For most of my career, I thought I’d been lucky enough to steer clear of toxic work environments. Of course, I knew toxic organizations existed, and I knew to avoid them at all costs—theoretically. But it was many years before I learned to recognize what toxic workplaces actually looked like. Once I did, I realized that I had in fact worked in some of them myself. I just didn’t realize it at the time because I’d assumed that I was the problem—my work wasn’t strategic enough, I didn’t have management potential, or I wasn’t ready for that promotion—rather than the organizations where I’d worked.
Speaking with friends and colleagues helped me see that my experience wasn’t unique: So many people in my network had encountered toxicity in their workplaces, but like me, they hadn’t always been able to identify it from the get-go.
Fortunately, in recent years, there’s been a true shift toward making workplaces more transparent, nurturing, and inclusive, and the conversation around toxicity is now more open and accessible to everyone. This means that leaders and employees alike are now far more aware of what a toxic work environment looks like—and what to do about it. This guide will bring you up to speed. Let’s start with the basics.
- What is a toxic work environment?
- What are the signs of a toxic workplace?
- How do you deal with a toxic environment?
What is a toxic work environment?
A toxic work environment is one where negative behaviors—such as manipulation, bullying, yelling, and so on—are so intrinsic to the culture of the organization that a lack of productivity, a lack of trust, high stress levels, infighting, and discrimination become the norm.
It’s an environment makes you feel “psychologically unsafe,” says career coach Eli Bohemond. You might feel like you’ll be punished, humiliated, or rejected for speaking up—whether to share ideas, raise concerns or objections, or show up as yourself at work. Bohemond warns that over time, toxic workplaces can lead to anxiety or depression. An employee might find themselves crying before work because they feel trapped; they don’t want to face yet another day of stress and rejection, but they really need the job. Or it can manifest as anxious people-pleasing behaviors, where someone works hard to exceed expectations even while feeling underappreciated, eventually leading to burnout.
“I suspect most of us have experienced a toxic boss at one point or another,” says executive and leadership coach Lisa Quinn. “But in my experience, a toxic workplace goes beyond the behavior of one or two individuals—it’s systemic.” Quinn likens organizations to living, breathing systems made up of many different relationships. Seen through that lens, a toxic workplace is a system where the whole is detrimental to the individuals and teams working within it.
What are the signs of a toxic workplace?
It can sometimes feel hard to know if you’re in a toxic work environment or not. Some of Quinn’s clients have struggled to identify their workplace as toxic because they just assume that such environments are normal and, over time, may even learn to navigate them well. Or you may feel like the issue is with you, as I did, because everyone else seems to be tolerating it. “It can feel very lonely,” Quinn says.
Defining a toxic work environment can be tricky because there are many traits that can make it so, and because the same environment can have different effects on people based on their work history, triggers, and working styles, among other factors. Having said that, there are a few common characteristics of toxic workplaces. While this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, it should serve as a good starting point for anyone looking to understand whether they’re in a toxic environment.
Here are some signs to look out for:
1. There are no boundaries around work.
Toxic cultures often normalize and glorify a lack of healthy boundaries, Bohemond says, encouraging you to prioritize work over everything else. Management might push themselves to burnout and exhaustion and expect their teams to do the same, whether they’re working in the office or virtually. Maybe they expect employees to stay as late as they do in the office, for instance, or respond to messages and emails at all hours on the weekend.
Bohemond advises job seekers to look out for this trait during the recruiting process, as it can often become visible early. “If the hiring manager is giving you a task on a Friday afternoon and wants it back by Monday morning, or expects you to respond to emails on a quick turnaround early in the morning or late at night, that’s a red flag,” he says.
2. People don’t trust each other.
In a toxic work environment, the lack of trust between colleagues is palpable. Bohemond gives an example of an organization where the management team’s offices face employees’ desks, allowing them to monitor activity on the floor. Or it could be a work environment where managers ping their direct reports incessantly to check on what they’re doing.
