Is your workplace toxic? Sometimes it's easy to tell: a total disregard for work-life balance, promotion policies that rarely select the best candidate for the job, terrible bosses....

Other times, it's not so easy to spot a toxic workplace. The problems lie just under the surface--but inevitably serve to destroy the morale, attitude, and performance of even the best employees.

Here are some sure signs a workplace is toxic:

1. People love to use peer pressure to hold others back.

The new employee works hard. She works long hours. She's hitting targets and exceeding expectations. She rocks. And she eventually hears, from a more "experienced" employee, "You're working too hard and making the rest of us look bad."

Where comparisons are concerned, a great employee doesn't compare herself with others--she compares herself with herself. She wants to "win" that comparison by improving and doing better today than she did yesterday.

Poor employees don't want to do more; they want others to do less. They don't want to win. They just want others to make sure they don't lose.

Saying, "You're working too hard," is like saying, "No one should work hard, because I don't want to work hard." And pretty soon, very few people do--and the ones who keep trying get shunned for a quality you need every employee to possess.

2. People love to hold the meeting after the meeting.

You have a meeting. Issues are raised. Concerns are shared. Decisions are made. Everyone in attendance fully support those decisions. Things are going to happen.

Then someone holds the "meeting after the meeting." Now she talks about issues she didn't share earlier with the group. Now he disagrees with the decisions made.

And sometimes they even say to their teams, "Look, I think this is a terrible idea, but we've been told to do it, so I guess we need to give it a shot."

And now, what was going to happen never will. Waiting until after a meeting to say, "I'm not going to support that," is like saying, "I'll agree to anything, but that doesn't mean I'll actually do it. I'll even work against it."

Those people need to work somewhere else.

3. People love to let "Joe be Joe."

Maybe a top salesperson treats people badly. Or a great engineer is always rude during meetings. Or a manager constantly says things no one should be allowed to say in the workplace. 

Great organizations deal with those behaviors. Toxic organizations allow them; after all, that's just "Joe being Joe," right?

Actually, that's a company saying, "Even though we should address this issue...we're not going to."

Maybe Joe is just being Joe. But Joe still needs to meet basic expectations, especially where his treatment of other people is concerned.

4. People love to act as if they've already paid their dues.

An employee did great things last year, last month, or even yesterday. You're appreciative. You're grateful.

Still, today is a new day. Dues aren't paid. Dues get paid. The only real measure of any employee's value is the tangible contribution he or she makes on a daily basis.

Saying, "I've paid my dues," is like saying, "I no longer need to work as hard." And suddenly, before you know it, other employees start to feel they've earned the right to coast too.

5. People love to say, "That's not my job."

The smaller the company, the more important it is that employees think on their feet, adapt quickly to shifting priorities, and do whatever it takes, regardless of role or position, to get things done.

Even if that means a manager has to help load a truck or a machinist needs to clean up a solvent spill; or the accounting staff needs to hit the shop floor to help complete a rush order; or a CEO needs to man a customer-service line during a product crisis. (You get the idea.)

Any task an employee is asked to do--as long as it isn't unethical, immoral, or illegal, and it's "below" his or her current position--is a task an employee should be willing to do. (Great employees notice problems and jump in without being asked.)

Saying, "It's not my job," says, "I care only about me." That attitude quickly destroys overall performance because it quickly turns what might have been a cohesive team into a dysfunctional group of individuals.

6. People love to think experience alone has value. 

Experience is definitely important, but experience that doesn't translate into better skills, better performance, and greater achievement is worthless. Experience that just "is" is a waste.

Example: A colleague once said to younger supervisors, "My role is to be a resource." Great--but then he sat in his office all day waiting for us to come by so he could dispense his pearls of wisdom. Of course, none of us did stop by; we were all busy thinking, "I respect your experience...but I wish your role was to do your job."

How many years you've put in pales in comparison with how many things you accomplish--today.

Saying, "I have more experience," is like saying, "I don't need to justify my decisions or actions." Experience (or position) should never win an argument. Wisdom, logic, and judgment should always win--regardless of in whom those qualities are found.

7. People love to gossip.

Before a meeting started, a group of us were talking about supervisors in another department. After a couple minutes our new boss looked up and said, "Stop. From now on we will never say anything bad about anyone unless they are actually in the room. Period."

Until then, I never thought of gossip as a part of a company's culture. Gossip just "was." We all did it. And it sucked--especially because being the focus of gossip sucked. (And in time, I realized people who gossip suck too.)

If an employee has talked to more than one person about something Joe is doing, wouldn't everyone be better off if he stepped up and actually talked to Joe about it? And if it's "not his place" to talk to Joe, it's definitely not his place to talk about Joe.

Saying, "Did you hear what Joe did?" is like saying, "I have nothing better to do than talk about other people."

Not only do employees who create a culture of gossip waste time better spent on productive conversations, but they cause other people to respect their co-workers a little less--and anything that diminishes the dignity or respect of any employee should never be tolerated.

8. People love to grab the glory...

OK, maybe he did do nearly all the work. Maybe he did overcome almost every obstacle. Maybe, without him, that high-performance team would have been anything but.

But probably not. Nothing important is ever accomplished alone, even if some people love to act like it.

A good employee and good team player shares the glory. He credits others. He praises. He appreciates. He lets others shine. That's especially true for an employee in a leadership position--he celebrates the accomplishments of others secure in the knowledge that their success reflects well on him, too.

Saying, "I did all the work," or "It was all my idea," is like saying, "The world revolves around me, and I need everyone to know it." And even if other people don't adopt the same philosophy, they resent having to fight for recognition that is rightfully theirs.

9. ...and they love to throw others under the bus.

A vendor complains. A customer feels shortchanged. A co-worker gets mad. No matter what has happened, it's someone else's fault.

Sometimes, whatever the issue and regardless of who is actually at fault, some people step in and take the hit. They willingly accept the criticism or abuse, because they know they can handle it (and they know that maybe the person actually at fault cannot).

Few acts are more selfless than taking the undeserved hit. And few acts better cement a relationship. Few acts are more selfish than saying, "It wasn't me," especially when, at least in part, it was.

Saying, "You'll have to talk to Joe," is like saying, "We're not all in this together."

At the best companies, everyone is in it together.

Published on: Mar 6, 2019
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