Management: Seven Signs Your Workplace is Toxic

Employees spend 40 hours or more at work every week, so understanding the forces that affect their well-being, as well as what organizations can do to improve conditions, have led to an emerging field in psychology called Occupational Health Psychology. The work of these professionals looks at employees’ reactions to physical and non-physical work conditions, and the behaviors exhibited when exposed to unhealthy situations or unsafe work practices.

There are seven signs of a toxic workplace:


There are three types:

Gas lighters. These people can’t handle the truth, so they contradict themselves or share contradictory information. Often, they forget the lies they’ve told to cover other lies.

Egocentrics. These folks always want the spotlight and take credit for everything, even for finding solutions to problems they created. I once worked for a businessowner who solicited ideas at the weekly management meeting and announced at the next week’s meeting that he had discovered a great idea.

Blamers. When things don’t go their way, these bosses scapegoat their employees. This is especially evident when someone leaves an organization. The departing person gets blamed for everything that happened—up until another person leaves.

People are smart enough to recognize a poisonous environment and the good ones go on to other jobs. The problematic ones tend to leave to “spend more time with their family.”

In toxic workplaces there is either no communication or irregular communication from management to employees and vice versa. Both types are bad, but irregular communication typically occurs when someone higher up the pay chain wants to know what is going on. Suddenly there is a flurry of requests for reports and communication—and the stress that goes with it.

Does your company have a written policy manual detailing all the procedures in your workplace, including exit interviews for key people? Most companies don’t, and management wonders why people don’t know what’s going on when issues arise, or don’t understand why people leave.

Employees sometimes have emotional issues at home that overflow into their work lives, and they may have emotional issues at work, too. Both can cause lost productivity. Understanding employees’ personal and work lives—and what drives them in the workplace—helps organizations to reduce interdepartmental and personal conflicts between employees. Many times, flexibility is the key to helping workers get through emotional  situations.

Everyone likes to be appreciated when they excel—especially when that recognition is done in public in front of their peers. Those working in high-stress situations, such as customer service or call-centers, especially need recognition when merited.

The wrong people are hired and promoted.

 I’ve seen this all too often. A great salesperson is promoted to a manager but usually doesn’t last, because the skills required to be a great salesperson differ from those of a great manager. In the process, the best manager candidate is overlooked.

Does a workplace need to exhibit all these behaviors to be considered toxic? No. Notice that some toxic behaviors come from the top, others from co-workers and some are caused by the lack of appropriate middle management behavior. Any one of the key organizational areas in a workplace can destroy employee motivation and morale. The real takeaway is to learn to recognize the signs of a toxic workplace, ensure you are not part of the problem and work to resolve them.


Employee involvement. Workers are empowered by being involved in strategic and tactical decisions that affect their jobs. After all, who knows the job as well as employees working in the actual positions? This is especially true in customer service, where employees may have input as to how changes may affect customers.

Work-life balance. When an organization creates policies that address work-life balance it can result in higher employee morale and increased job satisfaction. Be aware that generational differences are changing the traditional perceptions of work-life balance. Millennials, for example, are more aware of work-life balance, and are more inclined to leave a company if they feel a job is interfering with their personal lives and lifestyles.

Employee growth and development. Offer training designed to help employees expand their knowledge, skills and abilities for personal and professional growth.

Health and safety. Address both the physical and mental health of employees by evaluating the prevention, assessment and treatment of potential health risks and problems in the workplace. These can include providing first-aid or CPR classes for employees, adding standing desks to encourage more physical movement, supplying healthy snack options in the breakroom or offering workshops for skill building.

Employee recognition. Recognition can be delivered to employees in several ways including formal, informal, monetary and non-monetary. Regardless of how it’s delivered, organizations benefit from greater employee engagement when effective employee recognition programs are in place.

Create clear workplace and/or employee policies.

The policies should define both professional and personal behavior and address workplace violence, tolerances and penalties.

Many misunderstandings come about from a lack communication. Let employees know what’s going on, even if the news isn’t good. It’s better to be transparent. The rumor mill can start up quickly and do a great deal of damage to a company in a short time.

No plan should be static. It needs to be constantly evaluated against the physical workplace, the employees and what is going on in the outside world. If you don’t have a dedicated human resources professional on staff or as a consultant, look into joining an HR association such as the Society for Human Resource Management ( and see if the resources they provide would be useful to your company.

Workplaces don’t have to be toxic. Work should be a place people look forward to going because it satisfies the first three needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: a paycheck to provide food, shelter and clothing; a safe place; and social interaction amongst co-workers.

If you observe toxic behaviors within your organization, you’ll have to decide if you are brave enough to identify and fix the problems. If you are contributing to the toxic environment, it’s unlikely you’ll recognize any of the symptoms, so you’ll need to be thick-skinned and ask employees for feedback. The bottom line is that toxic workplaces don’t stay hidden for long. The behavior affects your team’s attitudes and eventually trickles down to your customers.  


D. Alan Christopher, MAS, has been a manufacturer’s rep in the Southwest for over 30 years, has served on a number of PPAI committees and the PPAI Board of Directors, and is a former chair of the PPEF Board of Trustees. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in marketing with an emphasis on integrated marketing communications and social media marketing.

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