Right before I started my own business, I worked in a truly toxic workplace. Despite the good pay, it was impossible to imagine myself working there for long, since complete, unquestioning obedience was cherished above all other employee qualities. Frankly, that didn’t jive with my analytical, curious, growth-hungry nature.
The whole office – except for the two partners – worked in a communal fishbowl-style setting, and we were required to be at our desks every day from 8 am through 6pm, something that was only made explicit months after I’d started working there.
But every morning you never knew when the boss would stroll in with his dog. It might be 9 am or 10 am, and he would saunter leisurely in with a coffee in hand, past a silent bullpen of overworked staff slouched over our desks, just trying to keep our heads above water.
I was always startled by the silence in that office. You see, I’d had a wonderful experience at this firm before Election Day, after which time the wall that separated the side of the business that worked with PACs was no longer legally required, and I was brought over to join my colleagues working directly for campaigns.
Despite being just a hallway away, the culture shift was immense. I’d gone from having creative autonomy and the trust of my supervisor to be collaborative with our clients, to being asked to fall into line in a role that stripped me of all substantive input. I felt like a cog in a machine; a digital paper-pusher.
When I made suggestions or contributions that our boss didn’t like, he would dismiss my comments out of hand and say, “Emilie, you can make the rules when you’re the boss.” Funny enough, I took his words to heart when I quit just a few months later to embark on the rocky but rewarding journey of starting my own business.
Here are 5 telltale signs of a toxic workplace to watch out for – many of which I encountered at my last 9-to-5.
Narcissists On Top
Beware of the boss who thinks they can do no wrong. Narcissism runs rampant in our workplaces because too often it’s cloaked in the characteristics most often associated with leadership. It’s terrifying how many textbook narcissists can rise into the highest positions of power in today’s world (sound familiar?).
Narcissists tend to believe the rules don’t apply to them — and see no issue in demanding near-perfection from others, despite not meeting those high standards themselves. They love being reaffirmed and told they’re correct, but see disagreement as defection. You’re either with them, or you’re against them.
When I first joined the other side of my office, I thought my colleagues were cold and stand-offish. Their silence was alarming. Despite working side-by-side together all day, most of them listened to music with their earbuds in and seldom exchanged a word.
Later, I realized there was a very active back-channel of communication happening on g-chat. Many of the staff members were talking smack about the boss on instant messenger, a refuge from the realities of working in such a tense environment.
Another exception to the silent workplace emerged after the partners left for the day. That’s when colleagues would gather in cliques to gossip, complain and commiserate about how many hours of work they had left before they could leave.
This kind of atmosphere is clearly no fun for employees and equally worse from the employer’s perspective. At least one Harvard study found toxic behaviors like engaging negative gossip ends up hurting the business’s bottom line.
Lack of Transparency
When you aren’t clear on how your performance will be measured, you’re already set up to fail. When I transitioned over to this new side of the office, my role underwent significant changes, but that entirely-different job description was never fully laid out for me. Had it been, I wouldn’t have taken it to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong — I was proactive about seeking out feedback and aligning my priorities with my boss’s, but it felt like every time I’d arrived at the finish line, the goal post had moved. When there’s little transparency and communication about objectives up and down the hierarchy in an organization, it’s almost impossible for a mutually respectful, trusting relationship to flourish.
A lack of basic fairness is a good way to fuel a mutiny at work. When person A gets scolded for the same behavior that gets person B promoted, it feels like there’s no clear rubric for advancement, and it creates a sense of favoritism amongst employees.
The rule about being present at our desks from 8 am to 6 pm was not applied across the board to all staff, and it’s intent – presumably to ensure client responsiveness – was never made clear to us, fostering resentment at its seemingly arbitrary nature.
When the boss lays down rules like that and doesn’t bother adhering to them him/herself, it’s actually more about commanding obedience, exerting power, and maintaining a sense of control.
The Place is Sick, Literally
Truly toxic workplaces lead to employee burnout, fatigue, and downright illness. Are your colleagues often calling in sick? Fighting colds at their desks? Those are warning signs to watch out for, and can indicate a culture of chronic overwork.
High levels of stress are demonstrably bad for your body, leading to digestive problems, immune deficiencies, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Over the long term, chronic stress can wreck havoc on your overall wellbeing, leading to serious illness.
The best way to escape a toxic workplace? Ensure you’re not entering into one to begin with. Do your due diligence to interview the company you’re considering joining, and watch out for these warning signs during the interview process.
If you’re already in a toxic workplace, there are steps you can take now to take back your agency and ownership over your life, too, beginning with establishing healthy boundaries to protect your time and create space for you to pursue your own priorities (namely, finding a better place to work).
Emilie Aries is the Founder & CEO of Bossed Up, an innovative personal and professional training organization that helps women craft sustainable careers. She's also the Co-Host of the Stuff Mom Never Told You Podcast.