The recent Great Resignation has taught us all a lot about what we should expect from the workplace. Most of us want a work environment where we feel comfortable, welcome, and motivated to do our jobs well.
In short, we’re looking for a positive work culture. A workplace that prioritizes us as people over their own company goals.
And most of all, we want to avoid a toxic environment.
But, in order to avoid such a workplace, it’s helpful to understand what one looks like. That’s why I wanted to discuss some of the most common red flags of bad company cultures to help you avoid them, remove yourself from them, or improve them for yourself and others
7 red flags of a toxic workplace
Like most toxic things, toxic workplaces exhibit a lot of red flags. The silver lining to this is it helps you understand your circumstances so you can improve them. Now, there’s not nearly enough room here to discuss every red flag a toxic workplace might show. But these are 7 of the most common and recognizable traits of toxic work environments.
So, what does toxicity in the workplace look like?
High turnover rates
There’s a popular saying that goes, “People don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses.” And, on an individual level, that might actually hold true. But when employees leave a workplace en masse, it can signal a toxic workplace.
Keep in mind that high turnover means increased costs for the company. Hiring, onboarding, and training a new hire requires time and money. This motivates most businesses to do their best to keep their employee retention rates high—which usually means keeping employees happy and motivated.
So, when a company has a high turnover rate, that usually indicates that something is amiss within the workplace. This can be one toxic trait inherent in the workplace, or it can be a combination of them. Some of the most common causes of high employee turnover include:
- Employee burnout
- Poor management
- Inflexible work arrangements
- Lack of employee purpose
- Inadequate pay
Lack of inclusivity
Inclusivity has recently become a potential indicator of a positive workplace. It often shows that management has empathy for their employees and is open to new ideas.
Not only does a lack of inclusivity indicate the opposite of this, it can also come with a set of toxic comorbidities. For instance, a non-inclusive manager might exhibit racist or homophobic tendencies. Perhaps the company is unwilling to add accessibility features for employees suffering from a lack of mobility. There might even be some outright aggression toward employees viewed by management as being “other.”
In some workplaces, it’s the employees who exhibit these traits. They might break off into cliques, gossip about other groups, become aggressive toward their colleagues, or prevent other employees from earning credit or recognition for their work.
The result: groups of employees feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. I don’t have enough room to explain my full thoughts on this, so I’ll keep it short: this is simply unacceptable.
Poor work-life balance
What is a comfortable work-life balance? The details might change from one person to the next, but the idea remains the same: work enough to earn a living and have enough time off to enjoy your private life.
But, in some toxic work environments, this becomes difficult—if not impossible. The reasons for this can differ depending on the workplace. Some businesses require mandatory overtime which, though presented as a way for workers to earn more pay, means less time for rest, relaxation, and fun.
I’ve known some companies that prioritize meeting deadlines over the needs of their employees. This can lead to long nights at the office, away from friends and family, to ensure a project gets handed in first thing in the morning.
Scope creep can also play a part here. This is when managers slowly assign more and more work outside of an employee’s job description, overloading them with a long task list that requires overtime to complete.
Poor work-life balance often leaves people feeling overworked and has helped cause the recent trend of quiet quitting.
In a healthy work environment, team members work together to meet company goals. Everyone knows their strengths, puts their egos aside, and doesn’t mind sharing credit when it’s due.
But an easy way to create a toxic workplace culture is to encourage unnecessary competition between coworkers. In a highly competitive environment, employees prioritize “winning” over teamwork. This often leads to a breakdown in communication, lower morale, and even decreased productivity.
Wanting strong performers in a workplace is understandable. But unnecessary competition prioritizes company goals over employees.
Some managers misuse their position of power. This can have drastic effects on workplace morale and cascade into a slew of toxic symptoms within the company culture.
There seems to be no end to the habits of abusive managers. While this list highlights some of the most common traits, it is not at all exhaustive. Some habits abusive managers exhibit include:
- Yelling at employees
- Gaslighting/lying to their team
- Demanding praise
- Consistently moving goalposts
- Crossing personal boundaries
- Harassing employees
The list literally goes on and on. Just as helpful might be a list of ways to recognize when management might be abusive. If you suspect you might have an abusive boss, consider talking to or simply observing your colleagues. Some effects an abusive manager has on their employees include:
- Low morale
- Work burnout
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety about work/performance
- Fear of the workplace
Sometimes, the effects can mimic PTSD. Abuse is very serious and is almost always a warning sign of a toxic culture in the workplace.
One reason I love being my own boss is knowing there’s no one looking over my shoulder. I try to make sure the members of my team feel the same way. It boils down to trust: I trust that the people I hire understand how to do their jobs.
But not all managers are like that.
Micromanagers usually focus on the process rather than the result. They often make sure things get done “the right way” even if there are other ways to complete a task. This results in a few habits that include:
- Asking for constant updates
- Discouraging independent thinking
- Redoing the work of others
- Specifying (in detail) how to accomplish tasks
- Refusing to dictate some tasks to others
Though a micromanager’s goal is to ensure things are done correctly, their actions can often result in decreased productivity and lower morale.
It’s a fact of life: workplace conflicts happen. It’s in the company’s best interest to resolve these conflicts quickly and amicably. The ideal resolution helps both sides feel “seen.” This fosters open communication, positive teamwork, and employee motivation.
Some toxic workplaces avoid conflicts altogether. This lets disagreements blossom into full-blown arguments that can affect others on the team. This can hinder projects, cause team members to leave, and greatly reduce productivity.
Sometimes, toxic managers take sides in order to more quickly resolve a conflict. This can breed resentment for colleagues and managers, increase employee absentee rates, and can sometimes even result in legal action.