Why Working in a Toxic Environment Is Bad for Your Long Term Success

Toxic work environments are like dysfunctional families. If you grew up in one as I did, you might be more tolerant, tend to stick it out, and believe things will get better. It’s not surprising that professionals of all ages frequently share the details of their work conditions and solicit my advice. Many ask if they are ridiculous to think or feel the way they do about their horrible job or bad boss and whether or not they should quit. To which I say, if you feel like it’s toxic, it likely is. Quit your job if you have adequate resources to pay your bills during the interim, but start looking for a new one immediately.

In this article, Your Office Mom wants to explain the difference between the two environments, look at what you’re missing out on career-wise the longer you stay in one, and share some helpful work advice from a talent development perspective (you know, my wheelhouse).

Is it a toxic or hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is undoubtedly a toxic one, but not necessarily the other way around. If you are confused, I understand why. Any hostile environment has to be toxic, but a toxic workplace may not rise to the level of hostile in the legal realm of discrimination and harassment. Both encompass inappropriate, misguided, and irresponsible behaviors and actions that manifest in the workplace and negatively impact the people who work there. But, what is a toxic work environment, and how is it different from a “hostile” work environment?

A toxic workplace is one where the work, atmosphere, people, management, or any combination cause serious disruptions in your work day and spill over to the rest of your life. You may be stressed out, the victim of intimidation, gossip or bullying, and hate coming to work every day. But still, you may be asking yourself, “is it really toxic?” If that’s the case, this toxic workplace quiz may help you put it into perspective. According to an article on Monster.com “in addition to harming your morale, this kind of climate can be damaging to your health, says Paul White, co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace as that “stress takes a toll on your body.”

An article by Seattle Business explains that “conduct and speech typically considered “hostile” is intimidating, offensive, abusive and/or otherwise offensive, going beyond rudeness or casual joking. It must reach a level of harassment, mockery, ridicule and/or unrelenting teasing.” If it’s isolated or could be interpreted as petty, it doesn’t reach the level of hostile from a legal standpoint, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. Regardless of the label we put on it, you shouldn’t tolerate it for the long haul.

What is the career impact of a toxic environment?

It seems the primary focus is on the mental health, stress, and the self-esteem ramifications of a toxic work environment. As a result, we tend to overlook how damaging it is from a career and professional development standpoint. Ideally, work is a place to learn and grow in a position, and get prepared for the next. When you have a job in a toxic workplace, or report to a toxic boss, you can’t possibly be nurtured and given opportunities to grow.

Here are three examples:

  • A toxic culture is dysfunctional by nature, and it can impact your mental and physical health, but on the other side of it is how it affects your career. If you work in a toxic environment, chances are role models, and mentors are in short supply, or at best ill-equipped to perform that role. Without the appropriate role models, you don’t witness open communication, appropriate conflict strategies, or how teams successfully collaborate and perform well.

  • It’s in this environment that learning and developmental opportunities are often limited or available at all. And, when they are, the process can be disappointing and disillusioning. On the one hand, you may learn new hard and soft skills, but witness the complete opposite play out on the job. The disconnect between what should be and what is can be frustrating and cause you angst, additional stress and tank your motivation.

  • Just as importantly, it doesn’t take long for you as an excellent performer to become stagnant in this situation. Stay too long in this job, and the loss of development will start to limit your ability to compete with others on a level playing field when you’re seeking future opportunities. Let that sink in a moment because your development is hindered, and that puts you at a severe disadvantage in the job market. You don’t have the experiences, examples, skills, or the confident demeanor others bring to the table.

What to do when you work in a toxic workplace

If you are working in a toxic environment, think about the long term impact on your career and future opportunities:

  1. Are you developing skills and increasing your knowledge in your current job? Do you receive adequate training and developmental opportunities? If not, can you obtain knowledge through professional associations or external training, webinars, podcasts, and books?

  2. Do you have a mentor, coach, or role model? In other words, are you learning from others on the job? If not, where can you find individuals who can fulfill these roles external to your workplace? Whether it’s industry specific, a professional affiliation or a community resource seek positive relationships which can offer guidance.

  3. If you are caught up in a poisonous situation on the job, don’t sit idly by. Learn how to stand up for yourself and approach your boss or coworkers to voice your concerns.

  4. Don’t let weeks or months continue to pass by. Toxic work environments tend to stay that way. So, make an action plan based on the answers to the questions above and start looking out for number one (that’s you, by the way) and get the hell out. You deserve to work in a positive environment, with a supportive team and a manager who has your best interests in mind day-to-day.