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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism
  3. June 8, 2021

Unmistakable Signs Your Boss Is Toxic & What to Do About It

And how their behavior affects your career and mental health

Upset woman holding her head in her hand and rolling her eyes.
Image courtesy of Polina Zimmerman

It’s Monday morning, you have a report due, and you’re shakin’ in your boots. No matter what, you’re sure your boss is going to find a way to tear it apart with criticism. Or maybe it’s Friday, and your back is aching from the weight of carrying your entire team through the week. Your boss is lazy, and you’re starting to wonder how the company even stays afloat when you’re not there to do all the work. If these scenarios give you flashbacks to your workplace, you may be seeing signs of a toxic boss. 

If you have a toxic boss, you might find yourself feeling a bit trapped...you need the job, but showing up to work is taking a mental toll. You also might want to call them out, but fear the repercussions. Here are some tips to help you walk that line and hopefully get out of a nasty situation. 

Read more: What to Do When the Workplace Bully Is Your Boss

What is a toxic boss?

Toxic bosses come in many forms; some of them are overbearing and critical, and some are so tuned-out you might wonder how they even got the job. They might pick on people, publicly point out shortcomings, or treat the office like a “good ole boys’ club,” upholding sexist, racist, and homophobic beliefs systems. 

Sometimes, it can be hard to know whether your boss is being deliberately toxic or is just out of touch. Maybe they make uncomfortable jokes, and you aren’t sure if they’ve crossed the line. “They’re from another generation,” you might tell yourself, “they just don’t understand what’s appropriate these days.” (Hello, gaslighting.) That doesn’t excuse the behavior, and it actually doesn’t even make it non-toxic. If the behavior feels toxic to you, chances are, it is toxic, whether it was intended to be or not. If you still aren’t sure, though, here are some tell-tale signs of a toxic boss. 

Signs of a toxic boss

1. They set unrealistic expectations 

Does your boss demand that you stay hours after closing? Or expect every report to be perfect, without giving you a chance to improve? If the bar is purposefully set out of your reach and your boss doesn’t give you feedback to help you meet standards, they’re toxic. 

2. They play favorites

Maybe Taylor can do no wrong, but Lee seems to be the company scapegoat. If your boss points fingers at some employees while praising others for the same level of work, they’re toxic. 

3. They can’t admit their own shortcomings

Yikes! While they love complaining about others’ minor mistakes, some bosses have a hard time admitting (or sometimes even recognizing) their own flaws. This is definitely toxic behavior, and could even be a sign that your boss is a narcissist. 

4. They expect you to do their job

Toxic bosses love to take credit for others’ work. They might even try to pass off their duties to you, but without giving you the credit you deserve, of course. 

5. They throw fits

Temper tantrums aren’t just for toddlers, apparently. If the smallest thing sets your boss off into fits of rage, not only is your boss toxic, the work environment might even be unsafe. 

Read more: Ending the Hostile Work Environment

How their toxicity impacts you

Sometimes it’s crystal clear that you’re in a toxic work environment, but other times, your body might tell you before your brain consciously recognizes the situation. Here are some signs that your boss’ toxic behavior is impacting your wellbeing. 

1. You feel sick at work

Does your stomach hurt every morning? Or perhaps you’ve developed chronic migraines. When work stress becomes severe, emotional stress often shows up through physical ailments, like headaches or even stomach ulcers

2. You feel anxious before coming in

We all remember the twinge of fear hearing the words “pop quiz” struck into our elementary school hearts. You may feel that same dread before coming to the office. Although most of us would rather sleep in than come to work, it’s not normal to fear your workplace. That’s a sign you’ve been impacted by a toxic boss.

3. You’ve developed nervous habits

If you find yourself biting your nails, jiggling your leg, or drumming your nails on your desk, you might have developed a nervous habit to deal with the stress of your work environment. If you didn’t do any of these things before you had a toxic boss, it could be a sign you’re being impacted by one now. 

