What a Toxic Workplace Looks Like – and How to Escape

We’re all well-versed on the red flags of a toxic relationship. But could you be trapped in a toxic relationship with your boss – without realising it? Work relationships can feel harder to escape due to contractual bindings, work politics and financial dependence, but trust us, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In today’s blog, we’ll be drawing on our own experiences advising candidates who feel stuck in toxic work situations. First, we will identify what a toxic workplace looks like, and the steps you can take to get the heck out of there!


First things first, let’s call out the ultimate bug bear which bothers countless employees: the classic micromanager. To put it bluntly, micromanagement is the act of closely managing a team – to the extent where employees have little to no working freedom. Many micromanagers mean well, but their actions are detrimental to their team, and ultimately, the company. Not only do they imply that they don’t trust their employees, but this level of intensive control can also make employees feel monitored, and subsequently anxious and uncomfortable! We’ve particularly seen examples of micromanagement within start-ups and small companies (where the company CEO has significant trouble “letting go!”), yet it can also be prominent within larger corporations.

So, what are the key signs that you are being micromanaged by your boss? First, you may notice that they pay close attention to every task you undertake – often being dissatisfied with how it’s carried out, and even redoing it themselves! It may well be the case that you are being trained up in your role, and your employer has every right to express a desire for tasks to be carried out in a certain way. However, there is a distinct difference between healthy, constructive criticism and micromanagement; micromanagement involves an excessive, nit-picky level of overcorrection. 


Micromanagement may also manifest in other ways. For example, does your boss ask for a constant breakdown of your daily tasks, monitoring (and often analysing!) their duration? Again, there is nothing wrong with a manager questioning how long a particular activity takes if it appears suspiciously excessive, but requesting constant reports can feel a tad ‘Big Brother is watching you!’. 

Shifting Goalposts

Another key sign of a toxic workplace is one where goalposts are constantly shifting. At Mason and Dale Recruitment, we work with several candidates who are looking for new employment simply due to the fact that their current job isn’t what was initially advertised. Many employers are guilty of giving false promises: waxing lyrical about a fictional career trajectory that is nowhere to be seen.

What’s more, the term ‘shifting goalposts’ within the workplace doesn’t only refer to career progression – or lack thereof – but also to roles which become less appealing as time goes on, contrary to what was initially advertised. In the aftermath of the pandemic, we’re now living in a day and age which champions flexible working. However, some companies are guilty of jumping on the bandwagon and advertising ‘flexible roles’ – yet slowly but surely reinfiltrating more in-office days and regimented work hours. Did they think employees wouldn’t notice?! 

Unrealistic Expectations

Similarly, expectations for particular roles can rapidly shift. One significant sign of a toxic workplace is one which is fuelled by unrealistic expectations. From impossible deadlines to tasks way outside of your area of expertise, many companies unfortunately pile on expectation after expectation. Whilst this may be a direct result of how good you are at your job, no one should be essentially punished for their own prowess! It is important to voice any issues you may be having with expectations at work, and set clear boundaries about what is realistic and what simply isn’t. 


Unrealistic expectations in the workplace can also take the form of unreasonable requests – “for the good of the company”, or to allegedly prove your dedication. For example, we’ve come across several managers who have no notion of boundaries: emailing employees out of hours, expecting them to be constantly contactable, and to continuously work overtime if need be. We cannot emphasise enough how important your downtime is! Many victims of a toxic workplace find it near impossible to switch off and unplug; if this sounds like you, trust us, the key to a healthy work-life balance is to speak to your HR manager or union, pronto!

(Lack of) Freedom of Expression

As we mentioned earlier, it is important that you feel able to voice any issues you may be facing with your workload – or anything, for that matter. One sure sign that you’re surviving a toxic workplace is the undeniable feeling that you can’t speak up, lest you face the wrath of your boss. A healthy work environment encourages the perspectives of all team members, and believe us, collaboration is at the heart of any successful company!

Unfortunately, there are some team dynamics which discourage the input of those lower down the ranks. If you feel anxious about voicing your opinion on work, or perhaps even your working conditions, then this is a sure-fire red flag.

The Next Steps: Escaping a Toxic Workplace

The first step of confronting a toxic workplace is to arrange a meeting with your company’s HR manager. It is of utmost importance that they are made aware of any issues you are facing, as they will then (hopefully) take steps to enforce change – making life better for both current and future employees. Remember: your voice matters!

If nothing changes in the short-term, and you are still facing any of the above signs of toxic management, you should start thinking about handing in your resignation. We’re well aware that, with the cost of living rocketing sky-high, many employees are apprehensive about waving farewell to their current job, regardless of its toxicity. This is why it is wise to ensure that you have a new position in place before your notice ends – or, at the very least, that you’re deep into the job-hunting process.

Does this all feel a wee bit daunting? You’re not alone. You can enlist the help of a recruitment company like Mason and Dale; recruitment consultants will have your back throughout these uncertain times, and will help you find a role perfectly matched to you. And don’t worry – all the companies we work with are aglow with green flags galore!


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