Toxic Work Environments

This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about toxic work situations–including toxic bosses. However, it was prompted by a recent comment from a new client that was fairly disturbing.

He indicated that even though he’d had a successful record over the past three years, he was very concerned about the situation in his company. Many people had quit, including his last two bosses, and a number of others had been fired.

He felt strongly that the company’s culture was fear-based (using fear as a tactic), which had not only created a toxic work environment but also resulted in an abnormally high attrition rate. He found the whole situation alarming, and I don’t blame him.

Are You in a Toxic Work Environment?

So how do you determine if you’re currently in a toxic work environment? Of course, there could be obvious signs, such as managers who regularly scream and rant at their subordinates. If you’ve found yourself subjected to that type of inexcusable treatment, you might already have started taking steps to move out.

On the other hand, you might be in a work environment where the toxicity is less obvious but potentially just as damaging to your career and personal well-being. For example, your boss might be the kind of person who leads you on with promises of a reward if you accomplish an important assignment and then consistently “forgets” the promise or denies having made it.

To assess your work environment toxicity, you need to start by keeping a record of key events and their related circumstances. Then plan to review it periodically. This will help you evaluate situations a little more objectively than you might be able to do in the heat of the moment (when you’re in the middle of a situation).

Toxic Work Environments–Stay or Go

This is also something I’ve written about before–deciding whether to look for a way out or stay where you are and work (or hope) for some kind of acceptable resolution of the situation.

If, as appears might be the case for my new client, the entire company constitutes a toxic work environment, you probably need to consider one critical fact. Either senior management is directly the cause of the mess or they are at least not doing anything (or not nearly enough) to correct it.

In such cases, you might not have a choice. You either bail at your earliest opportunity or you resign yourself to living with imminent disaster–professionally, personally or both.

Occasionally you might face a situation where it’s just your department/boss that’s the source of the toxicity. That offers you a potential solution that doesn’t involve leaving the company altogether. For instance, if you can take advantage of an opportunity to make a good career move into a different department, you might achieve a win-win outcome.

Toxic Work Environments and Work-Related Stress

Workplace toxicity and job stress are tightly linked. To quote from an article titled “Chronic Job Stress is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease” by Elizabeth Scott, M.S., “Job stress is widely experienced, and so pervasive that it’s been found to affect people from all industries, ranks and socio-economic status levels. And because so much of our lives are spent at work, job stress can create stress in other areas of life as well….Because of a close link between job stress and chronic stress, job stress can take a significant toll on overall health and wellness….”

Clearly, you need to be alert for indications of a toxic work environment and do your best to (ideally) avoid getting into one or (next-best) remove yourself from it ASAP.

3 Comments on “Toxic Work Environments”

  1. Theresa Carlson Mills says:

    A really helpful blog. I know a lot of people who have been in this type of situation but aren’t sure how to handle it. So they endure it, but the stress eventually takes its toll on their health and well-being. It would be great to hear additional thoughts on red flags to look for in the initial job interview to avoid entering these situations in the first place. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment. I don’t have a “magic bullet” answer on the interview red flag subject, but one important recommendation is for job seekers to research the company as much as they can before they show up for the interview and compile a list of thoughtful questions to ask during the interview. Obviously, not everything they will find online is reliable, but if they do their due diligence, they could uncover useful positive and/or negative information that will help them evaluate what they’re told by the interviewer(s). They should also realize that not only the words the interviewer speaks but other factors–such as body language, voice tone, and what’s going on around the company at the time of the interview–can provide useful clues. Here’s just one example: If you have an interview scheduled for 7:00 p.m. because you work full-time and need time to travel from your location to the other company, take a look around you as you go into the building and into the interview room. If the facility seems pretty full of employees still working at that hour, it might be an indication that you’ll be expected to routinely work long hours. If you want a better work-life balance than that, it might not be the right place for you.

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