Is Your Workplace Toxic?

Career Blog

Published: September 3, 2019 by Greta Snyder

A large proportion of our iSchool students are also working at full- or part-time jobs, so while focusing on your education and future career as you move through the program is of primary importance, a key part of your ability to manage it all and really grow is being in a good work environment right now. So, what can you do if you’re not?

Do you eat your lunch in your car by yourself every day and wish you were somewhere else? Does your boss not respect or trust you, and vice-a-versa? Do you have trouble getting out of bed every workday just dreading what new drama you’ll walk into today?

Let’s talk about negative workplace environments and how to cope and develop strategies for change. Navigating workplace politics, relationships, and your own sense of purpose and satisfaction can be tricky, but when things get toxic, it is time to act. Read on to identify what is unhealthy and what you can do if not. You owe it to yourself to be in the right workplace.

We have all been there

Everyone has worked a job that was a negative experience. (If you haven’t, please comment below as I would be inspired to know this could even be possible.) The key is knowing if your job dissatisfaction is based more on the desire to be doing something more, for example, to change roles within the organization, or if the workplace environment itself is toxic. So how do you know? The first step is an honest assessment and a chance to articulate how you feel beyond the melodramatic “I hate my job.” There is a reason why you might feel this way, so let’s find out why. If you love your job, then this post will help you articulate what makes your job awesome.

Signs of an unhealthy workplace

Here are some top areas of importance to your workplace well-being:

  • Honesty – your boss isn’t honest at all; you feel like you aren’t given the information you need to do your job well, or perhaps you’re excluded from organizational changes and criticized without reason.
  • Trust –your boss would say anything to make themselves look good and undermine you. Nobody trusts each other, there is always drama and back-stabbing.
  • Direction – nobody at your job has ever talked with you about your future development .
  • Your personal life – your workplace demands you prioritize your job over everything and the assumption is that your personal life is not their problem.
  • Acknowledgement – you rarely hear anyone being appreciated by supervisors.
  • Guidance – you don’t feel like you can ask for help without being criticized.
  • Fun – wait, what is that? Nobody I work with would associate this word with our job.
  • Flexibility – your supervisors are very strict in following rules, frequently ask you to work overtime, and everyone is afraid to ask for any days off or suggest ideas or changes.
  • Ethics – you feel doubtful of your organization’s values and your manager’s ethics:  neither align with yours and this is troubling you.
  • Accountability – your boss makes empty promises and threats and never admits fault, while you and your co-workers are afraid to admit fault; being accountable doesn’t seem to be valued, so why bother.

If you read over these points and some of them hit the nail too well on the head, but you still aren’t sure that it is toxic (or it’s sibling, dysfunctional), let’s look at what makes for a healthy workplace.

Signs of a healthy workplace

  • Honesty – your boss is honest; constructive feedback is compassionate and truthful.
  • Trust – you have mutual trust with your boss; you and co-workers feel a sense of partnership with management and trust each other. Communication is transparent.
  • Direction – you are informed of training or development opportunities and see a future path for you within the organization.
  • Your personal life – your company is understanding and empathetic of occasional life-demands or personal needs that arise. Systems are in place to accommodate needs.
  • Compensation – you are paid fairly based on market rate, your wages are consistently reviewed to take into consideration job role and economic changes and your performance and tenure.
  • Acknowledgement – acknowledgement is visible, frequent and sincere on all levels.
  • Guidance – your boss and other senior staff provide excellent mentorship and you feel beyond comfortable asking for help with questions and general advice for success.
  • Fun – there are days you get out of bed excited to go to work. You think about ideas for work when off the clock and talk to others about projects you’re involved in or how cool your boss is. 
  • Flexibility – your managers are flexible, treat you like an adult and respect your opinions and insights in any decision-making process. They manage change well.
  • Ethics – you admire the ethical practices of your organization and bosses. You feel pride in the transparency and vision of your job role, and it aligns with your values.
  • Accountability – you can rely on your boss and co-workers to follow through and acknowledge fault when expectations aren’t met; you are motivated to be accountable.

How does your workplace measure up?

Now that the wheels are turning, want to see where you measure up? Here are some quizzes to help you gauge your experience:

If this information has you feeling like your workplace probably is toxic, the next two steps are coping and job seeking.

How to cope

The goal is to maintain your sanity and improve your future while not stressing over how to maintain your bread and butter or benefits. Some recommendations:

  • Focus on yourself – you can control how you react and how much you let negativity impact you. Choose to focus on how you can grow from each experience and define your core personal values. Keep a journal of your experience:  this is a safe space to vent and focus on what matters to you and what you will look for in your next workplace.
  • Schedule check-ins – set up check-ins with like-minded co-workers to maintain a sense of purpose amidst the chaos and frustration. Inspire yourself and others: take a newer employee under your wing to mentor them or ask an experienced employee you respect for regular advice. Reach out to other professionals or friends in similar roles.
  • Think of ways to renew – focus on your future:  renew your passion through education, external job pursuits, professional organizations or recommitment to extra-curricular activities and personal life. Don’t let your job dictate your present or next steps.
  • Try a different approach – if you see something isn’t working with a co-worker or boss, try something else. If things already feel unhealthy or negative what do you have to lose? This can be intimidating, but now is your time to decide you want to try to improve your day-to-day interactions even if you can’t change the whole system. Kindness catches people off-guard in a toxic workplace:
    • Think of one thing your boss does well and thank them for it.
    • Have friction or poor interactions with a co-worker? Invite them to lunch and apologize for starting off on the wrong foot, ask questions to show you are interested in getting to know them better and build a better relationship.

Final takeaways

The bottom line is that while it can be hard not to feel like giving up, you can’t give up on change. If you are unhappy you are probably not alone, you have to challenge yourself and others to improve the work environment. And like any bad relationship, you have to decide when it is bad for your well-being and the best long-term decision is to end it. Don’t waste your frustration venting about your awful boss, channel your energy into your own future.

The dream is an organization and a workplace culture that aligns with your values and future goals, treats you with respect, and challenges you to grow. When you are in a toxic workplace it is easy to be worn-down and accept the negativity as just part of having a job. Passion led you to your career, don’t let a toxic workplace take that away from you!

Start strategically planning how to cope, thinking about what positive impact you might be able to have now on yourself and others, and then begin applying for new jobs thinking about what you value and seek from an employer. Research the organizations you are applying to and ask questions about workplace culture in the interview. Let your values be your guide.

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Great stuff but...

These are all good for most people, but there's an added layer for marginalized populations. It would be great to have a person with that perspective write a piece on this very topic.

Thanks for your comment


Yes this is a great idea! Thank you for your suggestion - I am always looking to interview people who want to share their stories and experiences. With this topic it's tricky as many people might still be in the workplace they are describing, so I tried to pull together online resources to tell a general story of how to identify fundamental workplace issues. I appreciate your suggestion and look towards putting an interview, first-person piece together to speak to additional workplace problems.


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