Updated: Feb 21, 2022
In first grade, I stayed after school one day to help my teacher. Eager to please, I stood up to erase the chalkboard for Mrs. Lundgren. Instead of appreciation, I got an angry response. After pointing out that another classmate was trying to copy down the words on the board, she spanked me. It was 1969, and the only time I got spanked in school…but ever since I have been sensitive to someone getting angry when I am only trying to help.
Fast forward nearly 50 years to a toxic encounter with my boss. The CEO had asked us to work on an important document, and my latest version had sat in his email for weeks. Suddenly he asked if I could clean it up and turn it around as soon as possible, so I jumped on it immediately.
When he received my email that explained my edits, he called me and flipped out. He was furious I had modified a table and reworked some of his contributions for clarity. (His writing was difficult to follow and understand. I was doing what he hired me to do as a communications manager.) I asked him if he had opened the document and seen my changes. He admitted he had not; however, that did not dim his anger. He told me I’d better send him a version with my changes so he could see what I had done. Hanging up the phone, I felt truly shaken at his tone of voice and angry accusations, yet I quickly sent him a track-changes version.
He followed up the phone call with a hostile, shaming email, telling me that because of my changes to the document, he was going to have to work on the weekend and not be able to spend time with his daughter, even though he had been sitting on this document for weeks…not to mention the fact I’d vastly improved the document.
How Do You Know When You’re in a Toxic Environment?
If you feel shaken by the way someone reacts, especially when you are trying to help, you are in a toxic environment. Even if someone does do something wrong, there is no excuse to treat another person that way…especially when they report to you.
Leaders must keep their emotions in check and always treat other people with respect and dignity.
The hip and irreverent game Cards Against Humanity has been in the news for the horrific way they have been treating their employees, especially women, people of color, and LBGTQIA+ folks. Full confession: I have enjoyed this game, even though it bills itself as a “party game for horrible people.” Reading more about the company, founded by eight young, privileged white men, makes me regret ever playing Cards Against Humanity. I cringed, learning that one of its founders, Max Temkin, was accused of rape even before former employees came forward to allege discrimination. I will no longer be complicit in promoting this toxic culture, and I plan to ceremonially recycle this game or use it to start a fire.
If your workplace is not recruiting, respecting, welcoming, embracing, honoring, and finding leadership opportunities for Black people or other minorities, LBGTQIA+ folks, women, or the disabled, it could be toxic to anyone who falls into one of these categories.
Here are eight signs you are working in a toxic environment:
1. Leaders communicate poorly—or not at all
I truly believe that honest, transparent communication is the only way to create a healthy work environment and an engaged workforce. Whether you are communicating about company finances, a big win, an unfortunate loss, or necessary cutbacks, respectful and authentic communication is paramount. If you don’t have healthy communication channels (not only top-down but also upward and across), the rumor mill will work overtime, damaging morale and creating a toxic workplace.
2. Your boss is verbally abusive and disrespectful
There is no excuse to treat coworkers disrespectfully. None. If leaders are unable to control their tempers, they should not be in leadership roles. I remember a situation in our Honolulu office many years ago, when a Chinese-American woman bullied her Japanese-American subordinate, because her daughter had been bullied by Japanese-American classmates. A workplace is toxic “when one or more people—often leaders in power, but not always—lack social and personal awareness to understand that their behavior is disrespectful, dismissive, hurtful, or even illegal,” says my friend and client Julie Jensen of Moxie HR Strategies.
3. You don’t feel safe speaking up
A few years ago, one of my dear friends was bullied by our bosses. She is a young Latina, and I’m sure her ethnicity and youth contributed to the poor treatment she received. She is also hard-working and brilliant. She filed a harassment claim with HR, but that just turned the outright abuse into disdain and dismissal from our bosses after the claim was investigated. I was one of many who shared the truth with HR, but my friend's reporting of the abuse only seemed to make things worse. You’ll know you don’t feel safe if your work environment affects your mental or physical health at work or at home. If you don’t feel safe speaking up, or you do speak up and it results in no improvement, you should document the situation like crazy and make a plan to get out of there.
4. Asshole behavior is tolerated or enabled
In my last three or four years in the corporate world, I repeatedly saw the assholes get away with bad behavior. If the leaders at the top of the organization fail to act decisively to protect employees who are being victimized, they send the message that bad behavior is tolerated in the organization. If the bully leader is asked to apologize to their victim but there is no discipline or behavior correction, their behavior is being enabled. This often happens when the bully is in an executive position or is a rain maker. It is impossible to build a positive employee culture when bully behavior is tolerated or enabled.
In managing teams and now forming my own company, I am committed to a “No Asshole Rule,” where toxicity is never allowed. Every company should have such a rule and leaders who engage in toxic behaviors should be immediately given a warning and if they continue, removed from their leadership role. No excuses.
5. A leader or coworker who engages in gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. It is defined as manipulating someone psychologically into questioning their own sanity and worth. If your boss throws you under the bus or fails to have your back, it can feel like gaslighting.
If you feel like you can never do anything right, are constantly second-guessing yourself, are not being listened to, or feel like you should stay quiet rather than speak up, you are probably being gaslighted. Have you ever had a boss take credit for your work? Gaslighters minimize, trivialize, and fail to take concerns seriously.
