5 Signs Your Office Is a Toxic Work Environment (And What to Do About It)

Toxic Work EnvironmentDid someone really just give you a nasty look from across the cubicles, or are you seeing things? Is HR acting strange, or is your imagination running wild?

If either of those thoughts has ever crossed your mind at work, it’s possible you’re working in a toxic work environment and you don’t even know it.

While the dangers of a toxic work environment are well-known, it’s a difficult situation to overcome because it’s often difficult to diagnose. If you’re starting to suspect your workplace isn’t the fun and friendly place it used to be, here are five signs it’s not in your head — and what to do about it:


1. Cliques Are Forming

A once-rambunctious email or Skype relationship fizzles, and you’re left feeling like your teammates are talking to everyone except you. The cliques and giggles are enough to drive you crazy, but you’re still not quite sure if anything’s wrong.

Even if nothing ever falls into the category of obvious coworker no-nos, if you’re worried about where you stand with your teammates, your gut might be trying to tell you something. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

Start spending more time by the water cooler and investing more time in your work relationships. See if you can help to alleviate the tension with increased communication. If you’re still feeling shut out, consider it a case-closed toxic environment and acknowledge that it may be time to think about getting out.


2. HR Cops an Attitude About Raises and Recognition

The HR department is a powerful part of the work environment equation. So when they choose to use that power to give off the vibe that everyone there should be grateful to have a job (instead of asking for raises or recognition), company culture swiftly starts to tank.

If you’re the HR professional for your organization, surely you know that toxic environments inhibit productivity and encourage turnover? A good employee will always leave. So, while you deserve credit for growing the company and providing employment opportunities, that’s no excuse to hoard company profits and let star employees go unrecognized for excellent work.

Instead, take proactive steps now to prevent further damage to morale and company culture and to be a part of the solution instead of the problem. Start by clarifying your goals as a company to make sure your actions reflect your mission. Reward employees fairly based on accomplishments and contributions, not by who skips their family vacation each year. Also, take time to refine your approach — honest discussions over yelling, affirmations over passive-aggressive comments.


3. Inconsistent Policies and Favoritism

Another sign of a toxic work environment is an increase in favoritism, sketchy workplace practices and inconsistent policies. If you start to notice too many close friends of bosses being hired or familiar names appearing on outsourced work (like a father-in-law or a manager’s wife), look out!

When some people seem to get special privileges and benefits that aren’t shared with the rest of the company, it could be a sign that things aren’t on the up and up in your office. Be on the lookout for suspicious patterns or clear signs of foul play so you can know when it’s time to move on.


4. Senior Management in Absentia

On an average day at work, how many senior management folks do you see? Are the managers attending meetings and interacting with staff members, or hiding out in their offices, difficult to get a hold of?

If the only people in your office every day are the ones who earn the smallest paychecks, that’s a sign of poor leadership, and poor leadership will lead to company culture doom. If you feel cut loose from your manager, you might be sensing an impending shift in the workplace environment — and not for the better.


5. You’ve Just Got a Bad Feeling About Things

Part of the danger of a toxic work environment is that sense that you’re losing ground without anything actually happening. It’s time to trust your gut!

Here’s what to look out for:

  • An overwhelming sense that something is wrong.
  • A sick feeling in your stomach.
  • Feeling like you’re on alert.
  • Feeling like there’s something “not being said” in every meeting.
  • A strong urge to seek help or discuss the situation frequently with friends.
  • Sweaty palms, racing heartbeat or other abnormal physical signals of stress or anxiety.

If you have a strong sense of disengagement, or if any of these signs ring true for you, you may be working in a toxic work environment, and the time to act is now!


What to Do If Your Work Environment Is Toxic

Fortunately, a declining office environment doesn’t have to spell the end for your job. There are things you can do to fall in love with your job again, or even thrive in a toxic work environment if you can’t or don’t want to leave.

First, accept that the environment is not your fault. Not being high up the leadership chain, you can’t control the actions of the people around you — only your reactions.

Instead, make a list of ways to make the time you spend at work valuable. Are there skills you’re looking to learn? Valuable coworkers with whom you can network and develop strong relationships? Invest time in these engaging and worthwhile pursuits, and you’ll find the environment won’t affect you quite as much.

Not feeling up to the fight? Then it’s time to move on. Start networking now to hedge your bets and practice interviewing like a pro to get the job and wave goodbye to the bad atmosphere.

Have you ever worked in a toxic environment? What did you do about it?

