In biology, a toxin is a poisonous substance that is produced inside a living cell or another organism. The term's been around since at least 1849. Then, in 2003, Britney Spears enlightened us with the idea that we, as individuals, can be toxic. Whether this was an off-the-cuff idea by one of her songwriters or Britney is actually an advanced social theorist who believes society itself is a living organism, we may never know. Either way, since then, use of the word has skyrocketed, and for the past few years we've been hearing a lot about the dangers of the toxic workplace (yes, the phrase even has its own Wikipedia page).

And make no mistake, a toxic workplace can be dangerous

So, how do you know you're in one?

Google "toxic workplace" and you'll have no shortage of answers. Here are five ways to tell, here are 10, here are seven more, and if that's not enough, take another 19

But since that's so many signs to keep up with, I've devised my own rule of thumb. One simple way to tell if your work environment is toxic:

Your colleagues are bad at their jobs. 

Easy, right? And, of course, bad can mean many things. Now, before you start throwing stones, hear me out and ask yourself these questions. Do they sound like any co-worker, or co-workers, you know?

  • Are they consistently late?
  • Do they frequently call out of work?
  • Do they talk behind one another's back? 
  • Do they roll their eyes at memos?
  • Do they ignore company policies?
  • Do they constantly make excuses? 
  • Do they always find something to complain about without providing constructive solutions?
  • Are they plain failing to complete their assigned duties?

The list can go on, but any and all of those qualify. Unfortunately, the more of them you see happening around you, the more toxic your workplace is guaranteed to be.

My reasoning for this rule is pretty straightforward: If your colleagues don't earn your respect with their work ethic and level of personal accountability, then the people who hired them are probably downright clueless. And sure, where you may be disciplined enough to not let their behaviors or actions impact you, that toxicity can be exponentially damaging. 

All companies, regardless of size or age, should prioritize good hiring strategy, choosing only to bring in people who share the company's vision to the core. And if your company hired people who were a good fit at the time, but toxic behaviors are still frequent -- that's even worse. It shows that the management-to-staff relationship is at best stagnated and at worst non-existent. 

Bottom line, if the people you work for can't figure out how to get good employees under them, or how to keep those employees focused and productive, then that company's future is pretty bleak, and you'd do well to be looking for other options sooner rather than later. 

If you're not already, start paying attention to whether the people around you are the kind of colleagues you can brag about.

And to quote Britney Spears, if not, you may be "slippin' under" and need to get out before "there's no escape."