While most people who are looking for a job would be happy just to receive an offer, they probably don’t want to accept an offer from an organization that turns out to be toxic – that is, a workplace where the environment is unhealthy, and maybe even dangerous, for employees.

In our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, my coauthors and I surveyed hundreds of employees (and leaders) from a wide range of industries and sectors. We then individually interviewed dozens whose stories intrigued us. From our research, we discovered three core components that contribute to making a workplace toxic. If a potential employer shows any of these characteristics, you may be dealing with a toxic workplace.

1. Poor Policies and Procedures

Unhealthy companies have policies and procedures that are undocumented or ignored outright. Some may not even have any established policies or procedures at all.

Some organizations have incredibly poor communication. Communication between departments is sporadic and incomplete or nonexistent. Other organizations have no written, standardized ways of doing things – or the written version is so old that it no longer applies. A third symptom of a toxic workplace is when people “go around” the policies that exist. The policies are there, but no one follows them.

A toxic workplace with “sick systems” can feel like a combination of chaos, incompetence, and anarchy. How anything ever gets done can be a mystery.

2. Dysfunctional Employees

When we use the term “dysfunctional,” we are being descriptive, not putting a condescending label on people. “Dys” means “problem,” and dysfunctional people have serious difficulties functioning in daily life.

Dysfunctional employees tend to blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions. They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others. They usually have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotions in spite of their inconsistent performance. And they are masters of creating conflict and tension within the workplace.

Colleagues who are dysfunctional wind up creating more work for those who work with them.

3. Toxic Leaders

SadWe identified ten common characteristics of toxic leaders. To summarize, toxic leaders may be very competent in a technical sense, but their motives are impure. They tend to be totally focused on their own interests and achievements and will use others to get what they want. They manipulate, often by shame or anger. They take credit for others’ work, and they rarely, if ever, accept any responsibility when something goes wrong.

It is important to note that a toxic leader doesn’t have to sit at the top tier of the organization. They can exist in departments or as front-line supervisors. Regardless of their job titles, they make life hell for those who work for them.

How to Tell If an Employer Is Toxic

First, look for warning signs. Ask specific questions about the work culture, the expectations, and the workload. If possible, talk to current employees to get an understanding of what it’s like to work there. What kind of turnover has the company experienced in the past few years? How many lawsuits has it been involved in? What do the company’s clients say about it?

Second, understand the risks of working in a toxic environment. When individuals work in toxic workplaces, they put themselves at risk for physical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure, medical problems); emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger); and relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, loss of friendships). As much as you need this job, it may not be worth it. If you are employed, if possible, keep working while you look for another job. If you are finishing school or training and coming into the job market, keep your expenses low and consider taking a “fill in the gap” job while you look for something that is a better fit.

Finally, make sure you surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. We need others who can help us determine whether a job is a good match for us.

Adapted in part from the “How to Avoid Being Hired by A Toxic Workplace” pamphlet

Paul White, Ph.D., is a speaker, trainer, author, and psychologist who “makes work relationships work.” 

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