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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism

13 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment & When It Becomes Illegal

All it takes is one bad apple

Woman in a toxic work environment
Photo courtesy of Verne Ho

You probably spend around 40 hours a week at work—for some of us it can be many more.

If your workplace is toxic—leaves you depressed and drained and unhealthy even beyond the walls of your office—40 hours can feel like much more.

Do you leave work every day feeling totally drained? Do you wake up dreading the day? Have you been feeling like you need to get out soon before it gets worse? Odds are, you’re operating in a toxic work environment.

Toxic workplaces are common. About one-fifth of American workers consider their work environment toxic. And the problem doesn’t necessarily permeate entire organizations, all it takes is a single toxic employee to poison the water.

Toxic work environments come with an economic toll. It’s estimated that a single toxic employees can cost a company more than $12,000. The toxicity can affect the performance of other employees as well: 38 percent of employees say they decrease the quality of their work in a toxic work environment, 25 percent say they have taken their frustration out on customers, and 12 percent have simply left their jobs as a result of a toxic workplace.

What is a toxic work environment?

A toxic workplace is one that negatively affects your well-being, causing you stress, anxiety, worry. It’s one in which gossip, fighting, coercion, back-stabbing, manipulation, blackmail, and abuse occur on a regular basis.

Read more: The Most Passive Aggressive Things That Can Happen in the Office, Ranked

13 signs you’re dealing with a toxic work environment

1. There’s poor communication

Notice changes around the office that no one’s really talking about? Employees slowly being let go without notice? Are assignments vague and without standards? Do you get a bad performance review on account of issues that could have been addressed months ago had you only been told then? All indicators of a toxic workplace.

2. No one’s in a good mood

Work doesn’t inspire positivity in everyone, sure, but in a toxic environment, there is a constant cycle of negativity. Conversations about work revolve around only the employees’ unhappiness and frustration.

There’s no enthusiasm, no one is happy to be there, and the dynamics are a lot like high school cliques. Speaking of high school...

3. Rumors fly

Did you hear that so-and-so might get laid off? Another reorg? Have you heard that the company is in financial trouble? What’s the deal with Brenda lately? Some gossip is normal, but if it’s to the point where everyone is talking about everyone else behind closed doors, then it’s a problem.

4. You experience verbal abuse

If your boss or coworkers belittle or bully others with their language ‚ you are working in a toxic office. There's no room for abuse of any kind in the workplace (or any place, for that matter).

5. There’s a high turnover rate

If people aren’t staying around for more than a year or so, whether they’re getting fired or moving on to new positions, then you’re probably not working in a model office.

6. Your boss...kinda sucks

Does your boss always demand agreement, rewarding only yes men? Do they not understand the actual workflow or processes of the office and set impossibly high standards as a result? Are they never, ever satisfied with the work product? Do they give vague assignments and then complain when you weren’t able to read their mind? Working for a narcissistic boss leads to a slew of other problems around the office, like poor communication and low morale.

Read more: Have a Difficult Boss? Whatever You Do, Please...Don't Do These Things

7. People take credit for work they didn’t do

If your colleagues take credit for work they didn’t effect, like maybe yours, that can harm your standing in the office and the trajectory of your career.

8. Your colleagues don’t pull their weight

Do you feel like work is just one horrible recurring college group project? If your colleagues consistently fail to pull their weight, leaving you to pick up the pieces or suffer the consequences—that’s toxic.

Read more: Hate Your Coworkers? Here Are 6 Things You Should Never Do About It

9. People play the blame game

Another sure-fire sign of a toxic work environment: when something goes wrong, someone else is always to blame. Someone else gets thrown under the bus, it’s always someone else’s fault.

10. You’re always working...always

Even when you go on vacation, even when you’re caring for a sick family member, even when you’ve taken off time for your own wedding—your boss is compelling you to be “always on.” Lack of work-life balance can harm your mental and physical health. If you can’t take time away from work, even when you’re not at work, then your workplace may be toxic.

11. There’s a boys’ club

Is there an exclusive enclave of men who run the office and all the decisions, even if they’re not the ones at the top? And for that matter, are there only men at the top? Are qualified women and minorities passed over for promotions and raises in favor of underperforming men? Are you smelling signs of nepotism? Are women the only ones relegated to unpromotable work, like kitchen duty and internal committees?

Read more:6 Uncommon Signs Your Job May Have a Boys’ Club

12. There’s a culture of sexual harassment

As many as eight in 10 women will experience sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in their careers. And a culture of sexual harassment is absolutely a sign of a toxic work environment. It’s also illegal.

Read more: All Your Sexual Harassment Questions Answered

13. There is a culture of discrimination

Be it on the basis of disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, or parental status —discrimination is wrong and it’s illegal.

What you can do about a toxic work environment

You might be telling yourself, it’s just work, I can deal with it for eight hours, then come home and relax. But in reality, the emotional weight of a toxic workplace can carry over into your personal life if it isn’t properly dealt with.

Increased stress and anxiety, trouble sleeping, burnout at work, depression, over- or under-eating—in a toxic environment, it’s not uncommon to exhibit any or all of these symptoms.

What can you do about it? First, you should always consult with HR or your manager about the issues and make them aware of what’s happening and give them the chance to fix the problem. If they fail to do so, then you may have legal recourse (we’ll address that below).

In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to address the toxic work environment.

Find an ally

In some toxic offices, you can’t trust your coworkers. It sounds childish almost, but gossip flies, and favoritism reigns, and you aren’t sure what you can safely say. But it’s more than likely that you aren’t the only one feeling the weight of work. Try to look for coworkers that you can vent with, who can sympathize and will watch your back.

Read more: 8 Ways You Can Be a Better Male Ally to the Women You Work With

Document everything

Phone calls, emails, meetings, conversations—be sure to save records of harmful interactions and practices. Take down names, dates, times, places, and what was said or done. If you ever need to file a formal complaint, then you’ll have the evidence on your side.

Report specific incidents

Talk to your boss about what you're seeing, providing examples of specific incidents. If your boss is the perpetrator or you don't feel comfortable talking to them, speak to someone in human resources.

Here's some language you might use:

I want to talk to you about what I feel is toxic behavior. I have observed on multiple occasions Julie berating my coworkers. On one occasion, she screamed at me when I didn't deliver a product on time. I've seen it four separate times. It's inappropriate and abusive and I believe leadership should know about what's going on.

Work on an exit strategy

Leaving a job is tough, since you’ve probably made a few friendships and gotten used to the routine—not to mention having to go through the job search process again. But if the situation is taking a real toll on your life, both professional and personal, then you should start putting your resume out there. You don’t have to take a new job, but it’s always nice to have a safety net in case things go south.

Read more: How to Find a Job You Love (No, Really)

When a toxic workplace becomes a legal issue

Not all toxic workplaces are unlawful, but some practices that contribute to the environment can absolutely violate the law.

Your workplace may be in violation of the law if...

  1. There is discrimination based on gender , age , race, religion, sexual orientation, parental status, or disability

  2. Employees are sexually harassed

  3. The company fails to heed and address allegations of discrimination or sexual harassment

If the issues you’re facing in the workplace meet any of these standards, document in detail what you have experienced and bring the issues to the attention of your supervisor or the HR department. If the company fails to address the issue, you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which can provide legal guidance.

Read more: 7 Signs You're Dealing with Toxic Coworkers

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