How To Survive Working In A Toxic Workplace

Not all workplaces are created equal. Throughout your career, you’ll most likely work in great environments and not-so-great ones. Here are a few tips to survive when you find yourself in a toxic workplace.

By Ella Carroll-Smith4 min read
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You did it. You got the job, you’re putting in the hours and working hard, but it still feels like nothing is going right. Maybe your boss nit-picks every little thing you do and fails to give you praise even when you do a great job. Maybe a fellow co-worker is bullying you or bringing nothing but negativity to the table. Maybe the problem is even larger than that and the entire company is struggling with issues like high turnover, low-quality work, and a steep decline in employee morale. 

The phrase “company culture” is getting a lot of airtime these days, and for good reason. Companies with an uplifting, fun, and supportive company culture – where their employees don’t dread coming into work every day – are much more enjoyable to work in and typically produce better quality work overall. It’s difficult to care about what you do when it feels like your company doesn’t care about you

While there are a lot of things you can do to get ahead in the workplace, there are some factors that are outside your control, and a toxic work environment (assuming you’re not the one making it toxic) can be one of those factors. This is especially true when the people making it toxic are higher up the corporate food chain than you are. You can’t exactly waltz into the Senior VP’s office and tell her to stop being such a control freak. 

Well, you could try that approach, but it’s pretty risky and would more than likely get you fired. Depending on just how toxic your work environment is, maybe getting fired would feel like a relief. It’s always easier to find a new job when you already have a job though, so assuming you don’t want to get fired, here are a few strategies to employ when you find yourself stuck in a toxic workplace:

Focus on What You Can Control

Depending on your position within the organization, you might not be able to change the broader environment around you, so don’t try to. Instead, focus on your team and create a microcosm of positivity wherever you can. Maybe you introduce a bit of light-heartedness into your morning huddle with a “dad joke of the day” or start a #mememonday Slack channel so you can all head into the week with a good laugh.  

Create a microcosm of positivity wherever you can.

You could invite everyone to eat lunch together out of the office, somewhere you can all relax and take your mind off of what’s stressing you out. While you’re out at lunch with your co-workers, it might be tempting to gossip about all of the shenanigans going on back at the office, but try not to give in to that urge. Gossip tends to run through the workplace like wildfire and this is even truer in toxic environments. After all, nothing brings co-workers together like the mutual hatred of another co-worker. 

Avoid Venting and Gossiping 

We all need to vent sometimes, but constantly doing so to your co-workers might actually be dragging everyone down even further. Even if there are things to gossip about, try turning the conversation away from workplace drama and focus on the positive instead. Did you have a recent project that went well? Tell your team what a great job they did and talk about how you can take the things you learned and implement them into projects in the future. 

Or, don’t talk about work at all! Ask your co-workers about the things going on in their personal lives. Did someone recently get a dog or buy a house or go on vacation? Ask them about that instead. Recognize that everyone you work with is a human first and an employee second. They’d probably much rather tell you about their recent trip to Costa Rica than re-hash whatever annoying thing your COO said at yesterday’s meeting.

Instead of focusing on the negativity surrounding you, attempt to create the type of environment you want to work in. Do you wish your company held more community-building events? Then spearhead that initiative yourself! Arrange an after-work happy hour or sports bracket or weekend picnic. Whatever you find yourself yearning for in your current work environment, take some initiative and try to build it yourself. 

Advocate for Yourself 

We are living in one of the most competitive job markets in recent memory. There has never been a better time to negotiate a raise and/or better work arrangements for yourself. If you believe you deserve more money or the opportunity to work from home, then ask for it. Don’t just walk into your boss’s office and demand more money though. Come up with a strategy first and know when it’s the right time to ask. If you just got a raise a few months ago, then now might not be the right time, but if it has been over a year since your last pay bump, it can’t hurt to ask for more.

Do some research and find out what other people in your field make. How does your current salary compare with the industry average? Don’t frame your position as “here’s why I need a raise” but rather “here’s why I deserve a raise.” Compile a list of your most recent accomplishments so that you have evidence to back up your argument and most importantly: be confident. 

Whatever you find yourself yearning for in your current work environment, try to build it yourself.

The confidence factor is often the hardest part of asking for a raise, especially for women. We typically don’t advocate for ourselves in the workplace the way men do, so take a page out of real estate mogul and Shark Tank star Barbara Corcoran’s playbook and think like a man. Do your research, come up with a plan, set the meeting with your boss, and make your case. The worst thing that can happen is they say no, and if that does happen, then perhaps it is time to move on. 

Know When It’s Time To Go

If you’ve done everything to get ahead in your current position but you’re still failing to thrive due to circumstances outside your control, then consider whether it really is time to move on. No one should have to suffer at work. I’m not saying you should expect work to be 100% enjoyable all of the time (it's called “work” for a reason). There are always aspects of our jobs that we dislike, but you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by negativity and pessimism all the time. 

As I said earlier: it’s much easier to find a new job when you already have a job, so start searching for a new job now. Use what you’ve learned in your current position to your advantage, refresh your resume, and position yourself competitively in the marketplace. Let your friends know that you’re looking and connect with old co-workers or schoolmates who work in fields similar to the one you’re interested in. Reach out to a recruiter or adjust your LinkedIn settings so that they can reach out to you. 

Lastly, be patient. Applying to new jobs can be time-consuming and wearisome, especially if you’ve applied for a bunch of roles and heard nothing back. Keep going though, and when you eventually do find that new job, try to leave your current job on a positive note. You might have hated working there and be tempted to tell your boss off on the way out, but it’s always best not to burn a professional bridge. 

Closing Thoughts 

Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is true in places even where it feels like you have no power to change anything. If you start the move towards positivity, other people are likely to follow in your footsteps. So start small and build some camaraderie at work, even if it’s just with one person. You’re never quite as alone as you think you are. 

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