What are the signs of a toxic workplace?

You may be aware that your work environment is unpleasant and also of harassment, bullying or discrimination which are just some indicators of a toxic workplace.

    Is your workplace toxic?

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    A toxic workplace may lead to your being unfairly dismissed or to constructive dismissal, as well as discrimination and harassment.

    However, not everyone will be able to identify what’s wrong in their workplace and so will be unable to take any action to put matters right.

    We outline what toxicity in the workplace is, discuss how you can spot it, what laws are in place to protect you and what you can do if you are working in a harmful environment.

    See also our guides on constructive dismissal, unfair dismissal, discrimination at work and bullying and harassment for further detail.

    Are you the victim of a toxic workplace?

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    What is a toxic workplace?

    A toxic workplace is an environment that has an unpleasant and hostile atmosphere that makes it difficult to work in.

    In practice, it can mean such acts as you and/or other employees getting cold-shouldered, undermined or ostracised by colleagues, or even worse, subjected to bullying or harassment and various other forms of discrimination.

    Working in a toxic workplace can adversely affect your ability to perform well and also your mental health. It can have repercussions extending into your personal life.

    It may make your working life so intolerable that you resign, without realising that you may have a claim for constructive dismissal in those circumstances.


    How do you identify a toxic workplace?

    Workplace toxicity can be experienced in several forms, whether it’s in-person, over the phone or a video link, or in writing. It can also extend to social or other events that are attended by workplace colleagues, but that take place outside the workplace.

    Not everyone notices workplace toxicity, as one person’s tolerance may be higher than someone else’s. For example, a joke, gesture or physical action may have a negative effect on you, while another colleague may not have the same reaction.

    In general terms, if you’re working in a toxic environment, you will be worried about speaking up about the unpleasant behaviour you’re witnessing or being subjected to.

    There is often a lot of unspoken tension that exists throughout the working day. Unprofessional behaviour can be displayed out in the open, without the perpetrators being afraid of anyone stepping in to stop or prevent it from occurring.


    Are there any UK laws against workplace toxicity?

    There are strict laws in place when it comes to discrimination in the workplace. However, the existence of these laws does not always prevent people from being discriminated against or bullied.

    Discrimination law

    In discrimination law (namely the Equality Act 2010) individuals are protected from ill-treatment at work if it’s because of specific ‘characteristics’ that they have, including such attributes as their sex, race, age, disability, sexual orientation and whether or not they are pregnant or have recently given birth. (See the full list in our discrimination guide.)

    For example, picking on someone or treating them badly because of their race or because they are gay, is discriminatory.

    The same laws also protect individuals again being harassed at work. Harassment includes such treatment as sexual harassment, which can be anything from physical abuse and unwanted sexual advances to indecent exposure, leering and more.

    Some forms of bullying and verbal abuse – both in the real world and in digital spaces can also be classed as harassment.

    For example, continually making someone the butt of offensive jokes, ‘banter’ and comments, using derogatory terms, or any other behaviour that is intended to make the other person feel inferior.

    It also doesn’t have to necessarily be a pattern of behaviour: a single significant incident can also be viewed as harassment.


    Bullying is not legally defined and doesn’t come under the discrimination laws outlined above. It can sometimes be classed as harassment if it’s related to any of the protected characteristics mentioned above.

    Bullying can be described as behaviour that:

    • Intimidates, offends, insults or is deemed malicious
    • Abuses or misuses power to cause physical or emotional harm to others

    It can be a one-off incident or a regular pattern or behaviour and can also contribute towards constructive dismissal. See also our guide on bullying and harassment for more.


    Who is responsible for a toxic workplace?

    While employees must take responsibility for their own actions – especially in the way they interact with others – employers also have a big responsibility to identify and address any signs of toxicity that may appear in the workplace.

    Discrimination, harassment and bullying can occur in a variety of ways and an employer could be viewed as being ’vicariously liable’ for allowing these types of behaviours to develop and fester in the workplace.

    Employers have a duty of care towards their employees, contractors, self-employed and job applicants and must ensure that their well-being is maintained wherever possible.


    What can you do if your workplace is toxic?

    If you recognise you are in a toxic workplace, understandably you may be tempted to leave and look for another job elsewhere.

    But very few people can afford to leave their current role without first having a new job lined up, which means you need to find some temporary solutions. Some ideas you can try include:

    Find like-minded colleagues

    It can feel isolating working in a toxic workplace, but there will probably be others who feel the same way as you do. Try to build friendships with colleagues so you can look out for each other and offer moral support.

    Improve your work-life balance

    Try not to let work dominate your life. Take up a new hobby, go to the gym or do things that can help you de-stress and enjoy the hours you have outside of the work environment.

    Make a note of any issues

    If you want to raise a complaint with HR, it’s a good idea to build up evidence of any issues that you want to address.

    This includes emails, conversations, phone calls and meetings. Evidence can really help especially if you are dissatisfied with the outcome of the complaint.

    Plan your next steps

    You may only be able to bear working in a toxic environment for a short while, so you should start planning what to do next.

    Try to secure a new job before you do anything drastic like resigning.

    If you have been harassed or discriminated against, you may want to consider taking matters further by negotiating a settlement agreement, or – as a last resort – by going to an employment tribunal.

    If you decide to negotiate a settlement agreement, it is always advisable to seek independent legal advice before you start. This ensures you get professional advice about your case and can maximise the amount you could receive from your employer.


    Next steps

    If you have been working in a toxic workplace and subjected to bullying, harassment, discrimination or any other form of harmful behaviour by your employer or a colleague, Monaco Solicitors are here to help.

    We are specialists in employment law and have helped thousands of people to negotiate favourable settlement agreement terms with a fair payout. Or, if there is no alternative, we can help you take your case to an employment tribunal.

    To find out whether we can help you with your case, contact us:

    • Via this link
    • Phone: 020 7717 5259
    • Email: communications@monacosolicitors.co.uk