Career Advice

Toxic Work Environment: Your Ultimate Guide To Understanding the Signs

toxic work environment

Do you feel an uneasy sense of dread when you head to work? Perhaps you feel stuck doing the same old tasks day in and day out. Or discouraged by the amount of criticism heading your way from superiors or the frequent “cold shoulder” from your colleagues. 

At any rate, certain events in the workplace negatively affect your mental well-being. So at some point, you find yourself asking: Am I working in a toxic work environment? 

This guide breaks down what constitutes a toxic workplace culture, including common signs and examples of behavior that are plainly unacceptable. You’ll also learn how to better navigate the treachery of corporate waters and what you can do to minimize the impacts of toxic workplace behaviors on your mental health. 

So What is a Toxic Work Environment?

A toxic work environment is one where the actions and behaviors of the employees create an unsound and sometimes downright harmful atmosphere. It’s an environment where you’re likely to feel stressed, sad, bored, or even belittled most or all of the time. 

Examples of a toxic work environment can include: 

  • Normalized bullying from superiors 
  • Harassment and discrimination 
  • Lack of firm personal and professional boundaries 
  • Bending of employment policies and regulations 
  • No support for employee growth or development 

Sadly, such workplace misery is surprisingly common. A report by CareerPlug found that 87% of US employees have worked in a company, where the overall atmosphere made it difficult to work or progress in their jobs. What’s more, 72% of employees have previously quit a job because of a toxic work environment. 

In fact, a toxic corporate culture is 10X more powerful than offered compensation for predicting turnover rates in the company. In fact, toxic workplace culture is the biggest factor pushing employees out the door during the Great Resignation.

6 signs of a toxic work environment

Toxic work environments are usually pretty easy to spot if you’re an outsider. However, employees are often gaslit by their managers and end up blaming themselves for ongoing problems (or dissatisfaction with the job). Likewise, upper managers may be often blind to the toxic workplace behaviors at lower organizational levels because of poor communication practices. 

unhealthy power dynamics

Yet, it’s also important to differentiate between a toxic work environment and a (dare we say it, super boring) Monday in the office. Realistically, you’re not going to love every second of your job — unless, perhaps, you’re an ice cream taster or a kitten cuddler. 

If you’re wondering whether your workplace is genuinely toxic or you’re having a momentary career wobble, research published in Sloan MIT Review provides some answers. 

The toxic workplace culture shared five attributes: It’s disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. The above attributes often come to light in the form of different workplace practices, policies, and behaviors. For example, high gender inequality or lack of people of color in upper management is a sign of non-inclusive work environments

To help you figure out how your company scores, start paying attention to the following signs of a toxic work environment.

1. Destructive Criticism Is The Standard Way To Give Feedback 

Lack of consideration and courtesy towards others is a major sign of toxic work environments. Typically, this attribute becomes apparent when it comes to workplace communication and namely — giving critics. 

Timely feedback is at every workplace, but there’s a clear line between constructive (helpful) and destructive (humiliating and attacking) criticism. 

Destructive criticism undermines confidence, causes embarrassment, and negatively impacts your ability to do your job. Here are some signs of destructive criticism:

  • Delivering criticisms in public
  • Using extreme phrasing such as ‘You always’ or ‘You never’
  • Attacking your intentions or motives
  • Refusal to provide specific suggestions or examples

If you walk away from a situation feeling denigrated, and unsure of what to do, you probably received destructive criticism.

destructive criticism at work in public

In comparison, constructive criticism is feedback intended to help a worker make improvements. Ideally, it is actionable, meaning that the recipient walks away with specific actions they can take to better their performance. 

Example of constructive criticism in the workplaceExample of destructive criticism in the workplace
“Hey Bob, the next time you bring the auto parts out for delivery, it would help if you could mark each box with the delivery zip code. The drivers could just grab the box intended for them without having to double-check paperwork.”“Jenna, the presentation you did for the client meeting was absolutely awful. I hated the fonts and the overall color scheme. Why did you choose a career in design if you have no sense of artistic taste?” 

How Do You Handle Destructive Criticism?

Be clear and firm, without being emotional. Remember that even destructive criticism can have good intentions behind it. Managers are sometimes poor communicators. It’s up to you to spell out exactly what you need when receiving negative feedback. 

For example, you might say “It doesn’t help me improve my performance when you say I don’t care about my job. Could you please give me two or three things I can work on today to improve?”

