Identifying a Toxic Workplace

Does your company confront aggressive people about inappropriate behaviors? Does it warn bullies about dealing fairly with others and following company values? Does it investigate charges of backstabbing and manipulation?

If so, consider yourself fortunate. You are in a healthy workplace, with people in power who will support you in your fight with a bully.

On the other hand, do they turn a blind eye to bullying? Do they encourage or reward bullying behaviors? Does a workplace bully usually get his way? Is bullying behavior the norm rather than the exception?

In that case, you are probably in a toxic workplace. Even if you aren’t directly bullied, the fumes may get you. You may even conclude that finding a new job is the only viable solution.

This section will help you determine whether your workplace is toxic.

The dominant culture of your workplace has a huge impact on your ability to effectively deal with a workplace bully. Don’t even think about fighting a bully until you get a handle on the larger environment.

Signs of a toxic workplace

In a toxic workplace, dysfunctional attitudes and emotions seem to permeate the atmosphere.

Signs of a toxic workplace:

  1. Widespread anger and frustration
  2. Workplace bully is admired
  3. Scapegoats are always blamed
  4. Dysfunctional relationships
  5. Dysfunctional meetings
  6. Obvious hypocrisy
  7. Overly restrictive systems
  8. Incompetent or powerless HR manager

1. Widespread anger and frustration

Are co-workers frequently in a foul mood? Are anger and frustration widespread? Do disenchanted employees outnumber enthusiastic ones? These are clear signs that your company’s atmosphere is toxic.

In this situation, nothing realistic is being done to improve morale. Any efforts to make your company a better place to work seem superficial, even ironic (like having the workplace bully head up the committee to improve morale).

Turnover is usually high in a toxic workplace, with the most talented people quitting. This can be turned to your benefit: by focusing on developing friendships with your co-workers, you will soon know many people at other companies--an excellent way to find your next job. In this surreal situation, it’s better to focus on keeping up with ex-employees rather than worrying about the executives who think they control your future.

2. Workplace bully is admired

Is the company culture to admire the winners, regardless of their tactics? Is the bully widely respected, despite his inappropriate behavior, as an aggressive, competitive leader? When a bully loses control of his temper or intentionally embarrasses a subordinate, do others justify his actions as strong management, or even dismiss them as irrelevant?

These are more signs of a toxic workplace.

3. Scapegoats are found to take the blame

Does blaming others seem like a blood sport in your company?

In a toxic workplace, a bully “explains” a mistake by castigating someone else. He thus dodges any responsibility for his actions (although he may acknowledge he used poor judgment in hiring the scapegoat).

A bully’s habit of blaming others can cause serious, persistent problems. By not acknowledging his role in causing mistakes, he finds no answers that can prevent mistakes in the future. And by blaming the innocent, he causes valuable employees to quit. This, in turn, overburdens the remaining personnel, resulting in more failures.

Over time, high turnover allows the bully to blame a whole new set of scapegoats. Just listen for him to judge an entire class or generation of workers, comparing them to his superior intelligence or work ethic. “What’s wrong with young people these days?” he may lament, ignoring the fact that other supervisors don’t seem to have problems with their subordinates.

Scapegoats may continue to be blamed long after they’ve left the company. He can use two or three ex-employees to explain a whole host of problems, since they are no longer around to explain how the bully was actually at fault.

If most of your co-workers believe that the bully’s scapegoats are responsible for failures in his department, your workplace is probably toxic.

4. Dysfunctional processes

In a toxic company, processes tend to be dysfunctional, particularly if a workplace bully helps create them.

In this situation, company procedures don’t make sense, making it difficult to get things done. Management reviews are an unnecessary burden, with many reports that don’t have any meaning. For any given task, the established process appears illogical. You hear “That’s the way we’ve always done it” rather than “There’s always room for improvement.”

Vague objectives and arbitrary deadlines

There are no clear objectives, so it can be tough to determine what’s important and what isn’t. At times, you find yourself buried with work that appears to be completely unnecessary. It is never clear how and why things are done around the company.

Your boss routinely makes decisions that impact you without seeking your input. Deadlines are never established based on logical scheduling of larger goals, but instead appear arbitrary. No matter how often his subordinates complain, your boss never extends unrealistic deadlines, adding to the general frustration.

