Do You Have a Toxic Job?
Toxic chemicals are dangerous stuff -- hence the label toxic. That's why you can't just toss hazardous waste in a trash can or dump nuclear materials in a river. If you get uranium in your drinking water, you're bound to feel sick or find yourself with several extra limbs. (The latter is pure speculation, I admit.)
Bad workplaces aren't all that different. You might not grow a third arm from a toxic job, but you will slowly realize that your mental and even physical healths are suffering from undesirable work conditions.
Sure, you could quit, but how many of us are eager to leave our jobs in this economy? Until you find a better opportunity, you need to work with what you've got, and what you've got is a toxic workplace.
Caution: You're entering a hazardous work zone
If you enter a lab with hazardous materials, you're going to see placards with the skull and crossbones or radioactive symbols posted at the door. If you enter a toxic workplace, it's not that easy; you have to look for the clues. Job seekers can start when they arrive for the first interview, says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions.
"When interviewing, be aware of your surroundings," she says. "Do you hear the sounds of laughter or does it feel like people are going through the motions until it's quitting time?"
Matuson also warns of an interviewer who couldn't be less interested in you or the interview.
"Clearly this is a sign that this person has checked out. Is this really someone you want to work for?"
Similarly, if you're given a tour of the space, look at how employees are behaving. Even if they're not laughing, they shouldn't look like work zombies who are afraid to look up from their tasks. Do they seem intimidated or even scared of the boss? If you get the job, you'll be one of those people. At this stage, you can walk away and look elsewhere. If you're employed and already one of those zombies, you have a little more work to do.
Unearthing the toxic elements
Not all toxic situations announce themselves. When your workplace is toxic, you have to recognize the signs.
First, assess your own state of mind. If anything associated with your job gives you a bad feeling, things might not be so great. A gut check is a good gauge, says consultant Joni Daniels of Daniels & Associates.
"If there is a knot in your stomach as you go to work, it could be a sign that the workplace is a toxic one for you," Daniels says. "If you or the office is walking on eggshells until 'someone' leaves the building [or] room, they are toxic. If work is taking up a lot of emotional energy and you can't mentally, intellectually or emotionally 'let it go' -- it's toxic."
Dulin Clark, who is a career coach for the MBA program at Penn State University's business school, agrees with Daniels. He suggests looking at your own emotions and behaviors and working outward to understand workplace toxicity.
"Primarily, [workers] needs to pay attention to how they feel when they are in the work environment," Clark says. "Feelings of chronic stress, building frustration, lethargy, low motivation and problems sleeping are just of the few the signs of being in a toxic workplace environment." Clark points out that some of the most recognizable causes are excessive criticism, poor treatment and lack of appreciation -- things that bug you and of which you're constantly aware.
Excessive gossip, extreme competition and duplicitous co-workers indirectly pollute your work culture and may therefore be more difficult to recognize. Competition can have an especially negative impact on you because it's often mistaken for healthy workplace motivation.
"Certainly doing your best and achieving excellence are highly admirable career strategies," Clarks says. "However, the best co-workers and leaders look out for the well-being of the team and unit."
If you recognize too many of these elements in your work situation, you probably have a toxic workplace. Now you have to do something about it.
Find your hazmat suit
Hazardous materials workers get to wear protective layers to keep the dangerous substances away at a safe distance. Your average employee has no such defense. You have to choose between three options: Leave, work through it or sit tight until something better comes along.
Removing yourself from the situation makes the most sense when you know things won't likely improve. If the move feels right and you can handle it financially, then maybe it is the best option. But many employees don't have the luxury of leaving a job in this economy.
2. Work through it
Finding a way to solve the problem is the ideal solution if you like your job or can't quit. Clark suggests addressing the issue with the person responsible for the toxicity.
"If the toxicity is the result of one person's actions or behaviors, then often the situation can be made more tolerable by an honest and direct conversation with the person," he says. "It is also often helpful to confide in a trusted colleague, both to relieve the tension of the toxic feelings and also to get advice and feedback about how to handle difficult situations."
3. Make do
Sometimes the best temporary solution is just to get by like many people do in imperfect work situations. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to improve your circumstances. Far from it. Follow the above steps for handling troublesome bosses or co-workers. Vent to a friend. Do whatever you can to ease the knot in your stomach and sense of dread. While you're doing that, also look for a new job. This way you have the security of a paycheck and the comfort of knowing you won't be there forever.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure it's in your best interest. Now that you know you're in a toxic workplace, you have the tools to keep yourself out of harm's way.