A toxic job should be avoided at all costs because the longer you are stuck in a stressful, backstabbing or exploitative work culture, the harder it is to escape it.
“Once you start working for a toxic culture, people are reluctant to leave because they think, ‘Well maybe it’s just me,’ or ... ‘Gosh, someone is going to do something about this,’” said Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group and author of “Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.”
Toxic jobs mess with your head. When you see your workplace as a danger zone, you sleep less, stress more and your mental health suffers. “If people stay too long, their self-esteem gets decimated and they don’t think they are good enough to do something else,” Abbajay said.
In fact, bad company management accounts for up to 8% of annual health costs in the U.S. and has been associated with 120,000 excess deaths every year, according to research by Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford University.
That’s why it’s so important to trust your instincts if the vibe at your new job feels off. There are many red flags that a workplace might be toxic that you can spot even on your very first day. Here are some of the earliest signs to watch out for:
1. No one bothers to welcome or include you on your first day.
When you are new, colleagues should make an active effort to make you feel welcomed. If they act like they could not care less about your arrival, that can speak to deeper issues within the organization.
“If people are like, ‘I don’t have time,’ or show an unwillingness to help you learn or introduce you, that’s a warning sign,” Abbajay said. “You can tell when people are stressed. Are they harried, are they curt? That’s not a sign of a healthy work culture.”
Gregory Tall, a workshop facilitator who coaches managers and has over 15 years of experience in human resources, said that this can happen in remote jobs, too. Case in point: If there is no effort to introduce you or give you any advance prep in Zoom calls on your first day, that’s a red flag.
If your new colleagues aren’t welcoming, it might not have anything to do with you personally. It could be a signal that your co-workers are not proud to work at the organization and don’t want to lie about it to you.
“They are not pretending anymore. They are not coming up and saying, ‘We are so excited you are here,’ because they know it sucks and they don’t want to be false to themselves that it’s all good,” Tall said.
2. You witness rude behavior that no one stops ― not even your boss.
If you notice on your first day that it’s normal to belittle colleagues and clients over email or in conversations, that’s a bad sign.
The key difference between a stressful environment and a toxic one is that a toxic job normalizes treating people disrespectfully. “A toxic culture is when the humans in that environment are treated poorly, are dehumanized either through abrasive leadership or gaslighting or through screaming, shouting,” Abbajay said.
You don’t want to linger in these kinds of environments. 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.
“If that kind of public behavior is tolerated, that means it’s a cultural norm,” Abbajay said.
Keep in mind that if it’s your boss who is not stopping bad behavior, that makes the red flag even bigger.
“If you experience anything on the first day... where your manager does not have your back, that is your sign to get the résumé out immediately,” Tall said. “That is supposed to be your number one advocate.”
3. Co-workers are too eager to gossip about colleagues in front of you.
If you are new to your organization and you already have people lined up to trash talk leaders on your team, that’s a bad sign.
A place where people feel free to make accusations about co-workers when they are not in the chat or in the room is a place where office drama matters more than getting work done.
“A culture that allows allows toxic rampant gossip is toxic,” Abbajay said.
4. You learn that no one has stayed longer than a few months.
Ideally, if there is a role or team with high turnover, a recruiter or hiring manager will make that clear to you in the interview process and explain why that is. If you are the third person to hold your role in a year, that shouldn’t be a surprise.
If you find this out on day one and not during your interview process, that’s a sign that the manager purposefully withheld this information, Tall said.
“It’s a big deal to switch jobs … Many people will try to stick it out for a while,” he said. “If you are seeing a lot of folks who are just there for a few months at a time, that indicates they are reaching their decision to move on pretty quickly or it means they are being fired pretty quickly.”
5. The company is proud to show off values they should not be proud of.
When you start a new job, you will be introduced to what the organization really considers important, whether they mean to reveal it or not.
Tall recalled the headquarters of one client, where the company proudly showed its 150 years of history via photos in the atrium.
“I’m going through 150 years and I did not see a single Black person or person of color,” Tall said. “That alone to me speaks volumes. The fact that that is curated, and they are showing that intentionally as a reflection of ‘who we are over the past 150 years’ — to me that is just as bad if it’s intentional or unintentional.”
6. The expectations of the job you interviewed for are radically different in reality.
In a good onboarding process, your manager meets with you early so that you can get aligned on what success means for the role and what your duties are. In a toxic work environment, you may have little clarity on what your role is and find yourself doing work you did not sign up for.
Tall said to watch out for any glaringly different expectations than those you discussed in the interview process, including anything related to salary, work hours, job duties and flexibility options.
“You know when you get that first project request and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what was in the posting I read.’ I think those are early signs you might have gotten into something that is different than what you expected,” Tall said.
It can also be a symptom of an understaffed team that needs new people to fill in for other roles that they might not be equipped to do.
Staying in a job like this can set you up for failure because you will then be evaluated based on duties you don’t have the skills for, Tall said.
7. You finish your first day filled with dread about the next.
There’s a big difference between first-day jitters and dread. How you feel being around the people you will spend thousands of hours with is not something to ignore.
When in doubt about a new job, listen to your gut.
“If you are feeling dread or unhappiness, those are important [emotions] to check into,” Abbajay said. “How do you feel when you are in this organization with those people? We all know that emotions are contagious.”