Of course, there’s a point where destructive criticism becomes abusive and discriminating. At that point, you may need to report the matter to HR

2. Your Employment Terms Are Not Quite Right 

When you’ve accepted the job offer, it seemed like a fine deal. But after several months in the company (and some conversations), you realize that your paycheck is too small, or your hours are too long. The employer also promised to promote you to a higher position, which better matches your qualifications, after you “gain some experience”, but have been avoiding the conversation ever since. 

If the above sounds familiar, you may be exposed to underemployment. 

When economic experts discuss employment they aren’t just concerned with whether people have jobs. They also care about the ‘quality’ of those jobs. Specifically:

  • Does the full-time job pay enough?
  • Are people employed in jobs using all of their skills? 
  • Can they work enough hours? 

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, that person is underemployed. According to Payscale, up to 22 million Americans are currently underemployed. That’s a lot, right? The issue is particularly pervasive among recent graduates. 

Unfortunately, underemployment hits minorities particularly hard. Black men are the most likely to be underemployed. As of December 2018, there was a 6.3 percentage point gap between black and white males in underemployment.  

If the above sounds like your case, first ask your employer if it is possible for you to work more hours, cross-train in other departments, or take on additional responsibilities.  Or be even more upfront and ask for promotion directly

Two scenarios are possible afterward:

  • You’ll receive a productive discussion around your career goals and your boss will suggest the follow-up steps. For example, point you towards improving specific skills or competencies, assign extra training, or offer an opportunity to apprentice for someone who is more established. 
  • You’ll get some form of vague excuses or even aggression. Avoidance of conversations around employment terms offered benefits, and further career development are all examples of toxic workplace behaviors, as are brash comments and overall petulance towards the subject. 

In the case of the latter, you should dust off your resume and refresh your LinkedIn profile to low-key prepare for a job search. 

3. Dishonesty and Gaslighting are Frequent at All Levels 

Gaslighting at work occurs when a co-worker or manager intentionally or unintentionally invalidates your lived experiences or what you have witnessed to be true. This can lead you to question the facts, your beliefs, and your abilities in the workplace. 

Examples of gaslighting at work: 

  • A supervisor tells you something in private, then denies making the statement when you bring it up later.
  • You tell a subordinate that a task is urgent, and they later claim that they weren’t given that information.
  • You ask a coworker to share credit on a project you helped them with. They deny your ever having contributed.

Although gaslighting isn’t illegal at the workplace, when paired with general dishonesty, it creates a harmful culture of constant confusion, distrust, and back-stabbing. 

gaslighting at work

Fortunately, there are effective ways for you to assert yourself and stop gaslighting in its tracks: 

  1. Start documenting problematic behaviors. Save emails and text messages. Note where exchanges left you feeling doubtful of your perception of reality. Don’t take verbal exchanges as meaningful. Always follow up via email so things are documented. Ask for confirmation of receipt of things and clarification on any agreements or instructions.
  1. Confront the gaslighter.  The truth is that if you ever need to escalate things to the management or HR, the first question you’ll be asked is if you tried to resolve the issue with the other party. Therefore, approach the person to address precise incidents or communications that were problematic. Don’t speak in generalities. Finally, be gracious where you can. Some people gaslight for reasons that aren’t necessarily malicious or they do so unconsciously. Conflict avoiders are frequently gaslighters. Some gaslighters truly are forgetful. In that case, you can use the conversation to direct them to ways to be better organized and accountable. 
  1. Clear the air with the management. If you can’t fix things with the person who is gaslighting you, it’s time to escalate. Also, if the gaslighting has impacted your ability to work successfully or damaged your reputation, you need to seek help from your managers as well as HR. They should know how to handle the situation and give you helpful guidance.

4. Conscious and Unconscious Biases Drive Decision-Making 

Conscious biased certain attitudes we hold about other people. These are usually quite apparent in our thinking and we’re well aware of them. 

A law firm may explicitly state that they’re only hiring Harward graduates because all senior partners went to this law school. Or a sales manager may deliberately prioritize hiring extraverted people for their team because of their own personality.

At any rate, conscious biased may create certain unfairness, but they’re mostly unharmful (as long as they don’t cross into the illegal territory of things bosses cannot legally do e.g., use marital status as a candidate qualification criteria). 

Unconscious biases are less apparent beliefs that drive our judgment about other people. Typically, these include all sorts of “-isms” — from ageism to nepotism, but may also manifest in other ways. 

