Beth Braccio Hering

Veronica hits the snooze button a second time. How she wishes she still had PTO days to use. Motivating herself to get out of bed and face another day at her office proves continually challenging. She realizes she better get moving in order to not arrive late to the weekly staff meeting, where her boss undoubtedly will yell at everyone about their lack of productivity. Most team members just sit and stare at the wall while he rants, having learned long ago he doesn’t really want to hear their concerns or suggestions for improvement. At least at lunch Veronica is meeting up with an old college friend to talk about potential openings at his company, which provides some inspiration to get through her excessive morning workload.

Like many Americans, Veronica finds herself in what could be described as a toxic workplace. And like others in this type of negative work environment, she longs to get out. In fact, research presented in MIT Sloan Management Review reveals a toxic workplace culture as the top predictor of employee turnover – and 10.4 times more likely to contribute to employee attrition than compensation.

Why? People spend a good deal of time at their job. Being in a place detrimental to one’s well-being is no way to live. Especially in our post-pandemic world, workers are prioritizing their physical and mental health.

What causes a toxic work environment?

No single definition of a negative work environment exists. Places differ in the type and severity of pervasive actions and behaviors that bother workers in a harmful, unpleasant way. Some of the most common bottom line causes of a toxic work culture include:

Unethical behavior

Lying, cheating, stealing, back-stabbing . . . everyone knows such things are wrong. Moral dilemmas arise when those around you misbehave. Further stress comes if leaders turn a blind eye or actively encourage workers to go against their conscience, such as by fudging numbers or spreading incorrect information to customers.


Employees covet a sense of fairness. They want rules enforced across the board, deserving people to receive promotions, and a fair playing field for who lands coveted assignments. Favoritism builds resentment. Further ire (and potential legal issues) transpires if the company discriminates based on gender, race, religion, sexuality, or other protected category.


A healthy workplace provides psychological safety for all. Employees can be their authentic selves without worrying others will belittle them. Anyone with a concern or idea feels free to professionally express it. When someone makes a mistake, leaders handle the situation privately and treat it as a learning experience.

In fearful work environments, people walk on eggshells. They silence thoughts or succumb to groupthink rather than risk being yelled at, embarrassed, or ostracized. Especially if bullying takes place, blending into the scenery seems the preferable option.


Workers desire clarity about their responsibilities. Without it, they worry whether or not they are performing up to par. A lack of understanding as to who does what also contributes to office conflict as people overstep their bounds or fail to deliver what others expected.

Confusion can surface in other ways, too. Individuals may not know where to turn for advice or support, leading to feelings of helplessness. At companies without a clear vision, employee morale plummets because of purposelessness. The workplace environment reeks of dysfunction.

Poor communication

In a positive work environment, communication flows freely. Systems exist to distribute information in a consistent manner to all employees. Individual meetings provide opportunities for constructive feedback. The company values transparency, and leaders admit when they do not have an answer.

At places that lack effective communication, employees feel out of the loop. They worry about missing out on details necessary to perform optimally. They wonder what secrets or agendas go on behind their backs.

Signs of a toxic work environment

Obviously, no company wants to believe it does not promote a healthy work environment. However, opening one’s eyes to the possibility that a negative environment exists paves the way to making corrective changes. Some red flags to look for as signs of a toxic workplace include:


Like Veronica in the opening, those exposed to poor working conditions may find it tough to muster the energy to face another day. High rates of absenteeism can signal employee burnout and other mental health struggles. Exposure to toxic behavior also can lead to physical health problems such as headaches and digestive issues.

High turnover rate

Who wants to remain in a place that fails to make them happy (or even makes them sick)? Employees experiencing a toxic company culture head for greener pastures ASAP, leaving your company with undesirable retention stats.

Office gossip

In the absence of transparent communication, rumor mills churn. Workers fill in gaps with their own theories. And without proper outlets to voice concerns, secretive whispers behind management’s back abound.


Healthy disagreement happens everywhere. In toxic workplaces, though, conflicts may happen more often and less respectfully. Without clarity about their roles and helpful direction from their leaders, workers may step on each other’s toes. Also, frustrated people generally have shorter tempers and less motivation to choose words carefully.

Low productivity

Employee engagement suffers in toxic environments. Why go the extra mile when you do not feel supported, appreciated, or connected to the company? People stick to their work hours and not a minute more.

Lack of teamwork

Workers in toxic environments focus on their own survival. They lack the energy to offer a helping hand. And if playing fields are not even, there is even less motivation. Why bother being a team player if only the chosen few receive management’s attention?

Bad vibes

Maybe workers go about their work without particularly talking to one another. Or, when individuals do speak, conversation is pessimistic since nobody has anything particularly good to say. Perhaps people look bored or do not smile as they go about their business. Tension could permeate the air, or maybe the place seems like a hodge-podge rather than a well-oiled machine. Whatever the case, something seems “off.”

Recruitment issues

Have an unproductive employee referral program? Consider the possibility that current workers do not want to recommend you to their friends and network connections. Likewise, inspect job sites that offer reviews. You may discover disgruntled past and present employees warning prospective applicants of a toxic company culture with low morale.

Improving a negative work environment

Managers who suspect a problem benefit from immediate action. While improvement likely will take some time, steps in the right direction offer employees encouragement.

Start by surveying employees. Anonymous questionnaires allow people to express opinions and concerns without fear of retribution. Later, a town hall-style gathering could be a useful forum, especially for bouncing around ideas as a group. The act of asking demonstrates concern, which is an important first step.

Share results of the survey with everyone on staff. This action shows that the company is not sweeping things under the rug. Rather, leadership hears what people are saying and now has a better idea of where to direct efforts. Be certain all in charge commit to reversing the toxic environment. Employees will not buy into changes if they do not believe their leaders are truly invested in creating a positive workplace.

Take further action based on what needs correcting. Some common moves to reduce workplace toxicity include:

Redefining mission

Improve employee morale and engagement by zeroing in on the company’s vision. What does the organization stand for? How is success defined? How do individual efforts contribute to the overall good? Such knowledge boosts purpose and self-esteem.

Revamping communication

Develop consistent ways to deliver information, including to remote employees. Work on clarity, frequency, and transparency. Set up channels for workers to offer their feedback, too.

Revising the employee handbook

Human resources and management can work together to make the document thorough and up to date. Everyone at every level should read the new version and sign a statement of acknowledgement. Then, operate by these rules and codes of conduct across the board. Managers need to hold all their direct reports accountable and follow stated disciplinary procedures with offenders.

Prioritizing a psychologically safe environment

Adopt the philosophy that great ideas can come from anyone at any time. Actively ask for input. Listen respectfully to what team members say. Quickly squash unprofessional remarks or behaviors to show you have zero tolerance for people interrupting or belittling each other. Stress the importance of learning from mistakes, sharing credit, and having each other’s back.

Training for soft skills

Value these as much as hard skills! Devote resources to staff development of greater emotional intelligence. Things like empathy, ability to read social cues, and awareness of one’s own feelings and those of others are critical to positive interactions and workplace harmony.

Respecting work-life balance

Employees want employers to view them as whole people, not just as workers who can do something for them. Monitor work stress and workloads. Allow people as much control as possible over where, when, and how they get tasks done. Emphasize results over facetime.

Showing appreciation

Lastly, never discount the power of a genuine “thank you.” Every person longs to make a difference. Knowing those in charge recognize your talents and contributions inspires positivity.