Toxic Workplace Behaviors We All May Be Guilty Of

If you’ve been in the workplace long enough, you’ve probably experienced the Sunday Scaries: that feeling of overall dread that creeps in the closer it gets to Monday. But what if, unlike the Sunday Scaries that typically dissipate once the work week begins, imagine if that dread, anxiety and apprehension did not go away? Imagine if it greeted you before work, during work and after work, even following you home?

We hope you’re not nodding your head in a ‘yes’ of familiarity, but if you are, you’re most likely working in a toxic workplace. And you’re not alone.

Toxic company culture is causing more than 30% of workers in the US to consider quitting their jobs. According to a FlexJobs survey, this doesn’t include the 25% that already have.

Toxic workplace behaviors thrive in companies that don’t value employees, bully staff and create an overall environment of manipulation, negativity and distrust. They’re stressful and rife with self-serving behaviors that overlook the good of the company. Undoubtedly, working in this sort of pressure cooker can wreak havoc on employee productivity and mental health, not to mention impact the ultimate success or failure of the business.

Before we get into why such behaviors are harmful, let’s first identify some of the most common toxic workplace activities.

Common toxic workplace activities

1. Gossiping

As timeless as the trash talk of a middle-school playground, gossip at work might seem like a given — but it doesn’t have to be nor should it. What might start as a sarcastic comment or expressing frustration with coworkers can quickly devolve into more destructive gossip.

When employees do not feel listened to or that they cannot count on a colleague's word, dissatisfaction mounts and chatter ensues. It’s when these complaints, issues and negative comments are shared with those who have no bearing on a resolution that the commentary becomes toxic. Not only does this behavior solve nothing, it undermines everyone's credibility and morale.

While productivity tools like Slack and Google Chat can make work more efficient, they’re often used as a way to gossip. Just because the behavior takes place digitally, does not mean this isn’t toxic. 

2. Poor communication

This hallmark toxic behavior can take place at businesses of all sizes and occur across all levels of leadership and staff. Abusive tactics such as belittling others, and being verbally and emotionally combative aren’t limited to senior managers. Anyone can engage in this confusing, humiliating and intimidating behavior.

Open communication is critical for any healthy relationship, including among work teams. If employees feel they cannot communicate openly and honestly with peers and supervisors due to fear of retribution for speaking up, work begins to feel unsafe. Feeling as if you must watch your mouth (or back) is not healthy or helpful for anyone, including the business.

3. Cliques

Once in the workplace, you’d think that the days of cliques would be long gone. Sadly, that’s often not the case. Cliques can form due to shared bonds or commonalities such as working in the same department, holding similar tenure, or sharing political or religious beliefs. Whatever the reason, when a group of employees excludes others from joining them, becomes overly competitive or discourages opinions unlike their own, that’s a work clique. Work friendships can be great but when they stray too far into conformity, well, Houston — we have a problem. Employees end up feeling alienated, and morale and productivity suffer.

4. Withholding information

At first, this behavior might seem innocent: “Oh, Coworker X or Manager A forgot to mention that key piece of information to me.” But after the third or fourth time, it’s no longer benign. It’s an omission intended to hang someone else out to dry. This tactic could also be referred to as sabotage; besides making the person miserable, it can cause paranoia and angst, creating the need to document everything without quite knowing why.

5. Nepotism, cronyism

In the correct instances, there’s some validity to the maxim, "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And in the workplace, it should stop at getting the interview — not the job. When an employer returns only to the same pool of applicants (friends, former colleagues, relatives) for new hires and promotions, this favoritism becomes toxic.

In this setting, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) typically are not considered; high performers are overlooked in order to accommodate friends or other connections. By doing so, a culture of unfairness and no-growth opportunity takes root.

The impact of toxic behaviors on well being in the office

Toxic workplace activities aren’t good for people or business. Here are some of the implications to both:

  • Quiet quitting
  • Increased sick days and absenteeism
  • Reduced employee engagement, burnout and the ultimate workplace wet blanket — apathy
  • Sinking employee morale
  • Damaged company and brand reputation
  • Difficulty retaining and attracting talent
  • Negative impact to the bottom line

How to recognize if you’re contributing to a toxic workplace

As you read this article, do any of the following behaviors sound familiar, even how you might exist in the workplace? If so, take some time to look at your own behavior. Observe those around you as well. Do they immediately tense up in your presence? Do employees stop talking when you enter their space? If so, you may be exhibiting some of the following behaviors that indicate a toxic employee.

