5-second summary
  • Workplace culture is the system of shared beliefs and behaviors that determine how an organization’s members interact and make decisions.
  • Research shows that a toxic workplace culture can have a negative impact on productivity.
  • The pandemic tended to amplify existing cultural issues.
  • Symptoms of burnout and change fatigue may be confused with those of a toxic work environment. Take our quiz to learn if there’s deeper cause to any feelings of dissatisfaction.

Workplace culture has a profound effect on team productivity, not to mention employees’ day-to-day sense of wellbeing; it’s long been a key factor in recruiting and retaining talent. A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that nearly half of employees who experienced incivility in the workplace reduced their effort and made a conscious choice to spend less time at work.

Our relationships to our jobs and our workplaces (and, well, everything) were turned on their heads when the pandemic hit. Organizations across the board were forced to adjust their ways of working on the fly, and existing cultural issues got worse when, suddenly, all communication was virtual and collaboration happened from… wherever we could manage. As the COVID crisis wore on and The Great Resignation materialized, many companies learned the hard way that a healthy company culture is critical to keeping their people around – and that a toxic one will drive them away, no matter how much you pay them.


A positive culture can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. According the Society for Human Resource Management, 74% of working Americans claim their organizational values helped guide them through the pandemic.

Interestingly, while most executives believe their company culture has improved in the face of the pandemic, their subordinates disagree. So how can leaders check their assumptions about their organizational culture? And how can employees parse out whether they’re suffering from general pandemic-driven malaise or they’re existing in a genuinely toxic work environment?

Characteristics of a toxic work environment

Managers, your employees are struggling – here’s how to keep them happy

Here are five telltale signs that your workplace cuture leaves a lot to be desired. 

1. There’s little to no enthusiasm 

If you look around at your colleagues, does everyone’s face seem like they just found out they need a root canal?

Bad attitudes create a self-fulfilling prophecy – all that negativity is a result of the culture, but it also fuels the overall gloomy vibe in the office. And worse, it hinders everybody’s ability to get things done. 93 percent of workers say they’re less productive when they work with people who have poor attitudes. 

2. There’s a pervasive fear of failure

Nobody wants to screw up at work. 28 percent of people admit that making a mistake on the job is their biggest workplace fear. But there’s a big difference between hoping to avoid a brief face-palm moment and feeling paralyzed by a threatening environment that punishes perceived failures.

A total lack of psychological safety (which measures how secure employees feel in taking risks and making mistakes) is another indicator of a toxic workplace. 

When people are afraid to step out of their comfort zones, the whole team suffers. In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle found that a high degree of psychological safety has the greatest impact on team effectiveness – even above dependability, structure, meaning, and impact. 

3. There’s constant dysfunction and confusion

Nobody is clear on their roles or responsibilities. Crossed wires are common, and people are always left out of the loop. Team members can barely tell which way is up. 

Toxic workplaces are breeding grounds for dysfunction and confusion. That’s because these negative environments are often accompanied by a lack of trust, ineffective communication, and power struggles. Those issues make it all the more challenging for team members to collaborate, so projects, meetings, and relationships frequently run off the rails. 

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4. There’s never-ending gossip and drama

A little bit of office hearsay is normal. Most people are guilty of paying attention to the rumor mill in one way or another, with 96 percent of respondents admitting to participating in office gossip.

It’s when gossip is taken to an extreme that toxic workplaces become apparent. If your average day at work feels like you’re starring on a reality-TV show, you’ve reached a whole new level of drama. Nobody openly communicates and, instead, opts for whispers, side-eye glances, and passive aggressive remarks. 

It might seem harmless, but this maliciousness takes a toll. Workplace bullying is correlated with psychological burnout, depression, anxiety, and aggression. 

5. There’s high employee turnover 

There’s a revolving door of employees, and it seems like you can’t keep anybody around for the long haul. You’re never sure what empty desks or new faces you’ll see in the office tomorrow.

If throngs of people are running for the hills, that’s a strong indicator that the culture is driving employees away. One out of five people who leave their jobs cite culture as their reason for exiting. Organizations that purposefully craft a positive culture experience a 14 percent turnover rate, while those that ignore their culture are saddled with a 48 percent turnover rate. 

There are a number of reasons that employees leave jobs. But if you feel like you’re seeing a mass exodus, that’s a red flag about your work environment. 

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How to deal with a toxic work culture

You recognized your work environment in one (or even several) of the indicators above. Now what?

Should you cut your losses and put in your two weeks’ notice? Maybe. But, before you pack up your desk and hit the road, it’s worth trying some of the below strategies to see if you can improve things at work. 

Find your allies

A venomous work environment means you probably won’t get along with everybody you work with. However, building a support system of some friendly and like-minded colleagues can help you boost your spirits and feel less isolated. 

This will be the group that you can connect and commiserate with, which is important when it’s been proven that disclosing stress is a coping mechanism. In addition, positive social relationships strengthen employee retention and productivity.

Focus on what you can control

The common advice of “stay positive” is cliché and even condescending when you’re stuck in a work environment that’s sabotaging your happiness. Rather than pasting on a fake smile and keeping your chin up, ask yourself this question when something irritates you at work: Do I have any control over this?

If you’re not in a leadership position, you probably have limited power over how other people behave and interact. But you can control how you respond to it. 

Stay focused on the decisions and reactions that you have a say in, and you’ll avoid expending energy and frustration on situations that aren’t worth your sweat. 

Muster your courage and provide honest feedback

When you’re dealing with a negative work environment, it’s tempting to bite your tongue for fear of adding fuel to the fire. However, speak up when you’re given opportunities to provide feedback – whether that’s through employee surveys, your one-on-ones with your manager, upwards performance reviews, or another outlet.

It’s possible that the leadership team doesn’t even realize the extent of the negativity that’s spreading throughout the office, and you should take advantage of the chance to enlighten them about what could be going better. 

Can we guarantee that you’ll notice vast improvements? Not necessarily. But, you stand a better chance than if you say nothing. After all, one in three companies might not regularly act on employee feedback – but that means two out of three companies will hopefully take some action to turn things around. 

5 signs of a toxic work culture (and what to do if you’re stuck in one)