Meaningless solutions from ineffective management

In order to create the impression that personnel issues are being addressed, upper management sets up a committee to investigate specific problems and suggest solutions. But the results are based on the premise that the employees aren’t very sophisticated and can be easily appeased. Input from employees is discounted or ignored and clueless managers rely on their own misapprehensions. Because the process is dysfunctional, the results are meaningless.

Let’s say, for example, that a committee is formed to investigate low morale and declining productivity. But since the workplace is toxic, the committee won’t have the authority to investigate the bully. Even worse, a bully may be on the committee. Or the committee must first report to a high level executive who is one of the bullies (“Well, our surprising conclusion is that you are the cause of declining morale.” No, I can’t see that happening either.)

Since they must ignore the impact of bullying on morale, they instead turn to “creative” ideas. Perhaps they find some popular solution to “make employees feel better about themselves.” This could include a patronizing “Extra Special Person” award, meaningless interdepartmental competitions or irrelevant offsite training seminars (“As soon as everyone learns proper time-management techniques,” they tell one another, “productivity and morale will go way up. We’ll even give them free planning notebooks.”)

Unintended consequence: worsening morale

In the end, these solutions tend to be counterproductive. Not only do they fail to deal with the bully, but the premise--employees don’t realize the real problem--is fatally flawed. By pushing a meaningless, ineffective solution to morale, employees feel they are being treated like children, or as second-class citizens. Morale deteriorates even further, and high employee turnover is often the result.

On the other hand, after most employees leave and are replaced with fresh faces, morale will be good once again. That is until bullying again takes its toll and a new dysfunctional committee is appointed and again ignores the real cause of the problem (one symptom of a company run by a bully).

5. Dysfunctional relationships

How do employees relate to one another at your company? In a toxic workplace, everyone seems to struggle with relationships. Misunderstandings are common, leading to frustration, anger and inefficiency. Gossip and criticism are the norm, and cliques lead to favoritism and feuding.

Noticeably absent in a toxic workplace are clear and straightforward conversations. You rarely see a quick resolution of relationship issues, and bad feelings may linger for months, or even years.

6. Dysfunctional meetings

Do meetings at your company feel like a waste of time? Are they dominated by dull monologues and meaningless reports? Do they provide workplace bullies a forum to rant, rave and manipulate? Are reasonable people intimidated into silence?

If so, you are experiencing the living hell of dysfunctional meetings.

Topics are meaningless

In a toxic workplace, those who dominate meetings seem to prefer to discuss vague platitudes instead of underlying problems. They focus on theory rather than dealing with reality. By ignoring the real problems facing the company, they fail to accomplish anything of substance. The main impact of meetings is the loss of productive time from your day. Your dominant thought as you leave tends to be “There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.”

Bully is allowed to dominate meetings

A workplace bully tends to dominate meetings through his aggressive conversational style, including giving monologues, arguing, criticizing, interrupting and raising his voice. He uses generalizations, innuendo and presuppositions without being challenged. He stifles open discussions and prevents any progress, except to further his own agenda. He may even use a meeting to embarrass, ridicule and humiliate his opponents.

In a toxic workplace, any complaints about the bully’s domination of meetings will likely fall upon deaf ears. In fact, his aggressive tactics are more likely to be admired by upper management.

7. Obvious hypocrisy in the company

A toxic workplace nearly always includes widespread hypocrisy. Executives are unlikely to acknowledge the serious problems plaguing their company, instead promoting the fiction of a healthy work environment run by enlightened management. Bullies are euphemistically described as highly competitive individuals who are becoming strong leaders.

Management fads

Executives in a toxic company often overcompensate by adopting faddish management approaches, as if propaganda is an effective tool to overcome reality. The result may be aggressively promoted company values that don’t seem to match day-to-day events.

For example, clear communication is preached in elaborate seminars while poor communication continues to be the norm. Valuing and respecting others is publicized in the company mission statement, or on framed motivational posters in the break room, but undermining and belittling others seems pervasive. Everyone is told to make company goals their first priority and adopt a spirit of teamwork, but internal competition dominates. Worst of all, the most consistent violators of company values are the most highly rewarded.

