When you have a job anywhere the potential for poison is everywhere. Not the literal kind OSHA needs to know about, but the toxic boss or toxic co-workers. And how about those toxic people back at the house when you leave for work? But what about the workplace itself? Sometimes toxicity stems from the actual working environment. It’s an ingrained part of the business, starting in the hiring office and working its way up to management and possibly even over to the janitorial staff. And when your workplace fits the description, it’s much tougher to hang on to your job or even just have a good feeling about trudging into the office on a given day. As for flourishing or rising through the ranks at a toxic workplace, that’s nearly impossible.
Is this an “I should have known” situation? It’s so easy to be like the frog in the pot on the burner who simply adjusts as the water gets warmer and warmer, eventually succumbing without really realizing what happened. But there are signals that a workplace is toxic and you should get familiar with them, whether you’re considering a new job or need to evaluate your existing position and decide on next steps. Here are four of the most obvious clues:
1. No one ever says “Good!”
If you keep hearing about what you, and your team, and the receptionist, and the supplier’s lead salesperson’s driver, did wrong, it could be a clue. Places that continually emphasize every mistake and all these drastic problems that need to be resolved are toxic. Not sure if that describes where you work? Consider the flip side: When your company or the managers or the work team constantly harp on what’s bad and never let a single compliment slip. This will eventually demoralize even the sunniest employees. And it’s like one big family: Even if they’re praising you, a workplace can suck your life force out of you if they never have anything positive to say about the others who work there.
2. You have the idea; your co-worker takes the credit
Just like that cartoon where a woman puts forward her idea at a meeting and the guy at the head of the table says, “Great idea! Could one of the men make that suggestion?” credit thieves abound in a toxic workplace. It is possible to correct this behavior on the one-to-one level. “Mark each major milestone by stopping work and taking action to attach your name to the result,” employment expert Jo Miller told Be Leaderly. “For example, make an announcement in a meeting or by email such as ‘Team, I just completed the financial modeling for this quarter and have begun work on next quarter. If you have questions or would like to discuss the results or methodology, please let me know.'”
And maybe a single smiling idea stealer doesn’t seem to reflect on your company on the whole. But it’s a red flag for sure. Any time someone can continually walk all over coworkers, you have to acknowledge that the business environment is also to blame. In other words, a workplace that ignores or even seems to encourage employees who make off with other people’s ideas is toxic with a capital “T.”
3. Work-life balance? What’s that?
This is another one that can start seeming normal after a while. But don’t let it get to that! If your company doesn’t care whether you have downtime or a chance for a life outside its doors, start looking for another job tomorrow (if not today.) Here are a couple of ways companies signal toxic work requirements: They commonly require 50-plus work weeks, with no comp time (or they give you comp time but you can never take it.) No one takes vacation time and you’re pressured if you do. They expect your phone to be on all the time to accept calls from clients, co-workers and your boss. The lack of work-life balance can be overall, like the company that expects you to work on charity projects with a work team every weekend and take 48 hours for paternity leave. Or it can be daily, with demands to work overtime with zero notice and no extra compensation or to work through lunch instead of eating outside or hitting the gym.
4. Red tape has you all tied up
There are lots of jokes about bureaucratic workplaces, especially government jobs (remember the sloth in “Zootopia”? But layer upon layer of approvals for each step of a project and constant oversight on the most ordinary tasks (that you’ve been completing forever) is a sure sign of a toxic workplace. It hampers everyone’s ability to get anything done and if you work somewhere like that for too long, you’ll start thinking innovation and independence are bad things. It’s also just soul-sucking to work around control freaks who think a job well done involves nine different stages of oversight.
One more thing. It may feel like enough to simply observe your place is toxic and hold that knowledge tight, but it’s not. There is evidence-based research, including a recent study from Harvard Business Review, that indicates a highly dysfunctional workplace has genuine drawbacks. HBR surveyed and interviewed around 14,00 American employees and found almost half of the workers in toxic workplaces “decreased work effort” and another 38 percent let their work quality slide, on purpose! Such moves eventually backfire and they definitely affect your chances of getting a better (or even equal) job somewhere else. Better to face your situation and move on before you become as toxic as the company you work for.