Whitney Simon, a communications consultant and inclusion expert, says being micromanaged as a Black woman—who’s often the only person of color on her teams—made her imposter syndrome worse. “While this is no longer the case today, there was a time when I’d internalized the implications of that lack of trust from my former managers: I would tell myself that they wouldn’t have had to chase me on tasks if I was more capable,” she says. “But I know today that managers who hold on too tight or who are too prescriptive build toxic teams that underperform.”
3. There’s no room to make mistakes.
Quinn has coached a lot of clients who were working in what she calls “aggressive, dog-eat-dog” cultures. “They’re very blame-heavy: There’s no room to make an error and learn from it. If you make a mistake, you’re hauled over the coals,” she says. In an environment like this, people start to do whatever it takes to avoid being in the line of blame and to get ahead of their colleagues—like not sharing work-related information with teammates or throwing coworkers under the bus when something goes wrong.
This type of culture can be especially hard on minorities, who already have to deal with the expectation of always-on excellence and perfection. “If a white person messes up, it’s an opportunity for growth for them,” Simon says. “But for minorities, it can often feel like an indictment on our status and roles at the company.”
4. People treat each other with contempt.
Contempt—a key pillar in psychologist John Gottman’s definition of toxic relationships—also comes up in toxic work environments, Quinn says. She recalls coaching a client, a lawyer, whose boss would roll his eyes at her in meetings, or even ignore her suggestions, only to pick them up when someone else, often a man, offered the same idea a few minutes later. The same boss would also revise this lawyer’s work over and over again, according to Quinn, and the edits weren’t just for substance—many were personal attacks on her writing or working style.
5. The interpersonal relationships aren’t healthy.
You can often gauge the emotional health of a workplace by looking at how people within it are interacting with one another, Bohemond says. Are they smiling and chit-chatting together while brewing their morning coffee, or are most people just scowling and typing? Do they share memes and jokes on Slack, or just send blunt messages tinged with contempt? “You can pick up on the energy of a workplace through the general ambience and body language of individuals,” he says.
Another behavior to watch out for in this context is stonewalling, which also comes from the Gottman framework of communication challenges. “My lawyer client was stonewalled by her boss all the time,” Quinn says. “She’d go into the office and say hello to him, or try to engage otherwise—and he’d just ignore her. She’d have no idea what she’d done, and obviously, that’s incredibly stressful.”
6. There is no support for employee growth.
Many people in toxic workplaces have to “figure it out” on their own because there’s no mentorship or support to help them grow, Bohemond says. He warns that this has gotten worse virtually since it’s that much easier to become disconnected from your manager or team. And it takes its toll in particular on entry-level employees—who are left to their own devices in such a workplace, leading to demotivation and disillusionment—as well as employees from marginalized communities, who already tend to get very little support to translate potential into growth opportunities, Simon says.
“When I talk to people of color in my industry, most are just trying to excel at their job description,” she says. “They have no idea what other opportunities may exist for them at their firms. Often, no one else is championing them, leading to career stagnation as compared to their peers.”
7. People frequently feel gaslighted.
When someone gaslights you, they make you question your own feelings, perceptions, or sanity. I once had a manager, for example, who would assign projects to me and my teammates with a specific goal and methodology in mind. But when it came time to review, they would ask why the project had been done that way and change the goals on us, often entirely misremembering or forgetting their initial brief. The result: My teammates and I would walk away doubting our skills and, over time, we began to dread working on that team entirely.
Like other toxic behaviors, gaslighting can be doubly harmful for inclusion and equity in the workplace. For example, if a Black person speaks up about a colleague who made a racist remark, they may be told that the colleague didn’t mean it, or that they must have misheard. Incidents like this can often cause minorities to question their own reality and lived experience in the workplace, not to mention feel demoralized due to the lack of support.
8. People regularly experience physical symptoms of work stress.
In a toxic work environment, mental stress may start to affect you physically. “You might feel that your body and brain are on high alert—and you’d be right, because our brains are constantly scanning for threats—and as far as your brain is concerned, you’re in danger,” Quinn says. Being in “fight or flight” mode for a prolonged period of time can affect your long-term physical health, and you may start to experience some of the more common symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression, which include digestive issues, sleep problems, fatigue, aches, and panic attacks.
