10 signs of a toxic work environment (and how to prevent it)

A toxic work environment affects everyone. Employees, HR professionals, and managers can all experience—and contribute—to them.

Although we often hear about these types of environments paired with big names—Elon and Twitter, anyone?—toxic work environments can be found anywhere from the coffee shop next door to the 6-person start-up in Silicon Valley.

Because toxic workplaces are so common, we’ll review it all, including: how to prevent hostile environments, spot toxic traits, and manage them respectfully so everyone can get back to what they do best—their jobs. 

What is a toxic work environment?

By definition, a toxic workplace describes any place of work that exhibits significant personal conflicts between the people who work there. 

Even though we don’t like to think of them this way, businesses like your favorite restaurant, the neighborhood bookstore, or even the kid’s toy shop down the street might have traits of a hostile work environment.

10 signs of a toxic work environment

You might think that spotting a toxic work environment would be easy, but that’s not always the case. Toxic workplaces can start and grow for any number of reasons, then add up and escalate. Here are 10 signs that will help you determine if your workplace is toxic for you, your employees, and maybe even your customers. 

1. Bullying

Number one on the list is bullying, and for good reason. In a toxic work environment, bullying can take on many forms, and not all are physical.

According to WorkplaceBullying.org, “workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employee: abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse; or behaviors perceived as threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; work sabotage; or in some combination of the above.”

This could be personal attacks, like belittling someone or ignoring them, or task-related attacks, like withholding information or failing to share important messages with a coworker.

A 2021 survey by WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey shows that bullying is, unfortunately, not uncommon. 30% of adult Americans are bullied at work, and 76.4 million workers are affected by it. And this number doesn’t exclude remote workers, of which 43% are bullied on the job.

2. Gossip

Haven’t you heard? Gossip isn’t just for tweens. It can be part of any type of workplace, come in many different forms serving multiple purposes, and impact the morale of staff.

According to the Harvard Business Review, gossip is a key ingredient for workplace drama and a toxic workplace. It can act as a source of info for people who don’t typically trust more formal channels of communication, serve as a way to release anger or feelings of frustration, or can be used to engage in conflicts between staff.

3. Not being heard

When staff feel like they’re not being heard, they can become disengaged with their teammates and even customers, leading to an overall less happy employee or workplace. An example of this could be a bartender who’s shared a new recipe for a trendy cocktail that competitor pubs are promoting, but their input to their boss goes unnoticed or ignored. This leaves the employee feeling like they’re not valued in the workplace, and can impact how they interact with other staff. It can even trickle down to the customers they’re serving. 

4. Gaslighting

The term gaslighting has been around for decades, but officially entered the spotlight in 2022 when it was named by Merriam-Webster as Word of the Year.

According to Merriam-Webster, gaslighting is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” In 2022, lookups of the word increased by 1740%.

In a workplace, gaslighting can look like a coworker or manager using phrases like: 

  • “I never said that” 
  • “Don’t be so sensitive” 
  • “You’re being irrational”

Gaslighters themselves may lash out against teammates who challenge them, causing staff to feel like they’re at fault or to question their own judgment.

Overtime, gaslighting can lead to mental health issues for the staff affected, and morale issues for the workplace. Gaslighting can also harm inclusion and equity at work, and can cause minorities to question what they’re actually experiencing on a daily basis. 

5. Cliques

In toxic work environments, you might notice that cliques have formed between staff. This type of toxicity can lead to time and energy spent with coworkers instead of customers or the job at hand. This is because members of cliques might be more focused on fitting in rather than excelling in their role. Not only does this negatively impact your business, it can also affect other staff—especially if other traits of a hostile work environment are present.

For example, employees using unmonitored, one-on-one chat features in online messaging software might be able to get away with bullying or gossip. And although this might not be seen by managers, the emotional effects are surely to be felt. In other words, goodbye morale. 

6. Narcissism 

Picture this: a chef with an attitude, yelling at staff because their perfectly-puffed soufflé came out a little “%&*#$*@ flat”. It’s probably not that hard to imagine. Just turn on the television or open up your social media feed to see how narcissism is strong in the workforce—and not just the kitchens.

Whether it’s a chef, barista, yoga instructor, or the pet groomer who believes their cuts are pawsitively purrfect, narcissism can exist in every type of business and can drop morale and productivity with the staff who are dealing with the toxic trait. 

7. Trust issues

One of the signs of a toxic workplace is lack of trust: either between management and staff, business owners and teammates, or even on a coworker-to-coworker level. Trust can also be lacking the other way around, where a staff member might not trust the owners of a business or their manager.

For example, a full-time worker at a cleaning business might know their client’s specific home and preferences better than their boss. So, when their manager steps in for a shift, the staff member might not trust that the job will be done to their standards or that of their clients.

