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5 signs of a toxic work environment

Do you dread going into work each day and come home feeling demeaned and dejected? You may be toiling in a toxic work environment, according to Leslie Baker, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist who teaches in the counseling program at the University of Phoenix® Bay Area Campus in California.

“Ruminating about work even when you’re not there, headaches, insomnia — these are signs something has gotten out of hand,” Baker explains. Here are five symptoms of a toxic work environment:

Constant layoffs and firings

If you’re always worried about losing your job, workdays can become unbearable, says David Meintrup, MA, a certified career coach with Phoenix Career Services™. “When companies are constantly laying people off, having security escort fired workers out of the building in front of others or saying you can be easily replaced, employees feel used and abused,” he says.

This kind of culture also can make employees excessively nervous, worried or paranoid, a psychological state known as hypervigilance, Baker adds.

“You become paralyzed — a classic fight-or-flight response,” she says, noting, “It’s a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. You are constantly tense and on guard, and may think people are talking about you behind your back. And you’re always suspicious of others — constantly looking over your shoulder and expecting a fight.”

Unrealistic expectations

If your employer sets impossible targets to meet, you can feel demoralized. “I see this a lot in sales,” Meintrup says, “like when managers double or triple sales quotas when the economy is bad.”

Another warning sign is if your manager wants you to cut corners, falsify data or commit other ethics breaches to boost the bottom line. “Everyone should have a job that reflects their personal moral compass,” he says, adding that if you’re being asked to do things that make you uncomfortable, it’s time to leave.


Any company that plays favorites and rewards personal connections over accomplishments is one to avoid, Meintrup stresses. “This type of environment tends to penalize the hard worker,” he says. “If you see people with less experience getting promoted over you, and the top performers aren’t getting recognized at all, that’s a problem.”

Favoritism can be hard to recognize until you’ve been with a company for a while, Meintrup says, noting that he frequently counsels workers about what to do in this situation. “If everyone up the ladder is supporting each other instead of fixing the problem, that’s usually when people reach out to me for help finding their next job,” he explains.

Financial trouble

If the company is sinking, even good management can engage in toxic behavior out of desperation, Meintrup says. “You can often see the warning signs when your employer is in trouble,” he notes. “Is the customer base dwindling? Are you losing market share?”

If something seems amiss, Meintrup recommends reviewing published financial reports, following local business news or checking sites like Glassdoor and Vault for insider information on what might be behind the meltdown. If you don’t like what you find, plan your exit, he says.


“[Workplace bullying] can be verbal abuse, like intimidation, unwarranted write-ups or demeaning your contributions — either privately or in front of others,” Baker explains. Or it can be indirect — like ignoring your requests, excluding you from important meetings or awards, spreading rumors or taking credit for your work. Bullies also can threaten or commit physical violence.

If you’re a target, Baker recommends reporting the behavior to your company human resource department and keeping a detailed record of any incidents.

She cautions that “there are benefits to trying to work it out, but some companies may just protect the bully.” She suggests distancing yourself from the toxic person through either a lateral transfer at the same employer or a new job elsewhere. “The company will always protect its bottom line,” she notes. “But your bottom line is you — so take care of yourself first.”