Characteristics of Workplace Toxicity

What does it take for a workplace to earn the “toxic” label? Here are three components that can factor in.

“Toxic workplace” is a term that is thrown around a lot. When a term is overused, it loses its power. Inc.magazine recently published an article by Marcel Schwantes that looks at the specific components behind a “toxic” workplace. His observations were based on workplace research and data from clients of his consultancy, Leadership from the Core. Here’s a look at three components:

Gossiping About Work

Schwantes says excessive gossip is a sign of trouble. “Gossiping about non-work matters is one thing, but when small circles of people excessively gossip at work about their managers, co-workers, decision-making, or the work environment, it can be detrimental to both the people involved and the organization as a whole,” Schwantes writes.

When I walk past colleagues and they are speaking in low tones, I tend to assume the worst. If I don’t think they are talking about me, then I wonder if there is corporate intrigue occurring that I don’t know about, or, worse yet, that they were invited to a meeting or event that I was not.

Beyond discouraging gossip, it could be helpful to talk about the importance of avoiding whispered conversations in front of co-workers. If a conversation requires whispering, it should be moved to a meeting room with a door that can be closed, or to a place outside the office altogether.

Gossiping undermines the sense of camaraderie a high-functioning work group requires. It’s hard to feel secure that your colleagues will be there for you when you need them if you wonder whether they are talking about you or keeping secrets. In other words, it undermines trust. It also creates resentment because those who are not in the gossiping clique begin to feel angry that they were left out—like a club they were not invited to join.


Micromanagement is the second trait Schwantes points to as characteristic of toxic workplaces. “Toxic workplaces are commonly tied to the dysfunctional micromanagers responsible for creating them. For one, there are too many levels of approval to get things done expediently and efficiently and a singular focus on micromanaging employees where trust is absent. As a result, people are considered objects or expenses rather than assets, and there is little concern for their needs or well-being,” he notes.

In addition to undermining the empowerment of employees, causing them to question their own judgment and abilities, micromanagement has a deleterious effect on manager productivity. I was just talking to the editorial advisor of the trade publication I edit about the negative impact on the owners of healthcare practices who insist on doing almost everything themselves. In some cases, this is due to perfectionism, a feeling that no one else can do it right. We both agreed this is a formula for not getting anything done. She told me stories of practice owners who told her they would leave the office and do paperwork—charting, in this case—until going to bed many nights.

A different approach, which Ritz-Carlton seems to take, is doing a spectacular job at training employees and then empowering them to use that training to make many—if not most—day-to-day decisions themselves. Some of the practice owners I speak to do the same. Employees are authorized to spend up to a specified amount of money to keep customers—or in this case, patients—happy.

Narcissistic Co-Workers

The third and final characteristic Schwantes says toxic workplaces usually exhibit is narcissistic co-workers. “Narcissistic personalities believe they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings,” he writes, explaining they typically need to dominate conversations, and they make it hard for others to contribute input. They are “spotlight hoggers,” often put people down, and make it hard for an organization to create a positive and adaptable culture.

I had a manager for 10 years who exhibited most of those characteristics, though while he was present in the organization, none of his managers would ever express dissatisfaction. It was only after he left that I started hearing from those same managers that they agreed with my observations about him.

A great barrier to eliminating toxic workplace personalities is getting the managers of those people to meaningfully listen to the feelings of those who work with the toxic person. They may be charming socially, so a manager must be savvy about understanding that no matter how great they are to schmooze with, they are, in fact, toxic in the workplace.

Do you train executives and managers to keep their antennas up for toxic behavior, and to take the observations of colleagues seriously when determining the performance of each employee?