9. People are disengaged and turnover is high.
In a toxic work environment, employees start to mentally shut down and disengage from the work, their team, and the company overall. Bohemond has seen this translate to virtual environments, where people might keep their cameras off during meetings and communicate only with short-form comments. Over time, people start to leave toxic workplaces at high rates. “Turnover is definitely a good sign that you are sniffing around some toxicity, especially if you are seeing a specific department or segment that is struggling to keep people over 12 months,” Bohemond says.
How do you deal with a toxic environment?
Now that you know what a toxic environment might look like, it’s time to decide how to deal with it. Below are some tips on how to navigate your path at, or out of, a toxic company.
Consider your options.
Generally speaking, you have two options: stay and navigate the toxicity, or leave. It may sound like an easy choice, but the truth is that you may need to stay, at least temporarily, for multiple reasons. Perhaps you can’t leave the job abruptly (or at all) due to financial or immigration reasons, or there aren’t many other options in your industry. It could also be that your company offers you something relatively uncommon—like remote work if you’re in an industry that hasn’t fully embraced it yet, or a hefty child care stipend that’s crucial to your household finances—that makes any decision more complicated.
Reclaim your agency.
While no one chooses to work in toxic work environments, and it’s certainly no one’s fault if they end up in one, Bohemond says it can help to remember and take back your own power in such situations. He recommends looking internally and asking yourself questions like:
- How do I respond when I encounter toxic behaviors?
- What role can I play in shifting the situation?
- What is preventing me from leaving?
He also recommends going to therapy to understand the impact a toxic workplace has had on you, and how you can better protect yourself in such situations in the future. For example, a therapist helped me realize that my inability to create boundaries around work likely comes from my experience at a past toxic job. Because I felt unsafe there, I was often volunteering for extra tasks to prove my value, leading me to work longer hours than most other people. As I’ve become more aware of this link, I’ve been able to stop myself from repeating the same behaviors at subsequent jobs and help myself find better work-life balance. No matter the specifics, self-reflection and therapy can lead to higher self-awareness, an important tool when navigating stressful situations.
Address the point of conflict.
For anyone looking to stay, even for the time being, Bohemond recommends identifying your point of toxicity, which might be a manager or a team. Then try to have what Bohemond calls a “clearing conversation”—where you can give feedback to the person or people involved. He advises doing this outside of any regular one-on-ones, and asking participants to agree to the meeting agenda. Bohemond also recommends going into this conversation with examples of toxic behaviors, explaining them in “I feel” statements to describe the impact they had on you.
It’s important to note that this is more a short-term fix for an existing challenge with a particular person or team vs. a long-term fix to the company’s culture, but it may provide crucial relief while you plan your next steps. And “if these conversations happen with the right people who have the influence to change cultural dynamics, then you may also start seeing positive changes trickle down over time,” Bohemond says.
Ask yourself who can help you.
“Having someone you can trust, who can support you and help you navigate the way forward is important,” Quinn says. She recommends choosing someone who doesn’t have an agenda. For example, if your salary props your family up, don’t choose your partner to be that person for you. Look to a friend, a family member, or an ex-colleague instead.
Have compassion for yourself.
“There are often a lot of ‘shoulds’ when you’re dealing with a toxic workplace,” Quinn says. “I should toughen up, I should know how to deal with this by now, I should speak out. That’s a sign we’re not being kind to ourselves.” She recommends asking yourself: If the person I loved most in the world was in my position, what advice would I give them? “Sometimes, this question can give someone the clarity to decide to get out,” she adds.
Plan your exit.
All that introspection may lead to one answer: You need to leave. If you feel like you don’t have bandwidth or emotional energy to start looking for new opportunities, Bohemond recommends seeking therapy, using time off you may have saved up, or even trying to get approval for mental health leave.
“Most of the time, my clients have had to start creating the time and space to plan their exit,” Bohemond says. “Often, this means they start by saying no to extra work. Then, we try to understand what it would mean for them to feel whole in their next career move and plan next steps accordingly.”