How To Identify and Fix Toxic Workplaces


Case Study #1
Ginger is always exhausted. She is a manager at a midsized organization responsible for ensuring compliance for one of the company’s largest accounts. Her pay is adequate – she received a substantial pay increase when she moved into her current role – and due to her long tenure with the company she accrues a considerable amount of PTO. The problem is that Ginger doesn’t feel like she can use any of her vacation time. The pace of her work is frenzied due to last-minute requests from the client and internal stakeholders. It has been made clear that the buck stops with her.

For years, Ginger has listened to her peers and leaders boasting about their long working hours. Last night emails are common and it’s not unusual to work on a project all weekend. Ginger is burnt out and needs a break, but the pressure that she feels due to the culture of overworking has prevented her from using the time off that she has earned.

Ginger is a top performer, a highly valued employee and loves her job, but feels she has no choice but to leave the organization.

Case Study #2
Jason works as a coordinator for a nonprofit organization with a mission that deeply resonates with his personal values. He has worked for this organization for 3 years and is constantly plagued with workplace gossip, of which he frequently seems to be the subject. Conversations with his manager on the issue leave Jason feeling dismissed and unsupported.

Jason loves the work that he does and feels fortunate to work for the organization, but he’s wondering how long he can continue to put up with the negative climate that his coworkers have created.


We have all heard similar stories – some of us have even experienced similar situations or other types of toxic behavior in the workplace. When we think about employee satisfaction and retention, culture continues to be an important topic.

A recent study found that toxic work environments are now the leading cause for people leaving their jobs–ahead of pay, benefits, or any other factor. (Forbes, 2022)

Gone are the days when employees will “stick it out” and maintain loyalty to an employer that doesn’t value or protect them, even when pay and benefits are fair.

In a recent study by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, one in five employees reported that they currently work in a hostile or threatening work environment. This number includes reported instances of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, along with abuse from customers and “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions. “There’s a message for employers here,” says lead study author Nicole Maestas, “Working conditions really do matter.” (CNBC, 2017)

Uncovering Toxicity in the Workplace

Being branded a “toxic workplace” can be devastating for business, but how do we identify the behaviors and issues that are contributing to the problem? The first step in the process is the most challenging – we must ask the right questions.

• How do your employees feel at the beginning of their work week?
• Are they showing up ready to dig in and meet their goals?
• Do they see a clear path to their short-term wins for the week?
• Or, like more and more workers report, are your employees dragging themselves through the door dreading the week to come?

Monday morning check-ins can be a great way to take the pulse of the team and get ahead of any perceived roadblocks for the week. This is also an excellent opportunity to show concern for your employees’ wellbeing.

“Culture is how employees’ hearts and stomachs feel about Monday morning on a Sunday night.” – Bill Marklein

Leaders often make the mistake of believing that they can clearly spot the signs of trouble, but toxic behaviors can be elusive if you don’t know what to look for. Here are a few tips:

1. Employees seem detached from the work environment.
Do your workers seem to be watching the clock all day? Do you have higher than normal turnover? A sure sign of toxicity is a disengaged workforce with high turnover. Pay attention to lower productivity or higher rates of attrition coming from one specific part of the business. This is a sign that something has gone awry in that specific area of the business.

2. Social relationships in the workplace seem strained.
Watch how your employees engage with each other. Are they gathering together – either virtually or in a common area – to chat and share about their workday or weekend activities? Do only certain people in the office mingle and talk openly? If people seem to isolate or communicate in a strained, unnatural way, you may be witnessing the fallout of a toxic environment.

3. There are no clear boundaries around when work gets accomplished.
Monitor when employees are sending emails and completing their tasks. An occasional evening or weekend email to close the loop on an issue shouldn’t be seen as alarming, but when after hour communications become the norm, it’s time to check in with your employees to understand what’s driving the behavior. Ensure you have properly gauged their workload and reset expectations around when tasks should be accomplished. Empower them to push back on after hour requests and reiterate the importance of downtime on evenings and weekends to avoid burn out.

Calling Out Toxicity – How To Effect Change

Noticing patterns of toxic behavior is the first step, but how do we take action to fix the problem? It takes time for a toxic work environment to develop–regardless of the cause–and it will take time to untangle the knots and get the environment back to a positive and productive place. Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Now that you know there is a problem, don’t ignore it!
Toxic behaviors, if allowed to continue, will undoubtedly have a negative impact on employee morale leading to higher attrition, substandard work products, and possibly legal claims. Prepare to face workplace problems head on with the intention to resolve the problem. Don’t look the other way and expect that the issues will resolve themselves over time.

2. Be clear on your expectations and lead by example.
Are employees foregoing downtime to keep up with work demands? Employees often emulate their leaders, consider if they are mimicking behavior they have seen from you. Take your vacations. Turn your out-of-office notification on when you are away from the office. Allowing for downtime in your own life will help your workforce feel like they can do the same.

Is the toxicity that you uncovered related to how employees treat each other? Look carefully at the example you provide. Don’t engage in gossip or petty feuds between coworkers. Be sure to address bullying and harassing behaviors head on and clearly articulate that these actions have no place in your culture.

3. Inspect what you expect.
Once you have begun to address and correct toxic behaviors in the workplace, stay engaged and closely monitor progress. Ensure that employees have a clear understanding of what your expectations are. Remember that toxic work environments don’t form overnight–it will take time and intention to undo the effects of the damaging behaviors. By continuing to address issues that arise, you are further solidifying your commitment to maintaining a nontoxic workplace which will result in positive outcomes for your business.


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