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9 Signs of a Toxic Workplace (and How to Fix It with Trauma-Informed Care)

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

A safe and healthy workplace is the goal—but there is a concerning number of toxic workplaces out there. Is yours one of them?

There’s a common dynamic where executive teams turn a blind eye to problems while those without power can see the glaring issues of a toxic workplace unfolding before their eyes.

Today, we discuss nine common signs of a toxic workplace—and how to solve each issue with a trauma-informed approach.

1 High Turnover Rates

Usually, when an employee leaves a job, it’s not because they hated the job they were assigned to do—it’s because they couldn’t stand the people they worked with or the management they worked under.

If your workplace can’t seem to keep employees around, ask yourself why. There are likely some unaddressed problems causing major dissatisfaction at work.

The Best Tool to Combat High Turnover: Healthy Communication

Keeping employees around doesn’t need to be difficult. If a job pays a living wage and the people working that job feel safe at work, they’re likely to stick around for a while.

But if you’re already struggling with high turnover, ask your employees what could change to make their lives easier. What can you do that would make them want to stay with your company for longer?

And vice versa. If you’re not happy at work, consider communicating that in a healthy and respectful way to your employer.

Opening lines of communication can go a long way toward increasing employee satisfaction and lowering turnover rates.

2 Fear of Retribution

If you’ve ever wanted to leave a job because it was toxic, then you know that not every manager will be receptive to feedback—and this is another red flag of a toxic workplace.

Many employees keep their thoughts and feedback to themselves because they fear retribution. If they’re honest about how they feel at work, they fear that they may lose their job, tarnish their reputation, or face other fallouts at work.

The sad part is that these fears are not unfounded.

The Best Tool to Combat Fear of Retaliation: Structural Change

If you’re on a management team, the obvious solution is to not fire or punish employees who are honest about their dissatisfaction with certain aspects of your management style.

As a trauma-informed coach, I always encourage organizations to take it a step further by moving their organizational structure from a hierarchal system to a flat system.

Most organizational structures operate with the immense power imbalances of a hierarchal system. A flat system removes some or all of these power structures to create a safer, more level environment where employees and management feel safe and seen. Of course, certain roles still have distinct responsibilities. The key difference is how the power dynamics shift towards a more equitable system.

3 Gossip

When workers feel unsafe communicating their dissatisfaction to management, they often bring their complaints to others who exist on the same level as them (especially when they operate within a rigid hierarchical power system).

Since no one in the discussion feels as though they have the power to create lasting change regarding the issues at hand, what could be an environment of constructive feedback is seen instead as useless complaining and workplace gossip.

However, imagine if someone with the power to create change was included in the conversation. Now, imagine if they implemented change after the conversation. Instead of gossip, we now have constructive dialog.

By now, you can probably see how all these issues are coming full circle—and how the solutions are interconnected.

The Best Tool to Combat Unaddressed Complaints: Ritualizing Discussions of Change

Communication is essential in any relationship—especially professional ones.

But in any relationship, communicating about conflict and negative experiences can be especially difficult.

That’s why I encourage and coach organizations on ritualizing discussions of change. By creating a habit of opening up a safe space to address complaints, we can transform gossip into constructive change.

And in that process, we also prove to our team members that their needs matter, that we value their ideas and that we appreciate their feedback.

4 Avoiding Reflection

It’s common for organizations to always be pushing forward. In these environments, we’re constantly discussing the future: allocating tasks to be done, creating goals, reaching quotas, chugging along on the never-ending to-do list.

However, if we become too future-focused, we forget to set aside time to reflect on the past. If your workplace never sits down to discuss and reflect, it could be a toxic environment.

The Best Tools to Establish Retrospective Thinking: Focused 1-on-1 & Group Reflection Meetings

If you want to create a healthy and safe working environment where retrospection contributes to positive change, set aside dedicated time to reflect.

Reflection time can become a part of your regular 1-on-1 meetings, and you can establish monthly group meetings with the sole purpose of reflection.

These retrospective moments give your team a dedicated time to celebrate wins, acknowledge everyone’s hard work, and highlight achievements.

They also create a space where your team can look back and ask what could have been done better. This includes addressing conflict in a healthy way, speaking up about mistakes, and encouraging employees to ask for help in areas they’re struggling in.

5 Lack of Participation

In a toxic workplace that discourages open and honest communication and operates on the basis of fear, disengagement is extremely common. If employees seem “checked out” or resistant to participation, it’s likely because their creativity is stifled or they don’t feel safe expressing their ideas.

The Best Tool to Combat Reservation: Encouraging Self-Expression & Creating Safety

If you want your employees and team members to share their creative ideas, contribute more to brainstorming sessions, or participate in discussions more often, you need to make it known that their voices will be not only heard, but they will also be acknowledged, appreciated, and respected.

