The warning signs of toxic workplaces

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers that if you search the term “toxic workplace,” you’ll get more hits than you can read in a lifetime of net surfing. Okay, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. In any case, I find interesting the similarities and differences between pieces purporting to identify the warning signs of a toxic workplace. I thought I’d share a few representative samples with you here, with an invitation to click the titles to read the fuller explanations.

Psychology Today Cutting-Edge Leadership: “The 5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Work Environment” (2015)

Organizational psychology professor Ronald Riggio (Claremont McKenna College) identifies and explains these signs:

  • “You have to keep your head down”
  • “The bullies run the show”
  • “It takes an Act of God to get anything done”
  • “No matter what you do, you can’t get ahead”
  • “It’s all sweat, and no heart”

Fast Company: “Five Signs That Your Workplace May Be Toxic” (2015)

Psychologist Paul White identifies and discusses these five factors:

  • “Unhealthy communication patterns”
  • “Policies and procedures are non-existent or poorly implemented”
  • “The organization is led by one (or more) toxic leaders”
  • “Negative communication patterns”
  • “Your personal life is affected negatively on many fronts”

PsychCentral: “7 Signs Your Workplace is Toxic” (2014)

Therapist Melody Wilding discusses these seven factors:

  • “You’re told to feel ‘lucky you have a job'”
  • “Poor communication”
  • “Everyone has a bad attitude”
  • “There’s always office drama”
  • “Dysfunction reigns”
  • “You have a tyrannical boss”
  • “You feel in your gut something is off” “These 7 Signs Will Tell You If Your Workplace is Toxic” (2015)

Journalist and consultant John Boitnott identifies these signs of a toxic workplace:

  • “The Monday Blues”
  • “Unhealthy habits”
  • “Rush hour stress”
  • “Missed medical appointments”
  • “Disrespectful treatment”
  • “Others are unhappy”
  • “Everything is an emergency”

13 responses

  1. I tried to post a comment online but, was unable, so I’ll share my thoughts here.

    I was laid off with zero explanation on May 1, 2015. I have not really pursued new employment since. I’m lucky to be eligible for unemployment and have some savings to get by on. I’m not really motivated to seek new employment out of fear that I’ll simply encounter the same treatment again.

    I was mobbed and bullied at work so the layoff came as little surprise other than timing. I asked why I was being laid off, but was simply told, “I’m not going to get into that, but it’s just what I need to do.”

    I sensed for a long time that it was just a matter of time, and that there was little I could do to affect the situation that wouldn’t backfire on me. The situation was set.

    Back to your article, I witnessed most, if not all, the “symptoms” described of a toxic workplace. I think this is a bigger problem that exists well beyond the workplace. It’s a symptom I think of our capitalistic society. Those who bully, win. I don’t have the solution, but I think we at least need to acknowledge the connection.

  2. I can relate to every single thin said in all four articles the workplace I am talking about is totally toxic. Thank you these articles really help to the wood from the trees.

  3. This is really insightful info but at the same time comments in quotes are a little vague for my taste and there doesn’t appear to be much info addressing institutional support for the bullying . So, I site the following of my documented experiences – documented meaning written complaints, descriptions, memos at Hunter College, NYC, so this is primarily about academic bullying.

    Day to day bullying: 1) Colleagues, male and female, constantly trying to provoke incidents by inappropriate physical touching, such as bumping or trying to shove one aside; 2) Colleagues constantly trying to provide incidents by directly insulting one in the face, such as saying, “You’re crazy, ha ha ha”; 3) Colleagues, inspired by chairs or other influential members of a department, constantly resort to ridicule at department meetings, especially mobbing. If it’s a really toxic department like mine, staff and students are encouraged to participate. 4) If the union rep at the College is an alpha bully and is a member of one’s department, it’s safe to say there is a major problem for the person being bullied.

    Institutional Support: Bullies, such as department chairs, receive direct and indirect support from the administration, union, governing faculty bodies, such as college senates. Administrative reps, such as the heads of Violence in the Workplace Committees, support bogus complaints against a target and engage in cover-ups when bogus complaints fall apart. Administration participation can include covert agendas, such as, encouraging chairs to seek students and alumni/alumna for negative information to attack a bullied target. A lot more, all documented, but I end my descriptions here.

  4. Sometime soon in the next two weeks or so, I will be submitting op eds and articles to ethnic, neighborhood and alternative publications online about the NYS healthy workplace bill and because there are healthy workplace bills in states in the metro NYC area, I will be including descriptions of efforts in those states. Why? Because of the many, many people who commute to neighboring states to work and they can receive the benefits of healthy workplace bill laws in the states where they work.

    I am also helping with an Internet radio broadcast in about two weeks about iniquities of workplace bullying and I am working on a podcasting project about healthy workplace bills. Anyone interested in being interviewed should contact me directly at That goes for those interested in the Internet radio show. I am also trying to use my CNN iReport account to generate information. New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts have promising healthy workplace bills working their way through legislatures and the public needs to know more.

    I have no idea how much I can get accomplished but the effort is there.

  5. Great synopsis of the signs of a toxic workplace, David. I am doing a radio interview next week on my research and my worldview with bullying in nursing. As people become more disconnected and distracted by the toxic work environment, we all become victims to ineffective leadership, work practices, and other human factors, like turn-over, because reasonable people are not going to stay in an environment that affects their health. And, those who feel they have no choice, there really are choices. Reach out through employee assistance programs, call OSHA on whistleblowing (especially if you are being forced to work unsafely), and always know, these kind of environments are made from a constant lack of accountability for behavior. Not every business is like this so look at all your employment options.

    BTW, posted to LinkedIn, Twitter, and FB. Love your blog.

  6. PABERRYRN I take it this will be a radio station in USA somewhere and will not be able to post a transcript on FB if I send a friend request to you do know your FB or Bookface name as we call it here and I am based in the Republic of Ireland and would love to hear/read it? Regards.

  7. There needs to be more third-party intervention and review of compliance to internal policy. There is research in Australia correlating corruption to toxic workplaces and bullying. If one considers the human resource as just that, a resource, then its intentional abuse and mismanagement of course impacts productivity and profitability. But moreover, shareholder value is impacted negatively. It has to be. Organizations are systems where processes and resources are interconnected and interrelationships are key. If any of these are compromised, as happens with bullying, poor knowledge sharing, poor process control, the system will perform non-optimally. I also see bullying as cooperative and something that cannot happen without the condoning – in some way – of a toxic top management structure. These issues impact every aspect of business and share holders, employees, and customers should be allowed to know how processes are being followed and their outcomes. Managers control outcome 85-99% in systems.

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