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Identifying a Toxic Workplace

by Ralph Heibutzki

Conflict is normal in any work situation where employees may feel dissatisfied for brief periods. This dynamic is significantly different from a toxic workplace, where dysfunctional behavior is the norm. Sinking morale, manipulative management and poor working relationships are just some of the notable signs that characterize a toxic workplace. The result is a company culture that lacks accountability and trust, and is rife with frustration, leading to a decline in overall performance and an increase in employee turnover.

Abusive Bosses

Toxic workplaces are typically dominated by narcissistic managers who focus on making themselves look good, and winning at any cost. Employees become little more than enablers of behavior that deflects criticism onto subordinates. Companies run by such self-focused CEOs suffer greater extremes of performance, as the leader's negative actions ripple through every aspect of the organization.

Conflict and Discord

Conflict, discord and tension are the norm in a toxic workplace, where employees realize that advancement depends on mirroring the dysfunctional behavior that they see around them. According to "Bloomberg Businessweek," in this concept of "emotional contagion," workers fall into similar behavior patterns regardless of their actual personality traits. Employees abandon cooperation and collaboration for backstabbing and one-upmanship as the preferred path to advancement.

Favoritism in Raises and Promotions

Favoritism in raises and promotions is widespread in a toxic workplace. One example is the system that prevailed at the notorious energy company, Enron, whose performance review committee set financial incentives for 400 executives. However, all decisions had to be unanimous. As a result, employees with close ties to committee members were more likely to advance faster, and earn bigger salaries and bonuses, which contributed to a divisive atmosphere within the company.

Lack of Internal Controls

Lack of internal controls is a hallmark of toxic workplaces. Faced with declining morale, upper management may implement cosmetic measures that treat the symptoms, but not the causes. Human resources personnel minimize or ignore the CEO's behavior. Doctored financial reports -- excessive billings or manipulation of non-paying clients -- become common. Companies that permit such practices leave themselves open to bankruptcy, insolvency and lawsuits.

Micromanaged Employees

If you see reasonable risk-taking and initiative taking a backseat to being constantly supervised, you're likely experiencing a toxic work environment. This is called "micromanagement," reflecting a manager's belief that employees can't be trusted to finish tasks correctly, on time or to specifications. You'll notice co-workers turning into "pleasers" whose self-respect hinges on gaining a manager's approval. The result leaves fewer avenues for feedback, and growing employee frustration.

What To Do

Once you realize you're stuck in a toxic workplace, you have two options. You can try working within the company to reach a solution. However, confronting a narcissistic or abusive manager directly will take a lot of effort on your part, and it rarely ends well for the employee. Or, put your mental well-being above all else and find another job.

About the Author

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