Without the proper communication tools and support network for the staff member to document protocols, needs, and their client’s expectations, the trust issue may fester and turn into other signs of a toxic work environment.

Tips for toxic work environments: Incorporate software that lets you easily share and track important information with staff, like news, protocols and safety must-do’s, like Homebase’s all-in-one communication app. It keeps communication documented and out in the open, and holds team members and management accountable.

8. Lack of work/life balance

Noticing that your bike mechanic is in for their ninth shift in a row? Depending on the industry and the team members, work/life balance may be difficult to spot. For instance, in a restaurant where staff are both wrapping up their shifts while also hanging out, work might not seem like it’s impeding on personal time, but it might be—even if the staff don’t realize it.

That’s why dedicated and dependable time tracking is key for businesses. A digital record lets you monitor how much your staff are working so you can create healthy boundaries, and ideally, happier employees. Because let’s face it: nobody wants last night’s kitchen party showing up for the morning shift. 

9. Non-existent growth

A recent survey of executives at more than 100 large and midsize U.S. companies reported that only 59% had prioritized staff learning and growth in the past three years.

No matter the size of your business, there should always be room for growth. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to promote the part-time shopkeeper who runs your Instagram account to CMO. But giving them the opportunity to flex their skills is important. Everyone should be appreciated and valued.

A similar sign of a toxic workplace is when growth is stagnant. If employees aren’t being noticed, congratulated, mentored, or promoted when they deserve to be, it might not be surprising if your business isn’t growing either. 

10. High staff turnover

A classic sign of a toxic work environment is high turnover. Here’s proof: CNBC has reported that about 50.5 million people quit their jobs in 2022.

Trends like the Great Resignation indicate that turnover can be high when signs of a toxic work environment are present. Employees aren’t just looking to clock in-and-out when they show up; they want a healthy, happy and toxic-free workplace, too. 

The effects of toxic workplace culture

A toxic work environment doesn’t just impact the staff who work there, but also the success of a business.

According to Harvard Business School, “even relatively modest levels of toxic behavior can cause major organizational costs, including customer loss, loss of employee morale, increased turnover, and loss of legitimacy among important external stakeholders.”

In a recent workplace-culture report by the Society for Human Resource Management, it was reported that 1 in 5 Americans have left a job in the past five years because of toxic work cultures. That level of turnover has a shocking price tag: $223 billion to be exact.

For employees who deal with toxic employees or environments, the impacts can be noticed both mentally and physically.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work, and the relationship many workers have with their jobs. The link between our work and our health has become even more evident,” says U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

A toxic or hostile work environment can lead employees to suffer from excessive amounts of stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and suffer from burnout, as well. That’s why preventing and fixing it is so important to the health of your employees, and your business. 

How to fix a toxic work environment

Amidst the millions of employees leaving their toxic work environments, there’s some good news, and that comes in the form of a fix. Actually, a few.

Fixing a toxic work environment doesn’t happen overnight, but with these tips and a plan to move forward, businesses can help create a healthier, happier work environment for all.

Fixing a toxic work environment with a focus on safety and protection

Being proactive is the first step to preventing a toxic workplace. This can come in the form of prioritizing physical and psychological safety, and normalizing mental health.

As a business owner, you might consider accurately  tracking hours to ensure there’s a healthy work/life balance amongst your staff, and encouraging open and respectful conversation if employees are exhibiting signs of stress, fatigue or depression. Encouraging staff to take their breaks, and earned time off is also a helpful way to focus on employee wellbeing.

Tip to avoid toxic work environments: With Homebase, you can turn (almost) any device into a time clock to track hours, breaks, and overtime. That means your employees can easily track their time, and you can track who’s putting in overtime to make sure they’re getting the rest they need in between shifts. 

Fixing a toxic work environment with collaboration and communication

Fix a toxic work environment through good ol’ fashioned teamwork. Collaboration brings staff together, inviting them to participate in a conversation, solve a problem, or find ways to serve your customers faster and better.

When you work with your team to understand their individual roles and how they can support each other, you can help staff realize how their work is critical to the success of the business and the team around them. But remember, collaboration doesn’t just happen in person, even for businesses that don’t have a remote option. 

Remote work has taught us many lessons about communication, collaboration, and boundaries. For instance, maybe you have a great idea for a new product launch. Should you email your marketing coordinator about it right after your 6am jog? Unless that person is already on the clock, probably not.

Even though e-communication is easier than ever before, especially with the supporting software and tools that are readily available, setting and communicating boundaries is an important part of respectful collaboration, and should be done by all team members—business owners and staff members alike.

Fixing a toxic work environment with recognition 

Everybody loves a high five, even the virtual kind. That’s why recognizing staff for a job well done is important when fostering growth and value for the people on your team.