Image: Flickr

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5 Signs Your Office Is a Toxic Work Environment (And What to Do About It)

28 Responses

  1. The absence of senior management usually speaks volumes about how management feels about its employees. There is nothing more demeaning to employees than being thought of as simply a factor of production

    josh at #
    • Great point, Josh — it’s paying attention to those subtle signs that can help you plan for the future!

  2. My last place of employment was EVERY SINGLE ONE of these things and more! I could write novels on all the crap management handed down… including more than one occasion when my one boss was physically violent with co-workers. Or how we used to play the “how many days will pass before BOSS says something (anything!) to Amanda” game. The record was over 4 days without so much as a “hello” (I should point out that there were less than 10 employees and BOSS walked passed several times a day.)

    What did I do about it?
    Long story short – I filed a complaint with the labour board, went on stress leave, filed another complaint, and eventually quit. It was not easy; it took over 9 months from the time I decided to do something until anything actually happened (and the labour board is still yet to investigate). But I got myself OUT of there. No one should ever have to stay in a toxic work environment. It is NOT worth it!

    Amanda at #
    • So true! I think many people overlook the effect a stressful work environment can have on your outside-of-work life. Getting out when you can is a great idea!

  3. Thank you – Thank you and Thank you for this TRUTHFUL article.

    One never knows what you will be getting into once you accept a position, but the last organization I worked with (10 years), WAS SO EXTREMELY TOXIC. It was one of the most dysfunctional environments I have ever known, but I am sure there are many more. RED FLAGS are a true sign, and it’s not worth staying and trying to work out the issues. Especially if HR Managmeent and Executives are apart of the problem, too. It was my understanding that human resources and management were to be accountable to the organization and client; not cliques or favoritism !

    Thank you. Proceed forward NOT backwards.

    at #
  4. My God I can’t imagine myself working in a toxic workplace like this. Thank God I’m blessed to have a good boss and a very caring company where employees efforts are all recognized. I guess if you’re unlucky to work in a toxic company or workplace what you need is too much ‘patience’ and ‘concentration’. Don’t let yourself get affected by all the negative elements around you instead focus on your job and continue to do your best.

  5. I am going through this right now. It so pathetic. I feel I am the one that’s going crazy. But I know I am not. I am a Christian and I like to be optimistic and positive, but just entering the building, you well I can actually feel the thickness in the air of negativity, it almost feels like I am walking into a wind tunnel struggling to get to my desk. Its awful. I been there 6 years and now I am on meds to clam my nerves. I am researching and I cannot believe all this negativity that is in the work place anymore. Thanks for your article.

    at #
  6. I recently resigned from a job I love cause I just can’t take the toxic,nagative environment I work in I feel physically drained on daily basis for money it just wasn’t worth it to me anymore I was becoming very bitter so I’m going to a new job but I’m stressing already I’m crushed I had to leave my job because I loved what I do but I had to choose my soul before I lost it just because of a job

    at #
    • I am in a very similiar situation. I started a new job that has an excellent salary with full benefits. I enjoy the job a lot and can see myself pursuing something like this for years to come. However, I am beginning to experience many changes in people. I am noticing clique and a lot of gossip, people rubbing other peoples back and so on and so forth. I am beginning to be the one to be left out and ostracized and just recently I am experiencing the cold shoulder from a lot of co workers. I am un clear as to why this is happening and it is taking an extreme effect on my health and well being. Point being is this … do you think it is worth leaving a well paying job or is it worth sticking out with this crap and getting a pay check at the end of the week?

      at #
      • I am in the very same situation. I finally figured out what was going on and basically, I’m being bullied by a supervisor. Very different than “typical” bullying. Funny thing is, everyone complains about this person to each other. However, when I finally take action, everyone is now giving me the cold shoulder. It’s just like an abusive relationship. Even though these women complained, they want it to stay that way because it’s what they’re used to and don’t like change.

        at #
  7. These five points are good ways to assess whether or not a workplace is toxic. Another couple of resources are these two articles, “How to Know When it is Time to Quit Your Job” and “How to Avoid Being
    Hired by a Toxic Workplace”, available in the shopping cart of our website, appreciationatwork.com. I trust you & your readers will find them to be helpful.

    at #
  8. I’m working in this kind of environment right now. My boss has driven everyone out of the company- some didn’t even give notice because they couldn’t handle working with him for one more day. I have caught him snooping on my private computer, he has assumed it is fine to borrow my car, and I am blamed for anything going wrong at work even if I had no control over it or wasn’t even informed about something that was necessary ahead of time. Every single day there is something new- just trying to hold on a little longer and give notice, but I am the ONLY employee so I will have to train who comes next (although I wouldn’t wish this job on my worst enemy-at least not the way I have experienced it).

