Why are Workplaces so TOXIC?

Workplace violence is increasing and 25% employees have quit because the workplace is toxic - they need training

Last year (2022) in the USA, more than 2 million people became the victims of non-fatal violence in an assault at work according to the US Dept of Labor. Since the pandemic began, violence has increased three-fold! In 2022, more than 1,000 people were the victims of workplace homicide, there were more than 400,000 aggravated assaults, and 51,000 rapes versus 2020 when 392 employees were murdered at work and another 20,050 were injured. Healthcare workers are 12x more likely to be assaulted. And an estimated 31 gig workers were murdered on the job; note that experts believe that this number is underestimated. Schools are not safe, either: nearly 44,000 students (and their teachers) in US schools experienced an active shooter situation. These statistics are mind-blowing.

Half (50%) of people who quit their job in 2022 did so because of a “bad or toxic boss.” One quarter (25%) of employees who quit their job in the last six months did so because of a “toxic work culture” and one-third (33%) are considering quitting because of that toxicity. The American Psychological Association conducted a workplace study in 2022: they found that 18% (basically one in five) workers classified their workplace as “somewhat or very toxic.”

And those are the statistics we hear about. What about all the other incidents of bias, verbal attacks, angry outbursts, inappropriate touching, offside jokes, harassment in any form, and all the other nonsense that goes on that employees do NOT report? A recent study showcased how 94% of employees surveyed had been bullied by a manager and 68% of employees – worldwide – do not feel safe at work. It should also go without saying that violence is NEVER okay – get help to get out safely.

We are going to look at toxic workplaces, what makes them toxic, and offer a few tips how to navigate that toxicity until you find a better boss or job. You know, the job at a place that values diversity, equity, and inclusion with a boss that has embraced inclusive leadership. None of this, “just check the box” stuff, right?!


The 7 Types of Poison in a Toxic Workplace

We don’t want to spend a lot of effort debating what is or is not a toxic work environment. If you are feeling harassed, slighted, and your well-being feels compromised in your workplace, then it is toxic to you. However, these are the general descriptions of what makes a workplace toxic. Consider it the list of the “7 Types of Poison” that can help you identify an organization that you don’t want to work for.


  1. CONFUSION: if you don’t know what you are supposed to do and how your role is different than what your co-workers are tasked to do or if you don’t know what your team’s and company’s goals are, that confusion creates conflict and stress which leads to toxicity.
  2. GASLIGHTING: co-workers are lighting you up, stressing you out, making your doubt your own abilities and convictions because they are belittling you for who you are, how you look, or what you do.
  3. GOSSIP: whatever you do or say is somehow broadcast to everyone else by the Gossip Gang who is constantly judging you.
  4. NOBODY CARES: your boss barely acknowledges you; it’s been a while (or never) since someone talked to you about career advancement, everyone is pretty much there to collect a paycheck, and they are in it for themselves. It’s a “ME – ME” culture.
  5. NO TRUST: everything you do is monitored and questioned. You may have “tattleware” installed on your laptop.
  6. PUNISHING PACE: the grind is relentless with the expectation week after week that you will work long hours, evenings, weekends, and even holidays without a break. And if you make a mistake, you will be blamed for it and have been threatened that “you will face consequences” for any errors.
  7. TURNOVER: if it seems like people don’t last there long, it’s likely not your imagination playing tricks on you. Probe on why everyone seems to quit shortly after they start working there.

Workplaces are toxic and companies who offer employee training can build emotional intelligence to reduce toxicity


The Hidden Costs of Toxicity

The effects of prolonged stress on well-being are understood as the high personal cost of a toxic workplace. But employers and co-workers also face costs. Toxic workplaces are often described synonymously with the adage, “one bad apple spoils the lot,” because negativity spreads. And spreads.

