Toxic work environments: 5 things to look for (video transcript)

Are you worried you might have a toxic work environment?

It can be difficult to determine whether the situation that you’re facing is toxic or not. I’d like to share the five different categories of toxic workplaces to help you figure it out. It’s important to note that it doesn’t take all five of these be true to make your work environment toxic; in fact, even one of these categories, if it’s bad enough, can classify your workplace as completely bad for your health.

Category 1: Policies and Procedures

The first category of toxic work environment is situations where the organization’s policies and procedures – the official written rules of the organization – are bad for your physical or psychological wellbeing.

Physical threats

Some of them really are physical. For example, the work environment is unsafe: maybe there are threats to your safety such as poisons, toxins or even things falling from the sky. Maybe it’s just that the work environment is backbreaking or unhygienic or there is no privacy. If your physical space and the environment you’re in threatens your physical or psychological safety, that’s toxic.

Discriminatory practices

There are other ways that the official rules and policies and realities of your organization may be toxic to you. That’s things like discriminatory practices, where groups in your organization such as women, people of color, people with various disabilities, or people who are LGBTQ+, are either officially or quietly discriminated against in your organization. If there are those kinds of discriminatory practices, it is not only illegal but also certainly toxic.


Another way that your organization’s policies and processes may be toxic is in how things are scheduled in your work environment. It may be that you have to work exceedingly long shifts or overnight, which disrupts your sleep or causes you to have to work while very fatigued.

That can be incredibly unsafe.

It’s also possible that your company’s policies are such that their compensation, rewards and benefits aren’t sufficient to earn a living wage; or that earning a living wage requires working far too many hours or in a way that’s just not conducive to your wellbeing.

It might also be that their policies are just completely unfair, and what you earn in your job is nothing compared to what other people are making for work of equal value. Those sorts of rules are toxic. So, you should consider your organization’s policies, processes and procedures when deciding whether you’re in an unhealthy workplace.

Category 2: Toxic Culture

The culture isn’t so much about the explicit official rules of the company. It’s about those unspoken rules, the ones that everybody follows. An unhealthy, toxic culture can have many forms but it might be that the organization has incredibly high expectations and standards that no one could even meet.

With stories like the Theranos trial constantly in the news, we hear a lot about companies with quotas so high that the culture is simply to cheat the system, or where a culture of toxic positivity leads people to pretend everything is fine when it’s not.

In some cases, passive-aggressive cultures such as in Wall Street or Silicon Valley, yelling and belittling and abusing people is not only tolerated but almost condoned. So if you have a culture that makes it okay for people to behave badly, it can be incredibly bad for you over the long term.

Category 3: Toxic Boss

Toxic bosses are incredibly bad for us, because not only can they wear us down over time and create daily stress that’s bad for our mental and our physical health, but at some point they can even leave you questioning ‘is it me that’s the problem here?’. And when a boss starts to cause you to question your own self-esteem or self-worth, that’s incredibly toxic. For a full catalog of the 11 different types of toxic bosses and how to deal with them, go here.

Regardless of what kind of toxic boss you have, if you have a boss that’s making you feel upset, angry, stressed or poorly about yourself, that is toxic a situation and one that you need to deal with.

Category 4: Toxic Colleagues

If you have colleagues who make you feel that you’re not a part of the team, who whisper and gossip about you, who roll their eyes or go to the boss trying to throw you under the bus, that is a very toxic situation.

They may hoard knowledge so that they can get the plum assignments, or they may exclude you from social situations, leaving you feeling like you don’t belong on the team because of their inner circle.

Regardless of what it looks like, if you’re in a situation where your co-workers prevent you from feeling you can’t succeed and do your job well, or feeling you’re a part of something and connected to a team, that can be really bad for you and something you need to take action on probably in the midterm.

Category 5: Toxic Customers

Finally, it might not be your organization that’s the problem at all. Increasingly, we’re seeing situations where it’s the customers that are toxic.

People have become so impatient. They have incredibly ridiculous expectations and standards and they’re not afraid to go screaming for the manager if they think they’re not getting what they want.

