When you’ve been part of an organization for a long time, it’s easy to get used to things that simply wouldn’t be okay in a different workplace. Maybe everyone just ducks their heads and puts up with it when the boss is yelling – yet again, or you’re used to lots of drama and gossipy cliques at work.
But perhaps it’s not quite that obvious. Maybe things seem okay – even good – on the surface. Perhaps your manager always brings in donuts when your team is working late on a Friday. That sounds great … right?
Maybe not. Even if things seem positive on the surface, you might find that your workplace is toxic and has a surprising number of these red flags. Here are five examples you should be aware of:
1. Everyone is young
Is everyone in your company in their 20s and 30s? Some industries do tend to attract younger staff … but if it seems like every new hire is fresh out of college, that could be a red flag.
Toxic organizations like to hire young people - they can get away with paying them less than the market rate. Plus, new college grads won’t have enough experience of workplace norms to know what to push back against. Even if your organization is hiring young people because they’re a “good cultural fit,” that suggests some worrying unconscious bias is taking place.
2. You don’t have clarity about your duties or projects
It’s great to be told you can use your initiative, right? None of us want a manager breathing down our necks, telling us exactly how to write every email or fill out every form. But if you feel like you’ve been left in the woods without a map, that’s a worrying sign.
Your duties and responsibilities should be clear. Otherwise, it’s easy for your role to morph into something you never wanted. When you’re assigned a new project, there should be clarity about what’s expected from you – in terms of deliverables, deadlines, who you can get help from and so on.
3. You get lots of “free” treats (especially when working late)
Does your company have a breakroom full of free snacks? Or maybe your manager always orders pizza if your team is still in the office after 7pm? You might think there’s nothing to complain about here (who doesn’t love free food?) but lots of “free” treats can actually be a way for your company to keep you working longer hours.
Your company is a business. If they can get an extra two hours of work from everyone for the cost of a few pizzas – rather than any additional salary – they may well consider that a very good bargain.
4. You can set your own hours … meaning you’re always on
Does your company offer flexitime? Maybe you’re allowed to set your own hours. This can definitely be an advantage for many employees … but it can also potentially become a red flag.
If “you set your own hours” becomes “we expect you to respond to emails any time of the day or night”, then that’s definitely a problem. Even with flexitime in place, good organizations either ensure coverage during core working hours or they accept that it may take a while to get a response to emails or messages.
5. Leaders describe the company as a “family”
Do leaders frequently talk about your company as a “family”? This might come up in phrases like “we’re just one big happy family here” or “our employees are like family to us”. That might sound friendly and welcoming … but it’s also a red flag.
After all, families don’t work like businesses. In a family, you might be expected to go above and beyond to help someone. You might be expected to stay loyal – to stick with your family, even at times when it might not be serving you.
You don’t want a boss who berates you for daring to quit for a job that suits you better – but in “family”-style workplaces, that kind of thing can happen.
To be clear, not every workplace exhibiting the above behaviors is toxic. Some organizations offer free snacks just because they want to be kind, or use the “family” language because they want to convey that the business cares about employees as individuals, not just as workers.
But if you’re spotting several of the above red flags in your organization, stop, take a look and decide whether it’s really such a good place to work. A toxic workplace can take a severe toll on your mental wellbeing, so it’s something you want to think seriously about.