    at #
    • Amy – Why do you put up with this jerk? I have worked for such people – the only way to deal with them is walk out, for they are not going to change. And how could he borrow your car unless you gave him the keys? You do not have to give this abusive brat notice, and do not have to train your unfortunate successor. Get another job ASAP – and walk out!
      (A retired office manager who has dealt with such rats.)

      at #
  9. I work in what I think is a toxic environment. I have been with company 5 years and the first couple were amazing but after the culture started seeping in from the company that bought us it’s not been the same.

    We got sold to a much better company finally but I wonder if the damage is done. I then went to client office for a project and honestly after what Ive experienced the last couple days in particular I feel so drained. Many times I have wanted and tried to leave but I don’t know what to leave and do.

    I AM in HR and this was my first HR job and I fear that this is just what being in HR is like and that maybe I’m just not cut out for this career (despite loving what I actually do in my job most days and being interested to get a degree to further my career in it). I hate the office politics, double standards and the drama that is happening. And I have been pulled into it without having realised. My colleague/friend (outside HR) described us (HR) yesterday as baby sharks and I can’t stop thinking about it. I hate being associated as part of this scary scary bunch.

    I also just don’t know who to believe or trust anymore in my HR team and especially the client.

    I thought my home office/company was toxic but this place just takes the cake.

    If there are any other HR professionals on here I would like to know is this how it is meant to be?

    at #
    • I would focus in building an imaginary fence. Read Robert Frost poem “Good fences make good neighbors”
      Then I would focus on how to find a way to add value to the HR Team as it applies to taking on additional work and volunteer for an objective they might have that needs to be accomplished, and you might be able to deliver. Sometimes engaging in more work takes the attention away from the unpleasant, shows a good example about your work ethics, and you will hear and see much less by keeping certain distance. A toxic environment is like a bacteria, it catches up with you and could potentially change your core values if you let it! Good luck!

  10. I believe I may work in a toxic work environment. While I do not notice the signs listed above in particular, I do have a sense of walking on egg shells and feeling alert. I have also developed stomach problems and shortness of breath (I think from anxiety). My boss wrote me up every chance she got last year. I was the only one and no one else was written up. I finally went to the president of the institute and he must have asked her to back off because she quit. Now we have merged and there has been an administration change. She has started back, I was written up last week for following her instructions to send letters but some of the letters went to students that weren’t supposed to get a second letter. Not that it would be the end all be all. If anything it would be a reminder to come to school. She should have given me clearer instructions and I asked her a dozen times to help me. So I wasnt warned, I was written up. Now, they want to go through my files. I get nervous because it feels so aggressive and intimidating. The boss called to yell at me the other day because a mailing label was off center and because I had misread and email from my coworker that he was copied in on. Can someone help me??? I need advice. I need to know if this is normal and if not, what to do about it. What are my rights??

    at #
    • No this is not normal. Report this bully to her boss, human resources, CEO of the organization; then file a complaint with the nearest EEOC. Tell any and everyone who will listen. Bullies thrive on fear tactics and secrecy. Remember God exposed Cain.

      at #
  11. I left a job where I was growing and learning so much. I left because it was in a small town and I wanted to move back to the capital city. Little did I know what I was getting myself into when I accepted a job in the capital. The enviroment was one where you could not express ideas without being humiliated by the boss. Employees were constantly gossiping about all sorts of things and people and were constantly tearing each other down. I believe in personal growth and constructive, positive conversations because of my Christianity and these talks were never accepted. It became worst when salaries leaked and it turned out I got one of the highest incomes. This due to me having negotatiated since I had a senior position at my prior work and was the only with a degree at my new work and therefore got the more complex tasks. But this turned the gossip towards me directly and everyday was a battle for my sanity. One year later I finally resigned and am pursuing my own business with an amazing business partner. Its my last month at the job and despite the petty gossip I am finally at peace.

    at #
  12. I am in a toxic workplace and have given my resignation only after less than a year working there. At first I looked pass all the red flags : manager already blaming and talking bad about current worker, sudden termination of the person whose position I filled in, unsyncronized and no communication between HR and user, and many more.

