The Three Key Ingredients Of Toxic Workplaces

Toxic working environments get that way when one of three key components goes awry.

The Three Key Ingredients Of Toxic Workplaces
[Photo: Flickr user Manel Torralba]

While plenty of job seekers are eager just to be considered for a new position, it’s important to remember that not all work cultures are created equal. But in the hunt for a new job, it isn’t always easy to tell whether the company you’re considering might not be such a great place to work. In my research on broken work cultures, I’ve surveyed hundreds of employees and managers from a wide range of industries and sectors. And the evidence suggests that toxic working environments get that way when one of three key components go awry.


1. Poor Policies and Procedures

Unhealthy companies have policies and procedures that either aren’t well established or documented, or they just aren’t followed.

Sometimes that’s less a matter of insubordination than just poor communication. Many departments communicate only sporadically or share incomplete information. Other times there just isn’t a standardized way of doing things. That’s often the case in newer companies and startups, where procedures are still developing. But it can happen in established organizations, too, where the written processes are so outdated they no longer apply. In other companies, employees and managers simply “go around” the policies that do exist. The rules are there, but nobody follows them.

A toxic workplace can feel like some combination of chaos, incompetence, and anarchy where things might still get done but no one’s quite sure how. Job candidates should question hiring managers in some detail about the fundamentals of the day-to-day duties of the position–not just what they’d be tasked with doing in that role, but how they’re expected to do it.

2. Dysfunctional Employees

In toxic workplaces, “dysfunctional” is a descriptive term, not just as condescending label, and it refers to habits and behaviors that prevent people and teams from functioning as they should. Dysfunctional employees tend to blame others and make excuses, rarely accepting responsibility for their actions.

They withhold or distort information and communicate indirectly through others. They usually have a sense of entitlement, believing they should receive raises and promotions despite inconsistent performance. Worse still, they’re masters of creating conflict and tension in the workplace.


Colleagues who are dysfunctional wind up creating more work for those who work with them and for them, to the point that they often need to be “rescued” because they didn’t get their task finished, or the quality was so poor that the work had to be redone. Candidates should get a feel for the morale of the workplace they’re considering joining and ask questions about the team–its size, working habits, collective workload, etc.–they’d be a part of.

3. Toxic Leaders

Toxic leaders can have a range of personalities, but their chief failing is that they might be competent (in a technical sense), but their motives are impure. They’re totally focused on achieving their goals and do whatever it takes to get there. They manipulate their team members (often by shaming them or getting angry), take credit for others’ work, and they rarely, if ever, accept responsibility when something goes wrong.

Sniffing out a toxic leader can be one of the hardest things to do as a job seeker. It’s important to note that a toxic leader doesn’t have to be at the top tier of the organization–they can show up at any level, including as a front-line supervisor. Regardless of their position, they make life hell for those who work for them. Try to locate people who’ve previously worked for the company you’re considering, and ask them forthrightly if there’s anyone that in their experience you should be wary of.

Do Your Research

Here are a few more in-depth steps you can take to help you steer clear of toxic workplaces:

Look for warning signs. Ask specific questions about the work culture, the expectations, and the workload. If possible, talk to current employees to get an understanding of what it’s like to work there. What kind of turnover has the company experienced in the past few years? How many lawsuits has it been involved in? What do its clients say?


Understand the risks of working in a toxic environment. Working in one can put you at risk for physical problems (loss of sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure), emotional problems (depression, anxiety, anger), and relational difficulties (withdrawal, irritability, strained friendships). As much as you need this job, it may not be worth it. It’s important to take your time. If you’re employed already, keep working while you look for another job and assess each new opportunity carefully. If you’re finishing school or training and coming into the job market, keep your expenses low, and consider taking a “fill in the gap” job while you continue looking for something that’s a better long-term fit.

Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can give you objective feedback on your work circumstances. Sometimes an outside perspective–someone who can listen to our assessments or suspicions without being biased by our own need or desire for a new job–is all it takes. Close friends and family members who understand your personality and talents can help you sort out whether a certain position is the best match for this stage of your career.

Paul White, PhD, is a psychologist, speaker, and consultant. He is the coauthor of three books including Rising Above a Toxic Workplace and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, along with Gary Chapman and Harold Myra.