Toxic workplace culture: recognizing the signs and navigating the solutions

Toxic workplace culture: recognizing the signs and the solutions

Our workplaces represent a substantial chunk of our daily lives. In an ideal scenario, they would balance the needs of the employees with those of the company, but regrettably, not all of them do that. Some workplaces can be accurately characterized as “toxic” due to the presence of certain behaviors, attitudes, and traits that create an unhealthy culture. Within this article, we’ll delve into the indicators of a toxic workplace, examine the repercussions of such a culture, explore strategies for its rectification, and consider how Addezia can be a valuable partner in this transformative journey.

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace is an environment where negative behaviors, harmful dynamics, and detrimental attitudes prevail, causing harm to the employees’ physical and emotional well-being.

A toxic working environment is one that is detrimental to an organization’s ability to thrive. Both the effectiveness of the workplace and the well-being of its employees can be affected by this type of environment.

As Mindy Shoss, Ph.D., a professor and industrial-organizational psychologist at the University of Central Florida, says, a toxic workplace comes down as fear: „Toxic workplaces drain all the energy and excitement out of employees and replace it with fear.”

The APA’s 2023 Work in America workforce survey found that 19% of respondents described their workplace as toxic. According to more than one in five respondents (22%), their work environment has negatively affected their mental health.

Key predictor of employee turnover: toxic culture

An impressive 2022 study conducted by the MIT Sloan states that toxic work cultures as the top driver of employee attrition and are 10.4 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. These figures show that employees value a healthy working environment more than a salary.

The report analyzed the impact of more than 170 cultural topics on employee attrition in Culture 500 companies from April through September 2021. Other predictors of attrition during the Great Resignation were: job insecurity and reorganization, high levels of innovation, failure to recognize employee performance and poor response to COVID-19.

Failure to promote diversity, equality and inclusion, a sense of disrespect and unethical conduct are some of the main factors contributing to toxic cultures.

What are the signs of a toxic workplace

To understand the drivers of culture toxicity, MIT Sloan analyzed the language employees use to describe their organizations in Glassdoor ratings-over 1.3 million Glassdoor ratings from US employees at Culture 500 companies, a sample of large organizations in 40 industries.

According to the analysis, The Toxic Five Culture Attributes are disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive. Let’s take a closer look at them:

  • Noninclusive

Includes: LGBTQ inequity, Disability inequity, Racial inequity, Age inequity, Gender inequity, Cronyism (the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications) and nepotism, General noninclusive culture.

Among the top 20 influential indicators of a detrimental culture rating, seven pivots on the extent to which Culture 500 firms promote the inclusion of diverse employee groups and ensure equitable treatment, fostering a sense of belonging while involving them in significant decision-making. This collective set of themes serves as the strongest determinant of whether employees perceive their organization’s culture as toxic.

  • Disrespectful

Includes: lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity for others.

More than any other single factor, a perceived lack of consideration in the workplace has the greatest negative impact on an employee’s overall assessment of their organization’s culture.

  • Unethical

Includes: unethical behavior, dishonesty, lack of regulatory compliance.

Within this context, we can identify the topic of “unethical behavior,” which encapsulates broad remarks on integrity and ethics within an organization.

  • Cutthroat

Includes: backstabbing behavior and ruthless competition.

The analysis shows that colleagues actively working against each other had a significantly stronger influence on predicting a negative culture rating.

  • Abusive

Includes: bullying, harassment, and hostility.

The analysis consistently highlights a number of hostile behaviors that are frequently reported. These include instances of bullying, shouting or yelling at employees, belittling or demeaning subordinates, verbal abuse and condescending or patronizing communication towards employees.

A culture that is inclusive, respectful, ethical, collaborative and free from abuse by those in positions of power are the basic elements of a healthy work environment. Hence, the identification of signs of a toxic workplace serves as a critical step for leaders. It enables them to direct their attention towards resolving the underlying problems that lead to employee disengagement and attrition.

Read more: Unlocking Success: Fostering Psychological Safety at Work

What are the costs and effects of a toxic workplace?

A toxic workplace can have a wide range of costs on both employees and the organization as a whole. Here are some of the key consequences of a toxic work environment:

1. Employee mental and physical health issues:

  • Stress and burnout: employees in toxic workplaces often experience chronic stress, which can lead to burnout. According to McKinsey research, toxic workplace behavior is the biggest predictor of employee burnout symptoms and intent to leave. Moreover, based on findings from the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Wellbeing Survey, it was revealed that 60% of employees reported suffering from adverse mental and physical effects as a result of work-related stress. Among the respondents, 26% cited diminished interest, motivation, or energy, 32% reported experiencing emotional exhaustion, and 44% acknowledged high levels of physical fatigue. This conclusion is backed up by McKinsey research, stating that toxic workplace behavior is the biggest predictor of employee burnout symptoms and intent to leave.
  • Anxiety and depression often emerge in response to the persistent stress and negativity prevalent in a toxic workplace, affecting the employees’ mental health.
  • Additionally, the physical health of individuals may deteriorate due to stress and burnout, potentially leading to conditions like high blood pressure, cardiovascular ailments, and a compromised immune system.

2. High turnover rates and financial costs:

  • Employees seek to escape the negative environment. The cost of recruiting, onboarding, and training new employees can be substantial.
  • According to research cited by MIT Sloan, the connection between workplace toxicity and employee attrition is well-established. Before the onset of the Great Resignation, it was estimated that toxic workplace cultures resulted in annual costs of nearly $50 billion for U.S. employers due to employee turnover.

3. Decreased productivity and performance:

  • Invariably, toxic workplaces are associated with reduced levels of employee engagement and motivation, ultimately resulting in diminished productivity and a decline in the quality of work.

