The telltale signs of a toxic workplace


Many of us get fooled, or even worse, create a story that toxic workplaces are associated only with the huge corporates. That’s nonsense, as toxicity has a way of pervading, permeating and penetrating small business just as easily.

Toxicity is so insidious we often forget that although we know it is harmful, at the same time so enticing for humans, as it can fool you into a sense of acceptance and belonging to the “in-crowd” and a feeling of power over others.

So, how do you get a sense when a workplace is toxic?

Here are five key observations I have made over thirty years of working in and helping organisations remove toxicity from the workplace.

1. A few take the credit for everyone’s success

You know those people who big-note themselves, get in the front row of the photo opportunity and continually remind anyone within earshot that they have singlehandedly won the biggest deal ever with their brilliance? They’re usually terribly insecure and the only way of overcoming this is to take the credit for the success of the broader group. This toxicity at it’s very best.

2. Control freaks rule

Petty power struggles are the order of the day and they happen at all levels of a toxic environment. Being in control of the key to the stationery cupboard to having the last say on what kind of biscuits you have in the kitchen are usually signs that you are surrounded by control freaks. They remind you in the pettiest ways they are higher up the pecking order than you.

3. Gossipers rule

Gossip, rumour and innuendo is the norm in a toxic workplace. You know that person that smiles to your face but scowls when you’re not looking. Every day there’s a new story about what someone did to someone else, what someone posted on social media or what someone got up to on the weekend. You can spot the gossipers who hang out in their little cliques so they can feel some kind of false security that they are “in the know”. The truth is that everyone is out for themselves, and there are no genuine friendships among them. One day you’re in the “in-crowd” and the next day you’re on your own.

4. People are outputs

In a toxic workplace, humans are treated like outputs. Stretch targets designed to squeeze every last drop of human effort ensure that the people are too tired to spend time in developing. Your hard work is never acknowledged with positive feedback and recognition of failures is frequent. After all, the narcissists don’t want the outputs to succeed them and threaten their self-entitled power base.

5. Employee attrition is excused as not fitting in

A toxic work environment has nothing good to offer except dysfunction, poor morale, sickness and eventually burnout. Management turns a blind eye to what becomes an epidemic as humans will start running for the door to find a better situation. Employee attrition is a very costly activity, but in toxic workplaces there’s always an excuse that those who leave just ‘didn’t fit the culture’.

What’s the answer here?

Fight the urge to gorge on the short-term sweetness and sugar rush you get from playing the toxic game. Over the long term, the bad taste it leaves in your mouth will not only negatively impact you but also others.

The answer is to remove the ingredients that poison the culture and replace them with healthy human options that make work a more palatable place to be.

Sugar fixes only last briefly – don’t be seduced by the sweet taste of toxicity.

Mark LeBusque, Founder and Director, The Human Manager