Culture   //   February 21, 2023

How to tell if your workplace is actually toxic

People are quicker than ever to label workplaces or managers “toxic.”

In many ways, that’s a good thing, calling out ugly cultures and more subtle forms of workplace bullying that were previously tolerated. But – like its cousin “gaslighting” – the word has also become a catch-all and is in danger of being misapplied, experts warn.

For instance, in some cases, the line between misinterpretation, miscommunication, or simply someone having a bad day, can lead to the term toxic being applied, when in truth, it’s far from the case.

The lines are getting worryingly blurred, and that’s only magnified in a remote setting given that it can be harder to pick up on social and behavioral cues when only communicating through digital channels, and it’s often easier to skirt the awkwardness of face-to-face communication.

“People are using terms from psychology very lightly,” said Ludmila Praslova, psychology professor who researches workplace bullying. “When people are saying that someone is toxic just because they are actually asking them to do work that is their responsibility, that’s not toxic. Some people say anything they relatively don’t like is toxic and that if anyone disagrees with them it’s gaslighting.”

That behavior could end up negatively impacting company culture and even potentially lead to the creation of a truly toxic environment. At the same time, it ends up resulting in people not taking actual cases of toxicity and gaslighting in the workplace seriously.

“If everyone is crying wolf, then it desensitizes people to when there is an actual problem,” said Praslova. 

This past year has seen a bunch of shady work-culture tactics or general environments get (rightly) questioned, as we re-examine the importance of behavioral dynamics in remote and hybrid work settings. America’s oldest dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster chose “gaslighting” as its word of the year for 2022 because searches on its website for the word spiked by 1,740% last year. Simply tolerating negative work culture and treatment from colleagues or bosses, seems to be a thing of the past.

But just how big a spectrum applies to these terms? The New York Times published an opinion piece last week asking “Is ‘Trauma Talk’ Overused?” which referenced what professor and psychologist Nick Haslam’, a professor at the University of Melbourne, has called “trauma creep” — when medical or clinical language is used increasingly to describe a gaping set of everyday experiences. Determining what’s toxic or gaslighting, and what isn’t, is getting harder.

Dr. Kyle Elliott, a Silicon Valley career coach, said he often gets asked by his clients if they’re in a toxic environment or if they’re just being sensitive. We spoke to psychologists, chief medical officers and career coaches, who provided tips on how to identify whether or not a workplace is truly toxic.

1. Trust your gut and acknowledge previous experiences

Instinct can’t be underestimated. “If you’re asking yourself that you’re in a toxic work environment, that might be a sign that you are,” said Elliott. Ask yourself why you have that question in mind, and check in with your intuition, she suggested.

Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, said that people in this situation might start second-guessing themselves quickly. 

“If you’re asking yourself that you’re in a toxic work environment, that might be a sign that you are.”
Dr. Kyle Elliott, a Silicon Valley career coach.

“You want to empower people to trust their instincts,” said Patel-Dunn. “That goes a long way.”

However, past experience should also be taken into account and reflected on before making a decision. If a person has previously worked in a toxic environment, they might be more easily triggered, stressed Elliott.

Additionally, Patel-Dunn says if you are in a vulnerable state because of other situations not related to work, you may be more sensitive to dynamics at work. That’s why it’s helpful to ask yourself why you’re feeling like your workplace might be toxic but to also consider a few of the steps below to back up your intuition.

2. Look for a pattern

Praslova suggests identifying a pattern. Did your boss ignore your idea one time? Or is it happening consistently? If it happened once, that person might have had a bad day and it wouldn’t serve anyone to immediately say the work environment is toxic. However, if it’s happening time and time again, that requires closer scrutiny.

It can also be helpful to find out how a middle manager is treating people above them as well as below them. If there is a dramatic difference in how they communicate with their superiors, where it’s chin up all the time, but are then rude to other people, it could be a sign that they are toxic. 

Aside from looking for patterns with your boss’s behavior, you can consider if you’ve had more bad days than good days. 

“It’s normal to have bad days at work, but if you find yourself having more bad than good, it can be an indicator that you’re in a toxic work environment or a sign that you need to leave and look for something better,” said Elliott. 

3. Talk to colleagues and friends to get their point of view

“It’s saying ‘hey, this is what I just perceived in this meeting, can you provide me a gut check?’” said Elliott. 

Patel-Dunn agrees and said it could look like asking a colleague “how are things going for you?” over a cup of coffee. “It’s so helpful to have dialogue amongst your colleagues, who may be reporting to the same boss, to see if they’re having the same experience,” said Patel-Dunn. 

Getting a colleague’s perspective is helpful, but also summarizing the situation for a friend who isn’t involved at all might be worthwhile. 

“People have different points of view and it’s helpful to get them internally and externally,” said Elliott. “Sometimes we downplay things when it really is toxic, or sometimes it’s the opposite when we say it’s toxic but someone is just triggering you based on a past experience.”

4. Remember that everyone has different communication styles

Everyone communicates differently. Some people deliver facts and don’t try to sugarcoat it. If someone else isn’t used to the communication style, they could feel as if their work environment is toxic. 

“There are people who either culturally or neurologically are not wired for social pleasantness,” said Praslova. “You could say someone is toxic, but someone just communicates in a straightforward way instead of dancing around the subject, which some people expect.”

5. Look at hard data

If you are concerned that one branch of a company is more toxic than the other, it might be beneficial to look at data around retention rates. 

"If there are consistent responses that show this particular branch scores much lower on employee satisfaction, then you can say there is something going on.”
Ludmila Praslova, psychology professor who researches workplace bullying.

“Rather than just going with one opinion, it could be better to find this data,” said Praslova. “You can get organizational survey results. If there are consistent responses that show this particular branch scores much lower on employee satisfaction, then you can say there is something going on.”

This sort of data can help support your gut opinion that a toxic environment is at play. 

6. Speak up about your concerns

Having a conversation with your boss might help you understand if they are going through a certain situation that has impacted how they show up at work. 

“They might say ‘I’m struggling, my mother’s ill, or my kids are having a hard time at school,’” said Patel-Dunn. “Remind people to have that interaction.”

However, Elliott said a key indicator of a toxic work environment is if you’ve spoken up about your concerns and nothing has changed. “As an employee, it is your job to advocate for your needs, and then it’s the employer’s job to respond to them,” said Elliott. “If you speak up and there is no change, that’s where it then becomes toxic.”

If your boss is texting you after hours or has numerous demands, that isn’t what makes them toxic. It’s when you’ve set the boundary and they continue to disregard it. “That’s where I draw the line,” said Elliott.