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Toxic workplace checklist: 14 signs to look out for

Toxic workplace checklist: 14 signs to look out for

In late 2022, the career-matching platform The Muse polled more than 1,300 employees and found that 64% of people have faced toxicity at work.1 It’s not always easy to identify a toxic work environment. In many ways, toxic behavior has become so normalized it can be challenging to recognize it. Having a comprehensive toxic workplace checklist can help.

Lack of communication, excessive micromanagement, higher-than-normal turnover rates, and workplace bullying or harassment are all signs of a toxic workplace. Toxic work environments can negatively impact employee well-being, impede productivity, and hamper organizational success. The good news is you can proactively correct it and establish a healthy and positive work environment for your employees by identifying the issues. 

If you’ve ever wondered what are the signs of a toxic workplace, read on for insight into the biggest red flags indicating toxicity might be present (and what you can do about it).

1. Lack of communication and transparency

Effective communication and transparency are critical components of a healthy workplace. When they’re lacking, it can be one of the signs of a toxic work culture. 

If people feel uninformed about goals, policies, or other company news, it becomes difficult for them to remain engaged and productive. Poor communication leads to confusion, frustration, decreased productivity or output, and low morale.

What to do — Address communication and transparency issues by:

  • Creating open communication channels: Consistently hold team meetings and encourage colleagues to share updates or concerns. Use tools like email newsletters or internal messaging platforms for easy information sharing.
  • Promote a feedback–welcome culture: Make it abundantly clear that every employee’s input is valued. Solicit feedback through suggestion boxes, surveys, and via other means.
  • Be transparent about major decisions: When possible, involve employees in the decision-making process so they understand why certain decisions are made. Even if they disagree entirely, involving them makes them feel valued. Sometimes this won’t be possible due to time constraints or confidentiality reasons, but explaining the rationale behind those decisions can still be beneficial.

2. Excessive micromanagement 

One of the most significant signs of a toxic workplace is the presence of micromanagers. This leadership style can be incredibly challenging to deal with.  

The micromanagement style might find superiors hovering over employees, trying to control every aspect of work. Micromanagers ultimately cause a lack of motivation and decreased job satisfaction, among other things.

What to do — Deal with a micromanagement leadership style with the following tips:

  • Empower employees: Encourage people to take ownership of their projects to showcase their abilities.
  • Seek feedback: Regularly ask for input about leadership so you can have tough conversations when needed to address harmful management styles and create change.
  • Place value and importance on delegation: Stress to micromanagers the importance of delegating tasks effectively to help them devote more time to higher-level responsibilities.

3. High turnover rates

High turnover rates can indicate a toxic workplace and negatively affect team dynamics, productivity, and brand reputation. When people leave often and quickly, something might be going on. Common causes of high turnover include:

  • Poor leadership
  • Lack of resources
  • Unhealthy or unreasonable expectations
  • Little or no growth opportunities
  • Unequal pay

What to do — How to manage high turnover rates:

  • Focus on satisfaction and keeping people engaged: Implement strategies focusing on employee happiness along with employee engagement.
  • Invest in your people: Invest in programs that nurture growth.
  • Make resources available: Offer resources that promote personal and professional growth.
  • Ensure you have diversity: Create a work culture that values diversity and inclusion.

4. Bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can take many forms — they can also be one of the more prominent signs of toxic work culture. Bullying or harassment can include verbal abuse, offensive jokes, or physical violence. Behavior like this does more than just hurt the victim. It can damage the overall work environment too.

What to do — How to deal with workplace bullying and harassment:

  • Establish clear policies: Have a comprehensive, zero-tolerance anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy that’s regularly shared with the workforce. Be sure to include consequences.
  • Promote open communication: Encourage colleagues to speak up if they see or experience any incidents of bullying or harassment.
  • Investigate complaints immediately: Any report of bullying or harassment should be taken seriously. You should thoroughly investigate every case but maintain confidentiality for everyone involved.
  • Enforce accountability: Aggressors should be held accountable and face appropriate disciplinary action as outlined in your policy.

