The 5 red flags to look out for if you think you may be in a toxic work environment

Finding a job that checks all the boxes (interesting, decent salary, good benefits, in the right location, etc.) is tough enough as it is. But finding a suitable work environment is made all the more complicated by the fact that some workplaces are just downright toxic.

A toxic work environment is just about the worst employment situation anyone can end up in. It can impact our mental and physical health. It often hinders our productivity and creativity. It can affect our self-esteem and make us question ourselves constantly. And it can make us lose sleep, stress far too much, and ruin the entire concept of work-life balance.

Some of us will — or already have — end up in a toxic workplace. But, clearly, the most ideal option is to never be in a toxic environment in the first place, or, at the very least, to get out sooner rather than later.

In order to do so, we need to know how to spot a toxic boss or culture. Luckily, there are some red flags that are a pretty reliable indication that you could be entering some hot water.

1. A narcissistic boss

If it seems like the CEO, boss, or manager at the company is obsessed with him or herself, this tends to be a bad sign. They may think far too highly of themselves; they may ignore the opinions of others because it’s their way or the highway; they might fail to see their own or the company’s shortcomings, or they may exhibit any number of other ego-fueled behaviors.

When the person in charge is a narcissist or an egomaniac, it’s almost bound to be a toxic work environment. So, avoid egotism, if you can.

2. Micromanaging

It’s one thing to hold employees accountable. That is an essential part of any business or organization. But it’s another thing entirely to micromanage. If the managers unnecessarily track your every move and hound you about the tiniest of things constantly, then it’s simply not a healthy work environment. Micromanaging is a classic aspect of toxicity, and it’s a sign that the people in charge are unable to relinquish any control or to trust the employees.

3. Absence of work-life balance

A necessary part of a happy life—and, actually, a productive work environment—is work-life balance. If you’re answering emails while eating dinner with friends, or answering phone calls in the shower, or finishing projects at all hours of the day, or just never actually getting off work, there may be issues with work-life balance. Sometimes, it’s our own doing and we need to just adjust our habits. But other times, the workplace itself is requiring or encouraging a total abandonment of relaxation, vacation, and work-life balance.

If your workplace reprimands employees for vacations or expects employees to always be available, that’s a pretty big sign of a toxic environment. Your managers need to respect that you don’t just have a job—you have a life, too.

4. Verbal abuse or never-ending criticism

Many of us tolerate unkindness in the workplace far too often. As obvious as it may seem, verbal abuse is a definite sign of a toxic environment. No one should ever have to tolerate this kind of treatment, no matter the job.

Likewise, if management provides a constant string of criticism, without also sometimes encouraging, complimenting, and rewarding employees, it’s not likely to be a healthy environment. Constructive, respectful criticism is okay—and important—but non-constructive, rude, or unending criticism only results in long-term dissatisfaction.

5. High turnover

If you haven’t had enough experience with a company to know whether the above signs are present, high turnover can be an easy way to figure out if there are big issues present. While high turnover is not always an indication of a toxic workplace, it certainly can be. It’s always worthwhile to find out how often people quit—and why.

The takeaway

None of us should have to tolerate toxic environments—not at home, not in relationships, and certainly not at work. It’s never too late to leave a toxic workplace—but it’s also never too early to try to spot the red flags and get out ASAP.

If you’re suspicious that a current or potential employer is toxic, use the above signs to get a better sense of how healthy (or not) a workplace actually is.