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The 5 Tell-Tale Signs Of a Toxic Workplace

  • Written by Mark LeBusque - author and Founder & Director of The Human Manager


Wearing a mask wears you out. Faking it is fatiguing. The most exhausting activity is pretending to be what you know you aren’t. – Rick Warren

Congratulations are in order.

You’ve just landed that dream role after knocking the interview out of the park and the recruitment agency has the contract ready to sign.

Whilst there is incredible and immediate euphoria, you can’t help but reflect on some unusual interactions during the three rounds of interviews you participated in.

Some tell-tale signs that this new shiny place of work may not be as shiny as has been described to you.

There seemed to be a high level of subservience displayed, personalities changed dramatically depending upon who was on the panel, some disparaging remarks were made about some key stakeholders you would be working with and the CEO involved in the last round of interviews spoke about how they had singlehandedly saved the business.

Whilst you were smiling on the outside at your successful outcome, there was a level of trepidation within. Something in your gut didn’t feel right, but I’m sure all the talk by the agency about an amazing culture and great place to work has some substance – right?

This sounds to you and feels a little like a ‘toxic workplace’.

How many times does this story play out?

Everything in the way you were courted to join this amazing organisation felt a little ‘off’ but a job is a job, and with the current downturn, it’s foolish to be too choosy right now about gainful employment.

So, how do you get a sense when a workplace is toxic?

Here’s five key observations I have made over thirty years of working in and helping organisations remove toxic behaviours from the workplace.

"If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”

The 5 Tell-Tale Signs of Toxic Workplaces

Look at Me Leadership Is Rife: The toxicity starts at the top and as we say it ‘flows downhill’. The CEO has erected a metaphoric statue of themselves at the front of the office that requires the common folk to bow to as they walk past each day. Continually reminding anyone within earshot that they have singlehandedly ‘saved’ the business with their brilliance, shouting down or even worse, stealing the ideas of others and reminding everyone they only exist because of their ‘greatness’ only serves as a potent drug for others to consume. Toxic teams are not really teams – they are made up of a group of self-serving narcissists.

Control and Compliance Before Care: There is a feel that anyone who doesn’t have a fancy title is controlled in every way possible by those with the fancy title. There is no creativity but plenty of fear, happiness in the form of laughter, smiling is non-existent and conversations (although very infrequent) are only about work. Everyone knows their place and have been ordered to read and memorise the company compliance manual. Humans are replaced by robotic versions of themselves and the care factor for them is never above zero. It’s literally a daily fight to survive.

Inauthentic Actors: Toxic workplaces are like a set on a trashy Netflix reality show. Managers and their team members behaving like B Grade actors or reality TV wannabes being nice to each other face to face and then sticking the knife in when they get together in their little cliques. They turn up to meetings rolling out the fake show of affection via a hug or even at times participating in the ‘kiss hello’ program and act like they care about what’s going on for each other outside of work. The truth is that everyone is out for themselves, and there are no genuine friendships among employees. There's lots of infighting and paranoia as well as gossip and rumours; it just happens at the water cooler where it’s safer to take off the makeup or mask and go out of character.

Knowledge is Power and the People Are Mushrooms: In a toxic workplace, humans are treated like mushrooms. Keep them in the dark and feed them some kind of manure to make them grow. There is a lack of clarity and consistency of communication because knowing more than the next person gives a sense of holding power over them. It's very likely in this environment that you get the bare minimum when it comes to the plan. If you’re lucky, it’s the necessary information to do your job via a well scripted and constrictive position description. Your hard work is never acknowledged with positive feedback and recognition of failures is frequent. After all, the narcissists don't want the mushrooms to ‘rise up’ and threaten their self-entitled power base.

Employee Attrition is Off the Scale: “What happened to Bill? He was here yesterday and now he’s gone – was he fired or did he walk?”, “Everyone could see that Jane was struggling with workload, but nobody reached out to help her and I hear she’s suffering from early signs of burnout.” A toxic work environment has nothing good to offer except dysfunction, poor morale, sickness and eventually burnout. Management doesn’t care and HR turns a blind eye to what becomes an epidemic as humans will start running for the door to find a better situation. Employee attrition is a very costly activity, but in toxic workplaces there’s always an excuse that those who leave just ‘didn’t fit the culture’. High turnover rates in your company are an obvious sign of a toxic workplace.

What’s the answer here?

Go into an interview with your eyes wide open, be curious and ask questions related to employee turnover, employee engagement, listen for what’s not being said and observe what happens between humans is the best advice to give yourself.

All that is ‘shiny’ may not be the gold you image and that mask is just for show.

Don’t get on the toxic train as the destination will disappoint you.

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