27 September 2023

Early warning signs of a toxic workplace

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Jenny Areola* She shares advice on how to identify negative workplace behaviour early and what to do before it deteriorates.

Way before working at Civility Partners, I suffered from a toxic work culture.

Even though I loved my job, it was very tiring — emotionally, mentally, and physically.

The work environment was unhealthy and because of that, I made the best decision of my life by leaving the company.

Individuals have different behaviour.

Often, signs of toxic behaviour are ignored, which plays a huge part in contributing to an unhealthy workplace.

Working at Civility Partners has given me the closure I never had.

My closest teammates, Catherine and Rebecca, have been the best support systems ever.

They’ve made me realise how great it is to work in an organisation with a healthy work environment.

In the words of Catherine, our Chief Executive, “toxic work culture” is when an organisation allows negative behaviour to occur.

Toxic behaviour can come in many forms and runs on a spectrum from less harmful, like incivility and unprofessionalism, up to bullying, harassment, and even violence.

Over time, Civility Partners has seen a variety of ‘under-the-radar’ or seemingly harmless behaviour that indicates a toxic workplace culture, yet is frequently ignored.


Sarcasm and teasing are often a part of company culture — we get to know our peers and we have history with them.

Teasing about some old mistake they made or some personal story they shared can come naturally.

However, joking or teasing about your flaws, or things you’re embarrassed to have everyone know about, makes for poor relationships and can easily turn ugly.

Power Tripping

Everyone in the organisation has the right to be listened to.

True leaders are not power hungry, but rather positive influences.

People who engage in ‘power tripping’ make decisions using their power without consulting peers or colleagues, and they use their power to make others feel inferior.

They often misuse their power in disciplinary situations.

This behaviour hurts the team’s psychological safety and leaves people feeling like they can’t be innovative for fear of the power coming down like a hammer.

This results in lowered morale throughout the entire organisation.


A person who engages in manipulation initially appears to be very supportive of all you do.

When they feel they’ve gained your trust and are very friendly to you, they will then control how you see things from their point of view.

This behaviour can disrupt your relationship with your colleagues, as it causes you to dread coming to work and question your actions.

You start wondering if your feelings are valid, if you’re valuable, and if you’re missing out on some reality that everyone else sees except you.

The worst part is that manipulation might be so subtle, you find yourself continuously focusing on your own actions rather than the other person’s.

This makes it hard to seek help.

If any of this this behaviour sounds familiar, understand that a toxic workplace is building up, or it already exists.

Either way, now’s the time to put a stop to it, and here are some tips to do so.

Provide training for managers, employees, and the overall workforce on such topics as respect, civility and inclusivity.

Understand that gossip, for example, is a performance problem and should be treated no differently than any other disruptive behaviour like showing up late or missing a deadline.

Get to the root of the problem through a climate assessment.

More than an engagement survey, a climate assessment can help you understand where problems are and how they hinder productivity, performance and relationships.

Armed with that data, you can address the root causes of these and other types of problem behaviour.

Finally, foster a culture of transparency and open communication by starting with yourself.

Engage in positive behaviour and watch as it influences your team.

*Jenny Areola is a project manager at Civility Partners, which has been successfully providing programs on workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007.

This article first appeared on the Civility Partners website.

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