How to survive a toxic workplace

Jul 22 2013 by Linnda Durrée Print This Article

Is your workplace toxic? What about your boss or your co-workers? How do you know? Answer the following questions about your bosses and co-workers to see if you're caught in a toxic workplace.

  • Do you hate going to work every day?
  • Are you doing the work of two or more people but paid one salary?
  • Do you get little or no appreciation?
  • Is someone yelling at you or others?
  • Have you asked for help but nothing changes?
  • Have you been asked to lie for someone and then got blamed?
  • Have you been asked to falsify reports?
  • Have you been sexually harassed?
  • Have you been discriminated against because of race, gender, age, religion, or sexual preference
  • Has there ever been workplace violence or has anyone been threatened or assaulted?

If you answered yes to just one of these questions, you are working in a toxic workplace, which happens because people in positions of authority operate through abuse of power, ego, distrust, paranoia, cruelty, unfairness, inequality, pressure, greed, ruthless ambition and disrespect that negatively affects everyone around them. We each have the capability for good OR evil. Toxic people and organizations make negative and dysfunctional choices.

You need to be assertive, use proven communication techniques and refer to existing laws and guidelines to transform a toxic workplace. If that doesn't work, find a healthy company to work for that is built on truth, honesty, cooperation and open communication.

But before you quit or get fired, deal with the person directly. Here's an example:


Paula is Passive Aggressive, which means she does aggressive, nasty acts in a passive manner. For example, she doesn't tell you about an important call or that your crucial FedEx package arrived, so you walk into a critical meeting unprepared. Her behavior is sneaky, devious and deliberate, but she pretends she "forgot", insisting that she is innocent. She will plot, getting you at your most vulnerable, usually at the worst time and in front of people you want to impress.


Paula harbors rage and anger inside and probably had controlling, rigid, and/or self righteous parents who told her that anger wasn't "nice" or "ladylike", a view that could have been reinforced by her teachers, religion, and friends. Passive aggressiveness is Paula's way to thwart, resist and defy the power and/or control she perceives you have over her. She may also be envious and vengeful because she feels she was passed over for the job you have.


You must gently and directly confront Paula to let her know you are hip to her tricks because she thinks she's duping you. Paula will deny that she did it, refute that she's angry and pretend everything is fine. She is emotionally dishonest.

Call a "process shot" by describing her behavior and give her examples. Document everything with emails, phone logs, letters, and show the proof to Paula when necessary. Keep a separate copy somewhere safe.

Practice what psychologist Carl Rogers' called " Active Listening" with her when she talks to you, paraphrasing her statements and feelings back to her, so she knows you understand her and what she is saying. This technique will make her feel emotionally safer and help her to become more open with you.

Encourage Paula that you'd prefer her to voice her discontent directly to you privately without repercussions rather than sabotage you, which may be scary for her if she believes that being honest about her feelings is rude or unladylike. Critically, though, if she does start to open up and you yell, snap or get defensive, she will shut down and feel betrayed and angry. That's like throwing gasoline on a fire. Be understanding but firm. Encourage her to read books about and take courses in assertiveness training to help her.

A great book abour passive-aggression is Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression by Scott Wetzler, Ph.D. Whether it's a man or a woman doing it deliberately or unconsciously, this book can help.

Start out with a compliment, give Paula the feedback (I never call it criticism), describe how you want it corrected, and end with a compliment. Edit this speech to your needs and say:

"Paula, I know that you're a very competent person and I appreciate that about you. Although you deny that anything is wrong, I experience you as being very passive aggressive – which means you do nasty things in a passive manner - it feels like revenge or sabotage, like with the FedEx package.

I don't know what I've done to offend you, yet I'm punished for it. Please tell me and let's talk honestly. Perhaps your parents told you that being angry wasn't 'ladylike' or 'nice.' You can voice your irritation with me in an honest, direct way, privately without repercussions. I recommend you take courses in assertiveness training and read books about it. I'd like to work cooperatively with you because you're a competent person. I hope we can work well together based on honesty and openness. I'd like to hear your response now."

If that doesn't work, here are other options:

1. Ask for a change to another department and/or boss.

2. Get an attorney to write a letter to your boss, HR, and the legal department, stating if the situation doesn't change, you will file a law suit for hostile work environment, sexual harassment, unsafe conditions, etc. Companies hate law suits and bad publicity and will comply.

If that fails, file the law suit. Witnesses and co-workers may come forward when someone else courageously filed first. Then you may turn it into a class action suit.

3. You can even take the issue to the Supreme Court. There have been several precedent-setting employment law cases that positively changed working conditions.

4. Contact the local and/or national media – investigative reporters, TV and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and the Internet – who do "Problem Solvers" or "Crime Busters" exposes.

And if that doesn't work, it's time to look for a good company that respects its workers.

About The Author

Linnda Durrée
Linnda Durrée

Linnda Durrée Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, business consultant, trainer, speaker and columnist. She is the author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace (McGraw Hill, 2010), a first-aid manual with treatments for every type of toxic workplace infection.