Bully as preacher

A workplace bully can be quite outspoken in preaching company values, pressuring others to modify their behavior even as he consistently violates those values. Rather than being punished for his violations, the bully is rewarded for his outward image of leadership. In the rare event he is reprimanded for breaking company values, it is ineffective and ultimately meaningless. In this manner, upper management’s hypocritical attempts to improve the work environment are exploited by a clever bully, leading to further deterioration of morale.

Clueless or evil management

Even when the hypocrisy seems obvious to everyone, upper management seems unaware of the contradictions between what is said and what is done. Maybe they want you to guess whether they are hopelessly unaware or utterly lacking in integrity.

8. Overly restrictive systems for controlling people

A workplace bully usually thrives by controlling others. He prefers a workplace with dehumanizing systems, offering him more opportunities to tightly control their behavior.

Companies fall into this mode of operation by designing and implementing overly detailed operational systems. These include overly detailed policies, procedures and job descriptions and performance evaluations.

Toxic vs. enlightened workplace

In a toxic workplace, employees are criticized and punished for failing to meet established criteria, regardless of whether the item makes any sense. Common sense is not considered as a meaningful factor.

In a more enlightened environment, the emphasis is on training employees to achieve excellence, and on providing them with appropriate techniques and tools. In effect, the systems are subordinated to the employees. In a toxic workplace, it is the other way around: the employees are subordinated to the systems, based on the premise that people can’t be trusted to think for themselves, and they can’t learn to do their job skillfully and reliably.

Bully as a superior being

A bully also feels justified in creating and implementing highly detailed systems due to his advanced intellect and superior judgment. The systems allow him to control the actions of others, thus overcoming their inferiority and incompetence.

In accordance with his character, a bully uses the operational system as an excuse to badger his subordinates and control his peers. Ultimately, this becomes another weapon in his arsenal of intimidation, adding to his power in the company.


Once operational systems are in place, employees are criticized for taking any initiative, such as modifying the approach or eliminating unnecessary tasks. It doesn’t seem to matter that these changes would make the company operate more efficiently--if the bully doesn’t originate the idea, it isn’t even considered.

Arguments for totalitarian controls

When challenged by more enlightened executives, a bully adamantly defends this approach. He explains that operational systems are absolutely necessary to maintain discipline, productivity and quality control. He complains that without these systems, employees would not be held accountable for their actions. He may launch into a long-winded description of a former employer that used these systems, or refers to sophisticated management studies, offering quotes and statistics to prove his point.

During his monologue, he conveniently omits the fact that his approach goes far beyond common-sense management concepts, such as thorough work plans and checklists, and into the realm of totalitarian control, with harsh penalties for trivial non-compliance. By converting intelligent methods into dogmatic approaches, he bastardizes the purpose of management systems.

In this toxic situation, only mindless task-oriented workers are rewarded. And if they learn to be completely submissive to the bully, they are praised as model employees.

9. Incompetent or powerless human resource manager

In a toxic workplace, human resource (“HR”) managers are either unable or unwilling to deal with rampant workplace bullying.

Signs of an incompetent or powerless (with respect to bullying) HR manager include an inability to respond effectively to bullying incidents, refusal to treat complaints as valid and significant, or criticizing the complainer without understanding the situation. The HR manager would rather not confront the bully, so instead asks you to change your behavior to accommodate the bully.

Failure to recognize or address the problem

An incompetent HR manager treats the problem as caused equally by bully and complainer, with no recognition of the bully’s intentionally destructive behavior. In an attempt to rationalize an unpleasant situation, the HR manager dismisses overly aggressive behavior as "mood swings,” or labels bullying as an “ordinary personality conflict.” It is up to you to resolve the situation.

And if bullying is acknowledged, there is no follow-up on requests for a bully to modify his behavior--perhaps because the primary goal is to pacify the complainer, not change the bully.

HR manipulated by a skilled bully

How can these highly trained professionals fail to deal with workplace bullying?

In some cases, inexperienced HR managers lack familiarity with bullying and its negative impact on employees and productivity. An HR manager may misinterpret the situation, failing to properly research and evaluate the circumstances. Or he may be misled by a bully’s guile.

