What Makes a Workplace Toxic?

Every morning, Will’s alarm goes off at 6:15. He snoozes it until he absolutely can’t ignore it anymore, at which point his mind starts racing: his boss is going to be down his throat, he has a huge list of things at work, he wonders what his client will say about his deliverables, he’s not sure how he will get everything done, what if he fails at something…

Will takes a shower, but wonders if he couldn’t procrastinate better in the morning if he showered the night before. He drinks his coffee, but thinks that it probably won’t be enough to even wake him up, let alone get him excited for the day. He gets in his car dreading what awaits him, and spends his commute either thinking of the million pressures he faces at work, or how he can best avoid them. (Maybe he can get fucked up tonight so he won’t have to think about it?)

Will’s example may seem extreme, but if you’ve never had a job where you dread waking up and going in, you’re one of the lucky ones. Will’s experience is probably all too common, especially in a job market where we are told to think we’re lucky to have a job at all. (Employers are doing us a favor, we should be thankful!) Well, I know I’m thankful to have rent money and food and not default on my student loans, but I’m definitely not always thankful about exchanging half my life so someone else can get rich.

I’m going to call Will’s situation at work “toxic,” because working a job you hate will truly poison everything else about your life until you reach a breaking point. If you’re reading this, maybe you’re already there, or close. You might not even hate the work, but your work situation is just unbearable. I’ve been there too and you’re not alone. We’re going to tackle the following questions in this section: What makes a job or workplace toxic, and how can you assess whether you’re in a toxic situation, or something different?

Some jobs and workplaces are just plain toxic, regardless of what the work is. I want to talk about these first, because it won’t matter whether you get promoted, whether you finally get to do the work you’ve always wanted, whether you get put on another project, or you finally rid your team of that one bad person. A pervasive toxic environment at work will not change on its own, because it is institutionalized as the status quo. The only way to change that situation is to remove yourself from it.

Unethical/illegal behavior

If you witness this, or are asked to join in, you should RUN, not walk. Sometimes it might be blatant, like being asked to violate a law, or falsify records or documents. It might also manifest as blatant harassment or discrimination in the workplace. You want nothing to do with this, and if it’s that blatant, it’s definitely not going to be an isolated incident in that workplace. There are also more subtle things to look for. Someone in your workplace might consistently make inappropriate jokes, but somehow nobody ever reports him to HR (or HR does nothing). Or perhaps your company has had several lawsuits against them, which have been mysteriously settled to keep things quiet. I once worked for a firm that had written and published an entire book about how they had no involvement in the torture of Afghan prisoners…I’m pretty sure that if you need a whole book to explain how you didn’t torture people, you probably tortured people. It might even be something seemingly banal, like if you start a job in research or medicine and notice that people’s medical charts or data are just lying around for anyone to view. These types of things, subtle or not, indicate ethical and legal issues below the surface that you do not want to get involved in, and will make your workplace toxic.

Lack of respect for colleagues

This can manifest in a lot of ways and it’s completely soul-crushing. In a large corporation, it may mean that your opinion is lost in a void of corporate bullshit. You may not even have a mechanism in your company to give feedback on your boss, or discuss anything with management when you see areas for improvement.  In a small business, it may mean that no matter what you do, someone is always going to be looking over your shoulder or micromanaging. It might mean that you get paid less than your colleague in the same role, even though you have more experience, just because they were able to lowball you. You might have to work with insane clients with no support for setting boundaries with them, since your company expects you to bend over backwards no matter what. Or, you might have a team that questions every decision and goes over your head at every turn.

This lack of respect and empowerment violates our very principles of fairness and agency. Without the ability to be heard, we lack the ability to create change, and therefore find ourselves in a situation where we feel powerless even though we have very good ideas about how to change things. It’s frustrating, demoralizing, and toxic. It also robs your team of any effectiveness, because a team that doesn’t respect and trust its own members is not really a team at all. And that’s a bad situation to be in if your team is expected to produce results.

Stretching people too thin

A lot of companies like to pretend that workers are lazy, when actually we are more productive now than we were thirty years ago, and wages haven’t risen accordingly. (More on that here.) Back when the 8-hour day was being lobbied for by labor activists, many thought that eventually we would have a 7-hour day, then a 6-hour day, maybe a 5-, 4-, or 3-hour day. So tell me, now that we live in the future, have automated everything, and have robots who vacuum our houses: when was the last time you worked a 3-hour day?

