7 Concerning Signs of a Toxic Work Culture

A toxic work culture is one where the workplace is plagued by fighting, drama and unhappy employees to the point that productivity and the well-being of the people in the office is affected. Below we discuss seven major signs to look out for in your workplace.

As a leader, you must prioritise the development of a good work culture. It is one of the pillars successful companies like Facebook follow. Because culture will evolve and change, keeping an eye on and fine tuning it where necessary is key.

Sometimes, the elements of the toxic work culture will be right out in the open and so, easy to fix, other times they are hidden and leaders should make consistent efforts to unearth them. Here are seven signs of a toxic work culture both leaders and employees should look out for and avoid.

Low morale at work

A positive attitude and high morale to accomplish tasks is contagious. When people smile, speak politely to each other and share jokes (not insults masked as humour), it quickly catches on and shows in how productive and happy at work everyone is.

Unfortunately the opposite is also true. If you observe that the entire office exhibits low morale then a toxic work place might be to blame. Forget the Monday blues and occasional bad days, we’re talking about a situation where there seems to be a black cloud always hanging over the office, consistent low energy and joylessness at work.

There is lack of communication

How does information get around? Are employees able to get the information they need to get the work done? Can they communicate too?

A key sign of a toxic work culture is that communication normally flows one way; as directives from the higher ups to the employees. Employees are afraid to ask questions either because they will be singled out for not understanding quickly enough or nothing will be done. This, amongst many other things, can lead to repetition of work and loss of time.

Employees are afraid of the boss

There is a difference between a healthy respect for the boss and downright fear. When no one but the boss speaks in a meeting, when people avoid going down the corridor where they might bump into the boss, there is a problem with the culture and it needs to be addressed immediately.

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The boss sets the tone for the workplace culture and their management and interaction style can either lead to a toxic work culture or one where employees are happy. It follows that if the boss yells at employees, insults them then scenarios like the one listed in 3 above are more likely to happen.

A bad boss can make toxic work culture even worse because he gives cues to others about how they can behave by sort of ‘endorsing’ bad behavior and providing precedent for rude interactions. In short, if the top boss yells, it will not be a surprise to find department heads and team leaders yelling.

Insistence on policies over people

Policies are put in place to support people but an organisation that constantly puts policies ahead of people can breed a toxic work culture. Whether you like it or not people make mistakes, even the best employees will not be able to do everything right all the time so you need to make space for that.

You are in a toxic work culture if management follows every infraction or deviation from policy with punishment because this usually leads to employees constantly being stressed and afraid to take risks.

toxic work culture

Image: Unsplash

There is a high employee turnover

This is perhaps one of the clearest indications of a toxic work environment. People keep leaving. When your workplace becomes a walk-through office there’s very likely something wrong with your culture.

Yes, people are entitled to seek better opportunities, but if you need to hire people all year round, some after only having been with you a few months, it’s most probably a toxic work culture to blame.

There are cliques and groups in the office

People naturally gravitate to people they have things in common with. Many people have work best friends, this shouldn’t be a surprise. But in a toxic work culture, these cliques and groups are filled with drama, tension and work against each other. Competition stops being good when these cliques involve sabotage, backstabbing and black mail.

In a toxic work culture, it’s not surprising to find bosses sitting on their own, eating alone and totally closing the employees out and forcing them to also form their own cliques. This is only one of the things to avoid when building your company culture.

People in middle management are just figure heads

Ever gone to the boss or even human resource manager with a problem that they recognise, agree is a problem but can only sympathize about? This is a classic sign of a toxic work culture for two reasons.

The first is that power lies in the hands of one or a few inaccessible employers. There is no delegation and so employees are not empowered to grow and see no hope of advancement.  The second is that no one is looking out for the employees so they will have to look out for themselves. Employees have no way to get help should they need it.

This can either lead to employee apathy or employees making up their own rules to bypass the stifling and impossible policies set up by their bosses. An employee who knows they will be unable to get a day off for a legitimate reason will simply pretend to be sick instead of making an official request.

In Summary

The victims of a toxic work culture are often the employees.

While the onus is on management to define and correct the culture where necessary, they stand a higher chance of getting that done if they get feedback from and involve the employees. People, after all, make the culture.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.