5 red flags of a toxic workplace

I consider myself lucky to have worked with amazing mentors and colleagues over the last sixteen years of my career. I’ve been lucky to explore different industries, and try new jobs which has led me to the path I am currently enjoying.

You all know me as a blogger here in this space, but my day job is being a Project Manager for website design and development at a creative agency. Not only do I enjoy my day job and the work we do, I am inspired by the team I work with, and I feel respected by a leadership team that believes in me.

But I didn’t just land here by pure luck. Well, maybe a little.

A bit of background

I started out my career in non-profit when I was still finishing up my undergrad in university. After five years in that sector, I wanted to try something new so I gave corporate a try for a few years, but quickly knew it wasn’t for me. Because of that, I went through a pivotal soul-search that led me to travel & hospitality and weddings.

Keeping true to my interest in that industry while wanting to level up and dabble with creative agencies, I landed a pretty awesome job five years ago at a small creative firm in which my main clients were luxury hotel brands. We designed and built websites for their catering department for all the glamorous weddings, events, meetings and conferences they held.

Then COVID happened.

I lost that job on March 17, 2020 right when I was at the brink of completing my Product Management certificate. It broke my heart. I managed to find some work after that (contract and full time), but something was missing. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled or inspired. I ended up leaving a job during the worst period of 2021 to take a bit of a mental break and reassess what I wanted out of my career, and life.

And just by pure luck, while talking to a dear friend abut tax returns, his simple “So, how’s work” question landed me a job here. Back at building websites, back with a group of inspiring people.

So what does this have to do with red flags?

All of these experiences over the years helped me evaluate what I wanted out of my career (and what I didn’t want), and the type of people I wanted to work with (and the types I didn’t want to work with). Reaching that level of wisdom comes with taking notice of red flags along the way and having the confidence to say “no thanks”, and more importantly, having the confidence to know you can find better.

So that’s what I’m here to share: what I personally identify as red flags through the multiple experiences over the course of sixteen years. While some red flags can be blatantly obvious, others can be disguised in sheep’s clothing. Let’s dive right in.

1. The culture is branded as “family”

At first, this may seem like a sign of warmth and friendliness, but in my experience, I learned that a “family” work culture means there are no boundaries.

It means that they live and breathe their job, and expect you to be available whenever they need you even if it’s after hours or worse, beyond your job scope. To put it simply, “family” work cultures don’t respect your personal life, and don’t understand that there needs to be a separation.

Being “family” also means there is a lack of respect when they communicate with you. Passive-aggressive or disrespectful tones with no accountability or apology can be a common language of a workplace “family”. Because after all, family puts up with each other, right?

It’s important to note that working with people who feel like family is a totally different thing. Feeling comfortable in being yourself, feeling like you’re in an inclusive space, sharing jokes, stories and advice with people you trust and who build you up, is how a work team is supposed to feel, without feeling the need to label it.

2. Overworking is praised

Branching off from the “family” tree, another red flag is the constant praise and hype of working long nights and weekends or during your vacation days.

That’s very different from being recognized when you do work late on the few occasions, like when there’s a big deadline or launch, or if you’re down a team member and need to fill some shoes temporarily. But if they only praise and reward employees that sacrifice their evenings and weekends on a regular basis, yet don’t ever mention important milestones you accomplished during the 9-5 timeframe, those are hints that you are expected to be at the beck and call of your job if you want to “advance”.

I get it, some people are hardwired to work around the clock, and to each their own. But it should not be expected of you, especially if you’re not getting paid for it.

And guess what: going above and beyond in an environment like that doesn’t always guarantee a promotion, a raise or a positive performance review. And even if it does, at what cost? If the pandemic taught us anything, job titles don’t lead to happiness and there’s more to life than your job.

3. There’s a lack of communication

One of the tell-tale signs of a toxic workplace is when there is no clarity or direction on what you need to do or what is expected of you. Some toxic places like to call that “hands-off leadership” as a way to imply they don’t micromanage, but that’s just a lazy excuse for not doing their job as leaders.

Toxic communicators are never available to offer clarity to their vague demands, leaving you to “figure it out” by yourself but blame you for “doing it wrong”. The lack of training and onboarding especially falls under the bad communication umbrella.

Of course, miscommunication happens even amongst the best of communicators. What you need to pay attention to is how they respond when you ask for clarification or support, and how they react when you make a mistake due to their lack of communication.

A good communicator knows when it’s time to make a two minute phone call to answer your questions, or schedule a 15 minute screen share to brief you on a project. A good communicator apologizes when they weren’t clear, owns up to their mistake (instead of placing blame), and is happy to offer clarity.

Bottom line: a good communicator respects your time and understands efficiency and team work. They will never make you feel like you’re inadequate, the way a bad communicator makes you feel.

4. It’s a “fast-paced” environment

On my first day at a previous job, the person who hired me suggested that I “keep snacks nearby so I don’t forget to eat during the day”. That was an immediate red flag to me because it meant that the workload was so unmanageable that you couldn’t even take your lunch break.

“Fast-paced” in these instances generally means being disorganized, understaffed and most likely operating in a bottlenecked workflow. And that’s probably rooted by the lack of communication from the top. Remember that looking busy doesn’t mean you’re being productive.

Sure, there’s a rush of satisfactory accomplishment when you knock down multiple tasks and projects off your list (my current job is quite active in that way), but when you constantly feel like the goal post keeps moving further away, burnout will creep up on you and your sense of purpose will start to feel meaningless.

5. Leadership is not open to improving important issues

There is no such thing as a perfect job, a perfect boss or a perfect work culture. It just doesn’t exist, because perfect humans don’t exist. There will always be some elements that require improvement, and sometimes there’s a trade off to be made, like taking a pay cut for a healthier work-life balance.

And there will be bad days, challenging personalities or difficult clients even at a job you love. But at the very core, a healthy workplace should be enjoyable, educational, inspiring, purposeful and rewarding.

That cannot happen when leaders themselves aren’t willing to listen or get curious on how to improve and enable that environment, especially during a historically challenging time such as a pandemic.

So if your suggestions on improving a process to alleviate workload, or automating a task or implementing a health and wellness culture to ease employee burnout is met with hesitation or lack of interest, that is a clear sign of insecure leadership. It means they prioritize their ego over employee happiness.

As Adam Grant puts it, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” A good leader isn’t someone who always has the answers or never makes mistakes (again, that doesn’t exists). A good leader is confident enough to admit a mistake, get curious about solving it and share what they learned from it. Good leaders lead by example.

@lizandmollie

And there it is, dear readers. Almost two decades of work experience summed up in five David Rose GIFs.

Do any of these resonate with you? Are there any red flags you would add to this list?

Either way, I hope this sparked some insight, curiosity or chuckles of comfort.

As I mentioned, there is no perfect job environment. In the end, as long as we find ourselves in an atmosphere where we feel welcomed, respected and empowered, I say it’s worth the trouble to get there.

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