For example, an interviewer may be more friendly towards a candidate who has previously worked in a well-known firm and therefore pays less attention to the blunders they’ve made when responding to interview questions. That’s called the Halo Effect.

Also, the Contrast Effect is frequent during the recruitment process. HRs may be more focused on comparing candidates one against the other, instead of judging the individual merits of each application. 

In toxic workplaces, unconscious biases often result in interpersonal communication: Some people are treated slightly differently than others because of their background, age, gender, or past relationships with the company. Likewise, unconscious biases often become apparent when different candidates are considered for promotion, which creates a pitiful state of diversity in the workforce. For example, women hold only 32% of top leadership positions globally. In the US, only 14% of CEO positions are held by people of color. 

Organizations with poor diversity (i.e., such where a certain segment of the population represents a substantial majority) often have a toxic workplace culture of unconscious biases to blame for that.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do if such practices are deeply engrained, especially at the leadership level. Yet, you don’t have to tolerate continuous prejudice toward yourself and have the right to report direct acts of discrimination to the US Equal Opportunity Commission.  

5. Poor Communication Among the Teams and With the Leadership 

In every industry, good communication skills go a long way. After all, our ability to effectively relay information to others goes a long way when it comes to getting the day-to-day work done and accomplishing more long-term career goals.

However, good communication in the workplace goes beyond following professional etiquette rules and replying to emails on time. It also includes honesty, transparency, and candor. 

communication in the workplace

Getting laid off without any forewarning from the upper management is poor communication. So if being pressed to sign a non-disparagement clause before quitting. Yet, too many companies make blunders when communicating big changes — be it a mass layoff, an upcoming merger, or a significant policy change. 

In fact, an SHRM survey suggests that communication issues in the workplace cost businesses with 100 employees over $420,000 annually in lost productivity hours, incomplete work, and lost business opportunities. For larger enterprises, the figure rises proportionally to $62.4 million.

At the same time, poor communication on the team level can be also problematic. Lack of clear coms policies, subpar reporting standards, downright silencing of information, or even downright ostracization at the workplace also create an unhealthy work environment. 

If that’s something you’ve been part of (both on the giving and receiving side), it would be helpful to review the following communication best practices:

  • Start paying more attention to how you come off to others in terms of approachability, tone of voice, ability to give instructions, response to criticism, and overall demeanor. When others find you too intimidating, opinionated, or grumpy, high chances are that you’d be excluded from many work-related and team-bonding conversations. 
  • Become a better collaborator.  Great teamwork is all about effective collaboration. And you can’t effectively collaborate with others when you can’t communicate what you want to be done and how. It goes the other way too: you can’t do your best work when your colleague cannot explain what’s on their mind and you are too shy or intimidated to ask for explanations. Work a bit more on your soft skills, especially listening and instructional ones.  
  • Try to better understand the management goals. By knowing exactly what your superiors want you to deliver and how they measure your performance, you can adapt your work style accordingly. Don’t be afraid to approach your boss directly and ask them about the current goals and KPIs. Many will appreciate such proactivity! 
  • Repeat instructions back to you. Many communication issues at work arise due to banal misunderstandings and misinterpretation of requests. A good practice to avoid such scenarios is to always communicate back your understanding of the provided instructions. This way you better understand the job at hand and provide the other party with an opportunity to correct and clarify any areas. 

Great communication in the workplace is a joint action by many. Whether you are an entry-level employee or made your way close to the top, you should at least attempt to resolve tensions and miscommunication issues with others before labeling the workplace as “toxic”.  

6. Work-Life Balance is Almost Non-Existent 

Every job can get hectic at times. But unreasonably long working hours, lack of flexibility in schedules, and the superiors’ reluctance (or refusal) to approve your paid time off are some problematic signs. 

Unfortunately, they are also quite common. New research among full-time desk-based workers found that 42% are feeling burned out at present. 

The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon, characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased distance from the job, and reduced professional efficacy. 

Burnout is a direct result of poor work-life balance, which can be self-imposed (aka you work all the time because of poor personal time management) or culture-driven (overworking is normalized by the employer). 

In the case of the former, you should look into improving your self-management skills. In the case of the latter, you’d probably have to schedule a difficult conversation with HR. If your work contract spells out the standard number of weekly hours and yet, you’re forced to do overtime (oftentimes — without extra pay), the matter must be properly regulated. You can either negotiate full overtime compensation (if you’re okay with extra hours) or request the HR to intervene and talk to your supervisor about the abnormal workload. 

