At first glance you may think to yourself, "I really don’t need 5 signs to know if I work in a toxic environment." The truth is, a lot of environments don’t start out that way. When you came on board everything was great - culture was king and everyone was rowing in the same direction eating the same free snacks. But that was last month.
A toxic environment can sometime work more like a frog in the boiling pot. At first it was great, but over time as the heat rises it gets bad rather quickly. Much like the frog, by the time you realize the state of your work environment has gotten too hot to bear, the great culture has been lost.
Another version of the toxic environment is the Stockholm work syndrome, where everything is blamed on corporate so you feel sympathy for your managers and stay because they are always telling you a new day is right around the corner... which usually never comes.
So, what should I look for?
Sign 1: Good People Leave, Bad Performers Stay
This is unfortunately common and should be a big signal. High performers know they are high performers. They know their skills are valuable and have no problem moving from an environment that works against their success.
The bad performers become cocooned; they do just enough to keep their job and contribute to the negativity of the environment either through gossip, not putting forth a quality effort, or just having a constant negative disposition. If you are waiting for them to become a butterfly, it is not going to happen no matter how many times management has had the “talk” with them.
Sign 2: Ineffective Management
This flows directly from the first sign of good performers leaving. Managers within the company have no real power to affect change within the company, and because of that there is really nothing they can do to improve the environment. Because of this, they become very passive aggressive. When high performing managers get stripped of their authority or ability to drive change, they will either acquiesce or move on from frustration. If they stay, it is usually for a secondary reason that still personally benefits them and outweighs their current scenario.
Sign 3: High Stress
Just like the frog in the pot, a high stress environment can rise slowly, and before you know – it becomes the norm. This is NOT the same as a high performing environment; the stress of a high performing environment is a positive stress and affects our psyche much differently.
A high stress negative environment exists when a company finds new ways to squeeze employees to their limit, even pushing them past their limit of what is actually doable in that particular role. There is a myriad of ways that high stress is brought on including:
- Reducing headcount while conversely raising quotas, goals, caseloads, production outputs, etc.
- Putting a hiring freeze in place as people are either being laid-off or leaving on their own – so now one person is doing the job of two or three.
- Lack of communication, which makes hearsay and gossip seem credible.
One cannot miss the impact a general lack of trust in the local and/or Senior Management team can cause. This in particular is huge because our work and career choices are based on trust: we choose companies because of what they tell us, which the majority of the time is in the interview process. Stress stays with you and can negatively affect and impact all of your other relationships, including your marriage and your children.
Sign 4: Communication Culture
The communication landscape of the company is by and large negative and interlaced with implied negative ultimatums. Negative communication is done in order to “motivate” people and all it really does is demoralize them instead, which then can have the added effect of making them feel like they are the problem.
The other side of this is from an executive level; everyone is singing a happy song and will not acknowledge what everyone else already knows. So the communication that does come out is disingenuous at best, which again drives a lack of trust in a leadership team that is either completely out of touch with the workers (or refuses to acknowledge it for other reasons). That then drives conversations among the employees--which for the most part are venting sessions--about how bad everything is.
Sign 5: Lack of Balance
All of these signs drive to this: a lack of work/life balance. I am the first to say there is a reason the word “work” comes first in work/life balance, but that is meant to be taken with perspective. If you are in a situation where you can never unplug, constantly feel compelled to check AND respond to your email whether on vacation, at a movie, at dinner or on a Sunday, you know what I am talking about. You are never able to relax, always waiting for the next potential shoe to drop or super urgent fire drill email/text to come through for a report that could have been done days ago.
The negative impact of this is that for everyone else in your life you are not truly present when with them – you are not fully engaged in the other part of your life, the part that is frankly the most important. Companies come and go, but family is forever – there is a difference between sacrificing for your family and sacrificing your family; I encourage you to make sure you know the difference.
If you find yourself in the positions described above, update your resume, reach out to a recruiter, your network and anyone else that can help you move on – your career is in your hands.
About the Author
Nick is the Executive Vice President of Sales for V-Soft Consulting group, Inc. He has over 25 years of experience in the employment services industry and specializes in change management and driving operational efficiencies.
Nick is an expert on the changing world of work and a consultant to many companies in helping them prepare for coming changes. Nick is also a self-proclaimed expert barbecue smoker so be sure to ask him about his latest experiment. Connect with Nick or learn more on LinkedIn.