Some customers make you feel physically unsafe. They’re right up in your face or too close in your personal space. Others just threaten you all the time and make you worry about what they’re gonna say to your boss.

That is certainly not okay.

There are so many ways in which our clients and customers can create an environment that’s either physically or psychologically unsafe for us. And again, that’s a really toxic situation.

So there are five different ways that you may find yourself in a toxic work environment, it might be that the official rules of the organization or even how the work is set up are physically or psychologically unsafe or discriminatory, it may be that it’s the culture, the norms, and the way people behave that’s really, really unhealthy but it might also be your boss or your co-workers that it’s really just a pocket on your team that’s toxic or that that toxicity is coming from your customers.

All five of these categories are situations you need to take incredibly seriously. In my next post, I take you through what your options are depending on which of those things is the problem in your work environment. But before we go there, I want you to consider two other options.

Assessing toxicity

I hear the term toxic workplace quite a lot. People often jump to saying that their work environment or situation is psychologically dangerous. It’s important to ask yourself: is it possible that rather than being dangerous, it’s just a feeling of discomfort that your brain is picking up?

Our brains have evolved to take in information from our environment and alert us to threats of danger in order to keep us safe. These days we don’t see too many saber-toothed tigers anymore, so our brains tend to trigger these responses to things that aren’t always truly dangerous.

So ask yourself, is it possible that what I’m experiencing as a toxic workplace is actually just pushing my boundaries a little, making me uncomfortable but not necessarily toxic? Let’s take a couple of scenarios for that.

High expectations

Some cultures in organizations are incredibly high performance, even bleeding edge. They are at the forefront and have extremely high expectations for how hard you should work and how much you should accomplish. However that does not necessarily make them toxic.

It’s worth asking, ‘Is this about me getting comfortable with being more productive and efficient, taking my game to the next level? Or is this truly a problem?’

Work criticism

Another situation I hear about a lot is people complaining that they don’t feel safe because their work gets criticized. Again, in certain environments and situations, having your work criticized is perfectly acceptable. What’s not acceptable, of course, is being belittled.

Criticism is often about ideas, focusing on how to improve the work; but we are so wedded to our work and unaccustomed to getting constructive feedback that it feels dangerous. Our brains are triggered, telling us to fight or flee or freeze when really, what we have to do is learn how to take feedback well and develop the skills to advocate for our own ideas.

Building the skills of difficult conversations leaves us in a much better position to find that environment enriching as opposed to something that’s wearing us down. So once again, ask yourself: are all those hard, uncomfortable situations that you’re experiencing in your organization really dangerous or just a little uncomfortable?

Inner monologue

The final thing to ponder before deciding whether you’re in a toxic environment or not, is whether there might not be anything toxic in your environment, only something toxic in the stories you’re telling yourself.

Unfortunately, this happens more often than you’d think.

People often complain about being unable to speak up or raise an issue at work, and when probed about the reason for this they cite things like a lack of experience of seniority. However, when asked what has caused them to believe that their contribution is not valid or not worthy, there’s actually no objective evidence.

It’s their own imposter syndrome.

It’s not any feedback they got from their boss or their colleagues. It’s all the times their nasty narrator has told them. “You can’t say that” or “Who are you to say that?”. So it’s possible that part of your toxic work environment is just your toxic inner monologue.

Similarly, when it comes to your teammates, are they giving you objective real evidence that you’re not one of the team or they don’t value you? Or are you refraining from contributing, worried about rocking the boat or worrying they won’t like you? Often this can lead to them thinking “Well, you’re not contributing much to this equation” whereas sharing your perspective might make them respect you a lot more.

Final thoughts

Everyone deserves to work in a place where they can do good work, make a meaningful contribution, be paid a living wage for it, and have the chance to feel a part of something and a group that’s bigger than themselves. And many of us don’t feel that way and don’t experience it.

If you are feeling like your work environment may be toxic, take it seriously. Think through each of the five different criteria, and then consider whether instead of psychological danger, what you might be feeling is discomfort and adding a few new skills might completely reframe how you’re feeling about your work.

More on this

Your Ultimate Guide to Navigating a Toxic Workplace

How to handle a toxic boss

Toxic Team Dynamics