On the other hand, if your requests for respecting your personal time (e.g., not calling you on Saturday with an urgent work query) fall on deaf ears, you probably should start looking for another job that offers a better work-life balance. 

Other common signs of a toxic workplace culture 

  1. Employee turnover rates are very high, and you’re constantly meeting new hires
  1. Antagonistic power dynamics between the management and staff
  1. Absence of follow-up meetings or corrective actions — or even retaliation — for raising concerns
  1. Cut-through behaviors among employees are encouraged by the management, resulting in cases of sabotage
  1. Your contributions are rarely acknowledged. Instead, you feel like others are taking advantage of your work.  
  1. Senior management lacks diversity. People are often promoted, based on their relationships with others, rather than merit. 

Toxic Workplace Culture Also Drives Rage-Quitting 

Job rage quitting means that you are so wound up and infuriated that you decide to walk out of the job with no prior warning. Some may make a dramatic exit as the notorious Jet Blue flight attendant did in 2010, earning himself a Wikipedia entry

The man grew so frustrated with the job that one day he announced that he was tired from getting abused by passengers over the public plane speaker, grabbed two beers, and exited the plane via an emergency chute. 

Some rage quitters confront their bosses before throwing in the towel, while others leave without a trace (causing plenty of confusion and worry among colleagues). A survey by Skynova found that the majority of rage-quitters (69%) just walked out of their job, often after a yelling session between their boss and/or colleagues. 

But it is a good idea to rage quit (even if you’re leaving a toxic work environment)? 

Although rage quitting may provide you with an immediate sense of satisfaction and a spicy anecdote to tell strangers at parties, it’s unlikely to do you any favors in terms of career prospects

job rage quitting

Generally speaking, however, rage quitters can expect to experience the following negative consequences: 

  • Loss of income: If you’ve been keeping an eye on the news in recent months, you’ll know that the economy is in serious turmoil. Shockingly, 28% of Americans cannot financially afford to quit even a toxic job. 
  • Reputational damage: In today’s increasingly connected world, a rage quit is unlikely to slip under the radar. If potential employers know about your moment of madness, they may be reluctant to offer you a job. 
  • You may have to explain yourself: If you manage to secure an interview for a new job, the hiring manager will probably ask you about your reasons for leaving the previous job. This could make for a very uncomfortable conversation.

Interestingly, the same survey from Skynova found that 78% of rage-quitters who tried to get their job back were successful. Moreover, they saw an average increase in salary of $5,700+ per year. 

That said, before you rage-quit your job, consider the alternatives: escalating your discontent to HR/upper management and applying other “coping” strategies.

How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment?

If you can relate to one or more of the signs of a toxic work environment, take a deep breath. While you may feel powerless in the face of management, you’re more than capable of weathering this storm. 

In some cases, it may be appropriate to cut your losses and politely quit the job, particularly if you feel unsafe at work. But if leaving isn’t an immediate option, consider the alternative options you have. 

1. Surround Yourself With Positive People 

One of the best ways to improve your mood and physical health is to seek out more positive co-workers. If you haven’t found them yet, they’re bound to be lurking somewhere. Get involved in employee nights out, and don’t be afraid to spark up a conversation with someone from another department while you’re on a break. You never know — they could turn out to be a lifelong friend and an ally in your battle against problematic workplace practices.   

positive colleague in the workplace

2. Assert Solid Boundaries Between Your Work And Personal Life

To prevent a toxic workplace from taking over your life, avoid answering emails outside of office hours and try to restrict your overtime. Bending to your manager’s every whim could set a dangerous precedent and encourage them to take you for granted. Do what is strictly required of you within the scope of your employment contract, while you search for better work opportunities. 

3. Practice Confronting Authority Figures

If problems at work have reached a boiling point, you may need to confront your manager head-on. For things to change, you need to show that you’re a strong individual they can’t afford to lose. Being assertive is more difficult than it sounds, of course. There’s nothing worse than tripping over your words while attempting to state your grievances. So, there’s only one thing for it — practice! Do it in front of a close friend or a mirror, and only confront your boss when you feel prepared. 

To Conclude

Toxic workplaces can feel draining or even soul-destroying, but don’t despair! Instead of thriving in your misery, try to look for other opportunities. Do some tentative steps — update your LinkedIn profile, refresh your resume, or reach out to a recruiter.  Remember, you’re a resilient and talented individual with tons to offer the world — don’t let others ever doubt that!


  • Elena Prokopets

    Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

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