To encourage self-expression and create a safe environment for everyone to share, make sure there is room for everyone in a discussion. Listen actively, ask questions, and don’t dismiss any ideas without considering them first.

6 Lack of Diversity

As social justice moves to the forefront of our collective social consciousness, many organizations are scrambling to establish DEI practices. However, many of these same agencies are still promoting toxic workplaces that fail to create diversity, equity, or inclusion.

Why? We exist in a society that operates on oppression. And our definition of DEI is often limited.

When we think of diversity, we want to include all people. That means actively creating space for people with different races, abilities, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, ages, interests, skills, experiences, etc. The list goes on and on.

The thing is, if you’re not actively making conscious decisions to be inclusive, you’re probably leaving someone out. So, what do you do?

The Best Tools to Combat Uniformity: Curiosity, Intention, and Awareness

Curiosity, intention, and awareness are your friends when it comes to DEI. Ask yourself questions. Be intentional with your words. And be aware that you, like everyone else, have blind spots.

Almost all of us have certain privileges that make us ignorant of certain issues. Regardless of whether your privilege lies in your racial identity, physical ability, gender identity, or something else, there are certain things that you’re likely to miss.

This is why diversity and representation in the workplace are important. From your end, you can be mindful, hold yourself and others accountable, and approach others with kindness and respect.

7 Lack of Mutual Trust

When there is no trust in the workplace, a myriad of other issues follow. Without trust, a workplace is wrought with disrespect and dysfunction. Employees may notice a lack of commitment or unwillingness to assist others or ask for help themselves.

A lack of trust also leads to a lack of vulnerability. Employees feel the need to conceal weaknesses and struggles rather than be honest about them, and there is an overall resistance to receiving or providing constructive feedback.

And all this translates to a lack of growth—for both the company and the individuals who work there.

The Best Tool to Combat Distrust: Establishing & Practicing Trauma-Informed Values

If you want to promote trust, then implementing a trauma-informed approach is a great idea.

One of the major trauma-informed values is trustworthiness & transparency, and a trauma-informed environment encourages open and honest communication and collaboration.

In practice, this can look like not punishing employees for being honest about how they feel. Recently a colleague of mine recounted a story where they were told they should “be more positive” after responding honestly when asked how they were doing. Cultivating trust looks like normalizing having bad days—because we all have them.

8 Unclear or Unhealthy Boundaries & Responsibilities

Not knowing who’s in charge of what is more common than you might think in organizations. It’s more common for people to say, “I don’t have the power to do that,” than to ask, “Who does have the power to make that decision?”

It’s also painfully common for boundaries to be crossed and responsibilities to be piled on in professional settings. However, all of these aspects of a workplace can turn toxic.

The Best Tool to Set & Respect Healthy Boundaries: Creating a Culture of Healthy Relationships

Clarifying responsibilities and boundaries can create healthy change in your organization, and it can lay the foundation for establishing healthy relationships at work.

In healthy relationships, we set and respect boundaries. We know where we stand with each other, and we know that we are safe.

At work, this can look like acknowledging when your workload is too high and taking action by asking for help or saying “no” to a request.

9 Lack of Safety

Finally, a toxic workplace lacks safety. And safety is perhaps the single most important aspect of a healthy workplace.

When we are safe at work, we can do our best. And when we talk about safety, we must include various facets of safety, including:

· physical safety

· racial/cultural safety

· psychological safety

· emotional safety

· financial safety

· social safety

· moral safety

That’s a lot of different types of safety. And a workplace must meet each aspect of safety to be considered safe. More on that here.

The Best Tool to Combat an Unsafe Workplace: An Organizational Safety Plan

An organizational safety plan is the best tool for creating safety at work. It addresses many of the issues discussed in this article and lays out an action plan for employees whenever an unsafe situation arises. Learn about how to create one here.

These safety plans can help your organization navigate instances of racial injustice, workplace harassment, or anything else your organization may struggle with.

If you want to learn more about some of the solutions to a toxic workplace presented in this article, read this article about key aspects of trauma sensitivity training.

Stay Tuned: Trauma-Informed Guidebook & Implementation Blog Series Coming Soon

Do you love learning about trauma-informed care? Stay tuned! Chefalo Consulting has some exciting things coming your way, including our Organizational Action Plan Guidebook (a companion to the Self-Care Planning Kit) and a new blog series that takes a deep dive into applying trauma-informed care.

Have you ever experienced any of these signs of a toxic workplace? Tell us your story in the comments below, and we can discuss trauma-informed solutions.


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