Let’s say a target complains about a series of bullying incidents. A skilled bully can convince a naive HR manager that his bullying behaviors were fully justified by circumstances, or by the failings of the complainer. In the end, the target of bullying gets blamed, either as the instigator or as a whiner.

After two or three incidents, the HR manager will perceive the target as a chronic complainer. After that, all future bullying of that target, even when obvious and severe, is likely to be ignored. In this manner, an HR manager can contribute to the toxicity of a workplace.

HR intimidated by an entrenched bully

An HR manager may honor a bully’s leadership in the company. If a bully is clearly respected by upper management, confronting him carries huge risks. It makes more sense to side with the bully, blaming the target.

For example, let's say a bully convinces the company’s president that his department will deliver an enormous increase in profits, but it requires a “tough management” approach. If the president is commmitted to the bully, the HR manager will probably avoid interfering.

When the HR manager believes his own job would be at risk if he makes an enemy of a powerful bully, you probably won’t see any meaningful action to address the underlying problem.

Signs that management encourages bullying

In a toxic workplace, upper management has unknowingly displayed attitudes and imposed policies that have created an environment favorable to bullies and hostile to everyone else.

Management encourages bullying:

  1. Remote from employees
  2. Bully is part of management “club”
  3. Seems to deal with bully
  4. Bullying is rewarded
  5. Effort to appease a workplace bully

1. Remote from employees

In smaller companies, workplace bullies often thrive when the owner isn’t involved in day-to-day operations. His remoteness from employees gives free reign to a bully.

In larger companies, a rigid hierarchy may create a similar degree of remoteness, particularly when the hierarchy restricts communication in an upward direction. Even if executives brag about an open-door policy, they are probably unreceptive to complaints about bullying. And if you corner them about the problem, they may label you as a troublemaker.

Isolated, uncaring and short-sighted

In a toxic workplace, top executives may have been isolated for so long that they stopped caring about their employees’ well-being. These executives fail to see the big picture. It isn’t rational to ignore the morale of people upon whom the company’s profitability depends.

Even a purely selfish executive, upon careful consideration, would recognize the significant long-term benefits of dealing with the issue of bullying. He would understand the positive impacts of improving morale, including decreased turnover and increased productivity. The potential for increased profits alone should motivate him to action.

Then it would become a priority to treat rank-and-file employees with respect. The rational executive would eagerly listen to their complaints, perform a full investigation and ultimately get rid of the workplace bullies.

2. Workplace bully is part of a management “club”

Does a workplace bully seem to have unwavering support from your company’s top executives? Then perhaps they consider him a member of their management “club.”

Many top executives rise to their position by bullying others. When they see others using the same tactics, they are impressed. They welcome the bully as one of their own kind. They admire his many “qualities,” such as shrewdly exploiting employees to generate more income for executive bonuses.

Once a bully becomes part of this management group, it takes a near disaster to weaken his power. If anyone threatens the bully, they close ranks. If you complain about the bullying, they treat you as the problem. You may be called “disruptive” or a “troublemaker.” If you continue to fight back, they allow the bully to discredit you. Ultimately, they find a reason to fire you, rather than let you educate others as to the toxic nature of the company.

If it is any consolation, workplace bullies eventually turn on each other in their endless quest for more power and money.

3. False appearance of dealing with a workplace bully

When low morale becomes an issue, upper management addresses the symptoms rather than the underlying problem (the behavior of a workplace bully). Their objective is to satisfy employees that they are dealing with morale issues, but without causing the bully to leave the company (and thus reduce their future bonuses).

However, it is counterproductive for executives to attempt to raise morale without reigning in the bully, such as by announcing that “valuing our employees is a top priority” and distributing a new mission statement. When employees are aware of rampant bullying, they quickly spot hypocrisy. Instead of improved morale, the company ends up with increasingly cynical employees.

Understating the problem

At the same time, executives discount the severity of a bully’s behavior. They call his overly aggressive or manipulative behaviors a “minor problem,” or say “he lacks maturity, but will grow into the job.” Even when they acknowledge his destructive behaviors towards others, they rationalize that “over time he will develop his interpersonal skills.”

Furthermore, executives acknowledge only one or two incidents of bullying behavior and ignore the overall destructive pattern. Or they mislabel behaviors with euphemisms: manipulation is called persuasion, backstabbing is called posturing, gossiping is called bonding.

