7 Signs You're Working In A Toxic Office

No one wants to work in a toxic environment. If you have a bad seed spoiling it for everyone, you need to step up and make things right for all your employees.
August 16, 2013

Many people worry about toxic chemicals in the workplace, but the truth is workers' personality flaws are more likely to heat up your work environment and make you sicker than flaws in the building's heating and ventilation system.

In Toxic People: Decontaminating Difficult People At Work Without Using Weapons Or Duct Tape, Marsha Petrie Sue provides research on the negative health consequences of absorbing toxic people's venom: They range from eczema, increased anxiety, insomnia and high blood pressure, to name a few. A recent study also shows that those who experience psychological stress at work face twice the risk of cardiovascular disease. The list of such evidence is extensive. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre may have been on to something when he declared that "Hell is—other people!”

Most people would agree that just about every company has at least one toxic worker who poisons the air for everyone. When that person is away on vacation, it's like a blast of fresh air in the office—everyone on the team walks around with a spring in their step. When the person quits, there is a huge sigh of relief. Here are a few signs that your office is a toxic workplace.

1. Lack of equality rules. Research shows that in some organizations, there is a "specialist culture" at play that can foster toxic behaviors: Employees who are technically gifted or great in their fields don’t have to consider how their uncivil behavior or work habits affect anyone. There is one set of rules for them, and a different set of rules for everyone else. Sometimes the toxicity comes from one individual who treats everyone with disrespect. He or she uses a dismissive tone, cuts people down, orders them around, criticizes others' work with impudence, takes potshots at people in front of their peers, and intimidates and humiliates almost everyone on staff. The boss turns a blind eye because the employee is a high performer.

2. Negative cliques thrive. A band of employees form a negative clique whose members behave like corporate teenagers. They put a negative spin on most company initiatives—but never openly. They are mean-spirited and derive negative momentum and strength from each other. When a new person joins the company, they go out of their way to befriend that person. They work swiftly to appropriate the hapless new employee.

3. Malice trumps kindness. You can glean malevolence in some co-workers' eyes. They won't hurt you physically, but they do their greatest damage by sabotaging anything you are trying to accomplish. You are continuously astonished at how far they go to create roadblocks. You find yourself having to waste time with activities whose sole purpose is to protect yourself, such as detailed emails, copying everyone and keeping hard copies, just in case.

4. Managers play favorites. Do some managers have clear favorites who receive preferential treatment whether it's compensation, special trips, training or other perks, such as time off? Do these "favorites" advance faster, regardless of merit? The manager spends more face time with these selected few than with others. They are publicly praised for their work, while those who are not mentioned end up feeling bad. Favoritism has promoted feelings of envy, has destroyed the trust and damaged morale in the department.

5. Unqualified cronies are hired. People lobby senior executives to hire friends who are clearly not a good fit for the job or the culture. They bypass the normal recruitment processes to enlist more cronies in their negative camp. Their lobbying succeeds and you find yourself having to accept a new hire whose thinking has already been poisoned against you from the start.

6. One of the leaders is a poster boy for bad behavior. This is an individual who is the antithesis of what a leader should be. He is looking out for number one—his prime motivation is the pursuit of power and money. He is untrustworthy, cheats his partners and every other stakeholder, flirts with female staff, and gossips about one team member to another. He erodes boundaries by becoming a close buddy of one or two employees, creating anxiety for those who are excluded. He encourages employees to inform on each other. This bad behavior filters down to other individuals. Pretty soon, it becomes a part of the culture, defended with the simple phrase "it's just how things are done around here."

7. Lucrezia Borgia is on staff. Lucrezia Borgia is bright, clever and evil. She is a metaphor for the power behind the throne. There is often an individual who fits that description in many organizations. She may not have a significant title, but she derives her power from her long service in the company and her administrative competence. Employees have learned to be on their guard for this person who is a political master of manipulation and covert operation. In the eyes of management, she comes across as a trusted employee who has the company's best interest at heart. She uses this mantle to stir up things behind the scene and acts as the company cop. She has the ear of upper management who are oblivious to the harm she is causing and believe all the filtered information they receive. Over the years, this employee drives many good people away.

The list of toxic behaviors at work is sadly very long. What can be done?

How To Fix A Toxic Office

As the leader of your company, it's your responsibility to fix a toxic office. No leader can call himself a leader if he or she turns a blind eye to a toxic work culture. Ignorance of what's going on is not an excuse. A leader worth his salt keeps his finger on the pulse of the organization and ensures that it's a good place for people to do their best work. There is more to running a business than watching the financial metrics and making money.

Resolve to do something about purging the toxicity from your work environment. Conduct a culture survey; start doing exit interviews; institute a 360 degree feedback system; include in your performance reviews behaviorally specific criteria for respectful conduct; make it clear which behaviors will not be tolerated; equip your hiring managers with training to weed out the troublemakers right from the start; confront the bad apples in your staff; offer remedial coaching and training; recruit your best employees to help you turn the culture around; read the riot act if you have to, and if all else fails with some employees, make the tough decisions. As a leader, you owe this to your people. 

If you need help, hire an organizational consultant. The money you save from the hidden costs of productivity losses that result from workplace toxicity will more than offset the cost of hiring a professional to help you. Consider picking up, as well, a few copies of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities And Their Systems Of Power. Ask every leader in your organization to read the book and discuss with you how to implement some of its strategies.

If You're The Perpetrator

Some people may fail to see that their behavior is toxic to others. If there's a lot of negativity surrounding you, consider that you might be the epicenter of pain and misery for your workplace. Take this self-assessment quiz to shed some light on your actions and raise your self-awareness. If you are knowingly spreading hostility, stop. Reach deep inside yourself to try to determine the root causes of your behavior. There is a concept of the "corporate child," that is, we bring to our workplaces dysfunctions we learned in our first corporation: our family. These may include lack of trust, backstabbing, negativity and lack of empathy.

Practice seeing the positive in people. Work with a coach who specializes in emotional intelligence who can help you develop an empathic approach. Do some honest soul searching to come to terms with how often your actions diminish people and cause frustration and anger. Consider the harm you are doing, not only to people's careers, but most importantly to their health and their families.

Above all, consider the legacy you want to leave behind. If this is hard to do, think of teachers you've had in the past—those you remember as the good ones. They're the ones who stood out as beacons of kindness and care. Use them as your model for turning yourself around.

If You're The Victim

Do everything you can to look after your health and counteract the ill effects of stress: good nutrition, adequate sleep, exercise, and the emotional support of friends and family. If it's feasible, try to limit the time you spend face-to-face with the toxic individual, especially in meetings, often a favored arena for toxic behaviors. Befriend decent people in the office who can act as an emotional buffer. Consider working with a coach who specializes in stress management, and pick up a copy of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

Above all, forget about vindictiveness and getting even. These are individuals who excel at the art and science of toxicity—they are very good at what they do. The truth is, the average decent person is no match for a toxic one.

Read more articles on company culture.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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