Toxic environments, at their core, are ineffective and destructive to employees.
When supervisors and coworkers routinely mistreat each other and act in self-serving ways without considering what’s best for the larger group’s success, the culture of the organization becomes dysfunctional, and employees become cynical.
Employees start to believe raises and promotions are given for political reasons to undeserving people, or managers only look out for their best interests so the employees feel they should do the same. Employees may think that behaving ethically only puts them at a disadvantage compared to their coworkers, so their only option is to engage in the same unethical practices or leave the company.
When a workplace becomes toxic, turnover increases, and productivity declines. People who have experienced previous forms of trauma are more likely to have a negative emotional response to toxic workplaces. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (1999) identified toxic workplace environments as a leading cause of workplace violence. These environments exhibit verbal violence, such as threats, verbal abuse, hostility, and harassment. Verbal assaults and hostility frequently escalate into physical violence. These assaults lead to psychological trauma and stress, even when there is no bodily injury.
Everyone is impacted negatively by working in a tense and stressful atmosphere. If supervisors become angry and verbally abusive with their employees, any positive rapport stops. Employees stop trying to communicate honestly and openly with their supervisors out of fear. Without clear and accurate information from their employees, supervisors no longer make the best decisions for the employees or the organization.
Employees in toxic work environments often suffer from these physical and mental health complaints (International Labour Office, 2018):
Organizational leaders are responsible for setting the tone of the culture and driving the corporate vision. That means if leaders work in a vacuum, without considering their employees, the environment rapidly becomes toxic. Toxic leadership silences anyone who challenges the status quo and creates “skilled incompetence” by asking employees to “do as I say, not as I do.” Toxic organizations also fail to “walk their talk” because the behaviors they profess to value are not supported. For example, an organization might claim publicly to welcome diversity and an entrepreneurial spirit and then discourage these behaviors by not supporting employees’ innovative ideas.
Toxicity, in essence, is created in the gap between what is said and what is done. Cultural toxicity evolves when there is a lack of authentic and balanced communication throughout the organization. Employees are not empowered to contribute to the evolution of the work culture collaboratively.
Nobody gets excited about anything in toxic workplaces. Acquiring a large client account, closing a big deal, or exceeding sales goals will never be celebrated. These organizations are laser-focused on the bottom line, and employee morale is wholly overlooked.
A lack of trust and accountability in toxic environments can also cause employees witnessing corruption or unethical practices to look the other way and avoid speaking out. Toxic workplaces have been linked to corporate scandals and environmental disasters. Toxicity seeps into the workplace when employees focus on protecting themselves instead of doing the right thing for the organization or community.
In their review of the literature on crisis and unethical behavior at work, Christensen and Kohls (2003) found that ethical crises at work lead to stress and negative consequences for everyone involved in the unethical practices. Ethical conflicts have a cumulative impact on those involved because ethical dilemmas challenge our belief systems, and that amount of increased stress eventually impacts our physical and emotional health. For example, journalists working on crisis‐related assignments may experience ethical dilemmas linked to how they conduct their work without causing additional harm to the victims. Backholm and Idås (2015) investigated how exposure to journalistic ethical dilemmas during the Oslo and Utøya terror attacks in 2011, and subsequent work‐related guilt, were related to the development of PTSD.
The results showed that exposure to ethical dilemmas might affect the development of long‐term negative psychological impacts. Those impacts are experienced by workers who witnessed unethical acts or were connected to unethical behavior. These negative impacts are the result of empathy for the victim or perpetrator. Ethical dilemmas force people to consider the potential effects on their lives and fears surface that cause anxiety, trauma, and in some cases, PTSD.
There is mounting evidence that suggests employees who exercise autonomy regularly at work are happier and more productive. The right workers in the right role can transform an entire department—maybe even an organization as a whole—but only if their ability to act on their intuition and creativity is unleashed. Individuals can only make changes within an organization when they are given the freedom to do that. Freedom and trust go hand in hand. If managers don’t trust their teams to do a job, the job will likely never get done. If employees aren’t trusted to fulfill their roles, they will start losing confidence in the organization, and productivity will decrease. Functional and competent leaders understand they cannot be involved in every decision. Instead, they hire the right people and empower them to make their own decisions. If they fail, they will learn and grow from their own mistakes. A toxic workplace, in comparison, does not invest in or listen to its employees and has no standards of excellence to strive for. In these settings, leaders have all the answers and fail to acknowledge accomplishments, outstanding performance, and milestones.
It’s healthy to maintain separation between your professional and personal lives. Toxic work environments, however, don’t allow employees to maintain a healthy balance, requiring them to work overtime and respond to emails out of work hours.
High employee turnover occurs in toxic work environments. People don’t want to stay in companies where stress levels are excessive, verbal abuse is common, hard work goes unrewarded, communication has broken down, and unethical behavior is typical. When employees don’t stay for long before moving on, the likely cause is a toxic work environment. Until the corporate culture changes, the situation will not improve.
The American Psychological Association research (APA, 2013) found that 36 percent of workers report ongoing work stress, most of which were related to harmful or outright unhealthy management practices. Between 40 and 50 percent of respondents reported a heavy workload, long hours, abusive managers, and unrealistic expectations as reasons for their emotional distress. Nearly 50 percent reported not feeling valued on the job, and about one-third intended to look for another position within the next year.