10 Strategies to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment


Customer Service Concept on Blackboard

Although H. Jackson Brown said, “Find a job you like and you add five days to every week,” I think that should be amended a bit:

“Find a job you like – with people who like and respect each other – and you add five days to every week.”

In the unfortunate instance where you have found yourself working in a metaphorically toxic environment, the negative ramifications are countless. You have some choices about what you can do. Not a single one of them is easy to do.

However, neither is it easy (nor healthy) to try to work in an environment that is eating you up. The ideas in this article are not listed in any particular order. I will assume you are smart and can figure out which one you haven’t tried yet – and try that one.

  1. Newtons Cradle Happy Drawing on ChalkboardGet out. Leave. Find a different place where you can work. This is ALWAYS an option. It may not be the easiest option, but unless you spend your days in prison (as a prisoner, that is), you can leave. You could also leave your field altogether, but that is a tragedy if you choose that option because toxic colleagues drove you out of a profession you otherwise love.
  2. If you CHOOSE to stay, consider every way possible to alert management (short of tattling) about the problems that exist.  If the administration is the problem (and I know this is often the case) then you may have to go higher. It depends on how bad you consider the situation to be.
  3. Read. One of my favorite quotes (and the basis for a workshop I do entitled “Conciliating the Tiger: Do You Have a Choice)?” is this one by Konrad Adenauer: “An infallible method of conciliating a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured.” Buy and read the book, The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton. It’s fabulous!
  4. Identify the source of the toxicity.  Is it a person with whom you work? Is it the language that is used at your workplace? Is it the politics, back-biting, or gossiping? Is it the community who berate your profession and no one does anything about it? I don’t know what it is for you, but if you’ve identified your place of work as a toxic environment, you first need to figure out what the source is.
  5. Once you identify the source of the toxicity, determine if you can have any effect on eliminating that toxin. For example, if the people around you constantly tell racist jokes or make unconscionable statements, is there a way to get them to stop or will it take something from a legal standpoint to eliminate the toxic situation?
  6. If the toxin can/should be removed, take steps to make that happen. It’s scary and uncomfortable, but I go back to my original statement – it’s unbearable to spend 8 – 10 hours each day in a setting that you find unbearable. Do something about it. It’s not just affecting you, it’s affecting other people who work where you do (and is probably affecting their families, too, because of the carryover of the stress of working in a toxic environment).
  7. Draw attention, in a professional and assertive manner, to what is happening–to you and to others in the workplace. The cost of losing great employees is usually (although not always) of concern for people with a vested interest in the success of an organization. Think through carefully what you want to say to someone in this role and then bravely present your thoughts.
  8. Buy and read the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. You’ll have a manual to help you think through how to have honest, direct, meaningful conversations – as well as to consider the cost when you don’t. It’s in paperback and is a bargain.
  9. Blackboard with graphBoldly deal with the toxic situation head on. A bad day or week at work is not a toxic situation. Consider it a bad day or week. Something doesn’t become identified as toxic until it has been continuing for weeks, months….years. When it’s taking a toll on your health, productivity, relationships outside of work, and so forth, then you need to do something about it.
  10. Ask yourself a question: Am I adding to the toxic environment? If so, take immediate measures to communicate more professionally on the job. Most of us can look at ourselves and realize that we have a few areas of our lives where we can improve, too. Just check it out with yourself and see if, by any chance, you are contributing to – or exacerbating – the toxic situation.

Note: For the purposes of this article, I am referring to a psychologically toxic environment vs. a physically toxic one, i.e., one filled with hazardous chemicals and the like. If you are in that type of environment, you need to be calling OSHA or some other agency.

I hope these ideas help you if you’re in this situation. I’ve been there…and I needed a kick in the ____ to get moving on making changes. If you aren’t in this situation (thank goodness!) but have a friend or colleague who is, send this article along to that person.

Antioxidants for Your Toxic Work EnvironmentAnd if you would like to access a class and some materials on “Antioxidants for a Toxic Work Environment,” just go to https://meggin.com/classes/toxic-work-environments/ to receive the class at no cost (free).