5 Signs of an Unhealthy Work Environment & How to Fix It

by Mar 2, 2023

We hear a lot of various words and phrases being thrown around these days – toxic work environment, unhealthy work environment, lacking psychological safety, and more.

In fact I’m often asked, “What is the definition of a toxic work environment?” 

My response is, “Ask your workforce. Let them help you define what unacceptable versus acceptable behavior is.”

That said, lately I’ve been using the phrase “exclusive behavior” because it highlights that all behavior that makes others feel excluded is inappropriate. It doesn’t have to be toxic or unlawful for it to be addressed by a manager or human resources department. 

While I personally operate in the world of workplace bullying (I’ve been researching, publishing, speaking and coaching on the topic for almost 15 years), a lot of behaviors can be considered toxic, exclusive, unhealthy… whatever you want to call it. 


Behaviors that Create an Unhealthy, or Exclusive, Work Environment

Someone who frequently interrupts, is constantly negative, acts helpless, is defensive, is chronically late, is unable to read nonverbal cues suggesting you need space, or is passive-aggressive likely falls under the category of someone who exhibits unhealthy behaviors.

These behaviors are also exclusive, in that interrupting someone excludes them from the conversation, and showing up late to their meeting certainly doesn’t show them you respect them. 

I tend to find there are four categories of unhealthy behaviors at work:

  1. Downer behaviors – complaining, critiquing, impossible to please, defensiveness
  2. Better than behaviors – one-upping, name dropping, constantly comparing to others, showing off, grandstanding, humiliating others
  3. Passive behaviors – not providing opinions or suggestions, time sucking, waffling on decisions, helpless, not being direct/talking around sensitive issues
  4. Aggressive behaviors – explosive, bossy, controlling, emotional, passive aggressive, stubborn, abrasive


5 Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Work Environment 

While the behaviors above can be observed when someone is paying attention, that requires your managers to be trained in this skill and empowered to address the behaviors when they happen. I know from experience that this type of training is fairly non-existent (unless you’re working with us, of course), so you may need some additional tools to get a sense for your work environment and whether it is healthy and inclusive or unhealthy and toxic. 


1. Observable behavior demonstrates a lack of collaboration.

Observe your team – Do they tend to operate in isolation, or perhaps one person isolates themselves? Do they laugh and appear to enjoy each others’ company? Are their nonverbal behaviors indicative of being open and comfortable with each other or closed off and lacking trust? 


2. Data shows high absenteeism and turnover.

Surely you can run reports wherever you store your employee data and determine if one particular site or department has higher absenteeism or turnover than others, an indication that it could be unhealthy there. You might also look at productivity, and whether employees are working slower, making more mistakes, or delivering services or goods that are less than quality. 


3. Silence or exclusive behaviors during meetings or training sessions.

As trainers, we often observe things that indicate a lack of psychological safety, or the presence of unhealthy behaviors, during training sessions. For example, we may hop around the Zoom breakout rooms to hear what’s happening and will witness people gossiping, making fun of a co-worker, or talking poorly about leadership. We also witness silence, where the lack of participation from the people of color, for example, indicates they aren’t comfortable speaking up. 


4. Your organization exhibits risk factors known to foster discrimination, harassment and bullying.

If you check out this page on the EEOC’s website, you can find a nice long list of risk factors. If you have a homogenous workforce, for example, the underrepresented groups can feel isolated while the majority group might feel threatened by the “other” group. Workplaces that value rainmakers is another example, where the rainmaker is allowed to engage in unhealthy behaviors because leaders believe their results outweigh the damage. 


5. Your workforce survey data indicates a problem with trust, relationships, or engagement.

While the data may specifically point to low ratings on specific questions, keep in mind that there’s some hidden information too. We recently reviewed a client’s great place to work survey, for example, where approximately half of the survey respondents didn’t indicate their race; the half who did were white. This can indicate a lack of psychological safety around being a person of color in this workplace, something we’re digging into now. 


How to Fix an Unhealthy or Toxic Work Environment

As highlighted on our website, the first step is to conduct a survey to uncover the problems and gain clarity on what to focus on.

Be sure to do a climate assessment, which seeks to understand your culture; not to be confused with an engagement survey, which seeks only to measure the level of engagement. We’ve had many clients whose engagement survey scores were great, but when we asked about things like inclusivity, trust in leadership, or effectiveness of communication, the scores pointed to much room for improvement. 

Second, hold a few planning meetings to review the data and develop a clear and tangible action plan for change. When we engage in this process with clients, we end up leading three meetings to get that crystalized plan. The plan should be published to the workforce so they can monitor its progress, and participate where they’d like. 

Third, implement the plan. Now that you have a plan, go for it. Keeping in mind that culture change happens through organizational change and behavior change, your plan will have several action items in both areas.


Often, our organizational change plans and projects include things like:

  • Coaching key leaders struggling to adjust their own behavior to meet with the culture vision and core values
  • Revamping the performance management system to gain accountability for the core values and new culture being created and assure a consistent feedback loop
  • Developing career mapping, succession planning programs, and professional growth opportunities for the workforce so that they can see their path inside the organization
  • Creating an employer branding program and/or creating a formal onboarding program that includes orientation to the job and socialization (e.g., buddy system)
  • Conflict mediation between individuals or departments


Our behavior change plans (i.e., training programs) often include topics such as:

  • Coming to agreement on values and behaviors as a whole company
  • Adapting values and behaviors across departments and teams
  • Communicating with civility and respect
  • Performance management training
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion topics, including minimizing bias, being an upstander, or helping everyone uncover their own diversity story
  • Proactively building a positive team culture and bringing it to fruition
  • Work-life balance or minimizing stress


Another Solution

An unhealthy work environment is certainly one that doesn’t have psychological safety. Luckily, we have a webinar coming up on March 15th, 10pm PST on Creating and Measuring Psychological Safety”. Join us and gain clear and actionable tips for building a culture where people can bring their whole-self to work.

P.S. The webinar is quickly booking up, so claim your spot here.


Civility is the platform for organizational success—it is absolutely necessary for an organization to reach its goals. Download our Ebook on Seeking Civility to learn more on how to create a workplace free of bullying and abusive conduct.


About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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