How to handle a toxic work environment as an expat

  • toxic environment
Published on 2024-05-13 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Your expat life might be different from the dream you imagined in a poor workplace atmosphere with poor communication, excessive hierarchy, etc. There's a rift between you and your company, and the toxic environment makes you reconsider your stay in your host country. How can you get through this? Here are some tips.

When the work environment becomes toxic

You may recognize yourself in this situation: newly arrived in your host country, you want to make a good impression and not miss out on any opportunities. You're enthusiastic and grasp every chance to showcase your skills. However, you sometimes miss the warning signs and are unsure how to reverse course when you realize your work environment isn't ideal. Alternatively, the toxicity in your workplace may have developed over time. The first few months or years went smoothly, but things deteriorated gradually or suddenly (due to a change in management or department). But what can you do when you've noticed a decline in your work conditions?

How to identify a toxic work environment

To recognize a toxic work culture, you must first eliminate the misconception that the problem lies with you. Moving abroad, learning the language of a foreign country, and adapting to the local work culture is a constant challenge. The same job can be defined differently in your home country and in your host country. However, the difficulties you face at work shouldn't be mistaken for a toxic environment. Similarly, occasional workplace tensions don't necessarily mean a toxic environment. However, chronic tension and difficulties can indeed contaminate the work environment.

Here are some signals that can help you identify a toxic work environment:

Your job doesn't match its initial description

While a job may be defined differently depending on the country, your situation is clearly far from what the foreign company indicated in the job description. Neither the job title nor the duties match your expectations, and these differences clearly put you at a disadvantage.

You are facing discrimination

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work [...] Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work." Many countries have implemented regulations to combat discrimination. However, in practice, discrimination still affects both qualified expats and those in precarious jobs, with the latter more exposed.

Culture of secrecy, lack of open communication

In a toxic environment, open communication is discouraged. Instead, the company operates in cliques and with a rigid hierarchy. You'll quickly be made to forget your home country's practices and adopt those of your new employer. Failing to conform is seen as disobedience, leading to potential sanctions. Creating ties with colleagues is challenging, as the environment discourages socialization. Yet, favoritism thrives, leading to secrecy, gossip, and betrayal.

Excessive hierarchy

You were accustomed to sharing your opinions and being proactive. You thought you could bring these skills to your foreign company, but now you're learning to memorize the company's organizational chart and avoid mistakes. You can only speak to your immediate superior. Communication is vertical and rigid, always top-down. If you're at the bottom of the hierarchy, your only role is to follow company rules. Even if you're in a managerial position, your speech is still constrained by your superiors.

Feelings of guilt and isolation

Did your foreign company provide intercultural training? Do you have a mentor or a reference person? Often, a toxic environment isolates you. The harmful atmosphere breeds suspicion (who can you trust?). You will be blamed for every mistake and always presumed guilty.

Other signs of a toxic environment include high turnover, frequent sick leaves, a lack of real "colleagues" (only "competitors"), stunted professional growth, absentee managers, unclear corporate communication, and disengaged "colleagues."

Toxic workplaces: Should you stay or leave?

To make the right decision, take time to analyze your situation and ask yourself the right questions:

  • How long has this situation been going on?
  • Is this your first experience in a toxic environment abroad?
  • Are you the only foreign worker facing this toxicity? Are other foreign or local employees experiencing the same thing?
  • What type of work permit do you have? Is it tied to your employer?
  • Where does the toxicity lie in your company (management, colleagues, leadership, etc.)?
  • Have you noticed any abnormal behavior (high turnover, frequent resignations or sick leaves) or violations of local laws (safety breaches, unpaid overtime)?
  • What are the host country's labor laws concerning worker protection? Are there specific measures for protecting foreign workers?
  • Are there organizations advocating for immigrant workers in your city? What support do they offer?
  • Has the toxicity affected your interest in the job, the city, or your expatriation project? If so, how?

Countries vary significantly in their protection of foreign workers. The first step is to understand your host country's labor laws. At the first signs of toxicity, try dialogue and amicable resolution. If you're not alone in facing toxicity, consider reaching out to worker advocacy groups or immigration services. The psychological toll of a toxic work environment can overshadow your stay in your host country, making external professional support crucial.

How to cope with a toxic work environment abroad 

Like many expats, you've likely fought hard to obtain your work visa. Despite more open immigration policies in some countries, work visas are still challenging to secure, driving you to persevere despite a toxic environment. However, working in such an environment impacts not just your professional but also your personal life. Leaving this environment is often the only way out, as toxicity can have severe physical and mental health consequences.

The importance of seeking professional support

How can you overcome this situation? You might think you've failed in your new endeavor in a foreign country, but to avoid self-blame, seek support before, during, and after decision-making. You can consult a doctor in your host country. Ideally, find one who understands your situation. Many countries claim to prioritize mental health at work, but there's often a gap between declarations and practical measures. You can also consult an expatriation coach.

Your support will address professional, personal, and possibly legal aspects (visa issues, lawsuits against the company). This comprehensive approach aims to restore your confidence and refocus your goals. What is your situation after this experience (mental health, finances, expatriation project)? How do you now view work and your host country? Do you have new aspirations? You don't need to answer these questions immediately.

Overcoming a toxic economic expatriation takes time. Before applying for a new job or embarking on another project, try to separate the company from the host country. If your finances allow, travel within your host country (or just explore the city). In short, take time for yourself and gain perspective. A negative experience doesn't mean you have failed.