Career Coaching

Recognising and Steering Clear of Toxic Workplaces

By: Jon Hazelton


Have you ever had a gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right about a company's environment right from the interview but brushed it aside? It’s a well-researched fact that a toxic work culture can wreak havoc on your health. 

The Oxford dictionary defines toxic as: 

A toxic environment is characterised by negativity, dysfunction, and a lack of trust. This can manifest in a number of ways, including bullying, exclusion or isolation, unrealistic work demands, harassment, and discrimination. This can also manifest as: 



Australians have reported a variety of toxic traits in their workplaces, from sexual harassment, cited by 25% of women and 14% of men in a 2020 Australian Human Rights Commission study, to high levels of psychological distress related to workplace stressors.

One study conducted by the University of South Australia found that toxic workplaces can lead to increased levels of psychological distress, creating burnout, and turnover intentions. 

Another study by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that workplace bullying, and harassment can have severe consequences, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

And yet another study by the University of Melbourne revealed that toxic work environments have a significant impact on employees' physical health, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and other chronic health conditions.  These studies highlight the importance of addressing toxicity in the workplace not only for mental well-being but also for our overall health.


It's crucial to recognise any indicators of a toxic workplace early in the interview process to protect your professional and personal well-being. Recognising these indicators when you're already part of the workforce can be straightforward, but what about during the job hunt? How do you spot the red flags before signing on the dotted line?

1) A dodgy interview experience

Reflect on your past job applications – did you ever notice that the interview environment often echoes the company's culture? Disrespect, disorganisation, or impoliteness at interview can be tell-tale signs of toxicity. Also, a sloppy communication process or disrespect for your time should have your alarm bells ringing.

Also notice how interviewers handle conversations about the company's values and expectations. If you're getting vague or pie-in-the-sky responses, consider that a warning sign and dig deeper.  An interview is as much your process as theirs.


2) Reading between the lines of what employees say—and don't

Getting a clear picture on a company can take a bit of sleuthing. Platforms like Glassdoor often contain reviews from current or past employees which can hint at a toxic culture, reporting negative experiences such as favouritism and overwhelming workloads that lead to burnout.

When you’re in the interview, don't shy away from asking the hard questions about culture, turnover rates, and work-life balance. You may want to ask “How do you find working here?, as then they will answer from first person. Keep your ear to the ground for coded language or avoidance, which can speak volumes about the reality of working there. For instance, a statement like "employees are encouraged to manage their own careers" might imply a lack of structured career support. Asking for specific examples or elaboration on such statements can provide valuable insight into the company's culture and values.

Additionally, pay attention to what employees don't say. If they are hesitant to share their experiences or only offer vague responses, it could be a sign of a toxic work environment where employees are afraid to speak up or voice their concerns. 

3) The great exodus: High turnover rates

A clear indicator of a toxic environment is the revolving door phenomenon. If most of the team acquired their position recently, ask yourself why. While some turnover is natural or could indicate growth, a constant stream of vacancies might point to a deeper problem. Don't be shy about asking why the position opened up. If it's because of employee churn, you might want to think twice.

Trust your gut during the interview—if stress is already setting in, it might be a red flag. Remember, an interview is a two-way street. It's as much an opportunity for you to assess the employer as it is for them to assess you. Making a well-informed decision can steer you towards a career that’s not just rewarding but healthy too.

Some tips to determine if the culture is toxic 

Remember, a company that values transparency and the well-being of its employees will welcome these questions as a sign of an informed and proactive candidate. 

A good interview is not the one where get chosen for the role.  A good interview is where you come to a mutually agreed decision as to whether or not to proceed.

To download a full list of interview questions that can help to determine a toxic culture,click here. Toxic Workplace Interview Questions.pdf

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