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What you need to know about toxic work environments

Ever since I re-started my blogging journey, I’ve noticed that a commonly asked question is about knowing when to quit a job. There are many resources that talk about the signs that you should look for. And I even wrote a blog post on questions you should ask yourself before quitting. But I wanted to learn more about what an employee can do to change their situation without leaving a company.

So when I ran into my friend Shaumiya Suehiro-Woell and found out that she recently graduated with a Masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology (the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the workplace), I decided to ask her questions about toxic work environments and what entry-level employees can do to improve their situation before having to resort to quitting. Take a look at what she had to say!

Table of contents

  1. What is a toxic work environment?
  2. What are 5 common signs of a toxic work environment?
  3. What can an entry-level employee do if/when they encounter these toxic work environment signs to improve their situation?
  4. What do you suggest an employee do if they feel like they can’t trust their manager or HR?
  5. What are your tips for entry-level employees to determine when it’s time to leave?
  6. If they do decide to leave, is there any way to uncover toxic work environment signals during the interview process?
  7. Where can entry-level employees go to learn more about toxic work environments?

What is a toxic work environment?

A work situation that can affect the way you work, the atmosphere surrounding you, and how you feel. They can weigh down your life – physically, mentally, and emotionally – and can cause minor (or serious) disruptions in your personal life. A familiar quote for the workplace is, “People don’t leave companies. They leave bosses”. 

What are 5 common signs of a toxic work environment?

  1. Lack of appreciation/recognition
    • This can occur when an employee doesn’t feel recognized for their work and/or accomplishments. Recognition and appreciation can be given in many ways such as verbally (thank you), written (cards/notes), or extra perks (bonuses and incentives).
  2. Psychological safety is low
    • When employees feel safe enough to take risks in the workplace without facing consequences.  When workplaces are lack psychological safety, there can also commonly be a lack of productivity and engagement.
  3. High turnover
    • If a company has a high turnover, the biggest question to ask is, why? If employees are leaving because of the toxic environment, this raises a red flag. 
  4. Communication issues
    • Often times when there is a lack of communication, there is confusion and lack of clarity. A boss or co-worker might not present you with enough information to do your job successfully. 
  5. Lack of enthusiasm
    • Even the people around you are unhappy. If you find yourself clocking in and clocking out mindlessly, you might be living in a toxic work environment. 

What can an entry-level employee do if/when they encounter these toxic work environment signs to improve their situation?

Having to survive day-to-day life with a toxic work environment can leave you drained. It’s best to try and prevent the situation as much as possible, but sometimes it can be inevitable for those starting out their career.  If you find yourself in this situation, here are some ways to improve your situation:

  1. Communication is key.
    • Ask for clarification and try to reduce any type of confusion.
    • Set up weekly 1:1 meetings with your manager to discuss anything that is relevant to your work. 
    • You can also find online courses on communication (LinkedIn, Skillshare, or Udemy)
  2. Document what you’re doing and what the issues are, just in case you need evidence. 
  3. Talk to your HR personnel.
  4. Separate your work from personal life (don’t take work home).
  5. Surround yourself with positive influences – stay away from gossip and drama.
  6. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to leave the organization. 

What do you suggest an employee do if they feel like they can’t trust their manager or HR?

  1. Document everything
    • Should you have anything that requires legal action, you will want to have everything documented. Try to have documentation in writing (emails, messages, etc.). Also, it’s best to have a third-party witness if you are having a verbal conversation. With another person in the room/area, they can help you see things from a different perspective.
  2. Turn to a trusted manager outside of your department
  3. Talk to legal (if your company has one on-site) 
  4. Try to build trust with your manager
    • Always be honest and don’t be afraid to speak up 
    • Try not to start drama in the workplace (ex: gossiping)
    • Treat them with respect
    • Tests to see if you trust your manager:
      • Is your boss a good communicator?
      • Does your boss give AND receive feedback?
      • Does your boss empower and support those around you?
      • Is your boss willing to take risks?
      • Is your boss invested in building relationships?

What are your tips for entry-level employees to determine when it’s time to leave?

You know you, so trust yourself to know what and when your breaking point is. Some tips I suggest are:

  1. Listen to your gut feeling 
  2. You feel disrespected 
  3. You feel undervalued and under-appreciated 
  4. You’re unsatisfied with your work and nothing changes after speaking up
  5. Not feeling comfortable referring a friend to work in the organization.

More info: Four questions to ask yourself before you quit your job

If they do decide to leave, is there any way to uncover toxic work environment signals during the interview process?

Being an informed interviewee can help you uncover a lot about an organization. 

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  • Ask questions about the culture of the company and work culture.
  • If invited for an on-site, take notice of the people around you and what they are doing.
    • Do you notice if workers are siloed? 
    • Observe how they interact with the manager and the people around them
  • Look for organizations who value a learning environment
    • These types of organizations care about the growth and development of their employees through continuous learning. In short, you should want to expand your skillset and learn new things outside of your daily work.
  • Ask about company values
    • Do the values align with yours?
    • Do they have d&I programs, community involvement, l&d opportunities
      • Look at your priorities and ensure that they align with the companies — if they don’t, you may run the risk of running into a toxic work environment 
  • LOOK AT ONLINE REVIEWS! 
    • Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Indeed, etc. have many reviews online and this will help you be a better candidate throughout the interview process. 
  • Download the Productive Job-Hunting Game Plan so that you always know what step is next

Where can entry-level employees go to learn more about toxic work environments?

Toxic work environments are more common than you think.  This is both a good and bad thing.  It’s great because it gives you the ability to easily find information online.  It’s bad because of how many people experience it. If you are curious about learning more these are a few ways to stay up-to-date. 

  • Try to utilize social media to network with professionals around the world. I suggest connecting with LinkedIn HR groups/professionals. If you have a LinkedIn learning subscription, there are a ton of great videos on this topic. 
  • If you are currently working, reach out to your current HR team. They can often be a mediator in a situation or even guide you in the right direction. 
  • Google! There is a lot of information out there written by credible sources. Some great websites to start with are:

Have any more questions about toxic work environments? Comment below!

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