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Is Your Workplace Toxic? Definitely Maybe.

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Billions of people, millions of which are American, go to a workplace most days of the week. There’s a reasonable chance your place of business is driving you crazy.

Describing an office, factory, jobsite, store, or other place of employment this way is a powerful turn of phrase. The word “toxic” comes from the Latin word toxicum, meaning “poisoned.” This is a workplace where things started out healthy, then some agent was applied (possibly by a nefarious villain or a disgruntled coworker), and then people started to get sick.


© Flickr user Matt Brubeck

Writing for Inc magazine, Marcel Schawntes outlines 7 Sure Signs That Your Workplace Is Toxic. While there are some good ideas, many of the suggestions contradict research findings. Plus there’s an x-factor—what individual people want.

Here’s a few items Schwantes claims are the hallmarks of toxicity:

1. All sticks and no carrots

Management focuses solely on what employees are doing wrong or correcting problems, and rarely give positive feedback for what is going right. Or mostly carrots for the best performers, sticks for the rest.

This sounds correct. We want to be rewarded instead of punished. Right?

Not exactly. The notion of direct incentives (giving a raise / giving some praise) or direct disincentives (cutting pay or cutting people down) is not how human psychology works. In fact, incentive pay may be the worst idea in the history of modern business. And when mistakes happen, forgiveness is more effective than shame.

So yes, “sticks” are a sign of a toxic workplace. But carrots are a sign of a dumb, outdated workplace that treats employees like children.

2. The creeping bureaucracy

There are too many levels of approval and management to get things done and a singular focus on micromanaging employees.

No…and yes. On the one hand, some amount of bureaucracy is a good thing. Yes, it is! Imagine if anyone in a company could do anything they want, whenever they wanted. If a lightbulb in the breakroom went out, five people would order replacements. If an employee wanted to go on vacation, they might not coordinate to see who else is going on vacation at the same time. The right amount of structure empowers progress.

But usually bureaucracy is uneven. We lack good process in some areas of the organizations and in other places it is stifling. Often this manifests in a culture of micromanagement. Marcel Schawntes is right: this is awful.

3. The gigantic bottom line

Profits, beating the competition, and cost cutting are solely focused on without consideration of other bottom lines.

It’s unclear. If a company is focused on profits, or on beating the competition, or on cost cutting, that might simply be culture. And that’s okay, because culture is both practice and principles. And what about those three examples?

Just because your company is laser-focused on a particular objective doesn’t mean your company is toxic. But if there’s a disconnect among employees, that could be a sign of a trouble.

4. Bullies rule the roost

Management bullies employees, or tolerates bullying when it occurs among employees.

No argument here. When bosses behave like bullies, everyone suffers.

6. Internal competition

Employees must compete internally, which is enforced by a performance assessment system that focuses on individual performance rather than team performance.

Another mixed bag. A little friendly competition can be good for business. But employee performance reviews are just plain dumb. Team reviews are marginally better, but they still have same basic issues: namely, you can’t fix what happened in the past.

7. Little or no concern for work-life balance
People’s personal or family lives must be sacrificed for the job; overwork or workaholism is common.

Agreed. Of the three main causes of overwork, toxic workplaces have unreasonable expectations. And if you ever have to choose between your family and your job, something is wrong.

Is Your Workplace Toxic? You decide.

“Toxic” means poison. But it’s safe to consume arsenic (in small amounts) and water can kill you (if you drink too much). The only person who can decide if the place you work is unhealthy is you.

But if you are thinking it might be, that’s a sign there are real problems. Perhaps it’s time to get help, or to move on. Let us know if you want to talk.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@LaceyEverett @thenerdherd @naptownbri @indystar Well, when the original source doesn’t answer the questions, people start to speculate. - 4 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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