5. No work-life balance

We hear a lot about work-life balance these days, and for good reason. Maintaining a healthy balance is critical for both professional and personal well-being. It also helps ensure organizational success because when employees are constantly overwhelmed, have an excessive workload, or start to feel symptoms of employee burnout, productivity suffers, and job satisfaction drastically drops.

What to do — Tips for gaining work-life balance:

  • Flex work options: Offer flexible working arrangements.
  • Mandate breaks: Promote the need for taking breaks.
  • Stress management tools: Make resources for stress management and mental health support available. 
  • Have an open door policy: Encourage open communication between employees and leadership.

6. Toxic leadership

Toxic leadership can severely diminish any healthy work environment. It can affect employee well-being, productivity, and retention. Abusive behavior, lack of sympathy, poor decision-making, and inappropriate judgment are all characteristics of a toxic leader.

What to do — Deal with a toxic leader by:

  • Creating awareness: Educate leadership and employees about the signs and consequences of toxic behavior and how that can parlay into leadership styles.
  • Promote a feedback culture: Whether through consistent performance reviews or anonymous feedback, make sure that people across your organization can share potential issues they’ve witnessed or experienced.
  • Offer leadership training: Comprehensive leadership development programs can focus on emotional intelligence, effective communication, and empathy. These tools can help leaders learn the skills necessary to create a healthy work environment.

7. Unfair compensation and recognition

Offering fair compensation and recognition is crucial in today’s corporate landscape. Retaining top talent in a competitive job market means valuing your employees. Ensuring equitable pay structures is an absolute must — failure to do so could result in an unhappy and unstable workforce.  

What to do — Ensure you’re offering fair compensation and recognition by:

  • Offering equitable pay: Paying people what they’re worth and offering opportunities for advancement.
  • Using recognition programs: Promoting employee recognition programs like bonuses, raises, and non-monetary incentives.
  • Auditing compensation structures: Regularly conduct pay audits to identify disparities in compensation.
  • Implementing recognition programs: Implement an employee recognition program to celebrate achievements.

8. Inadequate employee development opportunities

To create a thriving workplace culture, emphasize continuous learning and development opportunities as part of your workplace values. Prioritizing a culture of growth and investing in your people will increase job satisfaction and help you attract and retain top talent.

What to do — How to ensure adequate employee development opportunities:

  • Create career opportunities: Develop personalized paths based on each employee’s goals and aspirations.
  • Offer cross-functional projects: Promote internal mobility by offering cross-functional projects to allow people to move outside their department for the opportunity to grow.
  • Recognize and reward: Have a policy to recognize improvements and accomplishments.
  • Ensure a variety of formats are available: Offer learning opportunities in various formats, like online courses, workshops, seminars, or mentoring programs.

9. Poor workload management

Poor workload management can impact an entire organization. People who are overworked or overwhelmed often find their well-being suffers, and low performance, burnout, stress, and reduced productivity are the fallout. If expectations are too high or unreasonable, or if they continuously change, it can be challenging for a person to find success.

What to do — How to ensure workloads are appropriate:

  • Set clear expectations: Communicate goals for each project or task clearly and effectively.
  • Prioritize tasks: Encourage employees to focus on high-priority tasks first and provide guidance as to which projects are most important.
  • Maintain open communication channels: Create an environment where team members feel comfortable discussing their workload without fearing retribution. Regularly schedule check-ins with managers or supervisors to identify potential roadblocks before they escalate.
  • Incorporate flexibility: Allow employees to have autonomy over their time so they can adjust their schedules to fit personal responsibilities outside of work.

10. Lack of diversity and inclusion

Today’s modern business world demands that workplaces value diversity and inclusion. It can literally pay off, too. Recent research found that companies with a diverse workforce perform better financially, whereas those without diversity tend to underperform.2 Further, toxic atmospheres that don’t prioritize diversity and inclusion can hinder innovation and collaboration, negatively impacting employee morale.

What to do — How to address diversity and inclusion:

  • Create clear policies: Clear, comprehensive, and thorough anti-discrimination policies should outline workplace behavior expectations. Make sure these are effectively communicated and reviewed often.
  • Educate your workforce: Offering training sessions on topics such as: unconscious bias, cultural competency, and allyship.

