Surviving a Toxic Workplace Without Losing Your Mind

Today’s workplace culture

Modern American employees are under considerable stress today due to a combination of several related factors:

  • Economic swings, anticipated market shifts;
  • Cost cutting measures;
  • Inadequate numbers and quality of employment candidates, leading to:
    • Worker fatigue, operating for months or years with over-lean staff
    • Lack of supervisory training/poor quality supervision
    • Overall pressure to maintain production and quality with less-qualified staff

These factors combine to increase workplace pressure and stress.  Owners and partners are also under stress trying to secure financing and to retain profit margins despite increases in the cost of materials and operating expenses. These accumulated pressures clearly affect relationships among employees and between employees and management.

Workplaces have toxic employees and bullies

One of the most successful articles I’ve written discussed toxic employees and the complicated issues associated with terminating them and shifting workplace dynamics. This blog entry was viewed roughly 3 times more often than any other article I’ve posted.  Published materials on toxic employees, toxic bosses and workplace bullies have become commonplace as business owners have come to understand the connection between positive work culture; retention; and company success.  I was one of the first bloggers to describe tactics used by toxic employees and to show companies a planned approach to neutralize this behavior. That was my book published in 2011 which sold out and then became the 2013 blog entry referenced at the end of this post.

Why do employees quit?


CHICAGO – Oct. 30, 2017 StressPulseSM survey on workplace stress

“Workload is the primary cause of stress for 39 percent of employees, while people issues is a top stressor for 31 percent.”

ATLANTA – August 28, 2018 – Randstad study exploring why employees choose to stay or leave their workplace

“38 percent of workers want to leave their jobs due to a toxic work culture or one where they don’t feel they fit in.”

“An even larger group (58%) have left jobs, or are considering leaving, because of negative office politics.”

“Why people quit really boils down to one word, Disrespect.”


In this article however, I turn my attention to survival skills for employee victims of this kind of manipulation and abuse. I am often approached by colleagues about how to keep their job when the atmosphere seems unbearable.  A typical response is, just quit! But because of health insurance, financial commitments and job market challenges, many can’t simply leave.

Avoiding the social and informal power minefields is a personal skill you can master.  Those who have the strength and natural instinct for it can be successful without support.  But even with skills, if the workplace bully makes you the target, you can find yourself overwhelmed and feeling powerless.

Why not just use the company’s grievance policy to make your complaint?

Many workplaces are decent and healthy. Some have grievance policies or other dispute resolution strategies that actually get workplace disagreements back on track. When possible or advisable, use these resources. On the other hand, formal grievance procedures may not work.  It might not be safe to speak up in some workplaces due to risk of retaliation by a toxic employee or manager. The following material addresses the less healthy, even abusive workplace. When coaching clients in this situation I urge caution because of the potential backlash.  Careful consideration and perhaps seek external advice before taking steps that might draw negative attention at your office. HR staff can often but not always, be trusted to provide support. A corrupt workplace renders managers and department heads powerless. Trust your instincts as the best judge of the course which will get the best result. Finally, you are free to consult a legal representative in confidence, when needed.

Abuse is  in the eye often in the eye of the beholder

A final word of caution on your interpretation of this material.  I’ve worked with employees who felt these behaviors were happening to them when in fact they were treated professionally. Some employees have a keen sensitivity to issues that don’t go their way. Sometimes, employee mental illness can interfere with the ability to interpret reality around them.

Employer responsibilities

A company owner’s first priority is to make the business successful.  From this evolves the need for additional staff—the demand for labor leads to economic stimulation; the community benefits; the employee enjoys income and advancement opportunities;  the community and employee earnings; which benefits employees and the owners.  Some drastic differences between companies derive from how the owners define “success.” If you define success in only monetary terms, one kind of workplace atmosphere results.  If you define success as a balance of monetary measures, client satisfaction and an employee-friendly, professional work environment, a different kind of workplace atmosphere results.

Regardless of the owner’s philosophical viewpoint, as long as he/she does not break the law, they are within their rights to run the business as they see fit.  Employees are sometimes of the mind that employers have to be nice, have to take care of them, give them time off, etc.  But owners can place as much focus on the bottom line as they wish. That is a free-market economic system.  If this means they are difficult and unfriendly and experience employee turnover as a result, that’s the consequence. Sometimes the nature of the workplace is a result of active philosophical choices and sometimes owners are simply ignorant of the connection between the way they treat employees and level of turnover or social suffering that results. The amount of discord and employee bickering an employer tolerates through ignorance or neglect is related employee turnover. Employees complain to everyone about what takes place at work. The end results and worker rights in these matters are somewhat different in union environments.  The information provided here applies primarily to the non-union workplace but the dynamics described here affect union employees and their supervisors.  I know because I have presented to both union employees and their supervisors. In one case, the union made an unusual complaint about a fellow union member who was physically assaulting a well-liked subordinate.

