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How to spot a toxic workplace before accepting a job offer

The excitement of starting a new job can quickly subside once signs emerge that the workplace culture is toxic. Sara McCullough recalls the excitement and anticipation she felt about a job she was looking forward to starting.
Sara McCullough, a certified financial planner, says it is important to plan an exit when quitting a toxic workplace. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Shawn Simpson, SWS Photography **MANDATORY CREDIT**

The excitement of starting a new job can quickly subside once signs emerge that the workplace culture is toxic.

Sara McCullough recalls the excitement and anticipation she felt about a job she was looking forward to starting. However, she says that feeling faded and turned to dismay as time went on.

The number of issues in the workplace piled up, but the final straw came when her manager said she wasn't meeting her weekly goals despite working long hours. During a discussion about her performance, she learned she was being judged on goals that were double what could be realistically achieved in a week. Discussions with colleagues revealed many of them were also underperforming against what they saw as unrealistic goals.

"I thought, 'Well, that's weird."

McCullough says when she pointed out the goals were unattainable, the manager dismissed her concerns by blaming the system, while she didn't find the human resources department helpful.

"(The company) would support a, kind of, either consistent or occasional toxic behaviour from people in the system," said McCullough, who is now an entrepreneur, of the workplace.

"It really was very hard," McCullough recalled, as she navigated her departure from the company. "I came out of it really disoriented in a lot of ways."

Feelings that your views don't matter, receiving pushback on ideas, hearing gossip or rumours, bullying and unbearable workloads are some of the signs of a toxic environment, says Nainesh Kotak, founder of Kotak Law.

Kotak, who deals with disability claims caused by toxic work environments, says he has seen new or worsened anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder from clients whose workplace conflicts become overwhelming.

"Maybe they've had some sort of trauma in the past, whether it be with their family, the childhood, but they're getting along," Kotak says. "They're able to participate in the workforce and work, but then they run into that toxic environment at the workplace and it triggers all their history."

Most of the complaints Kotak sees include a mental health component but toxic workplaces can also have physical consequences such as headaches and high blood pressure, which can disrupt day-to-day life and productivity, he says.

Experts say the situation can be avoided well before showing up for your first day if you look closely for red flags.

Laura Hambley, a registered psychologist and founder of Canada Career Counselling, suggests scrutinizing the company's hiring process.

"If they interrupt you, if they talk over you and they don't listen when you're in an interview," she says, it might indicate broader problems. Employers that boast about being a family at work or dominate the interview should also ring alarm bells, Hambley added.

"That's a bad sign."

Other things to look out for are when employers disrespect the candidate's time by showing up late, requesting interviews at odd hours or laying out unfair expectations even before the employee reports to the new job, she added.

"Those kinds of things are the warning signs of not respecting boundaries, which is a sign of a toxic boss," she said.

Hambley suggests connecting with former workers of the company on LinkedIn and asking honest questions about what their experience there was like. A simple internet search might turn up a red flag. Other warning signs include a history of conflict and high employee turnover.

"If you already have a hesitation or a concern, it can be proof that you need to run," Hambley said.

Despite taking precautions, it is hard to tell ahead of time if the job is going to turn into a traumatic experience.

But she suggests not waiting too long in the job, "Act soon before your confidence wanes too much and you feel really, really stuck."

If signs of a toxic workplace appear, Hambley said people should consider talking to a therapist or a career counsellor to figure out a wellness plan and work on restoring confidence and the ability to think clearly.

Kotak said there are several remedies for an employee struggling in an unhealthy workplace. He suggests documenting the incidents — if the worker was yelled at, called names, or discriminated against. Don't forget to write the dates, location and names of people involved.

The next step is to notify the manager.

But the situation gets more complicated when managers are the source of hostility. That's when it should be brought up with HR.

If nothing can be done internally, Kotak suggests going to a human rights tribunal or a lawyer. Sick leave might be another option to consider.

Leaving a toxic job without a new job lined up is a tug of war between financial health and mental health.

McCullough, a certified financial planner, said planning your exit ahead of time can help with the financial stress. First, she says to take stock of fixed expenses, including housing, utilities and recurring bills. Then, look at the expenses that can be controlled.

She added it is important to know the baseline for your fixed costs and how much income you'll need to get by on. "It puts you in a stronger position when you are looking for a job," she said.

When a person knows the bottom line of their cost of living, it helps buy more time to pick a job they would like and save from going into another toxic place.

It's important to know when to leave, Hambley said. Often, people stay longer in a job than they should, expecting things to get better. Instead, it depletes them more.

"Don't stay long. If you can get out, get out," Hambley said.

"You have options. You can stay, you can quit, you can take leave," she added. "Once people realize that they have different options, that makes it easier to figure out a path forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

Ritika Dubey, The Canadian Press