4. Increased absenteeism:

  • In toxic workplaces, employees often find themselves compelled to take more sick days due to illnesses stemming from workplace stress. This trend not only diminishes overall productivity but also imposes increased costs on the company.

5. Damage to reputation:

  • Toxic workplace culture can harm the organization’s reputation, making it difficult to retain clients or customers.

6. Difficulty attracting talent:

  • Toxic workplaces struggle to attract and retain top talent, making it challenging to build a skilled and diverse workforce. Besides, current employees working in toxic workplaces are less likely to be loyal to the company, which can affect overall morale and productivity.

7. Legal and compliance issues:

  • Toxic workplaces are at risk of encountering legal issues associated with discrimination, harassment, or the creation of hostile work environments. This exposure can result in the need to cover legal fees and potential settlements.

8. Erosion of trust and team cohesion:

  • Toxic environments can erode trust among employees and hinder effective teamwork, leading to silos and a lack of collaboration.

9. Hindered innovation and creativity:

  • In a toxic culture, innovation and creativity are stifled, primarily because employees are hesitant to voice their ideas, take risks, or challenge the status quo.

10. Increased workload:

  • In some cases, employees in toxic workplaces may have to take on additional responsibilities due to high turnover or a lack of support, leading to excessive workloads.

Read more: How to foster psychological safety and mental health in the IT industry

How to fix a toxic workplace culture

Fixing a toxic workplace culture is a challenging but crucial task for leaders and HR managers. Transforming a negative culture into a positive and supportive one takes time, effort, and a commitment to change.

According to findings compiled by MIT Sloan  When it comes to tackling workplace toxicity, research indicates that there are three pivotal factors that companies should prioritize: leadership, social norms, and work design.

As expected, leadership has emerged as the foremost predictor of a toxic culture. The first step to addressing a toxic workplace hinges on leaders’ willingness to ensure accountability for toxic behaviors, both among themselves and their colleagues.

Social norms serve as the guidelines that establish expected and acceptable behavior in everyday social interactions. For instance, taking the time to learn employees’ names and being punctual for meetings transform abstract values like respect into tangible, observable behaviors.

Elements of work design, like overall workload and conflicting job demands, can predict important outcomes, including toxic behavior.

Additionally, it’s noteworthy to note that, the majority of demographic factors, such as age, length of service within the organization, or educational background, present no notable impact on how employees perceive workplace toxicity. However, a striking exception arises for women and individuals from racial minorities, who tend to experience higher incidences of discrimination and harassment, thereby contributing to their increased likelihood of encountering a toxic work environment.

Here are some specific steps you can take to address and rectify a toxic workplace culture:

  • Acknowledge the problem

The first step is recognizing that a problem exists. Listen to your employees, gather feedback, and be open to hearing about the issues within the workplace. Understand that a toxic culture negatively affects the health of your employees and, in turn, the organization’s success.

  • Identify the root causes

Understand the specific issues that contribute to the toxic culture. This might involve assessing your organization’s policies, leadership style, communication, or work processes.

  • Lead by example

As a leader or manager, your behavior and actions set the tone for the entire organization. Demonstrate the values, behaviors, and attitudes you want to see in your employees. Be a role model for the desired cultural change.

  • Communicate openly

Foster open and honest communication channels. Encourage employees to express their concerns, opinions, and suggestions without fear of retaliation. Create platforms for feedback, such as suggestion boxes, surveys, or regular meetings.

  • Set clear expectations

Clearly define the organization’s values, expectations, and desired culture. Make sure employees understand what is expected of them and what behaviors are not tolerated. This helps establish a foundation for the desired cultural shift.

  • Encourage feedback and involvement

Involve employees in the process of culture change. Encourage them to suggest and participate in initiatives that will improve the work environment. When employees have a voice in shaping the culture, they are more likely to embrace the changes.

  • Support physical and mental health

Prioritize the physical and mental health of your employees. Create policies and practices that support a healthy work-life balance, provide access to resources for mental health, and promote a safe and comfortable work environment.

  • Monitor progress

Regularly assess the progress and effectiveness of the culture change initiatives. Collect feedback from employees to gauge their perception of the changes. Adjust your strategies as needed based on this feedback.

  • Celebrate positive change

Recognize and celebrate instances where the culture is improving. Acknowledge the individuals or teams that embody the desired values and behaviors. This reinforces the importance of the cultural shift.

  • Seek expert help and provide training and education

In some cases, it may be necessary to seek external expertise from organizational psychologists. Invest in training programs that promote diversity, inclusion, respect, and effective communication. These programs can help employees develop the skills necessary to contribute positively to the culture.

Read more: Towards a more resilient world: Overcoming the challenges of mental health at work

How can Addezia’s customized solutions help you address workplace toxicity

Through workshops, training, and custom-built interventions, Addezia specialists provide information and develop practices that reduce toxic behaviors, chronic stress, risk of burnout, and interpersonal conflicts, developing resilience. We can equip you and your team with the practical tools needed to build a psychologically safe culture where employees feel valued, supported, and motivated to perform at their best.


The journey to transform a toxic culture is undoubtedly challenging, but it’s a journey worth embarking upon. The benefits are manifold, from improved mental health to higher productivity and better business performance. In the end, it’s a path toward creating a workplace where employees can thrive, collaborate, and find fulfillment in their professional lives.

The signs of a toxic culture may be clear, but the solutions are equally evident. It’s up to organizations, leaders, and employees to come together and take those vital steps toward a brighter, more harmonious, and productive work environment.


MIT Sloan Management Review

MIT Sloan Management Review

MIT Sloan Management Review

American Psychological Association

American Psychological Association

American Psychological Association


Images source

Share with someone you know

Want to read more?

Scroll to Top