3 Steps To Recognize A Poisonous Office Environment

If you observe these three things in your office, you’re almost certainly suffering from a toxic work environment.

3 Steps To Recognize A Poisonous Office Environment
[Photo: Flickr user Filter Forge]

It may seem easy to design an idealistic workplace with perks like lenient dress codes, free snacks, and even Silicon Valley-levels of pampering (looking at you, Google bus), but the truth is an office culture is highly dependent on the individuals that work within it.


No amount of treats or incentives can outweigh a toxic office environment–the only solution is to recognize the counterproductive factors at play and address them head-on.

Building happy, productive workplaces is my passion, and that often means turning around ineffective ones. Here are the three trouble spots I scan for first to triage an office when things aren’t working.

1. Lack Of Teamwork And Poor Communication

Spend some time investigating ways to connect your employees and help them work together. The necessary response here is twofold: a leader must streamline operations in the workplace and invest in building up camaraderie between employees. The latter problem can be easily addressed with employee appreciation events, morale-boosting activities, and even team-building workshops.

To address the former, survey your staff to identify communication gaps. Is everyone communicating via email, leading to clogged inboxes and missed messages? Explore in-office chat options like the Google Suite or Microsoft Lync. Invest in software that allows employees to cowork remotely, and cut back on emails and meetings, which often prove inefficient.

Amanda Poetker, a communications manager at online brainstorming and collaboration platform Stormboard, believes an internal collaboration program of some kind is a vital part of being a success at everything. Busyness isn’t the same as productivity–know the difference, and lean into the latter.

“Communication is key for good team work, especially for remote teams,” says Nick Zhou, CEO and cofounder of Everlasting Footprint, a platform that aims to preserve people’s life stories for future generations to see.


“Establish communication protocols first, and make sure everyone is following them. Run effective one-on-one meetings with your direct reports once a week. And remember that face-to-face meetings are more effective than video calls, video calls than phone calls, and phone calls than emails.”

2. Inequality, Either Real Or Perceived

It may seem hard to imagine a workplace where everyone is equal: by nature, employees are ranked, doing different jobs at different pay scales. But there’s an important nuance to maintaining the sense of equal treatment in an office leader’s management style.

“Every CEO has a passion, but truly every employee deserves to feel like part of something greater than themselves,” says Nicole Martin, CEO of consulting firm HRBoost. “To tap into the passion of any person, the leadership must establish a clear culture invitation. Businesses that fail to identify values and consistently live them will find talent walks with their feet.”

While employees may be doing different jobs of varying importance, all should be valued and treated as equals. Consistency is key: favoritism serves no function and can quickly erode morale.

Celebrate small and major victories, and dole out praise equally at all levels within the workplace. The easiest way to project an air of equality is to have clear, upfront policies and procedures that ensure everyone is treated fairly. Equally important is having clear, shared goals: if everyone’s working towards a common objective, everyone will feel invested with a victory in any department.

Calibrate your measures of success so they align with the unique goals and challenges in each level of your company. For a team leader, securing a big deal may warrant major celebrations; for an individual sales rep, a single sale merits its own recognition.


3. The Bad Apple

It’s very possible that 99% of an office may be happy, collaborative, and productive, but a single “Negative Nancy” is souring the office climate. This person could be responsible for social drama, or may not be pulling their weight on group projects. It could be an individual, or a clique of workers making the office an inhospitable place to spend eight-plus hours a day.

When assessing your workplace for a bad apple, don’t neglect the top of the ladder: An ineffective leader can be the most damaging, as negative attitudes or behaviors trickle down. A leader should embody the company’s values the most–one who fails to do so can lead an entire team astray.

Invest in keeping your office leaders on the ball. Train them frequently; include them in upper-level conversations and decisions. Reassert the company’s goals constantly, and be sure to embody them at the very top of the totem pole. Let it be enthusiasm for your business’s goals that trickles down.

“Enthusiasm and commitment are contagious,” says Anthony Vinci, CEO of app Findyr. “Good managers get in before their team or leave after their team. Great managers get in before and leave after their team.”

Barry S. Saltzman is CEO of Saltzman Enterprise Group and has more than 30 years of executive experience in both public and private global companies. During Barry’s career he led multi-million dollar turnarounds, quadrupled revenue growth, and helmed global 100 companies in the industries of IT services and software distribution. He also speaks on business strategy and is a frequent guest expert, lending his entrepreneurial acumen to audiences of aspiring business leaders.