How to Deal with a Toxic Work Environment: 15 Useful Tips

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Illustration of a woman sitting in front of her laptop and holding a white mug, with two bubbles to her left and right containing two colleagues, a man and a woman, looking angry

Even if you love your job, working in a toxic work environment can have severe repercussions on your productivity, mental health and overall wellbeing. Not only that, but a toxic workplace can affect your relationships outside of work and your overall outlook on career and life. 

Sometimes it can be challenging to determine whether you’re working in a toxic work environment or if you’re simply burned out. However, there are a few simple telltale signs which can reveal if your workplace is toxic or not. If you dread going to work for months on end and feel like colleagues aren’t pushing back at meetings and only reveal their true emotions behind the scenes, then it’s very likely you’ve found yourself in a toxic workplace

Surviving and addressing toxicity at work is vital for your wellbeing and the success of the business. A recent study by Emtrain found that one-third of employees left a job because of ‘workplace conflict’ on what constitutes respectful behaviour. This can have an enormous emotional and financial impact on individuals who feel like they need to job hop to avoid getting caught in a toxic workplace. 

While switching jobs can help stay sane by getting out of toxic work environments, there are a few things you can do to address the issue head-on. Here, we share 15 tips on how to deal with a toxic workplace in a positive and constructive manner.

1. Identify the source of toxicity

Harvard Business Review has found that often toxicity at work can stem from its leaders. Managers and executives are the people other employees look up to, and if they’re abusive and dismissive, then that behaviour becomes acceptable down the chain. 

To see if there’s a source of bad energy in the (virtual) office, try to observe how colleagues behave around one another. Is there a particular person whose presence makes people immediately feel uncomfortable? Perhaps they bring other people’s ideas down or try to take credit for someone else’s work?

Finding the source of this toxic energy can help you address the problem at its source. 

2. Talk to your colleagues

In these situations, it’s essential to first give others the benefit of the doubt before taking any further actions. If you’ve identified a few key people who might be contributing to a hostile work environment, try to talk to them about it in a non-accusatory way. 

People nowadays are juggling so many things at work and at home. They might not be coping well with stress, which could lead to them having a negative behaviour at work, which they are not even aware of. Having a friendly talk with them can go a long way in stopping such behaviours in the future.

3. Focus on the problem, not the person 

When we say non-accusatory language, we mean to leave the person out of the equation. When we start calling people out and accusing them of something, that automatically triggers a defensive reaction. It will be very hard to get through to them if you start pointing out their flaws. 

Instead, focus on the problem that is being caused by their behaviour. Rather than saying ‘You never let people share their ideas in meetings’, you can say ‘We would all benefit from hearing different viewpoints during meetings.’

4. Use the ‘I feel’ approach

In a similar vein, if someone’s behaviour affects you personally, it’s much better to focus on how their actions make you feel rather than their personal shortcomings. Conflict management theories suggest using the ‘I feel’ approach to open up the conversation in a constructive way. 

Instead of saying ‘You’re always late to meetings’ you’re much more likely to get through to the person if you say ‘I feel let down when people aren’t on time for meetings.’

5. Keep your emotions in check

You can’t control how others behave, but you can control how you respond to that behaviour. Keeping your cool under pressure not only diffuses the situation but also allows you to think and act more clearly. Even if you feel like you have every reason to, getting emotional can reflect poorly on you.

Next time you feel angry, try leaving the room so you can cool off. Once you’ve reined in your emotions come back and try to talk through what happened logically.

6. Talk to HR

If all your efforts to address the issues land on deaf ears, you might need to take this to HR. Often, things that are obviously problematic for employees can be missed by company leaders because they’re not on the ground working with you and your colleagues every day. 

When talking to HR, try to keep the same approach you had when dealing with individual coworkers. Instead of pointing fingers, try to build a case around what you’re trying to say - document examples of toxic behaviour in your work environment and how they affect your work. 

Here, try to be part of the solution by offering suggestions and ideas on how HR can address these issues moving forward. 

7. Propose a change in policies

Regardless of your HR department’s size, it’s very likely that your HR manager or director is a busy person. If you want your issues to be resolved sooner rather than later, it will make a great difference if you come in with some fresh ideas on how the company can address toxicity in the workplace. 

