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Is Your Workplace Toxic? 12 Signs of a Toxic Work Culture and How to Fix It

Ajay Ruhela

Last Updated: 1 March 2023

In this article:

Toxic (adj): containing or being poisonous, capable of causing death or serious debilitation, the Merriam Webster dictionary


Toxic: That’s the last adjective you would want your workplace culture to be associated with. It is sneaky, it exists, and it needs to be identified and addressed before it is too late. Gartner’s research states that “Toxic workplaces aren’t confined to physical buildings; remote work can exacerbate harmful behaviors, too, negatively impacting employees’ well-being and costing companies’ money.” 

If your employees are functioning in a toxic culture, it can be difficult for them to stay engaged and find joy in their job. But what makes a workplace toxic, and how can your organization come together to cope with it? Let’s break it down. 

What makes a toxic workplace?

Identifying a toxic workplace or a micro-culture of toxicity within a team or department is not straightforward, but it is possible. Other than being in a really, really unhealthy atmosphere to spend 60% of one’s day, a toxic work culture is especially characterized by a negative and oppressive environment. 

An MIT Sloan study recognized the ‘Toxic Five’ signs — disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. These five factors have had the largest negative impact on Glassdoor reviews by disgruntled employees who quit due to a toxic workplace.

A toxic workplace has many names — bullying, harassment, discrimination — millions of employees are targets of bullies at work and less than 25% of bullies face negative repercussions. Bullying often overlaps with harassment and discrimination. It can range from a manager expecting their team members to always be available after work hours, to microaggressions such as body shaming, anti-LGBTQI+ comments, and sexual misdemeanor.

While the shape and form in which a toxic workplace manifests vary, they all lead to the same feeling of your workforce feeling unrecognized, unsupported, and undervalued.

12 Signs of Toxic Work Culture: A Toxic Workplace Checklist

The modern workplace boasts diverse environments, yet some harbor hidden dangers: toxic cultures. These insidious ecosystems erode employee well-being, stifle productivity, and ultimately threaten organizational success. Identifying such environments demands a clear-eyed approach, and this checklist serves as a compass.

Leadership & Communication:

  • Authoritarian Rule: Does leadership micromanage, disregard employee input, and foster a "my way or the highway" culture? Look for stifled creativity, low morale, and high turnover.
  • Poor Communication: Are announcements vague, contradictory, or nonexistent? Do rumors run rampant due to a lack of transparency? This breeds confusion, distrust, and hinders collaboration.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: Are deadlines unreasonable, goals constantly shifting, and pressure intense? Watch for stressed employees, burnout, and potential ethical compromises.
  • Favoritism & Exclusion: Does leadership create cliques, promote based on personal preference, and disregard legitimate concerns? This isolates individuals, erodes trust, and fuels resentment.

Work Dynamics & Environment:

  • Hostile & Bullying Behavior: Do individuals experience verbal abuse, humiliation, or intimidation? Are disrespectful jokes, gossip, or exclusion tolerated? This creates a climate of fear, reduces engagement, and fosters conflict.
  • Unfair Compensation & Recognition: Is there discrimination in pay, benefits, or opportunities based on factors like gender, race, or age? Are contributions selectively recognized, fostering feelings of devaluation and inequity?
  • Work-Life Imbalance: Is overtime excessive, pressure to be constantly available relentless, and boundaries disregarded? Watch for exhaustion, reduced productivity, and potential health consequences.
  • Lack of Growth & Development: Does the organization offer inadequate training, limited opportunities, and stifle career advancement? This stagnates employees, fuels frustration, and hinders retention.

Mental & Emotional Wellbeing:

  • High Stress & Anxiety: Do employees seem constantly on edge, overwhelmed, and lacking support? Witness absenteeism, presenteeism (being physically present but mentally disengaged), and potential emotional distress.
  • Low Morale & Cynicism: Is negativity pervasive, enthusiasm absent, and cynicism the norm? This indicates a disengaged workforce with reduced productivity and innovation.
  • Limited Support & Resources: Does the organization lack resources for mental health support, stress management, or conflict resolution? This leaves employees vulnerable, exacerbates issues, and hinders recovery.
  • Negative Employee Feedback: Do exit interviews, surveys, or even casual conversations reveal consistent complaints about the work environment? Don't ignore these red flags.

Remember, this checklist is not exhaustive. However, recognizing these signs can empower you to take action. Consider confidential reporting mechanisms, seeking external support, or even exploring new opportunities if necessary. Your well-being matters, and navigating a toxic workplace requires awareness, self-preservation, and potentially, courage.

The negative effects of a toxic work culture 

In a 2019 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 51% of employees reported experiencing a toxic work environment, and one in five Americans have left a job in the past five years due to bad company culture. The cost of such an employee turnover? A whopping $223 billion from 2014 to 2019. But when employees quit, it’s as much of a human cost as it is a business one.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that toxic work cultures can lead to increased stress, burnout, and low morale, which translates to higher levels of stress, burnout, mental health issues, and other stressors that can lead to poor physical health.

1. Toxic workplaces and its impact on productivity

It’s not surprising that a toxic workplace reduces employee morale and equals poor productivity. Employees feel burdened, unwilling to perform and feel a sense of disconnect from their job. 78% of employees said their commitment to the organization declines in the face of a toxic atmosphere, and 38 % "intentionally decreased" the quality of their work.

