Are You in a Toxic Workplace? How to Know If You Are… and What to Do About It

Are You In a Toxic Environment at Work?

For those of you so deeply affected by the latest crazy-making experience in your toxic workplace that you’re almost too stunned to type… For those of you sitting at your desk, cradling your head in your hands… For those of you frantically searching co-workers’ faces for clues, wondering if you’re the only one noticing the madness… This blog post is for you.

As an experienced career coach and Denver career counselor, I can easily recognize the signs of a toxic workplace. I also have some expert advice for how to cope with this kind of environment.

Sign #1 of Toxic Workplaces: They Make You Doubt Yourself

Are you second-guessing your work experience with these kinds of questions:

  • Is it really that bad?
  • Are my expectations too high?
  • What can I do about it anyway?

Here’s the thing: Not every work struggle fits the label of “toxic workplace.” Sometimes a job is a bad fit for you. Sometimes challenging work experiences may be due to a “boomerang effect,” where you’re dishing out meanness and judgment, so that’s what comes back at you. Perhaps the person creating a stench has a hidden diagnosis or an invisible family situation that’s making it impossible for them to build positive workplace relationships.

So, yeah, there may be reasonable explanations and solutions if it feels like toxicity is showing up in your workplace. At the same time, it’s worth getting some key questions and terms defined and clear, to help you determine if you are in a toxic workplace or not.

The Toxic Workplace Checklist

A toxic work situation looks as unique as each person, but here are still some conditions that show up and make things fall legitimately under the toxic umbrella:

  • Harm to people or property.
  • A boss that plays favorites or pits people against each other.
  • Or, a boss that is toxic for any other reason.
  • Unpredictability is the rule; not just about daily happenings, but also about your job’s longevity.
  • An unhealthy person with a big ripple or clusters of unhealthy people (this can be bad leaders, difficult colleagues, or clients).
  • Drama, gossip, or bullying.
  • Physical or mental reactions to stress and burnout. This happens when your nervous system is on high alert in more than just a passing way. (However, it should be noted that this can be caused by many variables beyond your work environment, so it’s important to look for the root of this scenario with a professional.) Symptoms that you’re in an elevated state of anxiety:
    • Your focus and/or performance are negatively affected,
    • People you live with notice your irritability or an emotional state that’s not typical for you, or they report your energy is negatively affecting others in your intimate sphere,
    • Your sleep and/or eating are disrupted (in either direction – excess or minimization).

There’s no set formula for definitively calling a workplace toxic. My rule of thumb is that if my client calls it toxic, I trust their judgment. You might also feel more empowered and motivated at work simply by declaring that your job is toxic to you. No one else has to endorse the term. Unless you plan to pursue legal action, no one else needs to testify that their experience parallels yours. If you hate your job, let’s make a plan for shifting gears for you.

How to Manage a Toxic Workplace

Here are some key questions I often ask my clients to help them create a survival/action plan if they’re dealing with a toxic workplace environment:

  • If you remove one person, does the problem go away?
  • What’s the worst that can happen if you pursue any of the avenues you’re considering, and are you willing and able to deal with those worst-case scenarios?
  • What does your support network look like? Can you activate your network to help you through this transition?

In general, know that workplace toxicity is a great reason to find another job. Sometimes that’s not feasible, easy, or quick, so we can look at other options. But know that making a switch – either internally if you think the problem will be solved if you’re out of the sphere of one particular person, or externally if the issue appears to be systemic and entrenched – often takes planning, strategy, and finesse.

Beyond deliberating about whether to segue to a new position, there are some approaches you can take to reduce the immediate impact on yourself. As a career coach, it’s been my experience that clients who take the time to learn that those tactics are rooted in understanding and leveraging power dynamics.

