7 Red Flag Phrases that Indicate a Toxic Workplace Culture

UPDATED: July 3, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 8, 2024
boss screaming at employees in a toxic work culture

Todd Cherches, co-founder, CEO and executive coach at BigBlueGumball, adjunct professor of leadership at NYU, lecturer on leadership at Columbia University and author of the book VisuaLeadership: Leveraging the Power of Visual Thinking in Leadership and in Life, wasn’t always the boss. In fact, early in his career, he found himself in numerous toxic work culture scenarios as he navigated life at a major Hollywood TV network—so many that he kept track of them in an “abuse log” to maintain his sanity, he recalls.

He elaborates on one such instance in a Valentine’s Day letter to “bossholes” with a story of a boss early in his career who threw a box of pens at his head (because he’d purchased the wrong brand).

In recent years, we’ve finally found a name for those harmful, painful and even traumatizing workplaces: toxic.

The impact of a toxic work culture

According to data from MIT Sloan in 2022, a toxic work culture was the leading cause of the “Great Resignation” among employees. To be clear, “toxic” isn’t just annoying, and it’s not a case of the Sunday scaries before a busy work week. Toxic is related to the word “toxin,” a poisonous substance. Just as poison harms your body, toxic workplace cultures can harm your mental and physical health.

The American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America survey revealed that 22% of American workers have experienced or were afraid of experiencing harm to their mental health within their workplace. Additionally, 22% of workers have experienced harassment at work in the past year. 

Toxic work environments are not always loud and obvious—we can tend to look for extremes when we think ‘toxic,’ but there can be seemingly innocuous actions and behaviors that result in the buildup of toxicity in the workplace over time. ‘Death by a thousand cuts,’ if you will,” says Ella F. Washington, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a strategy consulting company in Washington, D.C. that helps clients with cultural change. “Therefore, it is important to keep your eye out for the obvious and subtle forms of toxicity.”

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Signs of a toxic workplace

Danielle Roberts, a future of work coach, posted on LinkedIn that “there is no reason any of us should have to ‘thrive in a fast-paced environment’ or ‘work well under pressure.’ Most of our daily work is not a true emergency.

“And our culture of fake urgency, immediacy and instant gratification just to create more value for shareholders is burning people out. Please stop sending people’s nervous systems into fight or flight because of your resource management issues.”

But what if you’re in a toxic workplace environment and don’t even realize it? The following seven phrases from professionals across many industries just might be your telltale sign of a toxic work culture. If you’re hearing one-liners like the following, it may be time to polish your resume and find a better, healthier workplace.

“It’s just the way we’ve always done it.”

Colleen Carswell, business strategist at Smoky Blue Events in Asheville, North Carolina, says that “if a business isn’t open to new ideas and new ways of doing business, especially with how fast things are changing, [or] if a leader is the ‘my way or the highway’ type, in time, that business will fail. And along the way, it will have failed the people who gave of themselves and their unique talents, gifts, time and energy every day to a company [that] only saw them as a resource to execute tasks, not as individuals with valuable insights and ideas on how to do things better.”

“We work hard and play hard!”

“‘We work hard and play hard’ might sound appealing,” says P. Mark Shayani, managing attorney at Pacific Attorney Group, “but [it] can imply a lack of boundaries between work and personal time, leading to burnout.”

“That’s not my job.”

“Expressions such as ‘that’s not my job’ or ‘we’ve always done it this way’ are warning signs of a toxic workplace because they demonstrate a lack of accountability and reluctance to change,” states David Weisselberger, Esq., founding partner at Erase The Case, a law firm in the Miami area. “Based on my observations, work environments that prioritize openness, responsibility and dignity for every worker typically cultivate a more robust and optimistic atmosphere that enables people to succeed in their personal and professional lives.”

“We are one big family here.”

Dyon Bryant, organizational development consultant and owner of Dyon’s Hub LLC in Chicago, says that “equating the workplace to a family is essentially telling you that eventually, you will learn and see the cliques that have formed—decide accordingly and correctly where you belong because it will further dictate your employee experience—how leadership has a large chasm of disconnect to what the employees are experiencing, and that there may be times where you will be asked to neglect your biological or chosen family for work obligations [and] tasks.”

“You can’t have it all.”

Claudia Cometa, founder and CEO at Peace Advocacy Group, an executive healthcare consulting company, in Clearwater, Florida, says, “My boss sent me this via email in response to a PTO request. These types of responses were common and served a clear purpose to place power back in the hands of the administrators.”

“You’re being overly sensitive.”

“This is one I heard directly from my manager when I called him out on toxic behavior (putting his hand up to my face to stop me from answering a question in a meeting, raising his voice and telling me to stop speaking),” recalls Minette Norman, a speaker, author and leadership consultant from Fairfax, California. “It’s a terrible message to receive as you know what you experienced, you feel the pain, but your experience is brushed aside as if you’re at fault for overreacting.”

“Sweetheart, can you take care of this report for me?”

Sharon Fenster, CEO of Sharon Fenster Consulting, LLC, a certified diversity and inclusion leadership coach and guest lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, says that “microaggressions in the workplace toward women violate the principles of gender equality and create a toxic work environment in today’s workplace. While all women suffer these sometimes unintentional abuses, women of color suffer the most.”

Here are some examples of microaggressions from Fenster:

  • “Men expect women in the workplace to handle ‘housekeeping’ duties, such as planning parties [and] worker anniversary recognition events, organizing parties, cleaning up after a meeting, etc.,” Fenster says.
  • Another major example is “women being overlooked for stretch assignments in the company that would challenge their professional abilities” or being excluded “from ad hoc meetings to discuss office issues, such as going out for beers after work, lunch meetings, golf outings, etc.”
  • She adds that “men calling women ‘honey,’ ‘sweetheart,’ ‘dear’ and other diminutives [are] condescending and inappropriate, at best.”
  • Fenster points out other unwanted comments that men may make in the workplace as well, such as those concerning “a woman’s appearance, such as clothing, makeup, attractiveness, etc.” and “jokes that put women down, such as saying, ‘If she wore makeup, she’d actually be dateable.’”

What to do next if you’ve been hearing toxic phrases in the workplace

Claire Law, a relational psychotherapist and freelance writer in the United Kingdom, says, “At a certain point, the healthiest choice may just be to cut your losses and get out. Start looking for roles at companies that walk the walk when it comes to creating psychologically safe workplace cultures. They do exist!”

She adds that “if leaving isn’t an option just yet, give yourself empathy. You’re not failing by struggling in an abusive environment. Connect with people who can provide support or just listen as you work toward your exit plan.

“You deserve a job that instills purpose and confidence, not constant self-doubt. While liberating yourself from toxicity isn’t easy, taking that arduous first step will pay dividends in reclaiming your happiness. Your well-being is worth fighting for.”

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