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Have You Experienced a Toxic Workplace?

Posted on: August 16th, 2022 by Kristen Miller

Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a New Job

Written By: Christy S. Renjilian

If you’re like me, you have experienced a toxic work environment at some point in your career.

Maybe it was a terrible boss or clique of colleagues that made you feel left out. Maybe someone in leadership played favorites or took credit for your work. Or maybe it was low morale across the board that started to affect your own happiness.

In a recent Work and Well-Being survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), three in five workers said work-related stress caused them to have a lack of interest, motivation, and energy at work. And 36% of those surveyed had cognitive weariness, 32% emotional exhaustion, and 44% physical fatigue—almost a 40% jump from 2019.

To top it off, a record 4.5 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in November 2021. In a recent survey of 3,000 workers conducted by GoodHire, 82% reported they would consider quitting their job because of a bad manager.

Leadership is a key factor. And these startling statistics are a real-life snapshot of the American work culture.

So often we don’t know how unhealthy it is until it’s too late—having already accepted the position and settled into the day-to-day.

What can you do when you’re considering a shift in your career? And how can you set yourself up for success when it comes to finding an open, welcoming, and uplifting work culture?

Here are six questions you can ask yourself to help you determine if you’d like to move forward with the hiring process, keep looking for another option or stay with your current team.

Ask These Questions to Determine If An Organization is Unhealthy

At your very first opportunity—directly following your first interview with the organization, whether in person or virtual—take a few moments to reflect. 

Set aside 15-minutes in your schedule. Because each interaction with the company or recruiter is an opportunity to learn more about the culture and environment.

How do you feel? 

You can tell a lot about a workplace by the feel and tone of the interview. 

Were those who participated engaged, open, and interested in getting to know you? Or was it an inquisition—full of ‘gotcha’ questions? 

Take note of a scripted or forced tone as you make your decision. Or did it feel like a casual conversation, where you and those interviewing you were asking and answering questions?

And consider who participated in the interview process. Potential coworkers—and not just supervisors—being involved is a good sign that the organization practices shared leadership and values the personal relationships between coworkers. It shows they want to ensure that the people you may be working alongside think you’ll be a good fit and have (or can learn) the necessary skills to do the job.

And pay special attention to your feelings. Were you welcomed with warm and friendly vibes? Or did you feel underlying tension, perhaps noticing a rude tone or dismissive signals? All things to reflect upon after each conversation you have during the hiring process.

“Being a bystander to incivility has long-term negative consequences because bad behavior is contagious. In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that the more people saw and were subject to rudeness at work, the more likely they were to become rude and hostile themselves.” [Huffpost]

What sounds did you hear? 

This may be harder to determine given hybrid or remote work schedules, but what do you hear in the building? Or during your virtual interview? Listen closely for background noise—it can hint at the general demeanor of the work culture.

And keep in mind, a tour of the building can be valuable in understanding workplace culture. The earlier in the process you can have one, the better. If you’re going to be working in a hybrid or ‘in-person’ capacity, it’s very important to see the physical space where you will be spending your working hours. 

Is it clean? And what about good lighting and air quality? Can you imagine yourself there?  

Obviously, while touring the space no one should be yelling at another person. But was it really quiet? What happened when someone (especially the Executive Director) entered a space? Did people scurry like mice and stop talking? Did you sense concern or even fear? 

In general, were coworkers supportive of each other? Did they converse regularly, even with someone new around? And how were they interacting with those they serve? 

You can gain a lot of valuable insights by paying attention to what you hear while on location or even through Zoom. 

What seemingly little habits did you notice?

All of us have our quirks. And sometimes those quirks can make work challenging for others. 

Did the person interviewing you come across as rigid, admitting they ‘freak out’ about the rubber bands, paperclips, or color of pen or paper used? Did they do so in such an intense way that team members were afraid of using the wrong item and getting yelled at? 

It can be really hard to assess these things during an interview, but perhaps ask them if they have any pet peeves or what their team might describe as their pet peeves. 

I have seen this over and over and over. It’s inappropriate, fear-based, and controlling behavior. And it’s a tell-tale sign of a toxic workplace environment.

I’ve seen managers with decades of experience feel anxious when making a decision. The results are unhealthy and can prevent productive work from happening.

So reflect on the quirks of the people you meet in the hiring process. And if someone laughs or shrugs off what you find to be an unhealthy characteristic, consider it your sign to move on.

And for those of us in positions of leadership—if your quirks are impacting others, take proactive steps to grow beyond them. The workplace’s health and the stress level of your team members are of the utmost importance. 

How were differences of opinion handled?

