What are the Warning Signs That Your Workplace is Becoming Toxic?

Cultural Change & Change Management

Female office worker stuck in a toxic work environment

Astute visitors can spot the signs of a toxic workplace within minutes. But, often managers or business owners are blind to the problems in their own business. They’re oblivious to unhappy employees and simmering tensions. Often, they don’t attribute a high turnover rate to poor culture. Even if they are aware of a problem, it's easy to underestimate the severity. Signs of conflict can go amiss until the pressure cooker goes off.

It’s important that people can see the cracks appearing in toxic workplaces so they can take action. Without swift action, the cracks can turn into gaping holes, swallowing up everyone’s motivation and happiness.

5 Characteristics of a Toxic Work Environment

There are several sure-fire ways to tell if an organisation’s culture is toxic. Here are a five common warning signs to watch out for:

1. Workplace Bullies Hold the Power

You assume a CEO or business owner runs the show but it’s not always the case. A bully or outspoken employee can hold plenty of power in an organisation. They often bully more than one individual by taking credit for ideas that aren’t their own. Belittling people or threatening behaviour are other tactics employed by bullies.

When there is a bully in the workplace, other employees will often try to hide in the shadows. They don’t want to stand out to be ridiculed or blamed for something going wrong. Instead, they keep their heads down and do their jobs. This kills off innovation and creative thinking, creating a dysfunctional work environment. In this type of workplace, growth and development will stagnate.

Bullying makes colleagues feel stressed at work and at home. A Harvard Business School survey of 60,000 workers found 80% of people lost work time worrying about a colleague’s rudeness.  78% said their commitment to an organisation declined due to toxic behaviour.

If no one confronts a bully or files a complaint with their manager or HR, their behaviour goes on unchecked. Many employees leave an organisation because of the tense environment rather than complain about a bully.

2. Poor Attitudes are Spreading

If you don’t enjoy going to work, it will likely show in your attitude. One person’s miserable outlook can rub off on their colleagues and before long, no one in the office is happy. A poor attitude results in people not helping colleagues and everyone  doing the bare minimum.

A toxic office full of unhappy people leads to an increase in absenteeism. People are more likely to take a day off to escape the negative environment. It also causes "presenteeism" when staff are  at work but not mentally engaged.

Some workplaces are overly bureaucratic places where unmotivated staff actually look for ways to do less work. A widespread sense of malaise kills any chance of success the organisation may have.

3. Communication is Poor

Communication is important at all levels of a business. You know communication is poor if you always hear about important changes ‘through the grapevine’ before the official memo. When important news is only spread by people whispering in the staff kitchen, you may have a toxic workplace.

Managers should acknowledge wins and share the glory, giving their people credit for success. It’s well recognised that people like to be told they did a good job. If managers only give negative feedback, it's a sure sign of a toxic workplace.

4. The Turnover Rate is Terrible

No one wants to be miserable at work. If your workplace is toxic, employees are likely spending work time trawling Seek and LinkedIn. A high voluntary turnover rate shows people are willing to bet another organisation can’t be any worse than the one they’re currently in.

Sometimes the easiest way to protect yourself from a toxic work environment is to quit. When this becomes a pattern, the business continually loses their best people. Even worse, the ones who remain are a combination of the troublemakers and others who are demotivated - just not enough to leave!

5. Workplace Conflict and Hostility is Rife

It’s not hard to spot conflict amongst individuals or departments. The snide remarks, sniggers and complaints are signs of simmering conflict. Even a small disagreement between two colleagues can have a wider impact. Unless someone resolves the conflict it can escalate, causing stress and a hostile workplace.

What makes up a hostile workplace? When conflict goes past basic rudeness (e.g. people are often intimidating or abusive), a workplace could be considered hostile. This increases the risk of employees experiencing negative mental health as a result.

What Can You Do if You’re Working in a Toxic Environment?

As a manager it’s vital to spot the signs early before the problem spreads. If you notice a problem, move decisively to make cultural changes and promote a more positive culture.

If you are in a toxic environment as an employee, try to create distance between yourself and the negative or abusive people. Don’t get caught up in rumours and gossip - instead try to build stronger relationships with positive colleagues.

In severe cases it could be worth making an exit plan. Don't underestimate the health consequences of stress and work.

If you think your organisation could benefit from a cultural change, or assistance with conflict management, call PeopleSense by Altius on 1300 307 912 or (08) 9388 9000, or contact us online.