The "great resignation" started in 2021 as employees started leaving their jobs in record numbers to find a better work-life balance. Toxic workplace culture was one of the main drivers of this mass exodus.
Toxic workplaces include atmospheres that are stressful, unethical, cutthroat, disrespectful and noninclusive. A toxic workplace can contribute to employee stress and burnout. Some employees may fight burnout by quiet quitting and doing the bare minimum in their jobs.
To create a better employee experience and improve engagement and retention, management must recognize the signs of a toxic workplace to combat the negativity.
What is a toxic work environment?
Toxic work environments make employees feel punished, rejected, guilty, defensive and humiliated. Employees find it difficult to work in this environment because of negative behaviors from management and co-workers. Common behaviors include bullying, yelling, manipulating and belittling.
Employees in a toxic work environment may be nervous to speak their minds, raise concerns or share thoughts because they are worried about being rejected or reprimanded. A toxic workplace can also lead to unethical behavior such as racism, lying or making false promises.
Signs of toxic workplace culture
The signs of a toxic work environment may vary based on the employee and their working styles and triggers. However, there are some common characteristics of a toxic workplace to watch for, including the following:
- No room for mistakes. Nobody wants to make mistakes, but when fear of mistakes paralyzes employees, this is a sign of a threatening environment. A threatening environment -- often blame-heavy -- causes employees to fear punishment for failures or mistakes. People are afraid to step out of their comfort zones, which can make the whole team suffer.
- Lack of trust. Toxic work environments typically lack trust among employees. Management may not trust employees and constantly monitor them. Micromanagement typically makes employees doubt their abilities.
- Role confusion. Without clarity on roles and responsibilities, employees may worry about expectations. This can cause workplace dysfunction. Conflict can also arise among co-workers about responsibility and who needs to do what. Clear communication on role expectations can prevent this conflict.
- Excessive stress. Employees can experience stress for several reasons including burnout, disagreement with management, lack of communication, fear of failure and uncertainty about job expectations. Mental stress may start affecting employees physically by causing fatigue, sleep problems and body aches.
Learn how to help employees manage stress.
- Office gossip. Some office gossip may be normal. However, gossip is usually more extreme in toxic workplaces. Instead of clear communication, people whisper, stare and make snide remarks. This is not harmless, as workplace bullying can lead to depression, burnout and anxiety. When employees gossip about one another, the negative communication causes drama, distractions, distrust and hurt feelings. Gossip fuels a toxic environment as employees may turn on one another and spread hurtful rumors.
- High turnover rates. High employee turnover rates are a red flag for a company's work culture. There are several reasons people leave jobs, such as low pay, limited advancement opportunities and poor company culture. If there are few long-term employees, this could signal a toxic work environment.
- Unhealthy work boundaries. Toxic cultures often promote unhealthy work-life boundaries. They encourage employees to prioritize work and might cause employees to burn out. Some actions may include management expecting employees to stay late, respond to emails after hours or complete work on weekends.
- Gaslighting. Gaslighting was Merriam Webster's word of the year for 2022. When someone gaslights another person, they make the person question their own perceptions. Examples of gaslighting include hearing gossip about one's self, feeling belittled about emotions, excluding a person from meetings directly related to their job and hearing negative accounts of performance.
- Lack of career support. Some employees feel there is no support to help them grow their careers. These employees lack mentorship and feel disconnected from the team. This lack of guidance makes it difficult to determine the next steps to further their careers. With more employees working virtually, it might be harder to connect with a team or manager, especially for entry-level employees.
- Low morale and negativity. Low employee morale can feed negativity into the entire workplace and affect others. Any negativity needs to be addressed immediately. Management needs to get to the root of the issue to prevent a vicious negativity cycle and have a more productive workplace culture.
- Sick guilt. Sick guilt is when a person feels shame that they can’t perform optimally when they are sick. People with sick guilt avoid taking any time off and may not even ask to work from home, feeling guilty when they do. To prevent this toxic dynamic, employees need to feel safe to speak up when they need a break, need to know how to do that appropriately and need to be honest when they are unable to deliver. Companies need to foster that environment.
Effects of toxicity
Toxic workplaces can affect both the employees and the company. Employees working in a toxic workplace might suffer from anxiety, depression and stress, and they are more likely to take more time off or leave the organization. Productivity also tends to be lower in toxic environments.
Toxic culture was one of the main causes of the "great resignation," when millions of employees quit their jobs to find a better work-life balance, according to an MIT Sloan study. This same study also said that toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to predict a company's turnover rate rather than compensation.
Moreover, companies with toxic workplaces may find it difficult to retain and attract new talent.
How to combat a toxic culture
There are some steps managers can take to prevent and reduce toxicity in the workplace, including the following:
- Put employees first. People keep the company running. Learn about employees and their needs and create honest conversations. Find out any barriers and involve employees in discussions to fix these problems.
- Prioritize well-being. In addition to prioritizing work responsibilities, focus on employee well-being by creating a feedback process to identify toxic team members, including leadership. This includes using a survey to get employees' thoughts on the organization and culture. Be sure to make this anonymous so employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
- Model expectations. Leaders should model expected behavior consistently. They should be trained on toxic workplace culture, ways to identify it and how to prevent it.
- Reward and recognize. Show gratitude daily -- even if it's just a simple thank you. By recognizing all success, management can make their team feel appreciated and create a sense of accomplishment. Create a peer-to-peer recognition program so employees can thank others for a job well done.
- Hire the right people. Attitude is a skill set that cannot be taught. Employees can learn skills to do their jobs, but it's difficult to remove toxic behaviors. When hiring at all levels of the organization, choose employees that are positive and have a team-oriented attitude to promote a positive workplace.