There comes a time when we all need to evaluate our work environment and the people we work with to determine if it's hurting our career path, or much worse, our health and well-being.
While job safety is important, you need to weigh the cost: Move on to a healthier work culture where people treat you with respect and dignity, with a lapse in income while you search? Or stay for the paycheck and take the daily shrapnel wounds from toxic co-workers and bosses in the battlefields of your corporate hell?
Perhaps you're on the fence now, processing your decision. Whatever you choose with a clear and sound mind, here are six toxic corporate behaviors that I've collected over the years from the files of clients, case studies in the literature, and personal accounts of colleagues.
Maybe this is that extra nudge you need to push you to the right side of the fence.
1. Negative cliques and gossipers
One clear sign of a toxic work environment is a group of disgruntled employees actively acting out their unhappiness. It's easy to spot them--they'll congregate in hush-hush circles around cubicles after meetings to put a negative spin on what just transpired.
They are quick to gossip, and even quicker to crucify leadership and company direction. They're basically corporate teenagers whose time with the company is about to expire, and who now rely on each other for strength and safety.
Keep a close eye out for their whereabouts; they may go out of their way to befriend new hires to vilify someone or something and spread their cancer.
2. Dictator managers
The feeling of watching your back (for your manager's whereabouts) is never a pleasant one. It means you either fear or loathe your manager, and facing him or her during the day probably means bad news because the exchange is never positive.
This type of manager will create a toxic culture of distrust where it's not safe to disclose information, offer input, or work in close collaboration.
Job survival under a dictatorship is day-to-day, due to the unpredictability of the environment you're in. Everybody is on his or her own.
Trusting your peers is risky--they may really be your enemies. Trusting your manager is just corporate suicide. Consider updating your resume.
Picture a sensitive situation in which a manager will not communicate directly with a subordinate or peer, but will gladly reach out to communicate with a third person, which can lead to that person (who may not even be involved in the situation) becoming part of the problem.
Sometimes this manager will even play the two people against each other. Welcome to triangulating. This is a typical dysfunctional pattern of managers who don't have the courage to deal directly with an issue by communicating honesty to diffuse the situation.
4. Lack of accountability
These toxic workers don't exercise responsibility and own up to "their stuff" when "their stuff" is at fault. Remember the old saying "For every finger you point, there are three pointing back at you"?
They are critical, can't admit to their own mistakes, are never wrong, and will blame their colleagues (or subordinates, if it's a manager) when something goes wrong, even if it's not based on reality. They are simply not accountable for their own actions. They are more concerned with preserving their reputation and saving face.
This example is quite astonishing if you find yourself sharing space with this toxic co-worker. They will go way out of their way to sabotage anything you're trying to get done, putting obstacles in your way, and spreading rumors (see "Negative cliques and gossipers," above).
There's usually a personal vendetta at work here. Perhaps you're up for a promotion and your co-worker, who thinks he is more deserving, is not. Now he's out to make your life miserable, and trying to spin a negative campaign against you.
Now you're left with covering your bases to protect yourself -- writing more detailed emails than usual, CC'ing and BCC'ing more people than normal, documenting everything, and making backup copies of stuff in the event a false accusation comes your way.
6. Serious communication issues
This may be the most prevalent sign of a toxic workplace, and it runs everywhere -- across functions and between different departments, with customers and other stakeholders, and certainly between employees and managers.
It is displayed in various forms:
- Lack of communication (meaning no communication at all), whereby staff gets word of major developments that affect their areas of responsibility after they have been implemented.
- Indirect communication, where people "get the message" through third parties, vendors, or their own customers or competitors. Most of the time, it's passive-aggressive, and comes in non-verbal manners: emails, text, personal messaging apps.
- Withholding information, which is a sign of control or shady behavior. Red flag: If someone can't be transparent, something's really going on.
- Giving misleading information.
Improving a toxic workplace does not fall squarely on HR's shoulders. It is every manager's and worker's responsibility to keep a finger on the pulse of the organization to make sure people are watching out for each other, and that fear is being pumped out of the room regularly.
The bravest thing you'll ever do before deciding which side of the fence to jump on? Counter the toxic behaviors by exposing the problem, talking about it, and campaigning against it with those who are in your corner.
And be ready to leave if the workplace becomes a hostile environment. That's when it's time to cut ties with your company.