Amid longer hours, an uncertain economy and our ever-shaky grip on a healthy work-life balance, plenty of people agree that the work environment has only gotten more challenging in the past few years.

But in some workplaces, times aren’t just hard; they’re toxic.

Think of the type of workplace in which employees feel personally threatened in one way or another. While relatively rare in most sectors, toxic workplaces appear to be on the rise, experts say. The distinction between extremely difficult and downright toxic work environments can be fuzzy, but in general, the toxic workplace is one in which the dynamics resemble an abusive personal relationship.

What Is a Toxic Work Environment?

“That language doesn’t get used in the management literature per se, but that is how I would define it,” says Wharton adjunct management professor Gregory P. Shea, adjunct senior fellow at Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. “It can be psychological, it can be emotional, it can be physical. Obviously in extreme cases it would be hitting, but it could also be people who feel physically intruded upon, who feel there is no safe place to go.”

Meeting the criteria for a toxic environment can be subjective “in the same way we could say that about any relationship,” says Wharton management professor Adam Cobb. “But in looking for hallmarks across people who feel like they have a toxic work environment, it’s about relationships with peers as well as superiors — if you have a demeaning boss, or a co-worker who is super competitive, if you feel disrespected in some way, if you feel like people are gunning for you or sabotaging you.”

“The toxic work environment is one where people at the bottom are experiencing corrosive pressures, and these corrosive pressures are draining them and making them want to leave.” –Nancy Rothbard

Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard offers this definition for a toxic work environment: “The toxic work environment is one where people at the bottom are experiencing corrosive pressures, and these corrosive pressures are draining them and making them want to leave.”

Some workers have options for getting out from under a toxic work environment. But others don’t. In the past, when more Americans were members of labor unions, collective bargaining agreements could provide a tool for resolution and help equalize the power between oppressed and oppressor. “Without that,” says Cobb, “if you are working at a big-box retailer and making close to minimum wage and have a manager who is taking advantage of you in one way or another or being disrespectful, you raise that issue and you could be fired.”

Yes, you could hire a lawyer, Cobb adds, “but that is relatively costly and time consuming. It’s tricky to prove these things in this country, and in the meantime you’re out of a job and your kids are hungry. The balance of power is very much in favor of the firm. So your only recourse is to leave and potentially not find another job. For years now we’ve had people very scared to leave.”

One Culprit of the Toxic Workplace: The Greed Factor

The Angry Ones. The Politicians. The Obsessives. Linnda Durré chronicles 12 different groups of toxic personalities in her book, Surviving the Toxic Workplace, ranging from those who merely annoy with habits like pencil-tapping or whining, to workers engaged in unethical, illegal or violent behavior. Durré says toxic behavior may be on the rise, or perhaps workers are simply more inclined to report it. If there has been an increase, she says there’s an obvious culprit. “The greed factor has made, I think, people lose good values about what they should be looking for — which is treating workers fairly, paying a good wage, having good benefits and a good work environment, putting out excellent products and services and doing the best for the customer, as well as making solid profits,” notes Durré, a Winter Park, Fla.-based psychotherapist, business consultant and author.

Shea says that a tight job market tends to promote the growth of toxic environments, but that in any event, it takes two to tango in a toxic relationship. “To be abusive, someone has to have power over you or attempt to have power over you, and then you have to in some way authorize them to behave in that way,” he points out. “So why would you do that? You might need the job; maybe you’re in tough financial straits at that time. That’s on the receiving end. On the giving end of that abuse are people who are simply unaware, or don’t care, or who are under remarkable pressure themselves, as in kicked-dog syndrome [displaced aggression].”

Sometimes a toxic relationship develops from a misguided belief that this kind of behavior leads to better performance. “Leaders can get confused between being demanding and being inappropriate in how they handle someone,” continues Shea, author of Your Job Survival Guide and co-author, with Cassie A. Solomon, of Leading Successful Change. “I can put a lot of pressure on you to perform well, but there is a place where this is no longer putting pressure on you, this is about hating you, or undercutting you, or diminishing your control.”

Such behavior goes beyond whether or not the work is hard to do, Shea adds. “Now we are in a space beyond the pale, beyond getting the best performance. An abusive boss may tell you, ‘I’m doing this for your own good’ — well, being told you’re an idiot, or someone flinging papers down, that’s not [the worker] being toughened up, that’s about [the boss] getting control.”

To the extent that the toxic workplace dovetails with generalized incivility, Rothbard sees an uptick. “With the combination of increased pressure for productivity and coming out of a period of financial upheaval over the last decade, there is a lot of stress around that,” she says. “There is another aspect of this, which is that some of the technology and mediated forms of communication that we are using that are so wonderful in so many ways, unfortunately, have to be managed carefully, otherwise they can lead to incivility and public shaming, where incidents that were very small get blown up in the workplace. We’re trying to find our feet with some of this new social media and technology, and we’re making blunders, and things can take on a life of their own.”

The Price of Incivility and Workplace Toxicity

Christine Porath has been charting incivility for two decades, and the Georgetown University professor of management says that “absolutely, in the last 15 years or so, unfortunately, there has been an increase in incivility.” Many people feel stretched and overwhelmed by the 24/7 expectations of work, which tends to make them less mindful in their interactions with others, and, as a consequence, less civil. “I’ve wondered why it’s tolerated, because there are such negative effects on people and the organization,” says Porath. “And what I’ve concluded over the course of time is that the vast majority of it stems from people not recognizing the effect they have on others. They are just not attentive. They just don’t realize they come off as negatively as they do.”