The only true sin

Even in a highly toxic workplace, there is one exception to this support of bullying: in the rare case that a power-hungry bully acts aggressively towards a top executive, he will be dealt with quickly and permanently.

4. Bullying is rewarded

Does a workplace bully in your company have the unwavering support of upper management? Does management allow mistreatment of employees because it results in greater profits?

Greed can be a very strong motivator. People with lots of money usually want more, often with a single-minded focus (maybe that’s how they became wealthy in the first place). When a company treats profits as sacred, ethics and values usually suffer. In this environment, bullying behavior is tolerated--or even praised--if it appears likely to lead to higher profits. Even worse, the bully is rewarded for his harsh methods as long as he produces short-term financial gains.

Bullies exploit management’s greed

A skilled bully can adroitly take advantage of this situation. As long as he continues to expand business, with the expectation of increased profits for the company, he feels free to engage in highly aggressive and manipulative behaviors. He knows that upper management is focused on the bottom line, causing them to overlook employee complaints or other morale issues. In effect, there are no restraints on the bully’s aggressive behaviors.

But even though a bully can increase profits in the short term, over several years low morale and high turnover usually produce the opposite result. Sophisticated executives will recognize this, though they may be temporarily blinded by a bully’s promises. In a sense, they allow themselves to become victims--at least temporarily--of a master manipulator. And if they allow the bully to run their company into the ground, they may become permanent victims.

Cooking the books

A bully’s manipulation may extend to financial reporting as well. For example, he inflates his department’s revenues through excessive billings, though he knows most of his billings will never be collected. He receives a large year-end bonus as a result. By the time his clients discover the over-billing and refuse to pay their invoices, the bully has gained enough power in the company to survive the sudden drop in his department’s billings.

Or if the bully is particularly clever, he discredits the non-paying clients, then starts playing the same game with other clients. By maintaining artificially high “revenue” for two or three years, a skilled bully can suck out substantial compensation. He may cripple the company as a result, particularly if his increased billings trigger increased hiring and capital outlays. The bully buys a new house, a new car and then moves on to a new job, claiming tremendous success at the company he nearly bankrupted (“And I increased billings by fifty percent in three years”).

Greed is punished

Ultimately, company executives and owners suffer from their decision to allow a bully to have his way. Insolvency, bankruptcy, partnership disintegration and lawsuits are common in the wake of a bully's exploitation. All because of short-sighted pursuit of easy profits at the expense of their employee’s well-being.

Just once, wouldn’t you like to hear an executive acknowledge that he doesn’t really care how his employees are treated, as long as they make him wealthy? At least you could admire his honesty.

5. Effort to appease a workplace bully

Greedy owners and executives who are afraid of losing a profit-generating bully may try to appease him. For example, they increase his compensation and allocate him additional company resources, or even terminate one of his peers. With weak or naive executives, the bully may even manipulate and exploit the situation until he gains control of the company.

As in politics, appeasement is a dangerous approach to dealing with a bully. Even a strong, profitable company can fail after several years of having its values and integrity gutted by a skilled bully.

A toxic work environment usually begins at the top, either through negligence or lack of character and integrity, usually stemming from a naive discounting of the importance of how employees are treated.

Workplace bullying is invisible

Are you surprised that no one can see widespread bullying but you? In this distorted reality, all common sense seems displaced by the almost magical power of a charismatic workplace bully.

When you point out his subtle manipulations, no one takes you seriously. When you report his mistreatment of you, people assume you misunderstood the situation. Even worse, they accuse you of doing something that justified his outburst (“You should be more careful not to trigger him”). When your co-workers have become unwitting accomplices to his devious tactics, you know you are in a toxic workplace.

A skilled workplace bully can adapt to the company culture in a way that makes his destructive behaviors virtually undetectable to bystanders. Perhaps over time he will bully enough people to widely expose his true character, but it is more likely that he will cause the termination of anyone who speaks up, leaving only a trail of disgruntled ex-employees.

If you are in a toxic workplace, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can accomplish much by fighting the bully. You will probably be better off just acknowledging that the people in charge have limited mental capacity and go find a healthier, happier place to work.