Bad apples and their negative impact in the workplace are also well understood. However, these other costs are often overlooked. Yet their total impact can be devastating to an organization. They include:


  • Psychological damage to the well-being of staff which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorders and other long-term conditions that persist even after the employee exits the toxic workplace
  • Those PTO and sick days or extended periods of absence not only underscore how big the work deficit is with that employee’s absence but it also burdens the employer with additional compensation and health insurance costs
  • Distracted leadership team who becomes focused on the bad apple then takes their eye off the work and the rest of the team so that productivity and morale both tank
  • Surveillance costs can go way up to manage the increasing number of incidents related to theft, property damage, and sabotage
  • Personnel costs go way up from the extra recruiting effort and advertising costs to overcome negative reviews on social platforms, the added time that it takes to find and onboard a new hire, plus the higher salaries required to attract that candidate and to retain the existing employees who have been overburdened with the added responsibilities while a co-worker has been out



On the Flipside – Inclusive Workplaces

What makes an inclusive workplace? It is an environment that encourages people to perform without feeling like they must conform to everything, walk on eggshells, or feel left out. In a nutshell, it’s pretty much the opposite of a toxic workplace.

People come from different backgrounds. They may have special needs. Physically and intellectually, they may need accommodations. Culturally and socially, they may come from a background that is completely different from the prevalent norm at the workplace. Their differences should be embraced – not mocked or attacked in any manner.

Social and structural barriers stop people from diverse backgrounds from giving their best. An inclusive workplace dismantles these barriers. But it only becomes inclusive if management wholeheartedly embraces and applies the principles of inclusive leadership. And yes, the staff must conform to company policies that protect employees from harassment in any form or face consequences for non-compliance.


Workplaces are NOT Inclusive

Unfortunately, there are many workplaces that lack inclusivity. Lack of inclusivity results in a toxic environment, compromised performance of the employees, and a lack of diversity which limits individual thought and innovation. Lack of inclusivity is particularly detrimental to the overall growth of the minorities who are part of that organization. Employee training is often lacking and onboarding is particularly poor.

Lack of inclusivity can exist in multiple forms. The workplace may be inaccessible to employees with disabilities. There may be fewer provisions for accommodation for employees with special needs like neurodivergent thinkers who need different environments to be productive. The work environment may be predominated by a single racial or gender profile. There may be unwritten rules that discourage minority employees and employees of color to deliver their best or what they truly want to do because they don’t feel empowered to share their opinion. Listed below are some of the reasons why inclusivity is lacking in some workplaces and totally absent (MIA) in others.

“When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become wiser, more inclusive, and better as an organization.” — Pat Wadors

Lack of Diversity in Leadership

Diversity leads to inclusivity. Diversity often starts at the top. People in the top management or people in the leadership position are in a much better place to initiate organization-wide changes that encourage diversity and inclusivity. They can dismantle barriers without much opposition because they are setting the example. They can facilitate diversity and inclusivity at the policy level then enforce consequences for non-compliance.


Unconscious Bias

We all have our own personal deep-seated thought patterns. These are mental reflexes. We make assumptions and interpretations based on our past experiences and what we learned when we were younger.

That said, unconscious bias isn’t always bad. As homo sapiens was evolving through the millennia, it helped our species use fewer mental resources to make better decisions. For example, fleeing when we see an animal with big teeth. However, in the workplace, unconscious bias gets in the way of treating all individuals equally; it’s a lack of recognition of how people are entitled to be treated. This implicit bias fosters social stereotypes about certain groups of people and you will be surprised to know that it is even more prevalent than conscious bias.



Such aggressions can be conscious or unconscious. Either way, you don’t want to be on the receiving end. These are subtle behaviors that make targeted individuals feel excluded or unwelcome at the workplace. This is done through racial jokes, hostile remarks, mispronouncing names, dead-naming trans people, intentionally devaluing religious or cultural sentiments in the name of “just joking,” not inviting select individuals to social gatherings, or not making provisions for a specific group of people. Forgetting to check if the location of the company’s upcoming summer BBQ is wheelchair accessible isn’t illegal, but it demonstrates a lack of respect and consideration for your disabled staff. And that brings up our next point.


Lack of Accommodation

Such barriers are often faced by persons with disabilities. A workplace may not be wheelchair accessible. Or the restroom stalls will be too small for anyone with a walker to use. Computer systems may not be adequate for people with visual impairment. It may be difficult or dangerous to use elevators and stairs. There may not be a lack of suitable parking spots within a short distance of the entrance to accommodate people coming into work early or leaving late when it’s dark outside.


