Working in a dysfunctional, toxic environment?

By Thom Dennis

A lack of diversity and inclusion. Harassment, discrimination and bullying are all obvious and unacceptable signs of a toxic environment. But microaggressions with no recourse, being treated unfairly, undermined, excluded, singled out, gossiped about or denied basic work rights or opportunities show the detrimental power of a poor diversity and inclusion culture.

No boundaries. Out of hours communication, asking you to cancel your holiday plans or interrupting you whilst you are on a break signal there are no boundaries in your organisation and your needs and work/life balance are of little interest.

High-stress sickness rates. If you and your colleagues feel burned out because of unachievable time and workload pressures and there are high absenteeism rates then the culture of the organisation is unlikely to be people-centric.

Rapid employee turnover – Equally if there is rapid staff turnover and if the newly hired workers especially don’t stay for long, then this is likely to be a signal of a defective working culture and faulty leadership.

If individuals feel trapped in their job and feel like opportunities are passing them by or are being repeatedly offered to others, and there is little chance of further training, or new opportunities and personal development. In these circumstances, they may need to reconsider their position. This is particularly difficult when they are told that they won’t find better work anywhere else, and they should be happy with their lot.

Limited communication – A healthy workspace will have good communication throughout the hierarchy of the organisation. When respectful different opinions and thoughts are not welcomed, people aren’t listened to and there is a lack of transparency, clarity and shared important information, then there are likely to be systemic problems afoot.

Happy interactions. Why should anyone submit themselves to working in an environment which is not fun? Casual conversations and interactions should be common throughout the day to create bonds between workers. Do you see people smiling or the welcome sound of laughter in the workplace every day? A lack of positive facial expressions and slumped body language and a cold or stagnant atmosphere can reveal a lot about deep-rooted problems. The old adage of “You’re not here to have fun, you’re here to work” is Dickensian and has no place in our workplaces of today.

Inadequate leadership skills are on a spectrum from being uninspiring and restrictive to passive-aggressive, harassing or narcissistic behaviours. Micromanaging bosses for whom nothing is ever good enough and who often say they are disappointed in you, who don’t reward good work with affirmative language or who offer harsh rather than constructive criticism are sure signs of a toxic environment.

When there is no trust. Organisations with high levels of trust and purpose have better collaboration, strong leadership, highly value respect, have better morale and lower employee turnover. On the other side, businesses with minimal trust suffer from conflict, rivalries, lack of engagement, poor creativity and divisive thinking.

Discrimination. Any sort of prejudice or bias is unacceptable. Taking sexism in the workplace as an example, inappropriate comments, misogyny, harassment, and gender condescension such as mansplaining are rarely seen in just one person and are often systemic. These are all qualified signs of pregnancy discrimination.

Drama – Employee drama, conflict, gaslighting, infighting, over-emphasis on internal competition, and constant stressors breed unrest and low morale. Alarm bells should be ringing if this is happening in your workplace because it is likely to only get worse over time.

Your intuition says so – If you have a gut feeling that something is not right within your environment, you are probably right. The presence of negativity is often felt in minor interactions with people, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked. Listen to your feelings before it begins to permanently affect your self-esteem.

Thom Dennis is the CEO of culture change consultants Serenity in