“The balance of power is very much in favor of the firm. So your only recourse is to leave and potentially not find another job. For years now we’ve had people very scared to leave.” –Adam Cobb

Incivility exacts a cost. Porath and Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, interviewed and collected questionnaires from employees, managers, CEOs and others — 14,000 people in all — and believe such behavior has proliferated despite its expense. In a poll of 800 managers and workers across 17 industries, employees who had been subjected to incivility in the workplace markedly loosened bonds with their work life: 48% intentionally decreased work effort with 47% intentionally spending less time at work, and 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work. Troubling for any consumer-oriented firm was the fact that 25% admitted to taking out their frustrations on customers, and concerning for any employer was the finding that 12% reported leaving their jobs because of the uncivil treatment. “Companies we’ve worked with calculate that the tab for incivility can run into the millions,” wrote the authors in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article.

Porath examines the other side of the coin, the benefits of civility, in “The Effects of Civility on Advice, Leadership and Performance,” with co-authors Alexandra Gerbasi and Sebastian L. Schorch of the Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, published this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The study examined civility at a biotechnology firm, and found that people who were perceived as civil were specifically sought out for work advice and were more likely to be seen as leaders, and that the perception of these civil people as leaders could be explained by the fact that they were considered warm and competent. More collaborative, positive, civil and respectful interactions, says Porath, “help you, and you will be seen as more of a leader — not less.”

One perhaps surprising finding regarding the toxic workplace: “Even just being around it, witnessing it, hearing it, would have very similar negative affects — in taking people off track, a lack of commitment and potential retention issues,” says Porath. “In a toxic workplace, it’s about having to live in that environment, even if you are not the one always experiencing abusive behavior.”

Risk and Ultimatum

At a structural level, experts say that absent a surge in labor union membership, other means of dealing with toxic work issues must be integrated into the workplace. Porath describes one system used at a global governmental organization, a mediation department that could be modeled elsewhere. “All complaints go through them, they have professional mediators trained to get to the bottom of issues, so they will interview both parties, get others involved, get them to come to the table, so if it’s an abusive relationship they would work with that person,” she says. “In general, they have had far greater success in working on these solutions versus a more traditional setting where people don’t know about the system, much less have faith in it.”

Having faith in a fair process is crucial in getting people to speak up. Porath found that half of workers experiencing incivility did not report incidents “because they have a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. There is a sense of fear that is part of this, because two-thirds of the time it comes from someone with greater power.”

Worker centers, which provide support to low-wage workers who are not union members, could become advocates for those who find themselves in toxic work environments, says Cobb, and alternative dispute resolution could be utilized — “although there is a lot of debate in the literature about whether that is good for the worker or good for the firm,” Cobb adds. “The GLBT community got together and pressured for change. Even without collective bargaining, if there is some way of working together collectively, it is much more likely to have some influence.”

“To be abusive, someone has to have power over you or attempt to have power over you, and then you have to in some way authorize them to behave in that way.” –Gregory P. Shea

Individuals who find themselves in a toxic workplace do have options. Documenting and reporting the conditions, approaching the human resources department, confronting the abuser, confronting the abuser’s boss, and taking legal action are all potential solutions — and all carry risks. Sometimes an ultimatum can be effective, says Durré: “There is a technique for dealing with these people, [saying] ‘Here’s what I’d like to have stop, and it if doesn’t stop, here is what I am going to do about it.’ And put it all in writing — letter and/or an email — and cc it to HR, as well as hand-deliver it. You can look at confronting or reporting an issue as a series of steps. It also depends on the severity and frequency of the offense and the toxicity.”

Still, there are potential dangers. “Always be aware that you can be fired, backstabbed, set up, physically attacked and people may commit slander, libel and assassinate your character,” Durré notes. “Use the Whistleblower Laws to protect yourself.”

Sometimes, she continues, an exit is the best option. “Find a new job, work for yourself, start your own business with friends, but leave the toxic boss and workplace. It will only get worse and you will be a target.”

Combatting a Poisonous Work Environment: ‘Stand Up for Yourself’

The first step for someone being exposed to abuse is to recognize what’s going on and to be proactive about finding a solution, says Shea. “Certainly stand up for yourself,” he adds. “You don’t have to be belligerent, but stand up for yourself if, for instance, a coworker is intruding on your space. You can look for transfers inside the workplace. If you’ve got an HR department, they should care about this, because it affects retention over time.”

People should make sure they are focused on their work “and that it gets documented so others are aware you made a contribution and so you can feel good and keep your own sanity and don’t end up getting scape-goated,” Shea notes. “Document the abuse so you’ve got some record about why you would say this is abusive behavior, and you could make a point of having someone you can talk to about it.”

Like victims of domestic abuse, the abused of the workplace can also begin to loose perspective about who is victim and who is perpetrator. Says Shea: “One of the things you don’t want to have happen is to get isolated and get pummeled. The greatest risk is that you decide that you somehow deserve this.”