No, It’s Not You. It Really Is That Bad.

How to tell if you’re toxic or not.

The facepalm is strong with you these days. You can’t survive an afternoon without asking yourself, “Did that really just happen?” Your coworkers refer to your workplace as Elm Street.

The ones you talk to, at least.

Quitting a toxic job is a lot like breaking up with someone — with one important difference. You can remain single after a breakup. But unfortunately, you can’t stay unemployed. Oh, and I guess you don’t have to give a boyfriend a two week notice.

Finding a new job might present a challenge if you’re part of the culture you can’t stand anymore.

Some of the most toxic people I know are the first to complain about a toxic work culture. How ironic. You don’t always smell yourself. Every job has that one nasty, hot mess. But when it feels like you’re steeped in radioactive sludge, it pays to stop and reflect. How do you know you’re not toxic? How do you know it really is that bad, and not just you?

1. You still do favors sometimes.

Selfishness is the hallmark of a toxic colleague. They make everything about them. They only believe in quid pro quo. They’re the first to complain about their workload or low salary.

The most toxic guy I ever worked with clocked out at 4:59 pm every single day. He treated the smallest request like a heavy burden. Start a new pot of coffee? Poor guy, you might as well convince him to climb the Andes. So, nobody was asking him for any favors…

If you’re worried about going toxic, just do one little favor for someone without expecting a thanks. Build from there.

Go a little bit out of your way.

You don’t have to go overboard for everyone, especially if they don’t respect you. But you can still do nice things for anyone who isn’t one of your shitty bosses. Sure, you have to protect your time. You have to draw boundaries. But you also have to help people when they need you. It’s called being a decent, reliable human being or something.

2. You still admit your mistakes.

A toxic person never says, “my bad.” They feel no responsibility. No guilt. No shame. You, on the other hand, know the inevitability of fault. You look at your own actions— even in the most unfair hands.

A toxic person does what one of my friends did a few years ago. She confused her flight times and wound up missing the plane. Spent all day fussing with the airline and fishing for sympathy on Facebook.

Imagine if she’d just said, “Wow, I fucked that up.”

You don’t have to broadcast your faults. But you at least have to admit them to yourself. In my friend’s case, she kept making dumb mistakes because she never owned them.

Victims happen. But victims eventually turn themselves into survivors. If you’re working on that, then you’re probably not toxic.

3. You try to cut people some slack.

We all screw up. You don’t want to hang anyone. You just want them to do their job. Own their mistakes. And fix them. Then you want to move on. Sometimes letting things slide is the most efficient way to get things done. Arguments poison progress.

Giving someone a break doesn’t make you a pushover.

It makes you effective.

If you’re worried you might be going toxic, then make a point of going easy on someone.

You might reach a point where you can’t work with someone anymore, or even several people. That’s when you sign off. A toxic person will just stand in the wastewater and splash around. Not you. You’re gone. You cut people slack, but you also don’t waste time on the ineffective.

4. You still check yourself.

Maybe things are going to hell. Venting helps, but you’re not tweeting every little snafu.

If you feel infected by toxic waste, then keep tabs on how much you complain. Try holding back just a little. Maybe don’t voice absolutely everything you can’t stand about Tina.

Concentrate on the worst stuff. The stuff that’s tanking your company. Who cares if she smacks her gum? Well, it’s irritating. But you can solve that problem with headphones.

5. You actually like people.

Remember your friends? You actually have some.

Toxic people tend to alienate everyone around them. They can’t feel their own internal glitches, so they project them on anyone else. Eventually, they’ll even turn on their allies. Recently, one guy I work with started berating me for checking my phone in the elevator.

Just the other day, he’d been complaining in my office about someone else. One action transformed me from confidant to adversary.

Remember, you like people. Maybe you like most of them from a distance. But that’s better than nothing.

6. You can joke about your job.

Laughter can dissolve the worst crisis. At least for five minutes. When you vent, you probably pause to appreciate the irony of a situation. You might make a sarcastic remark. That’s healthy.

What’s not? Well, threatening violence against someone usually doesn’t go over so well. I’ve got some real idiot bosses, and I like making fun of them with my coworkers. We have a blast.

A toxic person goes a little too far. They’ll joke about setting the president’s house on fire with him inside. And you’ll be sitting there with your wine thinking wow, that sure got dark…

A healthy person doesn’t want to see their boss burned alive. However, you do like the idea of them working the drive-thru at Chick-Fil-A. In fact, you find this image highly satisfying.

7. You don’t give up, just refocus.

There’s quitting. And there’s being a quitter. A quitter makes a habit out of it. They’ve got a long list of unfinished projects — complete with detailed explanations of what went wrong.

One of my colleagues keeps a list of conferences on her CV that she didn’t attend because she couldn’t get funding.

She thinks she’s embarrassing her institution. Well, she’s definitely embarrassing someone all right.

If you really want to do something, then setbacks don’t matter. You might have to work harder than you should. Do things you shouldn’t have to. Pay for things your company should. If they’re important enough, you do them anyway. They might help you level up.

Nobody has time to fixate on what they can’t do because someone else won’t let them. That’s toxic talk at its finest.

It’s fine to realize when your efforts aren’t getting you anywhere. It’s fine to walk away from a project that’s just not gaining any traction. And it’s fine to cut someone loose when you can’t rely on them. You’re not getting high off self-pity because your life sucks. You’re putting your time and attention on something worthwhile.

8. You punch your way out.

Or die trying. It’s always possible you’ve wound up in a dysfunctional workplace. One mired in toxic cesspools.

How do we know we’re not causing the problem? Well, everyone I get along with is working on an exit strategy right now. We’re not about to drown in poison. That’s what effective people tend to do when they finally realize it really is that bad. They don’t tread. They swim.

Who’s going to be left when we’ve all found another shore?

The toxic folks. The ones who did nothing but shoot toxic waste at each other. I’m watching it now at my job. It’s kinda like a game paintball, except with flesh-eating pellets.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store