For instance, if the company promotes competition and hard work with statements like ‘Get it done’ and ‘No excuses’, this can indirectly create a very negative corporate culture. It might be that your coworker feels the pressure to perform, and that’s why they try to dominate conversations and meetings. 

Think about what changes in values or policies can promote a healthier or more collaborative work environment and put that forward as a suggestion.

8. Avoid being part of the problem

Toxicity can be contagious. When someone is bullying you or downright spreading lies about you, it’s easy to want to go behind their backs and vent about it to others. However, that would be just adding fuel to the fire. 

Instead of exacerbating the situation by adding to the problem, try to defuse the situation by staying calm and addressing the issue directly. Likewise, if a coworker comes to you blaming one of your peers for being bossy, suggest that they should perhaps have a conversation with them to resolve the issue.

9. Request workplace training

You know the saying ‘It takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch’? This is very much true for work environments; negative energy can quickly spread across the entire office. 

Building a positive and collaborative work environment requires active participation from all its members. If toxicity at work goes beyond one or two people, you can request additional workplace training on collaboration and communication skills. 

Companies that are value-driven often endorse regular training to remind employees of the type of culture the company is trying to build. Being proactive in this area can make you stand out as an employee and make you the go-to person when other problems arise.

10. Make it a strategic problem

If your toxic workplace is impacting people’s performance, then, management would listen. Business leaders care about the bottom line and anything that impacts that will be swiftly addressed. 

When talking to your manager emphasise how a toxic environment affects communication and leads to people clocking out early and having no trust in each other. 

Again, focus on the problem and not individual people. Help your manager to understand what is at stake. If the sales team won’t meet their targets for this quarter because nobody wants to work with David on those demos, then management needs to know.

11. Raise a grievance

If your other efforts are futile, you may need to address the issue more officially. Different companies have different grievance procedures in place, so ask HR for the best approach here. Even if there isn’t a formal process, you should still raise a grievance and ask the company to rectify this in a timely manner. 

This is a particularly important step if the leadership team is part of the problem.

12. Invoke company values

When you’re faced with someone who is being rude towards you, make sure to invoke company values in the conversation. This can serve as a reminder of the company culture and indicate that this kind of behaviour won’t stand.

If you’ve requested help from a colleague and they get back to you with ‘Janet you’re so needy’, remind them of the company’s ‘built on team’ value and move on. That said, don’t get into any personal arguments that can escalate the situation. 

13. Be firm, but polite

Keeping away from trouble doesn’t mean that you should be quiet about others’ inappropriate behaviour. Unaddressed issues can fester and grow over time, leading to even bigger problems down the line.

Instead, make sure that you always speak up when someone’s behaviour is out of line. People who are abusive or inconsiderate on a regular basis aren’t used to being called out on it, so this can actually break the cycle. 

14. Deal with triggering events

You might notice that people get snarky or more worked up as a big founding round is coming to a close. Or the sales team is getting ready for a demo that continues to break down and the team gets impatient with each other. 

Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus once said that prevention is better than cure and this is just as true today as it was back in the 15th century. If you notice situations or scenarios which often result in toxic behaviour, try to encourage your team to come up with workflows which will prevent this from happening again in the future. 

If you know that prepping for a trade show might cause a few snarky remarks, come up with an internal process which will make trade shows easier for the team. Perhaps order all marketing materials three months in advance as opposed to one. Or ask the team to book flights earlier than they normally do.

15. Create a safe, positive space for yourself

At the end of the day, you can’t change other people, so it’s really important that you create a safe and positive work environment for yourself. Whether you work in an office or from home, make sure that your desk and immediate environment is tidy and filled with items that elicit positive emotions in you. 

Things like plants and photos from family can really have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing, so make sure these are in your eyesight while working. Also, if you have people that inspire you or goals you work towards, put reminders or quotes on your desk so that they keep you calm and focused on your long-term plans. 

Toxic work environments can be insidious and difficult to deal with. However, its negative effects can cut deep and undermine the very foundation on which a company was built. 

Being proactive and addressing toxic behaviours head-on can be a great step forward in building a great career for yourself and helping the company you work for to thrive in the long term.

Have you ever worked in a toxic workplace? How did you cope? Share your experience with us in the comments section below.