9 Signs of a Toxic Boss – Are You Being Poisoned?

toxic boss

We all have toxic tendencies, some of us more than others. That goes for employees, interns, managers — and bosses. Being toxic can mean many things, but it’s ultimately a behavior that poisons the environment and those around you (metaphorically, of course). It’s detrimental to employee morale, company culture, relationships in business, and can even take down a company if not addressed.

Think you might be working for a toxic boss? Here are some of the biggest red flags he or she might be waving in your face.

Warning Signs of a Toxic Boss

1. Passive Aggressive

Being passive aggressive is a staple for toxic people. But when your boss has this trait it’s even worse. Maybe they leave “helpful” signs in the break room reminding everyone to not heat up some monstrosity of a tuna-egg salad sandwich for lunch. Everyone knows the boss is targeting the one employee who eats that particular sandwich. But instead of going directly to the source, your boss publicly shames them without confronting them privately.

2. Micro Managing

Unfortunately, sometimes bosses are genuinely trying to be helpful when they micro manage every aspect of the company (or a particular employee’s duties). However, what they’re really saying, and perhaps thinking, is that nobody can possibly do as great a job as them. They’re also letting employees know that they don’t trust them and don’t think they’re capable of the task at hand.

3. You’re Supposed to be a Mind Reader

A boss is supposed to be a leader and leaders are clear communicators. If your boss consistently fails to provide directions, feedback, and encourage you to ask questions, they’re not trusting you. They’re expecting you to read their minds. Do they get frustrated or angry when you don’t deliver because you didn’t guess their wishes correctly? That’s a tell tale sign of a boss who wishes they managed a carnival with psychics instead of an office.

4. There’s a Boss’ Pet

You’ve realized by now that adult life sometimes isn’t that different than elementary school. Some teachers have teacher’s pets, and some bosses have boss’ pets. If your boss clearly favors one or some employees over others, going to lunches only with them, gossiping with them, bringing them little trinkets (even if it’s the occasional “bad coffee” from the break room), or is Facebook friends with them and no other employee, you have a problem. Being their favorite doesn’t mean much when it’s just about who’s sitting next to the head honcho at the meeting. But it’s huge when it comes to promotions and layoffs.

5. Moods Strike at Random

Bosses are human, too, and in rare cases you just can’t help to bring your personal life into the office (i.e. the day your boss files divorce papers, it makes sense if they’re a little quieter or bluer than normal). However, if you can never tell if they’ll be up, down, mad, elated, or anything in between, it’s like spending eight or more hours per day playing Russian roulette. It’s exhausting, and for some employees might even be terrifying.

6. Gossip is Spilling from Them

Office gossip is bound to happen, especially in smaller environments. However, it’s your boss’ job to lead by example (and in extreme cases address the gossiping of others). If your boss talks negatively about any of his or her colleagues or employees, that’s a deadly sign. Gossip can destroy a company from the inside out, and when the boss is partaking (or leading!) it, it’s only a matter of time before an implosion.

7. There are Benefits “Just for the Boss”

Of course your boss probably has benefits on the up and up that others don’t enjoy, like a higher salary. However, bosses are also in the position to take advantage of where they stand. Do they regularly come in late, leave early, take long lunches, not follow the dress code (while enforcing it on others), or use company property for personal use? If they were an employee they would be written up or fired.

8. You’re their Dump Receptacle

We all need to unload from time to time. Still, it’s the role of a boss to not “use” their employees in any capacity, including as a sounding board. If you know about your boss’ love life, hangover or intimate details about a business deal that you shouldn’t be privy to, your boss is using you as a makeshift therapist. That’s great for their stress levels, but it’s being transferred to you and it’s completely unprofessional.

9. Guilt Trip, Anyone?

Some guilt trips are passive aggressive, but not all passive aggressive behavior includes a guilt trip. If your boss tries to make you feel guilty for things you shouldn’t, such as working overtime and not getting paid for it (illegal), or not performing a task “the same way Jane used to” (but the results and quality are the same) — you’re in for a long work life of feeling subpar.

With a toxic boss, your workplace is toxic and it’s only a matter of time before that toxicity begins to seep into your work and personal life.

Depending on your unique situation, you might be able to take action. It’s often dangerous to approach a toxic boss yourself, since their position of authority also puts them in a position to control your job security. If you have an HR department, discuss your concerns with them. They are bound by confidentiality agreements and their job is to help you and ensure an efficient, safe environment.

Sadly, in many cases there’s no correcting a toxic boss.

These behaviors are usually either part of a person’s character or have been practiced and honed for so many years that it’s second nature. What you do have control over is how you handle external toxicity. Consider where it stems from, remember that it’s not your fault, and make a conscious decision of how to best respond to negate that toxicity as much as possible.

Toxic Photo via Shutterstock

Pratik Dholakiya Pratik Dholakiya is the founder of Growfusely, a content marketing agency specializing in content and data-driven SEO. As a passionate SEO and content marketer, he shares his thoughts and knowledge in publications like Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, The Next Web, YourStory, and Inc42, to name a few.

10 Reactions
  1. I have to admit that I am one of those people who can put up with terrible bosses. But then, I came to realize that a good boss is so different when I had one. He authentically cares for us and our well being and he makes sure that all of our needs are addressed. The goal is met as a team and not us as workers and him being the authoritarian leader.

  2. With a toxic boss, your workplace is toxic and it’s only a matter of time before that toxicity begins to seep into your work and personal life.

  3. My boss has two daughters working for her five employees altogether. When something goes wrong it our fault if the daughters or her make the same mistake it’s hidden , covered up . When she gets mad cuts our hours. Industry raise if you work a certain if hours doing our business , my shift got the most hours for this I no longer have my shift that’s when she hired a second daughter she and her daughters get the extra pay. The rest of us our virtually cut out. She never appreciates anything praises her daughters who’ve admitted I’m the best worker yet I have my hours cut in half. We didn’t even know about this raise and she’s making us go through hell. Our pay doesn’t come out of her pocket an industry pays us she owns the business that we work in. I need to get another job it’s hard

  4. It’s very poor advice to tell someone to go to HR about their toxic boss. HR does not exist for the benefit of the employee.

    • How can you think that HR doesn’t exist for the benfit of the employee. In your mind does HR only exist to hire and fore people. Maybe you should research the purpose of HR. Seriously. You must be one of those HR people who don’t care for whats right and for the employees. You should find another line of work.

      • Sara, It’s true – HR will not do anything about a toxic boss. I work at a company where the boss manipulates the HR person, who has herself claimed “There;s nothing I can do, so and so isn’t going anywhere” So people are forced to deal or quit.

    • Very true!


    Just dealt with this personally and no, you can’t go at it alone, because they will throw you under the bus, which is what happened to me. The upper management are also not on your side, they will back up the toxic boss and you will be marked the ‘trouble maker’. Get out while you can before they fire you like they did me!

  6. My boss (not leader), nails all 9 of these. He’s the worst form of narcissism this side of a prison cell.

  7. HR is only there to protect the company, they don’t give a crap about you and always side with the toxic boss.