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Six Strategies to Survive a Toxic Workplace, and Take Your Power Back

First, know that it’s useful to recognize what power is. The great civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., defined power as the ability to achieve purpose and effect change. I often review several categories of power with my clients, which include the following:

  1. Hierarchical power. This refers to an organization’s structure. This kind of power structure answers the questions: who reports to whom, who has hire/fire authority, and who has the ear of influential people? Generally, if you’re seeking help with workplace toxicity, this isn’t the type of power you have readily accessible. But the good news is, that it is not the only kind of power you can leverage.  
  2. Logistical power. This is the physical infrastructure of where you work. See if you can think through the answers to the following questions, keeping in mind the physical space in which you operate. Is there a safe place where you can retreat? Can you use buffers to block your line of sight or stay off others’ radars? Can you escape for breaks, especially outside for a Vitamin D break? Is there a way for you to psychologically indicate to yourself that you no longer need to carry the stressors of work (a mantra when you leave work each day, for example)? How you utilize your physical space, and even transition from your work to your home, can make you feel empowered.
  3. Ninja power. This is how I refer to your interpretation of the situation. How can you reconfigure your perspective and shift how external stressors affect you? This is where a coach or therapist can support you using techniques such as mindfulness or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The power of perspective can be a transformative tool for keeping our workplace safe and productive.
  4. Peer or posse power. This is the kind of empowerment that happens after banding together with those in the same situation. Your peers can help by acting as a block and/or support network. If you plan to cultivate and access this power, be attentive to the structure and know there’s a risk that you may be perceived as being exclusionary and/or stirring up ire. Proceed with caution.
  5. Loud power. This kind of power dynamic fights fire with fire or gives “as good as you get.” I never recommend this approach because it has aggression at its root. Still, some people believe that you have to call out a bully to get the bully to back down. I admit it – I just can’t go there. I’m only including it here because it’s a tactic that I hear often – just one that I’ve never heard used with success.  
  6. External power. This includes advocacy groups, particularly if you identify your situation as part of a larger societal issue such as racism, sexual harassment, ageism, or other experience that a social justice movement might address. Ask yourself whether you want to be part of a revolution that topples existing power structures. If your answer is yes, access the resources of advocacy organizations to support you in your quest.

Tips For Strategizing Your Way Through a Toxic Workplace: Advice From a Career Coach

There’s not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to workplace toxicity, but here are some tips that I offer my clients:

  1. Play the long game: It’s tempting to seek revenge and/or grab for a moment of vindication that can be costly over time. Know your goal and work systematically towards it. Take Steven Slater, a former JetBlue flight attendant, for example. He quit in a fury, which triggered a media frenzy after he deployed the emergency exit slide, grabbed a beer, and cursed passengers. Although he became a bit of a folk hero, he also faced serious legal charges.
  2. Document, document, document: It not only helps you develop your approach, but it also grounds you in the truth of what you’re experiencing.
  3. Consult your human resources team: Ask for confidential input about your situation if your workplace offers private consultation with an HR professional for employees.
  4. Seek legal advice: One of the best places to start this process is to research the labor laws in your state or jurisdiction.
  5. Read The Asshole Survivor’s Guide by Robert Sutton: This book contains ideas, perspectives, and insights – and is well worth reading.
  6. Read Dare to Lead by Brené Brown: This valuable resource includes tips and tools to create a positive workplace.

This topic can be difficult to address, so get support as you navigate the often pothole-filled roads of reconfiguring your work life and career path. Remember the goal is to get yourself what you need: fulfilling work in a supportive, nourishing environment. Act on your own behalf. You know you’d advise anyone in a situation similar to yours to do the same.

But Wait, There’s More

I have even MORE advice for you on how to manage a toxic work environment. Listen to this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast for the following tips:

  • Identify the signs of a toxic workplace
  • Navigate the stages of toxic workplace healing: Identification, survival, exit, and recovery
  • Learn what you can change and what you can’t
  • Discover how to manage the emotional damage of a toxic workplace
  • Strategize how to exit a toxic job and get a new one, gracefully
  • Spot the warning signs that you might be applying for a position in a toxic workplace

I hope this helps you!

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Are You in a Toxic Workplace? How to Know If You Are… and What to Do About It

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