Think of kudos as a way to say, “You’ve got this!” and also to acknowledge any difficulties or support that may be needed on your team. For example, you’re running a busy pilates studio that’s been short staff for the past three days. In this scenario, recognition might be a mix of congratulatory feedback paired with assistance, like: “Being short-staffed has kept us busy, but you’ve done an extraordinary job taking on extra shifts. To make things easier, I’ve messaged the whole team to see who can cover your next class so you can take the break you deserve!”

Fixing a toxic work environment with fairness

Leading with fairness is key when it comes to mending a toxic work environment. Fairness can start with transparency, so each staff member has an understanding of what’s happening in the business, who’s involved, and why or how it impacts them.

For example, take a new barber who’s been securing most of the coveted afternoon shifts. Some of the staff who have worked there longer than them think this scheduling is a result of favoritism. After all, the barber is the owner’s friend from college.

In this scenario, if fairness was known and experienced as a key value in the business, the entire team would win. Here’s what that could look like:

  • In a fair work environment, the owner would explain that the new employee wasn’t taking away from other staff’s shifts. Instead, they were hired as an extra hand because the business was growing so fast.
  • Staff would understand that the owner hires based on merit and the needs of the business, and therefore, wouldn’t need to question why the new team member was getting mainly afternoon shifts.
  • The new person would have a more welcoming onboarding where staff weren’t resentful over the schedule.
  • Lastly, the team could openly communicate about their own needs and how they could be supported with scheduling preferences or changes.

In a fair work environment, there’s no room for favoritism. Staff trust the decisions being made, and know that they’re heard, valued, and supported.

Fixing a toxic work environment with support

Support is something that all employees need, even if they don’t voice it. Here are just four examples of how you can lend support in a toxic work environment:

  • Track hours and overtime so staff get the appropriate time off and get paid for all the time they put in
  • Fostering open communication between staff and managers 
  • Show empathy towards your team and what they may be going through, both at work and outside of it
  • Find ways to make daily tasks more efficient for staff

“As a small business I want to leverage tools that will help me with systems AND make things easier for my team,” says Cadence Kidwell, Homebase customer and owner of Fuzzy Goat. “Our Fuzzy Goat team is the most important part of our success; using Homebase even allowed me to be able to add Paid Time Off to their benefits—this is a huge win for our small shop.”

Foster open communication with Homebase’s messenger tool

We’ve talked a lot about toxic work environments, but now it’s time to learn more about the good stuff—healthy workplaces, happy staff, and how Homebase makes it happen.

Let’s start with Homebase’s messenger tool.

With this built-in messenger on the free mobile app, new hires get added to your group automatically, so you never have to worry about sharing phone numbers, sending emails to the right people, or updating group chats to include everyone. This way you can  streamline your communication and respect your staff’s privacy.

Homebase also lets you share important messages with all of your staff in the app. Like maybe you need to remind your team that even though tomorrow is a national holiday, you’re still open and need  them to show up for their shift (with some sweet holiday time and a half, of course). Or maybe you want to congratulate your new hire on wrapping and selling 150 burritos on their first day, and then remind everyone of the signs of carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Whatever the message is, Homebase makes sure that it’s delivered. 

Toxic work environment FAQs 

What is a toxic work environment? 

A toxic work environment is any place of work that exhibits significant personal conflicts between the people who work there. Toxic work environments aren’t limited to offices or in-person workplaces. They can range from the small-to-medium sized businesses on Main Street all the way to remote working environments.

What effect does workplace toxicity have on employees?

Workplace toxicity can have physical and mental effects on employees.

Employees should feel like they are working in or at a psychological safe environment, which means feeling comfortable speaking up without fear of being punished or embarrassed. When team members feel safe to voice their opinions, it leads to better decision-making, positive group dynamics, stronger interpersonal relationships, increased innovation, and improved execution.

Without that, employees may notice signs of a toxic work environment, like stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

What effect does workplace toxicity have on the company? 

Even relatively modest levels of toxic behavior in the workplace can result in significant costs for businesses, like reduced employee morale, increased turnover, and decreased legitimacy with important external stakeholders. Toxicity in the workplace can even cost businesses their customers. 

How can companies create positive work environments? 

Companies can create positive work environments by focusing on employee communication, safety and prevention of harassment and bullying, and by being fair, empathetic, and supportive.

Creating a more efficient and transparent work environment is also key to reducing or eliminating toxicity. Facilitate a health relationship between bosses and staff with the right tools. Use an app to track hours, like overtime and on-time streaks, and reward team members for a job well done.

And yes, Homebase can do that, too. 

Looking to track, communicate, and celebrate? We can help with that and more. Homebase’s free mobile app can help you build a positive work environment. Try it for free today.

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