Innovation and creativity—critical components to the health, vitality, and growth of an organization—flourish in an environment where people are empowered to share ideas. Especially ideas that are different from the ones of their supervisors. 

So during the early hiring stage, notice if the leader surrounds herself with team members who know more about their specialty than she does. And if she gives them the support and tools they need to do the job, and then steps out of their way and trusts them to get it done. 

Ask about the process for team members to share their ideas, opinions, and concerns. Ask for a specific example of when they as a leader changed their mind about a process, policy, or project based upon the input of their team.

A few things to consider… did you feel part of the interview process? Or were you just a number in a lineup? Was the interviewer quiet, engaged, and deeply listening to you? 

Reflect on the health of the organization’s communication and openness, how your opinion was received, and if you feel you’re a fit for the mission or focus of the organization.

What about work-life balance?

We’ve all worked at places that talk a good game about work-life balance, but in reality, if you took time off you were seen as a ‘slacker’ who wasn’t committed to the organization or your career. 

And those places can be quite unhealthy. So pay special attention to time off and the attitude around it. But how do you figure out what that is?

Ask the interviewer about their last vacation—what they did, where they went, and if they actively worked during it or unplugged completely. And what their favorite benefit or perk of work there is, too.

At Child Care Consultants (CCC), we have 13 paid holidays, two floating holidays (employees’ choice of when to take), and 15 days of Paid Time Off (PTO) in the first year that can be used for any purpose. 

So, take notice of the benefits package—is it clear, favorable, and employee-minded? Are there any perks that reinforce the work-life balance you’re pursuing?

A few of those perks may look like PTO Coupons for additional time off as an appreciation and additional paid school visitation time for employees to participate in school activities for children aged birth through college. Or even a rotating schedule to allow for long weekends. All things we do here at CCC.

What and how was information shared?

The interview process and early stages of hiring are a great time to pay attention to how information is being shared. With you directly and with those around you. 

Did the interview operate on a ‘need to know’ basis? For a nonprofit, did you get the sense that the leadership team and the Board of Directors hold information close to the vest? Was there a lack of transparency? Often, this can lead to mistrust and even fear. 

And think about where you are with things. Do you feel well informed about your next step? 

When you asked a question someone didn’t know the answer to, did they feel put on the spot and react defensively? Or were they open and honest, telling you they’d find the answer to your question… and did they follow through with their commitment? 

And did the company stand by the timeline they committed to? 

If you’ve witnessed any worst-case scenario thinking or team members filling in the blanks for themselves, tread lightly. Often those unhealthy behaviors can lead to rumors and misinformation being shared between coworkers. 

Maybe you’ve seen an open environment, full of ease and information sharing. If you’re feeling an open invitation—for you or others to voice their opinion and to feel a sense of ownership of their work, it’s a good sign.

Signs of a Healthy Work Culture

Now that you’re tuned in to how you’re feeling in the interview process, it’s time to take a step back and assess your own workplace experiences.

You’ve probably worked at a place where the CEO or Executive Director was seen as ‘other’ . . . and maybe even a ‘villain’ — where you only went to their office on your first and last day of employment and when you were in trouble. 

And maybe they barely knew who you were. You may have even thought it was better that way. And felt relief when they walked right past you without saying hello. 

All examples of unhealthy organizations. 

But what does a healthy workplace look like? The answer is different for every individual.

For you, a healthy organization may be one in which the leader knows who you are and feels that it’s important to know something about you. And does. And remembers and asks about it the next time they see you. 

Or one where self-awareness is cherished. And where leaders work to understand and prioritize workplace culture. 

It may be an environment of conversation and a culture of sharing—a nurturing sense of community, with support and connection. One with laughter and joy. 

Once you determine your priorities, your next best step will become clear. And it will align with your core values.

“More than ever, people are on the hunt for meaning and that includes at work, where more and more of our time is spent. To attract and retain top talent, and achieve optimal productivity, companies must build greater meaning into the workplace.”

—Alexi Robichaux, Co-Founder and CEO of BetterUp.


About Child Care Consultants, Inc.

Child Care Consultants, Inc. (CCC) is a nonprofit centered in the heart of Pennsylvania. They serve childcare providers and low-income families ‒ the ones that have been impacted the most by the pandemic. 

CCC helps keep childcare options open for your employees for you and your business, saving missed work hours and lowering on-the-job stress levels. They work with early childhood education programs and home-based providers to improve the quality of care, ensuring that all children enter school ready to be successful.

Christy Renjilian is its Executive Director. 

To learn more, visit childcareconsultants.org.


Additional Reading

Forbes: Toxic Workplace Culture 10 Times More Likely To Drive Employees Away, Study Shows