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  • Kat Aldag, LPC

How to Spot a “Toxic” Workplace… And What to Look for Instead

Oftentimes, we think of “toxic” work culture as one with overt bullying and abuse, wherein people shout at interns and perpetrate sexual harassment. While such cases are all too prevalent, there are also subtler characteristics of a workplace that can make a job insufferable. During an economic recession, we likely pay more attention to keeping our jobs than to getting other/better ones. Unfortunately, this logical focus on scarcity can encourage people to stay in jobs that are making them miserable. Sometimes, we may not be able to pinpoint what specifically is contributing to our despondence. So, instead of the “toxic” vs. “healthy/good” paradigm, consider instead a framework of “scarcity” vs. “growth.” If you feel like something is “off” at work, it may be a matter of scarcity culture.

Features of scarcity culture:

· Blame/Fear/Gaslighting

· You don’t feel respected/valued

· Discourse is discouraged and/or punished

· No one advocates for you

· You feel like you can’t do anything right

· You’re expected to work after hours

· Authority figures make inconsistent/incompatible demands

· You’re told to be grateful for what you have (“toxic positivity”)

· No paid leave

· Emphasis on mistakes

· Responsibilities outside your scope without training or compensation

· High turnover

· Diversity and inclusion are taboo topics or are symbolic but not reflected in policy

· You have to beg for paperclips

Features of growth culture:

· Mentorship is available, accessible, and encouraged

· You feel respected/valued

· Extensive training

· Professional development is paid for

· Opportunities for advancement are clear and accessible

· Paid leave including parental/familial leave

· Reward system is clear and regularly implemented

· Supervisor talks to you more about opportunities than mistakes

· Dialogue amongst colleagues is encouraged

· Supervisors are receptive to feedback

· People stay for at least three years

· People from marginalized communities are represented and heard in all levels of the organization

· Transparent expectations

· You’re paid for all your time

· Paperclips galore

During a recession, there is tremendous privilege in being able to choose where and for whom you work, if you can work at all. Given these constraints, it may not be feasible to leave a job with a scarcity culture. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arises, consider asking questions in your interview about features of growth culture. If an organization has ample resources and still promotes a culture of scarcity, you may be wise to look elsewhere. Even if an organization has limited resources, it can still promote a culture of growth.


-Kat Aldag, LPC