  • Cannot accept criticism
  • Takes credit for the work of others
  • Excludes others intentionally
  • Gossips and behaves manipulatively
  • Shows aggression toward others
  • Behaves in a passive-aggressive and defensive manner
  • Refuses to listen

If any of the above traits do sound familiar to you, it may be time to evaluate how you treat others, what would make you happy at work and where. And remember, it’s never too late to change.

How not to contribute to a toxic workplace

The antidote to a toxic workplace is pretty simple: treat others with respect and kindness. Lead by example and understand that the smaller the workplace is, the faster toxic behaviors can spread. Keep lines of communication open and lead by example. And if you determine you need help yourself, there is no shame. A mindset of growth isn’t just good for business, it’s also good for you and your team.

The LenovoPRO Community wants to know: Have you worked in a toxic workplace before? What made it toxic? Do you have any tips on how to handle such a stressful situation — did you quit or hang in there? Did you speak up?

Let us know your experiences in the comments below!

 About the Author

Stephanie has worked in the B2B tech space for more than 20 years for brands such as IBM and Oracle, as well as on the agency side at Uncompany, The Favorite Co., Ogilvy and Mather, Leopard and other agencies. Stephanie believes in putting the reader first and won't rest until she's communicated a motivating, "Why should I care?" message. When she's not writing on behalf of her freelance clients, in her spare time, Stephanie's working on a novel and the occasional poem.

Click to connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn


  • I work in healthcare. I have been in healthcare since 1989. I started out in EMS and became an RN with my bachelors degree in nursing.

    Healthcare is one of the most toxic career fields a person could choose. My personal belief is because there are so many women in it. Women bosses are the worst. They think to be taken seriously they have to be a *** for lack of a better term. They always seem to be putting on a show. Just like the dog that is on a leash  barking and ferocious. As soon as that dog is off the leash it’s happy it’s playful and just wants to have fun.  
    It is not good leadership to have your employees dread seeing you, because they know you are going to: A. Increase their workload because of your incompetence. B. Yell at an employee for something they did two weeks - two months ago; just because you haven’t seen them.

    One of my worst one of my worst experiences was when I was instructed to start a clinic. I started the clinic during the summer months when my children were not home during this time the clinic required significantly more time than my schedule allowed I attempted to put in for overtime was informed that there was no more funds for overtime. 

    Knowing that I still had to get this clinic started, and from previous experience, how being a civil servant for the government works.  I would stay late, come in early to be able to get my assigned duties plus the duties of the clinic done. After hours the Director would sit behind me on her laptop and work. She would lock me in for safety precautions and tell me to have a good night when she would leave. 

    At the end of summer when my young children were supposed to be coming home, I scheduled a meeting to explain that I needed to cut back my hours to what I was scheduled. she looked at me confused and asked me what I meant by that. Knowing that this was going to be a situation where I was going to have to prove what I was doing I was prepared with all the paperwork.

    The Director looked at all my paperwork. She then said, I didn’t know you were working all those extra hours. I knew that was a lie because she sat behind me every day I worked. My schedule was that I was to leave at 3 o’clock. She would leave the office between 9 PM and 10 PM Lock me in and tell me to have a good night. Then she said that she did not know I was not getting paid for those hours which is a lie because she Hass to sign for any extra hours and she had never done that. During that meeting, we made an agreement on how I was to proceed with my duties, the clinic, etc. 

    I then went on a two week scheduled vacation. Only to return to find out that while I was gone there had been a complaint turned into HR. The hospital was going to have to investigate it before they would allow me to practice again.

    Only to return to find out that while I was gone there had been a complaint turned into HR. The hospital was going to have to investigate it before they would allow me to practice again.

    I knew exactly what had happened she realized that if I had told anyone I worked all those hours without getting paid she would be terminated. It was easier for her to submit a false complaint and get me investigated then for her to trust that I would have never said anything.

    she would be terminated. It was easier for her to submit a false complaint and get me investigated then for her to trust that I would have never said anything.

    I ended up, quitting the job rather than have her take me to boards with the possibility of losing my license. That pissed her off that she did not get to win. I ended up being blackballed for two years.

    That is just one my experiences with toxicity in the workplace.