At the same time, the reverse is true with excessive productivity could be encouraging a toxic workplace.

  • Do your employees take work calls while on vacation?
  • Are they consistently working out of hours?
  • Are leaders okay with their teams volunteering for projects they may not have bandwidth for?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the questions, you could be exhibiting toxic productivity. It is a manager’s job to recognize this trait before their team members burnout. 

2. Increased stress

According to research by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a toxic work culture is a major source of psychological burden for employees. It can translate into high levels of stress and burnout, and even physical illness. The likelihood that an employee will develop a serious illness such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, or arthritis, increases by 35% to 55% when they face injustice at work.

3. Decreased morale

By an estimate, a toxic corporate culture is 10.4 times more accurate in predicting a company’s employee churn rate compared with its industry when compared with salary or compensation. This is because toxicity at the workplace demotivates the workforce, disengages team members, and festers negativity, creating a vicious cycle of low morale, low productivity, and employee attrition

4. Compromised psychological safety

The ability to be one's true self at work, take risks, and be vulnerable without worrying about negative outcomes is known as psychological safety. “People leaders cannot create psychological safety, but you can create the right environment to feel psychologically safe,” says Sergio Salvador, Chief People Officer at Carsome.

He says that an “open, transparent, and empathetic work culture fosters an environment where employees feel free and not judged for being their true self.” Why should psychological safety matter to an organization? The American Psychological Association's 2022 Work and Well-being survey revealed that
81% of responders agree that the company’s mental health policies would be a key factor when searching for new employment. 

5. Brand reputation

All of the above reasons ultimately lead to a higher turnover rate for your workforce, and such an organization will need to hire more. But, the news of an organization with a toxic culture travels fast and it becomes increasingly difficult to hire. A toxic work environment undercuts every effort to attract top talent — foundational to a successful enterprise.

What leads to a toxic work environment?

  • Employees are constantly criticized or not appreciated for their efforts
  • Unclear or changing expectations from top management
  • A company culture that encourages competition rather than collaboration
  • Lack of support or resources
  • Poor communication and lack of action on feedback

The common thread across the top reasons is inadequacies at the managerial and executive levels. By taking steps to manage the adverse effects and creating a positive and healthy work environment, we can foster a culture of engagement, support, and success. Whether you're an employee or a leader, remember that a positive work environment starts with each and every one of us. 

Breaking the cycle: Ending toxicity at the workplace

1. Listen to your employees, continuously

You cannot mitigate what you do not know exists. Take it upon your team to first, accept that a toxic work environment may be brewing within a part of your organization or all of it. 

a. Keep an eye on the outside using Glassdoor

People who have already left the organization will not hesitate to share honest feedback. They are more likely to open up and talk about their challenges in your enterprise which could be key to identifying the key drivers of toxicity. You could take it a step further and leverage the reviews to look inwards, and ask current employees how they feel.

Source: Glassdoor

b. Transparency during exit interviews

When conducted properly, exit interviews can reveal patterns and issues that may have been overlooked or purposely ignored. Directly asking whether your enterprise is toxic could be the simplest approach. By allowing departing employees to talk about harassment, bullying, poor management practices, and discriminatory behavior, exit interviews can provide valuable insight into the root causes of a toxic work culture.

You can implement changes that address these issues and create a more positive work environment for current and future employees.  

c. Continuous listening using feedback

For the employees that are sticking around, emphasizing the need to speak up and share their thoughts and concerns. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that organizations with high levels of communication have more engaged employees. Deploy employee engagement platform that enable continuous listening, rather than conducting point-in-time and unidirectional surveys.

To make your workforce comfortable while answering questions you must ensure they feel safe and provide them with an option to answer anonymously. This is especially crucial for sensitive situations like the one caught by Amber through it’s Anonymous Bat in 2022.

2. Acknowledge feedback

Feedback comprises only half the picture and true change only happens when you continuously act on the feedback and convey the action to your workforce. Accepting that the workplace culture is toxic, and communicating how you intend to tackle the challenge is a crucial step in the process of rebuilding a healthier workplace environment. 

While you may not be in a position to take immediate action always, acknowledging the feedback and promising action is a good start in the process of making employees feel heard and valued. 

3. Act on employee feedback

Workplace toxicity does not crop up in an organization overnight, it builds up over time — which is why continuous feedback and continuous action are critical. Now, listening is not just about asking your employees about something and then you forget about it — you have to close the loop

People will only give you constructive feedback if they’re confident it will be acted on. A analysis of 700K+ employee feedback across 250+ organization suggested that 70% of at-risk employees whose feedback was acted on in real-time did not land in People-To-Meet in their subsequent conversations with Amber.

Make a big deal out of the concerns, because they are a big deal. Then, depending on the feedback, your team could either send an email, arrange a one-on-one discussion to understand the issue deeply, and ultimately alter company policies and the overall organization culture.

A toxic work culture creates ripple effects on the enterprise by impacting its brand, future talent acquisition, and customer trust. By working together, your enterprise management can create a culture that supports and empowers your workforce to do their best work. 

Are you struggling to identify where your organization stands when it comes to workplace positivity? Leverage Amber. With cutting-edge AI-powered and research-backed natural language ability, Amber’s approach to continuous listening, feedback, and providing a safe haven for your workforce could be the reason you retain your top employees.

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