11. Absence of employee feedback and input

Productive workplaces depend on free-flowing ideas, joint efforts, and open dialogue. Employee feedback plays a prominent role in shaping company and culture and driving positive change. 

When employees can share their feedback — good and bad — organizations can develop an environment based on trust and respect. When they don’t have these opportunities, it can lead to a toxic workplace where innovation is stifled, turnover rates are high, and morale is at an all-time low.

What to do — How to address an absence of employee feedback:

  • Create feedback opportunities: These might include one-on-one meetings, anonymous suggestion boxes, or surveys.
  • Encourage leaders to solicit input: Leadership should use input from their teams during decision-making processes.
  • Implement performance management software: Use dedicated software to facilitate ongoing dialogue between leadership and the workforce. 
  • Promote a culture of transparency: Regularly share company updates in various formats like meetings, internal newsletters, or email blasts.

12. Lack of clear goals and expectations

Toxic work environments often stem from a lack of clear goals and expectations. When employees are unsure about their roles, responsibilities, or project objectives, it leads to confusion, frustration, and decreased productivity. Ensuring that goals are clearly stated and communicated can eliminate workplace toxicity that would result otherwise.

What to do — How to ensure clear goals and expectations are set:

  • Create SMART objectives: Every goal on every project should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Attainable, Relevant/Realistic, and Time-bound.
  • Communicate often: Share updates with teams via meetings or written correspondence to inform everyone about projects, developments, and timelines.
  • Solicit employee input and feedback: Encourage participation in shaping organizational strategies by asking for feedback and ideas during brainstorming sessions or one-on-one discussions.
  • Offer support: Make sure resources, training, and guidance are accessible and available.

13. Gossip and negative office politics

Office politics and gossip are often the roots of workplace toxicity. They can hurt morale and productivity and ultimately lead to a culture of mistrust and hostility.

What to do — How to address gossip and negative office politics:

  • Create policies: Establish guidelines about acceptable behavior at work. Include rules against gossiping or engaging in destructive discourse.
  • Promote open communication: Encourage employees to confidently voice their concerns with management or leadership instead of talking to one another.
  • Foster transparency: Be open about company-wide decisions and the rationale behind them.
  • Lead by example: Leaders should model behavior and avoid engaging in gossip or politics themselves.

14. Ignoring mental health and well-being

Mental health and well-being are crucial in today’s fast-paced work environments. Prioritizing employee mental wellness can begin to destigmatize the need for help. One of the biggest signs of a toxic workplace is when an organization ignores the importance of mental well-being, which can lead to increased stress levels, high rates of burnout, and reduced productivity.

What to do — How to prioritize mental health and well-being:

  • Promote open communication about mental health: Establishing a healthy workplace starts by encouraging open communication.
  • Offer flexibility in schedules and work arrangements: Inflexible working conditions that don’t address or accommodate the individual needs of your workforce can lead to higher stress levels and decreased job satisfaction. To combat these issues, consider offering flexible work arrangements like remote work options or altered schedules when possible.
  • Implement wellness programs: Investing in comprehensive wellness programs can significantly change your workplace culture. On-site fitness facilities, meditation classes, stress management workshops, or access to licensed mental health professionals are all opportunities to address mental health and wellness needs.  

Address toxic workplaces by investing in mental health

When it comes down to understanding how to fix a toxic workplace, a detailed checklist can help you recognize any imbalances in today’s work environments. Only then will you be able to create a positive and productive atmosphere where your people thrive and are happy to be there. When you invest in mental health initiatives, such as therapy for employees, and identify current gaps, it can be a true game-changer for your organization. 

Sources:

  1. Ziv S. We’re all more “Toxic aware” in 2023. The Muse. January 25, 2023. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.themuse.com/advice/toxic-aware-introduction-muse-survey.
  2. McKinsey & Company. "Delivering through Diversity." McKinsey & Company, Accessed June 8, 2023. www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity.

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