends and working over weekends, holidays and vacations," says Irving, "you're most likely not in a good place." Any job may have the all-hands-on-deck times when staff members are expected to contribute beyond regular work hours. What could make a situation toxic is an employer's lack of acknowledgement of the busier than normal hours and failure to establish a form of compensation (be it extra pay or time off in the future), or an employer that demands late hours all the time. "It's the difference between working late when a big deadline approaches and emergencies happening on a regular basis," clarifies Irving.

Work-life balance is not about leaving work at 5:00 p.m. or not working weekends. You could physically leave your office at 5:00 every day, but if you're overwhelmed with work-related anger or frustration or worry or fear, your personal life will be negatively impacted. The impact could be physical (lack of sleep, unhealthy eating habits, no time off), emotional (feeling depressed or discouraged to keep going), or social (your friends not inviting you out anymore because you've cancelled plans so often). If the above sounds painfully familiar, you may be in a toxic workplace. If you are still not sure, look at your organization's turnover rate.

Here's What to Do About It

If you are a team leader, you could establish a supportive, positive and collaborative space for your team and serve as an example to teams across the organization. However, if you are not in a position to bring about changes or if you've tried to voice concerns but see no improvement, this may be a sign that you need to leave.

Leaving, however, is easier said than done. Many people stay in toxic workplaces because they have families to support, student or medical debt to pay off or no option to relocate. If that's the case for you, evaluate and determine what makes your environment toxic and consider the following steps:

1. Set boundaries and expectations: Those will help you get your personal life back and make sure you're not overcommitting.

2. Establish a support network: This could be a group of colleagues with similar values and work ethics, or it could be trusted friends or mentors outside of work.

3. Find a go-to activity to relax and recharge: This could be the first step toward a meaningful change, especially if you're already struggling with work-life balance.

4. Document everything: This is essential if you are dealing with unsupportive managers or toxic leadership.

5. Craft an exit strategy: Even if you are not able to leave immediately, you want to take small steps in that direction. That could involve reaching out to your network and letting them know you are open to exploring your next opportunity.

Written by

Krasi Shapkarova

Krasi Shapkarova

A longtime careers writer and coach, Krasi Shapkarova serves as an associate director of coaching and education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Washington, DC, and is also the editor-in-chief of Carey the Torch, the official blog of the Career Development office. She is a Certified Career Management Coach with The Academies, an MBTI Step I and Step II certified practitioner, and has completed training in the Career Leader assessment. Prior to joining the Carey Business School staff, Krasi worked as a counselor at the distance education department at Houston Community College. In that role, she assisted students with career exploration, degree planning, course selection and study skills. In addition, Krasi has extensive experience as a writing tutor assisting students with resumes, cover letters and scholarship essays. She also interned at Shriners Hospitals for Children and has a background in the non-profit sector. Krasi holds a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and a Master of Arts in International Human Rights from the University of Denver. When not in the office, Krasi enjoys hiking and camping.

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