5 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment to Look Out For

There are plenty of employees who have to endure toxic work environments every day. Whether these workers are dealing with a harassing supervisor, bullying colleagues, or an otherwise hostile culture, it couldn’t be more clear that their work environment is less than civil.

In many other cases, though, incivility is more subtle. Poor conduct is normalized, and the absence of a positive, values-driven culture may not have manifested in any egregious behavior yet.

Of course, there’s a wide range of civility levels when it comes to work environments, and organizations will naturally fall all along the spectrum. But the following five signs tend to show up in all toxic workplaces. If your workplace exhibits these signs, you can bet that incivility is already present and has the potential to get much worse.

If you’re wondering whether you’re working in an uncivil workplace yourself, here’s what to look for:

1. Organizational Values Aren’t Clear

A values-driven culture an essential component of a civil workplace. Failing to establish clear company values is practically begging for an uncivil culture to develop.

However, it’s not enough to simply make a statement about supposed values. If the stated values are too generic to mean anything, or too complicated or confusing for workers to understand, they’re not worth much. (If you’ve ever come across a “mission” page on a company web site that lists twelve vague values such as “excellence” and “trust,” you may understand what we mean.)

Furthermore, if organizational values are never mentioned by business leaders as part of day-to-day operations, odds are that no one has taken the time to think through what their so-called values are really supposed to mean.

And if employees don’t even know what the organizational values are — or can’t cite specifically how those values translate to actual behaviors — it proves that any stated values are just for show.

Articulating values and behaviors linked to business success in clear, candid language is the first and most fundamental step in establishing a civil treatment workplace. For more on establishing organizational values, download 8 Fundamentals of a Civil Treatment Workplace.

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2. Leaders Don’t Demonstrate Values

Just as values mean very little when they’re simply posted on the web site without much other effort, values also mean little when they’re ignored by an organization’s leaders.

If leaders aren’t personally and consistently demonstrating organizational values, the rest of the staff will absolutely follow suit.

In toxic workplaces, it’s common for values to be verbalized and perhaps even prioritized in some cases, but completely ignored in others. It’s not unusual for exceptions to be made for anyone who is responsible for bringing in a lot of money.

Same if leaders generally exhibit and discuss values but also make it clear that meeting business objectives is always more important than adhering to company values.

As we mentioned in our ebook on The 8 Fundamentals of a Civil Treatment Workplace, even Enron had a well-crafted Code of Ethics. It stated that “ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.” Of course, leaders disregarded that code when they sold off their own falling shares while advising employees to buy.

For civility to thrive in any workplace, leaders at all levels must hold themselves accountable for demonstrating organizational values and making sure their staff do, too.
How to know if your workplace is uncivil

3. Feedback is Discouraged

You can tell a lot about the civility level of any organization by simply observing what happens when an employee makes a complaint or delivers bad news. A sure-fire sign of a toxic work environment is workers dread admitting that they’ve make a mistake or reporting that something has gone wrong.  They have to worry about facing derision, explosive reactions, or even retaliation.

By contrast, in civil workplaces, individuals know that they’ll be respected and welcomed when they want to share — whether it’s a new idea or a complaint.

No one enjoys giving or receiving bad news, and of course, there’s a wide spectrum of ways that leaders can react to it. However, your boss doesn’t deserve a gold star for a grimace and quick dismissal in the face of bad news just because he didn’t throw something across the room in anger.

If you feel a pit in your stomach just thinking about the possibility of having to make a complaint — or remembering the last time you made a mistake — that is a good sign that your workplace has an uncivil culture.

Building a workplace where employees feel comfortable speaking up and sharing is essential for civility to thrive. That’s why at ELI, we give leaders actual scripts to use when they’re presented with any kind of feedback.

4. Teams Struggle to Resolve Conflict

Yes, the example set by leadership is important. But you don’t necessarily have to observe the leaders in action to get a clear sense of whether organizational culture needs improvement. All you have to do is observe a team trying to work together.

Do team members treat each other with respect and listen to each other’s views? Are they able to work problems out among themselves without involving HR or higher-ups? Does the way that the average employee acts stay consistent with whatever values the organization has stated are important?

When teams consistently struggle to resolve conflicts among themselves, there has almost always been a failure on the part of leadership to instill a culture of civility. A culture that values listening should value it on all levels and expect it from every member of the team.

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5. The Workforce is Not Diverse

If the workforce at your organization doesn’t reflect a variety of ages, abilities, and cultural perspectives, there could be a deeper problem at work that contributes to a toxic work environment.

As we’ve mentioned, civil workplace culture requires respecting and listening to all employees. All contributions should be valued, regardless of the employee’s role, identity or background.

Most times, a workforce with very little diversity indicates a few things: A problem with bias in the hiring and recruiting process, or a problem with outsiders not sticking around because they don’t feel welcome.

In workplaces where there are only a few employees who don’t fit the mold of the “typical” hire, whether it’s because of their gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or something else, the organization probably hasn’t prioritized making all people feel welcome. And when not all people feel welcome, an uncivil environment always follows.

If you’re ready to commit to making your workplace a civil environment, we would love to help. ELI’s award-winning training program was designed to overhaul organizational cultures of of all sizes to make them more welcoming and inclusive. We have a variety of training options, and they all emphasize actionable changes with the goal of fixing cultural problems for the long-term. If you’re interested, please request a quote or contact us with any questions.

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