10 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment and How to Spot Them Quickly

“You know, it’s funny. When you look at the world through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags,” says the legendary Bojack Horseman. And haven’t we seen this come true in our lives, both personally and professionally, time and again! In the beginning, there is the excitement of getting a new job with all the perks that it does (or does not) offer. We are infatuated with new opportunities just as we are with new people. So, looking for signs of a toxic work environment is clearly not a priority. But, you know that giddy feeling you get when you believe that you have cracked the job of your dreams? That could well be old-fashioned good sense leaving your body!

As they say, the beginning of a relationship (in this case with an organization) is very similar to its end. So if you look carefully, you can actually spot all the red flags in the early days of your association with a company. But, before we get into how you can avoid being stuck in a toxic work environment, let’s define it as clearly as possible.

What is a Toxic Work Environment?

Shantanu Deshpande, CEO of Indian startup Bombay Shaving Company, opened up Pandora’s box when it comes to toxic work cultures. His post recommending freshers to have 18-hour workdays in their initial career days received a lot of flak from netizens on LinkedIn. Several people called it out as ‘toxic’ and ‘disrespectful’. 

Toxic work cultures, typically, glorify a brand of workaholism and tout it as the only way to career growth. In an overarching way, a toxic work environment prevents you from being productive or the best version of yourself at work. It manifests itself in burnouts, creative fatigue, low motivation, and more recently in the phenomenon of quiet quitting

There are more ways than one to experience toxicity at work and they are: 

  1. Sexism

In some cases, it might manifest itself with thinly veiled sexism. For instance, a friend once told this writer about how she mentioned that her husband was the alumni of a top business school in an interview (while answering a personal question). And the interviewer casually asked if her husband had helped her prepare the deck she was presenting for that interview. 

  1. Ageism

Have you ever been told that you are ‘too old’ for a job profile? Many people have and they have legitimate skills to prove otherwise. The reverse of this is not offering a senior leadership role to a deserving individual just because they are ‘too young’. 

  1. Groupism

All organizations have conflicts within and among teams. However, if a group of employees or teams get together to deliberately undermine anyone who is not ‘in their circle’, then it is a sign of groupism. Many times, employees who have been in a company for a long time tend to view newcomers with a certain unease and that leads to groupism. 

  1. No Respect for Personal Boundaries

Every working professional is eligible to have a work-life balance. For some, a 18-hour work day may be a choice while others might want to finish their work commitments within the designated nine hours. As an organization, such personal boundaries have to be respected. A very relatable example of this is setting up meetings without taking the employee’s work hours into consideration or expecting them to work weekends without complaint and compensation. 

There are several other ‘isms’ that can turn any work environment into a toxic space for employees. It is pertinent to note that just like people, organizations have cultures. Sometimes, culture breeds toxicity, and more often than not, such cultural mores come top-down from the leadership. 

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How to Spot a Toxic Work Environment Quickly?

Interview guideToxic work cultures are not healthy and definitely not sustainable in the long run. Hence, it is much better to identify signs that a company’s work culture might not be a good fit for you early on. You can potentially spot red flags in a company’s work environment at three early stages: 

  1. Before you appear for an interview
  2. While appearing for an interview
  3. Just after you join the company. 

Let’s take a detailed look at each one of these stages and see how we can stop ourselves from making the wrong choice of employment. 

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: Before Appearing for Interview

This is the stage at which you have made ‘first contact’ with a company but are yet to interact with them verbally. We all research about the companies we intend to work with. The trick is to make that research count. Here are a warning signs to watch out for at this stage:

  1. Bad employee reviews on Glassdoor/LinkedIn or any other employer rating websites
  2. Conspicuous absence of the company from any social media or networking sites
  3. A leadership that is vocal about a work culture that includes toxic elements

Pro Tip: Seek out people in your network who are working or have worked for the company which you intend to join. Ask them honestly about their experience with the company. While there might be stray cases of bad experiences even with good companies, the delta value of employee opinions should be positive. 

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: While Appearing for an Interview

As professionals in the 21st century, we should stop looking at an interview as an event where the employer selects employees for his/her company. An interview in today’s day and age is a series of communications through which the prospective employee and employer judge each other mutually for fitment and alignment on goals. 

Watch out for these telling signs while you are being interviewed:

  1. How the date and time of the interview is being set up in itself is a clue. Is your work scheduled being considered? Are you being asked to meet on a weekend or at an unreasonably late hour? All these speak volumes about the company’s culture.
  2. The body language of the interviewer(s) is your next clue. Do they treat you with respect as a professional or are they looking at you merely as a resource? 
  3. Certain questions during the interviews should be deal-breakers. For instance, ‘when are you planning to start a family’, when asked to a woman, is inherently sexist. 

Pro Tip: During the course of the interview process, starting from the recruiter call, to follow ups, and the final salary negotiations, if you feel disrespected, diminished, or pressured, don’t dismiss it. Your gut doesn’t lie, so give it due credit. 

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: As a New Joinee

It is easier to spot signs of toxic work cultures while you are still new in the system. As you spend more time in the company, you tend to normalize toxic behavior and get stuck in the rut. Hence, watch out for these signs very carefully:

  1. Are you being goaled for reasonable/achievable targets or are they unrealistic? The way company’s view progress is very crucial in the long run. 
  2. Do you have to justify yourself for taking a ‘personal day’ and do people in the organization respect your time off when you are on leave? 
  3. Communication is key to any work culture. So the tone of emails or pings can make the difference between professional and pushy. Also, be mindful of how people behave in a group. For instance, do your colleagues speak over you in meetings?
  4. It takes every new employee at least six months to learn all the processes and tools in a company. During this learning period, the support you receive from your peers, juniors and leaders is crucial. If you have hit a wall or been faced with hostility every time you had a doubt, your work environment is toxic. 

Pro Tip: Speak little and listen more for the first six months in a company. The more you listen and observe, the better your chances are of spotting any red flags that might be there. 

How to Avoid to Toxic Work Environments

While we may speak endlessly about how we must not choose toxic work environments consciously, the truth is that ‘choice’ in the professional life is a luxury. And it is not afforded to everyone. The only way to exercise some extent of choice in your work life is to be future-ready. Explore these online courses by Emeritus to upskill and stay relevant throughout your career. 

By Anwesha Barari

Write to us at content@emeritus.org

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