The Benefits of an Inclusive Workplace

There are social, cultural, and even financial benefits to making your workplace more inclusive. Plus, did we mention that IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO?! DID WE FORGET TO SAY THAT IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO?!

According to a Deloitte study, inclusive workplaces that encourage diversity are 2x more likely to meet or exceed financial targets. They are 8x more likely to achieve better business outcomes. Team performance is typically 17% higher, decision-making quality improves by 20%, and team collaboration increases by 29%.

Is that enough reasons to make your workplace inclusive?

If you need MORE reasons, here we go. A study by Glassdoor showed that companies with a greater level of inclusivity have 21% higher profitability. A McKinsey study found that companies with inclusive and diverse workforces are 33% more likely to outperform other companies. A Harvard Business Review study found that for every 1% increase in gender diversity and inclusivity, there is a 3% increase in financial performance; and for every 1% increase in ethnic diversity and inclusivity, there is a 9% increase in financial performance. Now that you’re hopefully convinced, the big question is, “how do you achieve inclusion?”


3 Tips to Make Your Workplace Inclusive

Education and awareness play a big part in creating an inclusive workplace. In most of the instances, it is just about making your employees aware of the needs of the others; this can be done effectively through training in emotional intelligence and communication. But training should not be a one-and-done: consider periodic refreshers.

Most people don’t want to intentionally make their co-workers uncomfortable, it’s typically that they don’t realize they are doing so. As mentioned above, lack of inclusivity mostly hails from unconscious biases (with “unconscious” being the keyword) and stereotypes that many of us carry around without even realizing it because they have become so ingrained in our culture, in movies, and whatnot. Here are a few things you can do to encourage inclusivity at your workplace.


1- Create Policies

The written word carries more heft – people are more likely to adhere when you circulate guidelines or post them on your office walls. Ready to next level guidelines? Create policies with teeth. That means, there are clear consequences for non-compliance.

Set up a committee and task them to generate a clearly defined policy document. Begin by stipulating how people in the office should be treated and what happens to those who violate the policy. Continue developing the policy to have clear guidelines on how to encourage inclusivity at every organizational level, whether it is the top-level management or people working at the shopfloor. Collect that feedback to inform your policy. Every employee in your organization must be aware of your policy document on inclusivity and, by asking them for input and clearly communicating your progress with the task, they are more likely to buy into it and, eventually, adhere to it once it is formally rolled out with proper training.

The document must carry guidelines on the language to be used and the words to be avoided. Incorporate gender-neutral terminology. It must have reasonable accommodation guidelines for persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. Exhort your employees not to use visuals from diverse cultures and appearances. Avoid defining your employees with the disabilities they have. Stay high level talking about people – not about skin color or size or mobility descriptors. Make the policy document accessible to everyone.


2 – Proactively Incorporate Diversity & Inclusion Everywhere

Start at the top: this will have a trickle-down effect. An inclusive top management is more open to establishing a policy framework that encourages inclusivity at all levels. The leadership team that is inclusive, even if everyone at the top doesn’t understand or agree on the core reasons why it needs to be inclusive, is more tolerant towards people of diverse backgrounds and physical and intellectual needs. Also include inclusivity in your acquisition and hiring strategy.


3 – Conduct Regular Training

Stereotypes and unconscious biases are sometimes deeply ingrained, and we need to educate the workforce at regular intervals. No matter how inclusive your workplace is, people don’t live inside your office. Employee training is critical here. Eventually they go back into a world that might be neither inclusive nor diverse. Regular training and orientation enables them to bring their sensitivity back to the level that is acceptable to your inclusivity guidelines for work.

Organizations like STEERus can help you set up a custom training curriculum that is data-informed by our proprietary behavioral assessments. From there, we can conduct orientation sessions to educate and advise your employees how to contribute to making the workplace less toxic. And we can help you create psychological safety so that your employees feel like they work for an organization that respects people of all backgrounds.

Compliance Risk Assessment Steps. A comprehensive risk assessment will include several steps: identifying hazards, analyzing the level of the risk, determining what actions might be necessary to decrease the risk, implementing initiatives, and evaluating the effectiveness.


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