Many workplaces love to exploit you even further, which somewhat falls under “lack of respect” but warrants its own comment. Not only are they getting extremely productive hours from you when you are on the clock, but they expect us to go home and check our e-mail, or keep working late at night. There is always a “crisis,” “urgent deadline,” or some other excuse for why the company expects that you use your time at your house in pursuit of their bottom line. Not all companies are like this, but too many are, and this robs you of several things. First of all, you are losing your free time, which means anytime you’re checking work e-mail or answering texts you’re not creating, loving, working out, sleeping, relaxing, etc. This is bad for your health, besides being just a terrible idea if we want to live our lives to the fullest. Human bodies were not created to sit all day and look at a screen, and you really need that time to decompress and do something different. Burnout is real, and it’s ugly, and you don’t want to be there. You also want to cultivate other things with that free time—new skills, relationships, and experiences—so exchanging those for working more is just a terrible bargain.

Secondly, however, I would argue that this this lack of “work-life balance” (which they often tout while simultaneously violating) is much more insidious: they are robbing you of your autonomy to make decisions about your life. When you give them the ability to control your free time, and accept that as the status quo, you are no longer making decisions about how you will spend your time. When you do try to make decisions, in a toxic workplace, you will find that people push back because you’ve already set the expectation that you will work for free. It’s a lose-lose, and so your best defense is to be extremely proactive and firm about when your working hours are, and what exceptional circumstances warrant more than that.

Terrible people

Sometimes your only exposure to your new job is the hour-long interview before you get an offer. Interviews are ridiculous from a technical standpoint anyway, but it’s especially ridiculous to know whether you will want to work somewhere after interacting with 1-3 people for one hour. So, you take the job and find yourself surrounded by sociopaths or people whose emotional maturity hasn’t changed since high school. You have people who genuinely get pleasure out of ruffling feathers, belittling others, or moving up the chain at any cost. You might get people who also get pleasure out of bemoaning their own existence, creating conflict, and playing politics. This also goes for clients and managers; you may have people who genuinely enjoy your pain or emotionally manipulating you. You may even have people who are actually mentally ill and have flown under the radar somehow without ever getting help. Regardless of type, these people are toxic and they will ruin your work-life. It’s really just a matter of time. They will pull you into their petty squabbles, exploit you for their own gain, criticize you for nothing, and just be generally awful to be around. I’m not talking about how Penny eats loudly or Bob clips his fingernails at his desk—I’m talking about the kind of people who’ve warranted entire books devoted to handling “emotional vampires” at work that suck your life force from you.

These people generally have succeeded in a company for one reason: the company does just fine with its bunch of sociopaths, and will continue to hire and retain them. This is part of why just getting rid of one horrible boss, or that annoying teammate, will not change anything. If that’s your situation, you should probably be more afraid of who they will find to replace them, because they are probably not going to go find amazing sane people all of a sudden.

In Part 2 of this, we will look at what happens when a workplace isn’t de facto toxic, but it is toxic for you. If you’ve gotten this far, I think you should take this quick quiz below and see how many of these apply to your situation.

Self-Assessment: Toxic Workplaces

  1. Has someone sent you an e-mail at odd hours? (Or worse—called you?)
  2. Have you ever missed something important in your life because of work?
  3. Have you ever taken the fall for something you didn’t do?
  4. Have you ever found yourself staying late, even when there’s nothing urgent, just because everyone else is still in the office?
  5. Do you struggle to hold your tongue when interacting with your colleagues, clients, or manager?
  6. Have people at work been praised—and taken credit for—work that you did?
  7. Does it feel like there is no one for you to talk to or any avenue for feedback if your manager does something shitty?
  8. Have you ever seen or been asked to do anything ethically questionable or illegal?
  9. Does it feel like your manager doesn’t listen to you or take your concerns into account?
  10. Does your team lack trust in you to do your job?
  11. Are certain people (or types of people) treated differently or promoted more quickly than others?
  12. Have you and your manager talked about your professional development, besides any mandatory performance review?
  13. Does your manager jump in uninvited on your tasks, even when you have things under control?
  14. Does it seem impossible to tell a client “no” or have their expectations…how shall we say..realigned with reality?
  15. If you saw your coworkers out and about in town, would you try to avoid them?
  16. Have you ever seen discrimination or harassment happening without any real recourse?

So, how did your workplace do? Did you answer “Yes” to any of these? Are there other toxic factors you think are missing? Let us know in the comments. The more of these you answered “Yes” to, the more toxic your workplace is—and the more you need to find a way out. (More on that in future posts!)

In the meantime, so you stay sane, I want you to think of one or two people at work that you trust, that you like, and who will listen to you vent when things get really shitty. You are going to lean on these people when you need to, because even though you are going to get out of this toxic situation, you need to build your support group while you’re finding a way out. More on that later, but just make sure you pop your anger cork once in a while with people you trust.