Workplace Toxicity Explained

Workplace Toxicity Explained - Photo of Winifred LaFrance Chambers

Guest Blogger:
Winifred LaFrance Chambers is a 2021 Walden alumna who graduated from the MS in Human Resource Management program.  She is also a healthy workplace consultant and self-published author (under the name of Winifred Summer) of the book, The Toxic Job Playbook.  Her specialty areas include recruitment, staffing, employer relations, and corporate culture.

In a world where the word “toxic” is thrown around (often times incorrectly), I want to ensure that there is a clear understanding of what makes a workplace toxic. Sometimes employees are guilty of taking their own personal feelings and projecting them onto others in the workplace. We also can have a limited view of what toxic work environments can look like. By learning how to identify workplace toxicity, we can then make changes in our lives that lead to more positive and supportive work environments.

When thinking about toxic workplaces, many immediately think of a bad boss scenario. Micromanaging, nasty attitude, and threats of retaliation seem to be most popular. These examples all fall in the toxic category, but there are so many more issues that can contribute to a toxic workplace. Some organizations suffer from poorly defined job roles. Employees join organizations due to appealing job descriptions only to find that they are inaccurate or outdated. This misrepresentation is toxic because it impacts the ability for trust to be formed between the employee and employer. Lack of resources can also be toxic, making one feel that they are set up to fail. This situation can occur if you are responsible for handling matters without proper tools or the knowledge of how to use them, all while being berated for your less-than-stellar performance. This type of toxicity can lead to feelings of inadequacy which may lead to depression and anxiety. Not having a voice in the workplace is also toxic. Being ignored by your peers, leadership, and customers is a sign that you lack value and support; it won’t be long until you feel like just a number or a machine. Being heard, recognized, and appreciated is important in the workplace; this is what keeps you motivated!

If you believe you are in a toxic work environment, there are several things you can do to improve your work life:

  • Speak Up! Putting your head down with the goal of just getting through the day will not solve anything. In fact, it will make matters worse. Silence can be received as acceptance, and it also keeps information from individuals who can and want to help you. If you aren’t comfortable going to leadership or Human Resources (HR), there are other ways to receive help. Some organizations have anonymous tip lines, unions to support you, or if you believe that you are experiencing discrimination, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

  • Reflect Upon Your Own Values and Behaviors. Over the years I’ve had my share of toxic work environments, but I’ve also had bad work experiences that had more to do with me than the organization. Some of us apply for jobs we don’t want and then realize just how much the job makes us unhappy. Or we have a lot on our plate, which leaves us too drained to bring our best selves to the workplace. Another popular one is expecting the employer to always adapt to our personal needs. These are all matters that should be addressed, but not in a way that puts the organization at fault. The individual also has a responsibility to know how to assess if a position and environment works best for their needs and to separate business from personal. If you are a job candidate, I recommend taking the time to reflect on your own values before accepting a position.  The Career Exploration tab on the Career Planning and Development website offers self-knowledge tools that can help you identify your interests, strengths, and values. 

  • Search for a Healthier Work Environment. There comes a point when you need to decide: to stay in a toxic environment or seek new opportunities.  If you are ready to make a move, Career Planning and Development offers the Walden Job and Internship Locator job board, the GoinGlobal job search system, and popular and interest-specific job boards to take your job search to the next level.  My advice is to do your best to learn about the organization’s culture and mission; you can do this by connecting with people who work at the organization through LinkedIn, reading company reviews on GlassDoor, or searching for organizations on sites such as Fair360 , Gallup Workplace Surveys, and Forbes Lists.  During interviews, ask questions about what it is like to work for that organization and what training and support you will receive.  Even though they are interviewing you, you are also interviewing them to determine if they are a good fit.

I hope that this article gives you a broader view of toxic work environments and gives you a few things to think about as you navigate your current workplace or prepare for a new job opportunity. There is no such thing as a perfect job, but toxicity should not be tolerated. Workplaces can only change with a level of exposure. We live in a time where toxic workplace activity is being spotlighted and people are being held accountable. Even if you ultimately decide to quit, you should express what your experience was like in the exit interview, which may spark change for those who remain. As an advocate for healthy workplaces, I truly believe in having the hard conversations not only with the organization, but with ourselves. Know your power and what you deserve.

Written by Winifred LaFrance-Chambers, ’21 Walden Alumna

Edited by Dina Bergren, Manager, Career Planning and Development