    From the first week I already wondered if I did the right thing resigning my past job and joining this company. It turns out my initial gut feeling was absolutely right. Despite the good insurance benefit, I learn nothing as a professional in this place. Everyone is staying because of the benefits without caring about work or result. The priority is just to make “friends” with as many coworkers to survive here, work responsibility is very low and they keep so many unproductive employee who clearly do not perform at their tasks. Top management come and go (being rotated by the principal to other countries), so basically the instruction changes every time a new person comes, which last only 2 years max.

    The direct user is someone who emphasize on “you better be my friend if you want to survive”, and always brags about all the things she’d done for her subordinates. She micromanaged and constantly steals my knowledge as I am an experienced hire, but do it in a subtle way. I cannot trust any coworker as everyone is a kiss ass to her and even barely talks openly about how bad she really is. As someone pointed out, it’s exactly like staying in an abusive relationship for them. Staying in just as leeches for the company benefit, while accepting whatever shitty situation and treatment as they have slowly lose their dignity and professionalism. I decided not to adapt into something worse and downgrade my quality as a professional by staying and becoming one of them. The hardest part was the health benefit as in this economy/my industry it’s quite difficult to find something as good. But I decided my sanity and self worth is much more important. Got another offer and decided to take it for the sake of my growth and well being.

    at #
  13. Thank you very much for this article.

    I work in an environment that would be described as BEYOND EXTREMELY TOXIC. I have been with my job for the last seven years and it was never originally like this. Things have only got bad since an HR manager was hired as our small company grew into a household name. This HR manager has ABSOLUTELY ZERO industry experience and wouldn’t know it if it hit her in the face, her job when she got it was never advertised leaving the enigma to how she obtained it. Furthermore this individual has ABSOLUTELY ZERO people skills and her toxic behavior began on day one of her job. Soon all five of these points applied to our company and although I done my best to stay out of the politics and drama sooner or later this individuals fumes hit me.

    She cops an attitude at staff, she is not liked by other managers she has bad phone manners and talks to staff in an intimidating and threatening tone and never smiles. Our staff turnover rate which until her arrival was low skyrocketed.

    Her attitude and conduct is having a ripple effect right down to the probationers right up to senior management and us workers stuck in the middle

    Staff began developing illnesses some to the point of hospitalization yet management still attempted to ring these laid up in hospital staff and insist they come into work.

    My health too has taken a nasty turn. Im not eating properly and have gained 12kgs in matter of a couple of months. Ive started smoking again eight and a half years after quitting im drinking myself to a stupor most weekends and my mental health has taken a dive. Im depressed and losing sleep and now lashing out more first at friends and family but now I’m lashing out at random strangers in the street swearing cursing even threatening. I blame this all on that sadistic misanthropic HR manager of ours

    I’ve lost friends as my persona changed from social and down to earth to withdrawn and aggressive. She has even pitted me against my mentor from my first few weeks with the company who I now regard as a manipulative lying backstabber. Im trying to get out of it but as their are no jobs in the area I live in I feel as though im stuck

    Shes even triggered a civil war in our office and have pitted even the managers against each other
    This of course has a ripple effect on everyone who works for our outfit

    Staff have even gone to the CEO to demand that this narcissistic lady be disposed of she seems to be the CEOs little lamb who cannot do anything wrong

    at #
  14. I have worked in a work environment where there was actually a coo that turned over new management(which I was a part of) due to employees being paranoid about what we were doing to actually improve the social service program in which we worked.
    I also worked in a program where power was given to two individuals who were very difficult to work with and eventually were fired after I had found another job.
    I worked in a new program at a university where one individual became very close with the supervisor (was his secretary) and controlled the department with her manipulations and private conversations with the boss. He never brought me in to ask my opinion of the facts. Because she was so controlling in every sense of the word, I did not have access to my supervisor and he tried to fire me. I denied the claims of misuse of paid leave hours, as his secretary told me that we put so much overtime in anyway, don’t ask for paid leave hours. They then said that I could stay. But I did not wish to at that point. They gave me severance pay. Everyone else remained employed.
    MY POINT, a Toxic work environment is so rampant in the USA, why is it that we do not pass laws to protect the workers? Cliques and harassment, NOT harassment due to race, religion, sex, etc…. is in almost EVERY workplace. If the head of the company does not take a personal stand on this, nothing is accomplished to rectify this situation. I read all of these testimonies and everyone must find another job. This is not right for the employee who is on the outskirts of the cliques and TRY to do their jobs well. THIS item should be on the list of Race/Sex/Religion/ etc…….. in the law books.

    at #
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