When you are the new person on a team, it can be hard to tell if your boss’s rude, brusque behavior is the result of a bad day or if they have a toxic reputation for creating an environment of fear and anxiety for their employees.
A difficult boss who is micromanaging can be reasoned with. But a toxic boss who lacks empathy can wreck your physical and mental health, causing you to lose sleep and dread each workday.
Sometimes, you may not be able to spot toxic behavior right away, but other times it is possible to identify a toxic boss who will drive you out and make your work life hell.
Here are some of the biggest warning signs that the friendly boss you met in a job interview may have a toxic side:
1. Your boss is quick to bad-mouth the person you just replaced
Angela Karachristos, a career coach who has worked in human resources, says one subtle sign new employees can notice is when their new boss bad-mouths the team members who have left.
“If you’re new and your new boss is still hung up on why someone left, and is still taking it personally, that’s one sign that you can spot early on,” Karachristos says. It brings “to light that the manager doesn’t separate their personal feelings about an employee from the work that they did or [the employee’s] own need to move on.”
The public bad-mouthing is also passive-aggressive because it signals “that behavior is unacceptable” without telling you directly, Karachristos says. “They are not telling you what their expectations are, but they are using the past employee as an example.”
2. Your boss will congratulate themselves, but will not praise anyone else
One way to suss out toxic boss behavior is to see how hard work and team wins get rewarded. Do you get a thoughtful message of support after completing a big project, or do you get radio silence?
If you are noticing that your boss says nothing when you win but makes a big deal about their own accomplishments, that’s a worrying red flag of potential toxicity.
One type of toxic boss is a narcissistic boss. “These are individuals who are basically incapable of caring for others or showing genuine interest in those working for them. Instead, they tend to be disconnected from others,” says Alan Cavaiola, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Impossible to Please: How to Deal With Perfectionist Coworkers, Controlling Spouses, and Other Incredibly Critical People. “The narcissists will expect praise and adulation from others but are unable to give it to deserving staff.”
3. Your boss keeps ignoring you
Mykola Sosiukin / EyeEm via Getty Images
One of the worst kinds of bosses is the one that ignores you.
Be on guard if you notice that your new boss skips one-on-one meetings and does not show interest in helping you, even though you are their new team member.
If you feel as if you hardly exist to your boss, that’s a sign of potential toxicity, says Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.
Under this kind of boss, “you feel you constantly have to get their attention to provide feedback. Their door is often closed and conversations are rare,” Taylor says. “You are led to believe they’re just busy, but then you realize that they lack motivational managerial skills to say the least.”
Taylor says you may encounter this challenging behavior subtly or blatantly. “When you’re in a new job, it takes some time to process whether this is just a bad week for your boss, or their default behavior,” she says.
4. Your boss only cares about whether you complete a deadline and doesn’t give feedback on how you can grow
Toxic bosses prioritize output over your input. If your boss has a “get it done” mentality, that could be a toxic red flag, says career coach Jasmine Escalera.
“It should be our boss’s job to be thoughtful about how we can work best, what we need to get our jobs done, and how we can truly grow within our roles and throughout the company,” she says. “Toxic bosses are all about getting work done, but do not focus on your own needs for development and work that taps into your strengths and skills.”
A good boss is one that communicates goals and is willing to have difficult conversations with their staff. “Essentially a manager who has no conflict resolution skills will more than likely turn out to be toxic and won’t have a psychologically safe working environment for their team,” says Minda Harts, founder of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of colour.
5. Your boss changes their mind all the time without regard to the stress this causes to the team
A hallmark of a toxic boss is a lack of empathy. A good boss is mindful of the time and energy staff are putting in to meet their expectations.
But a toxic boss is willing to change their mind at a moment’s notice, without any regard for the team’s energy or stress levels. “They get very hyper-focused on one thing,” Karachristos says. “It becomes the sole focus of everybody’s attention. There’s not a clear plan, but it’s all hands on deck, [but then] all of a sudden it’s not anymore. This changing-mind situation can be very dangerous because you are setting people up to fail.”
“That can cause a lot of anxiety on the team because you don’t know what is expected,” Karachristos continues. “The first time you might be OK with it, but if it becomes a pattern, then you are always on edge because you are not sure what you are supposed to be doing.”
“You wonder if it’s you — as this is a new job. You had chalked it up to your boss having a bad day, but now you’re seeing a pattern.”
– Lynn Taylor, workplace expert
6. Your new co-workers act totally differently around your boss
It’s normal for us to act more formally around our managers than around our peers. But if you notice a chilling pallor cast over staff when the boss enters a room, that’s a warning sign to watch out for.
“If you notice that together the team talks freely and openly about problems and issues and whatever they are working on, but then when the boss is present, the conversations are much more cautious, or measured, or things are not brought to light out of fear that the boss is going to react in some way,” that’s a warning sign, Karachristos says.
Colleagues being unwilling to share any thoughts about your boss is a sign, too. “In the beginning, other colleagues will avoid chatting about the boss, raising your suspicions that they, too, are having similar issues,” Taylor says.
7. You notice the boss shows favoritism to certain team members
If you realize your boss has a team favourite, that’s a troubling toxic sign of a boss putting their own personal biases ahead of shared professional goals.
Taylor shared an example: “When you were interviewed, you liked the projects slated for you. But now your challenging boss is suddenly giving them to the proverbial ‘teacher’s pet,’ and you’re often the last to know.”
A boss with favorites may also have colleagues they consider enemies. Watch out for the vague, subjective feedback these bosses give that is based on someone’s personal attributes rather than on their ability to do the job well.
“I had one manager who kept referring to everything in vibes. ‘I don’t know, this employee gives me bad vibes.’ That’s so bad. That’s not quantifiable. It’s really meaningless,” Karachristos says.
8. Your boss puts you on edge and makes you scared to speak up
Ultimately, one of the biggest signs that you are dealing with a toxic boss is how badly they are making you feel. If you start dreading the workday and you’re only a few weeks in, that’s not a feeling to ignore.
Under a toxic boss, “you don’t know when and where your manager will say or do something hurtful, so you’re in a constant state of the unknown,” Taylor says. “You wonder if it’s you — as this is a new job. You had chalked it up to your boss having a bad day, but now you’re seeing a pattern.”
Because toxic manager behavior can be subtle or easy to explain away, it can be easier to notice changes in your own behavior around them, says Lara Hogan, author of Resilient Management.
“Are you speaking up significantly less in team meetings that they’re leading? Are you holding back from sharing information with them for fear of retaliation? Are you starting to choose your words extremely carefully around them? Are you avoiding being in a room or calling alone with your manager?” Hogan says. “These are all potential signals to you that your manager’s behavior might be having a significantly negative impact on you.”