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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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12 possible indicators of a dysfunctional workspace

What constitutes a toxic environment? Here are 12 indicators you could be working in a noxious workplace.

Career Plugs’ 2022 Toxic Work Environment Report revealed that 72% of respondents have left a job because of a toxic workplace and the Society of Human Resources Management says one in four working Americans dreads going to work. While most people blame leaders and co-workers for an environment where it is difficult to work or progress, many of us aren’t sure what constitutes a toxic environment and make our decisions based on intuition and gut feeling.

A healthy workspace will have good communication throughout the hierarchy of the organisation

The 12 indicators of a toxic workplace

There are at least 12 possible indications that you are working in a dysfunctional, noxious environment:

  1. Inclusion and diversity aren’t prioritised
  2. Boundaries and work/life balance aren’t respected
  3. High stress levels and absenteeism rates
  4. Rapid staff turnover
  5. Lack of opportunities and personal development
  6. Lack of transparency and communication
  7. A cold, stagnant atmosphere
  8. Good work goes unrewarded
  9. A lack of trust
  10. Discrimination, prejudice and bias
  11. Employee unrest
  12. Listen to your gut

Poor diversity and inclusion are red flags

A key indicator of a toxic work environment is that inclusion and diversity are not a priority. 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.

Personal space invasion is another indicator. Out-of-hours communication, asking you to cancel your holiday plans or interrupting you while you are on a break signal there are no boundaries in your organisation and your needs and work/life balance are of little interest.

Next, elevated levels of stress leave. 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.

Poor levels of communication should ring alarm bells

Non-toxic workspaces retain talent

Fast turnover of talent can be indicative of a toxic working environment. Equally, if there is rapid staff turnover and especially if newly hired workers don’t stay for long, this is likely to be a signal of a defective working culture and faulty leadership.

If you feel trapped in your job, this can be a sign of toxicity. If you feel like opportunities are passing you by or they are being repeatedly offered to others, and there is little chance of further training, or new opportunities and personal development, you may be, or may need to be, reconsidering your position. This is particularly difficult when you are told that you won’t find better work anywhere else, and that you should be happy with your lot.

Poor levels of communication should ring alarm bells  – 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.

Dickens was wrong: work should be fun

Another indicator is a lack of fun. Work should be fun. Do you see people smiling or the welcome sound of laughter in the workplace every day? Or have you noticed a lack of positive facial expressions, slumped body language and a cold or stagnant atmosphere? These reveal 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.

Passive aggression is toxic. Hostile leaders who show harassing or narcissistic behaviours are easier to identify but those who are passive-aggressive or micromanage are harder to pinpoint. You may find nothing is ever good enough for them and they may often say they are disappointed in you. They may not reward good work with affirmative language or only offer harsh rather than constructive criticism, but these are still sure signs of a toxic leader.

A lack of trust. Organisations with high levels of trust and purpose have better collaboration, strong leadership, highly valued respect, better morale and lower employee turnover. On the other hand businesses with minimal trust suffer from conflict, rivalries, lack of engagement, poor creativity and divisive thinking.

Sexism is systemic and unacceptable

Discrimination, prejudice and bias are indicators of toxicity. 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.

If your gut tells you that something is not right within your environment, you are probably right

Discontent and unrest ring alarm bells. 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.

If your gut tells you 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.

Interested in this topic? Read Four ways HR leaders can tackle a toxic work culture.

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