Too bad to stay, too hard to leave

The quality of workplace atmospheres can vary widely. I imagine folks generally know when they are in either a very bad or very good culture.  The problem is more difficult when the negative dynamics develop gradually, over time.  Boundary violations inch forward. Most people eventually wake up to realize that things are intolerably negative.  It can also be difficult when you know you have to leave and are looking but the job search is going poorly.  Finally real life situations are rarely black and white. What to do when:

  • You like the boss but the co-workers are gossipy
  • You like the co-workers but the boss is abusive
  • The money is great but the atmosphere is troubling
  • You like the workers but clients are abusive

Individuals have to decide what will work for them.  Much depends upon the nature of the employee’s temperament, the specific negative aspects, external employment environment and marketability of the employee’s skill. As the job market has tightened, it’s expected that victims can more easily find employment elsewhere. Improvements have also come from mounting pressure on employers to address the softer/people aspects of their business environment for retention purposes. Nevertheless, toxic, negative workplaces are unfortunately a reality.

Skills and perspectives needed to navigate today’s workplace

When faced with a negative workplace we have to ask: Do you want to tell the truth and damn the consequences? Or, do you want to preserve your sanity, fly beneath the radar and leave with some degree of professionalism?  Some employees do fight back; some sue successfully for various negative affects of workplace abuse.  A signficant number of employees who speak up in very negative environments eventually lose their job and with it, the possibility of a reasonable work reference.  Employees generally fear being seen in a local market as a trouble-maker.  This doesn’t make him or her an actual trouble-maker but perceptions are powerful particularly in a small community.

The road less traveled

You’ll need to figure out how to navigate in the least stressful manner for you while preserving your sanity and your current income.   Not on my menu is: stay and complain.  The complaining strategy rarely works out for you, your co-workers or your boss. The way to remain sane in a crazy or chaotic atmosphere is to maintain a clear perspective; remain observant; and use skilled boundary setting to prevent being drawn into battles that you cannot win or situations that will make you a social target.  “Flying beneath the radar” is a good way to picture it.

If you can, try these strategies

The following strategies are possible when working with a private, competent support person, perhaps a therapist or healthy friend who can reinforce this kind of detachment:

  • Set realistic expectations for the behavior of others – supervisors and coworkers
  • Accurately read the landscape
  • Focus on what you can control (what you do and think and say)
  • Perform your job duties to the best of your ability within what you can control
  • Do the best you can within the parameters you are given
  • Don’t take negative comments personally, consider the source
  • Avoid whining, complaining or being drawn into gossip
  • Don’t tell others what they should do (supervisory responsibilities not-withstanding)
  • Mind disclosures to untrustworthy employees
  • Consider objective, confidential, emotional support outside the organization

When to look for another position?

Workplace dynamics can run from mildly unhealthy to intolerable.  Every individual has his/her personal tolerance for an adverse environment.  Sensitive employees often see the issues coming early and may need to exit sooner than others who are more oblivious to the negative dynamics around them.  In addition, employees specifically targeted by negative employees, may have to exit. It really is an individual decision. I find that when I’m having stress symptoms (tight chest or stomach aches) or find myself having to standby while fellow employees are abused with no potential solution in sight, I generally begin searching for another assignment.

No employee should have to endure . . .

  1. When your supervisor or coworker yells, throw things and verbally abuses staff;
  2. When your supervisor gets visibly angry if you talk about things that need to improve;
  3. If a supervisor uses confidential information against you or discloses this information to others who do not have a need-to-know;
  4. If supervisors or coworkers gossip and criticize staff in any public manner or to clients;
  5. Companies in which laws are being broken;
  6. When employees are singled out and punished after privately or professionally disclosing the behaviors described in 1-5.

Looking for another position

Finding a job while working full-time is a considerable challenge.  Employees are cautioned not to do this on company time nor with company computers, email or company-owned smart phones.  Working on resumes, checking advertisements and other job pursuit activities should be done on personal devices.  Try contacting trusted friends in the community and network in a low-key manner. In one particularly abusive workplace, a group of healthy but victimized former employees created an informal support group. If you are confiding in others, just make sure you have some sort of pact of confidentiality.

Giving notice

I know that victimized employees are often dying to give the employer a piece of their mind.  Perhaps the company has an exit interview process for terminating employees. Most of the time, exit interviews are conducted in a professional and good-faith manner.  However, in companies compromised by fear and intimidation this might not be a safe strategy.  I can feel my HR colleague’s judgment when I caution about exit interviews because terminating employees are a potential source of valuable candid information.  But, you are not obligated to provide your observations. It’s a choice.  In addition, burning any bridge is just not a great idea. It can come back on you at employment reference time. If you feel you must give some feedback, it’s best to do it in a non-personal and professional way.

Contrasted feedback styles – this will make you laugh!

  1. Personal: “My supervisor is a jerk.  I have never seen a more abusive, horrible person!”
  2. Non-personal: “I am surprised at the way my supervisor speaks to me about my performance.  I don’t think yelling and intimidation are going to help the company motivate employees or keep their good talent long term.”

I wish you all the best of luck!



1. Benoit, Suzanne V. (2013) All About Toxic Employees in the Workplace

2. CHICAGO – Oct. 30, 2017 StressPulseSM survey on workplace stress

3. ATLANTA – August 28, 2018 – Randstad study exploring why employees choose to stay or leave their workplace

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