4. You’re experiencing low self-esteem

It can be easy to internalize negativity when it’s being spewed at us constantly. Especially if your boss is overly critical, you might find yourself feeling less confident. That’s a tell-tale sign you’re in a negative environment. 

Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Health at Work

How to deal with a toxic boss

If they’re channelling mega toxicity…

Now that you know how to spot a toxic boss, you have to deal with the situation. The way you do that depends a  lot on the level of your boss’ toxicity. If they fall under these categories, and they aren’t at the top of the company food chain, you should consider going above their head to deal with the situation. 

  1. They are racist, sexist, homophobic, or discriminatory in any way. 

  2. They are blatantly unkind and seem to enjoy abusing subordinates.

  3. Their interactions with you make you feel unsafe. 

A hard conversation with your boss’ boss or HR can be scary, but being prepared can help ease your worries. Document the incidences with as much detail as you can remember, including dates, times, specific phrases used, and witnesses, if any, of the event. Explain why you feel they make the work environment unsafe, and record actionable steps you would like higher-ups to take moving forward. You can even ask to remain anonymous or request that your name is left out of any corrective conversations between management and your boss. 

Read more: 6 Times You Should Talk to Human Resources

...or they’re more apt for misunderstandings and miscommunications

If your boss isn’t quite so bold (or maybe doesn't even know they’re toxic in the first place) consider a polite but honest conversation. Cultural background, upbringing, personality, stress, and other factors can impact, but not excuse, communication styles and preferences at work. 

Read more: Mean Girls in the Workplace 

Imagine your boss has raised their voice at you over a minor error. Try structuring a response like this: 

“While I usually appreciate feedback, I don’t work well when people raise their voices at me. That doesn’t make me feel safe in the workplace, and when I don’t feel safe, I can’t do my best work. In the future, do not raise your voice at me.” 

Your boss’ reaction to this response will help you to determine their level of toxicity. If they are apologetic, perhaps they are open to learning from their mistakes. If they hurl further insults or place blame on you, it may be time to revisit talking to HR. 

Read more: Mean Girls in the Workplace 

When their toxicity impacts your future at the company

If your boss is both truly toxic and is the head of the company, you probably feel extra stuck. At that point, if you are financially able, you may just want to cut your losses and get out. This is a big step, but an important move to make, especially if you don’t feel like your boss would write you glowing recommendation letters down the line. Ask yourself, what are you really gaining (other than income) from the situation? If this is a career you value, you deserve people to support your development. 

But what if you love your company and your job...it’s just your boss standing in the way of a great experience? Before giving up, talk to management about the possibility of switching teams. Especially in bigger organizations, that could be a great way to continue working for the company while limiting contact with your boss. 

If it looks like you’re truly stuck with this boss, It’s time to be asking yourself some more hard questions. If your boss is well-established in the company and will likely be there for the long haul, their impact is going to be felt across the business. Do you want to be a part of a company that encourages such behavior? Perhaps you aren’t always the target of your boss’ jokes, but think about the impact on those who are. If you are complacent in tolerating harassment, it could end up impacting your professional reputation. 

Read more: Are You Contributing to an Inclusive or Exclusive Workplace? 

At the end of the day, everyone deserves a work environment that makes them feel safe and valued. If you don’t feel that way, don’t be afraid to take action. And for more information about what to do when your entire workplace feels toxic, check out our article about the 13 signs of a toxic workplace.

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Photo of Anna Louise Pickens

Anna Louise Pickens

Contributor

Anna Louise Pickens is InHerSight’s editorial intern. She loves writing about anything related to women—from women’s fashion to lifestyle to workplace equality. Her bylines include Chapel Hill Magazine, Heart of NC Weddings, Durham Magazine, and Chatham Magazine. She’s currently a Morehead-Cain Scholar at UNC Chapel Hill where she is double majoring in Business and Journalism.

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