5 Signs of a Toxic Workplace

March 22, 2021 9:00 am Published by

From negative communication patterns to low morale, five indicators that your workplace is sapping your energy and mental health. Plus a new resource to help.

The 2018 Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year: TOXIC. Not surprisingly, results from an anonymous survey that year found 52% of employees report they believe their work environment to be toxic. Unfortunately, the trend has not diminished.

All workplaces have some negative characteristics, so it can be difficult to determine how dysfunctional your organization’s culture is. Does it: a) have a normal amount of challenges, b) display seriously dysfunctional patterns, or c) affect those within the organization to the point of being toxic? 

Here are five signs that will help you determine the degree to which your work environment may be dangerous to your mental health. (NOTE: We have also created an individualized online assessment that provides feedback on the level of toxicity in your organization.)


An initial sign of a dysfunctional, toxic workplace is that there are significant problems in communication. And the difficulties often occur across multiple areas – between employees and their supervisors, from management to supervisors, across departments, with suppliers, and even with customers.  Unhealthy patterns include:

  • Lack of communication: where employees actually find out about decisions made after they have been implemented
  • Indirect communication: sending messages through others
  • Withholding information
  • Giving misleading information

Why is communication so key to a healthy organization? Because without effective communication, working together to accomplish the tasks of the organization is virtually impossible.


Have you ever been a customer in a business where no one really seems to know what the proper process is, or you get different answers to questions depending on who you ask? (And eventually the employee just seems to say “whatever” and does what they want?) Then you’ve experienced a company that has major problems with their policies and procedures being implemented. When a company’s policies and procedures are not followed, chaos, inconsistency, and poor-quality customer services are not far behind. Customers, vendors, and employees wind up hating having to deal with the company and its staff because of the frustration they experience in interacting with the staff.


Whether toxic leaders create toxic workplaces or toxic workplaces are a magnet for toxic leaders is not completely clear–in either case, the two usually go together. It is important to note, however, that toxic leaders are not necessarily at the top of the organization; they can exist at any level – executive, division leader, manager, department head or front-line supervisor.

The hallmark characteristic of a toxic leader is their narcissism. They are “all about” themselves. They view themselves as categorically brighter and more talented than anyone else around. As a result, they believe they are deserving of special treatment – the rules that apply to everyone else really are beneath them. Toxic leaders consistently relate to others in a condescending manner, they take credit for others’ successes, and they manipulate others to ensure that they look good. Trust and teamwork deteriorate in their areas; they have a high turnover rate in their department, and they will eventually destroy the health of the organization. (See our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace for a full discussion of toxic leaders.)


A toxic work environment exudes negative communication across the organization and in multiple forms; in fact, negativity becomes a defining characteristic of the organization.

Grumbling and complaining by employees are ubiquitous – staff can find something to complain about almost anytime. Next, sarcasm and cynicism show up, demonstrating an increasing lack of trust of the management and leadership, and turns into a low-level seething disgruntlement. Finally, making excuses and blaming others becomes widespread and commonplace; no one seems to be willing to accept responsibility for their decisions or actions.

Eventually, team members either start to withdraw, stop interacting with others, or leave the organization.


When a workplace is toxic, by definition, it is unhealthy and damaging to those who work there. Individuals who work in toxic work environments begin to see problems with their own personal health. This can include physical symptoms such as not being able to sleep, gaining weight, and having increased medical problems.

Emotionally, they become more discouraged, which eventually can lead to depression. For some, they are more irritable, “touchy,” and demonstrate problems managing their anger. Others experience anxiety and a general sense of dread when they think about work.

Finally, you know your work is affecting you negatively when your friends and family start to make comments on “how you’ve changed,” or “you seem stressed” and “maybe you need to talk to someone.” When your personal relationships are impacted, it is time to take a serious look at what is going on.

OUR Online Toxic Workplace training series

We have developed an individual video training program to address these issues: The Online Toxic Workplace Training Series. We have five videos that can stand alone to address individual topics, or be combined with others to create training tailored to meet specific needs. Our retail price for these is $60 per training course. We are making them available at the discounted rate of $30 each. Get all 5 training courses for $150.  Act now before this offer expires!

Intro Course: Understanding What Makes Workplaces Toxic

How bad is your workplace? Learn the major components of a toxic workplace and how to determine the severity. Discover the impact toxic workplaces can have on a person’s daily life: the toll it can take on physical health, emotional health, and relationships. Includes a free code to take the Ratings of Toxic Symptoms (ROTS) scale so you can determine just how toxic your workplace is. 

Sick Systems: The Foundation for Toxic Workplaces

When the foundational structure of an organization is not built well (or not functioning well), unhealthy behaviors typically follow. We discuss the three main components that underlie a toxic work environment (poor communication, poor policies & procedures, and lack of accountability), and practical action steps to be taken to make improvements. 

Working for & Surviving a Toxic Leader

Are you working for a toxic leader? This course is designed to help you understand and deal with toxic leaders. We explain the top 10 characteristics of toxic leaders, share common reactions of people who work for a toxic leader, and discuss practical action steps for surviving working for a toxic leader.

Understanding & Dealing with Dysfunctional Colleagues

Do you work with people that are a challenge? This course explains the different ways someone can be dysfunctional and shares practical techniques to deal with them to help you maintain your own sanity. 

Conclusion Course: Steps for Rising Above a Toxic Workplace

This final course in the Toxic Workplace Series provides insight and advice to help improve a negative work environment. Topics include how you might be contributing to a negative environment, practical steps for surviving a toxic workplace, and issues to consider when determining if you need to leave. We encourage you to use these resources which can make a significant positive difference in your workplace and your life!

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Published by
March 22, 2021 9:00 am


  • Fanny says:

    This is heavy. I understand that I’ve almost only experienced or heard about toxic workplaces… Then I guess there’s a scale too…

    • Paul White says:

      During the course of our research over the years and when talking to people at speaking engagements, it became clear that there are some very toxic work environments out there. And you don’t have to see problems in all five of these areas for a toxic workplace to exist. The idea behind sharing these warning signs is so that people can recognize them and take action before it spirals out of control. I’m glad to hear that you have not experienced this first hand and hope you never find yourself working somewhere with a toxic culture.

      • Fanny says:

        And thank you for that! It’s true that recognising a toxic workplace is the first step to any kind of healing.

  • Mette says:

    Is there anyway of getting my hands on the book as highlighted in section 3? I live in Australia, and the shipping of $70+ makes it not so attractive 🙂
    However, the topic is so timely and relevant for us. We have a high level leader, who if ever challenged, has enough power to eliminate staff. We’re a goverment organisation, so correct policies are in place to protect staff from this sort of behaviour, except in this instance.

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