Did 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.
Have you ever worked in a toxic environment? What did you do about it?
Sarah Greesonbach is a former teacher turned content and new media specialist who blogs at Life [Comma] Etc about simple food, better relationships and more money for everyone. If you want more of any of that, connect with her on Twitter @AwYeahSarah or get help with your company blog and website at Greesonbach Creative.