A toxic workplace is a professional environment that’s dysfunctional, stressful, and unproductive. Maybe the boss is a bully, or the company culture is focused on winning at all costs. Or, perhaps your coworkers are abusive, inconsiderate, or downright mean.
Whatever the underlying causes, a toxic work environment can be hazardous to your physical and mental health, happiness, and professional growth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that stress is the leading health problem in the workplace and a significant occupational health risk. So, getting stuck in a toxic workplace for too long can certainly take its toll, both professionally and personally.
Naturally, you’d prefer to avoid taking a job in such an environment. The challenge is that the red flags indicating a dysfunctional organization can be subtle, especially during the interview process.
7 Signs of a Toxic Workplace
Like a good first date that turns into a nightmare long-term relationship, problematic employers can talk a good game in the beginning. If you’re not looking for the right signs, you might miss the issues until you’re already on the payroll. Here are some signs of a toxic workplace to watch out for:
1. Peculiar Buzzwords in Job Listings and Mission Statements
Learning how to decode job advertisements is important for reasons entirely unrelated to impressing the hiring manager with your resume and cover letter. Once you understand what the various buzzwords mean, you’ll have insight into the company’s culture, values, and expectations—all of which will help you figure out whether you really want to work there.
A few years ago, Textio, a software company specializing in “augmented writing,” used its predictive engine to analyze common buzzwords in job advertisements at 10 major tech employers. The results offered insight into the corporate culture within these companies. For example, Amazon’s common phrases included “fast-paced environment” and “maniacal,” while Slack’s included “lasting relationships'' and “care deeply.”
Divining toxicity from buzzwords is far from a perfect science. But you should pay attention to how companies talk about themselves in their job listings, mission statements, and marketing materials. It’s worth knowing how they see themselves because that could impact how the organization will treat you.
2. Free Stuff
When is an employee benefit not actually to your benefit? When it’s a trap. Free food, subsidized car fare, and video games and foosball in the break room all sound great. But in reality, these perks are calculated to do just one thing: keep you at the office.
If companies really wanted to make your life better, they’d pay you enough to buy your own snacks and toys and then let you go home to enjoy them.
3. A Much Younger Workforce
Have you ever interviewed at a company where almost everyone seems to be young—just out of college or the equivalent? If you’re also at the beginning of your career, this might seem like a lot of fun. What better way to make new friends than to work with people your own age?
But there are real downsides to a staff that skews young, beyond just the problems inherent in any team without diversity. For one thing, a company that hires mostly young people may be looking for cost savings. Workers with less experience are typically paid less. That could be bad news when it comes time to negotiate a raise.
A younger team can also be a sign that an employer is looking for workers who don’t have a lot of other competing priorities—like kids, for example, or aging parents who need care. That’s bad enough if you’re someone who does have those priorities. After all, not all young people are unencumbered with responsibilities. But even if you don’t, you might like to have a life at some point.
A company that seeks employees who are always available to work might not be the best fit for you if you’d like to travel, or train for a marathon, or do anything that takes a substantial time commitment.
4. Employees Who Seem Tired, Depressed, or Anxious
If possible, it’s always a good idea to ask if you can tour the office when you’re interviewing in person. If you’re interviewing remotely, try to gauge the attitude of the people you talk to.
When you do, pay attention to the vibe you get from the staff. Do people seem somewhat bummed out? It’s possible that they’re drained from working in a toxic office space. After all, it’s hard to be cheerful and engaging when you’re on the verge of burnout.
5. Lots of Turnover
When you’re doing your pre-interview research, read recent news stories about the organization and pay attention to signs of management turnover. Check sites such as Comparably, Glassdoor, and Indeed that provide employer reviews to get employee feedback on what the company is like to work for. Then, look at your connections on LinkedIn. Do you have any contacts who’ve worked for the company? If so, see if they tend to stay for a long time, or bolt for a new opportunity as soon as possible. A lot of turnover can be a red flag for a toxic workplace.
Keep in mind that the median employee tenure is 4.1 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If you see lots of people leaving in less time than that, consider what that might mean about the environment at the organization.
6. A Prospective Boss Who Takes Pride in Being Difficult
Sometimes, hiring managers will take the guesswork out of the interview and flat out tell you that they’re hard to work for. “I have high standards,” they might say. Or, “I expect the best from myself and also from my team.”
That sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to work for a leader with high ideals and big goals? But keep in mind that when someone tells you about their leadership style, they’re not necessarily a reliable narrator. Would a compassionate but principled leader tell you that they expect the best? Probably not—they’d assume that was a given.
Evasive behavior is also a bad sign. If hiring managers or HR folks won’t answer your questions, think twice before accepting an offer.
7. Your Gut Says No
This isn’t a science, so it can be hard to tell for certain what a company will be like to work for. Part of interviewing is learning to listen to your gut. But when you hear one thing and your instinct says another, listen to that inner voice. It might be warning you to stay away from a toxic workplace.
Even a Virtual Workplace Can Be Toxic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers whose jobs were compatible with telecommuting went remote. Some may never return to a physical office. But just because a workplace is virtual doesn’t mean that it’s supportive, healthy, or productive.
Here are a few signs that a virtual workplace is toxic:
Bullying, discrimination, or other destructive behavior. Whether the problem originates from the boss, the staff, or the client base, environments that support these antagonistic behaviors—conveyed in direct messages or Zoom meetings, for example—can be damaging to productivity and engagement.
Poor communication. When you work from home, it’s essential to get on the same page about work priorities, expectations, and goals.
Lack of support. Even the most proactive go-getter needs guidance now and then. If your manager is rarely available and your team is hard to pin down, you’ll find it difficult to get anything done.