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The 5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Work Environment

How good or bad is your workplace? Can it ever improve?

Each year, Fortune Magazine publishes a list of the best companies to work for. But what about the worst workplaces? We know what makes a workplace great—good pay, benefits, outstanding leadership, good colleagues—but what are the signs of a really bad company? Here are some of the key warning signs of toxic work environments.

1. You have to keep your head down.

The first sign of a toxic workplace is a punitive environment, where workers learn that if they stand out—make a mistake, criticize, or make a suggestion—they get attacked or punished. This shut-up-and-keep-working environment is guaranteed to stifle any sort of creativity or innovation, and leads to ongoing worker stress because employees never know when the hammer will drop—directly on their heads.

2. The bullies run the show.

A sure sign of a toxic workplace is a company full of bullies—especially when those very same toxic individuals, who put down and belittle others, are the ones who get ahead in the organization. It is bad enough to have bullying co-workers, but bullying bosses are a very good sign that you are in a toxic workplace. [Here’s more on bullying in the workplace and bully bosses.]

3. It takes an act of God to get anything done.

When you are a motivated, dedicated, professional worker, an overly bureaucratic or do-nothing organization can be considered toxic. It kills your motivation and your chances of success. Leaders in good organizations work to remove obstacles to getting work done and provide ongoing support and encouragement.

4. No matter what you do, you can’t get ahead.

Nothing kills motivation like a dead-end job, and organizations that don’t recognize good performance are destined to fail. Moreover, the people in charge likely lack good leadership and probably got ahead through means other than proving their worth.

5. It’s all sweat—and no heart.

Organizations that have a singular focus on money—profits, cost-cutting, etc.—without considering the critical role of employees in achieving success are, by definition, toxic. The very worst organizations chew up employees and spit them out. The short-term bottom line looks good, but in the long term, the organization will fail as employees wise up and move on.

In order to fix a toxic workplace, it requires bold leadership. Think of it as renovating a house. If the foundation is bad, a major overhaul is needed. Sometimes, it requires only a moderate amount of work.

So, what makes a workplace great? The very best companies are those that genuinely care about their workers and their welfare. The emphasis needs to be on the "human" in the terms "human capital" and "human resources." Leaders need to continually ask how policies and practices impact workers. There needs to be genuine concern and caring for people to make an organization a great place to work.

Share your own experiences with toxic workplaces in the comments.

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