As I mentioned in "Don't Let BLMWashing Become the New Greenwashing," when my former coworker "Lisa" (a woman of color) talked to her white female leader about the racism she was experiencing in her office, her boss cried and told her how hurt she felt, completely derailing the meeting and gaslighting Lisa.
Julie Jensen of Moxie HR Strategies continued, “If someone is brave enough to point out poor behavior or a toxic workplace, and it's justified as ‘a joke’ or in the spirit of ‘fun’ and 'humor,’ run as fast as you can because it's likely to be a really bumpy employment ride. Nobody deserves to be treated poorly!”
6. You experience low morale and high turnover in your workforce
Coworkers who are unhappy, do not support each other, and say “that’s not my job” are other symptoms of a toxic workplace. My last company lacked a culture of appreciation, and I believe that was because of a lack of role modeling from the leaders, along with poor connections between the leaders and staff. With a few exceptions, most staff did not feel truly supported by their leaders.
To build a healthy environment, employees need to be able to trust that their leaders will have their backs, advocate for them, and find ways to help them advance. When morale suffers, people are more likely to be cutthroat, triangulate communications, and have to pick up other people’s work when they don’t do their jobs.
7. It’s an old boys’ club
Cards Against Humanity, case in point. But almost every woman in the workforce has a story of two white guys ganging up against her, overtly or covertly. A culture of sexual harassment or discrimination is full of microaggressions, which can be difficult for white men to spot. The “guys” think they are being friendly and joking with each other, having no clue that they are leaving people out or making them feel devalued. Until we have more women and people of color in the board room and throughout our organizations—and fierce, authentic white male allies to help us get there—most workplaces will continue to be old boys’ clubs.
8. Your workplace has weak or inconsistent policies to protect employees
Both of my previous workplaces had policies in place, but they were not consistently upheld by the leaders in charge. When my friend made her hostile workplace claim, HR investigated it but then management swept it under the rug…and my friend’s situation was only made worse. So an organization needs more than strong HR policies—they also need leaders’ commitments to uphold them.
What to Do to Combat a Toxic Workplace
Working in a toxic workplace is seriously bad for your health. Life is too short and we spend too much time at our jobs to work somewhere you don’t feel appreciated. If this list rings true for you, think about how you can combat the toxicity. For example:
Disengage. Realize it’s not about you. You might not be in the position to look for another job right now (Hello, Pandemic anyone?), but you can try to find a way to protect yourself. Realize that you are part of an unhealthy system and it’s not a personal reflection on your abilities.
Surround yourself with allies. Look for coworkers you trust, can rely on and vent with, and who will advocate for you if things escalate. They can help you ground-truth your experience and help you figure out how to handle it. When I decided to confront my boss after he mistreated me, I discussed my approach with my husband and trusted coworkers before I did anything.
Consult with HR. Give HR a chance to help you. Discuss the issues so they will be documented, even if you ask them not to act on them yet. I realize that many people do not trust HR. They are often viewed as the enemy or on management’s side, and in the case of my friend who reported our boss, it didn’t turn out very well. But honestly, if you cannot trust HR in your workplace, you need to find a way to leave your job. If they fail to address your concerns, you’ll have documentation and if necessary, you can pursue legal recourse. As Julie Jensen of Moxie HR Strategies says, “Another thing the leaders of Cards Against Humanity did wrong: They had no HR staff or an outside HR consultant keeping an eye on the organization to ensure all employees act in a way that was professional, respectful, and harassment-free. Smaller companies tend to think there's little or no need for HR, especially if benefits and payroll are taken care of by a third-party provider."
"Without someone paying attention to the employee experience and no outlet for employees to report incidents that could be investigated or corrected, it's easy to see how toxic behaviors can occur and spread like cancer that affects everyone in its path. Especially those who have less power within the organizational structure.” --Julie Jensen, Moxie HR Strategies
Document, document, document. You will appreciate it later. Documentation will also help you survive the gaslighting. When you look back on a pattern of toxicity, you’ll feel better about knowing how to respond. Write down summaries of phone calls, meetings, and conversations; save emails; and ask your allies to share their own experiences of the toxicity. If you decide to pursue a formal complaint or legal action, you will be prepared with evidence.
Talk to your boss (if they are not the perpetrator). Provide specific examples and the evidence if you have it. When I managed large teams of people, I often mediated conflicts between employees. Also, if the company has a No-Asshole Rule, your boss needs to know this is happening so they can take action. If your boss is the perpetrator, stand up for yourself if you can…even if your voice shakes. And don’t forget to document the conversation when you do so.
Consider legal action. If the toxicity involves discrimination based on gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, parental status, or disability; if you are sexually harassed; or if the company (and HR) fail to address your allegations of discrimination or sexual harassment, take your documentation to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or an attorney for advice.
Plan your exit. When my friend called me last night to describe a toxic behavior she experienced in her job yesterday, I asked her how long she was going to stick around. We spend far too much time in our jobs to endure toxic workplaces. It might take a while to find another job, but it’s always worth the effort to plan your exit strategy. Even if you have to take a lower wage, you will be protecting your mental and physical health by finding another job. Or you can do what I did and start your own business! Every single day, I am relieved I no longer have to endure toxic people in the workplace.
Contact me for more information about building or revamping your website or advancing your marketing communications and leadership. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.
Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.