Do You Know If Your Company Culture Is Toxic?

No organization’s culture is perfectly healthy.

But there are some organizations where the culture is toxic — way beyond the “normal dysfunctional” level. These cultures tolerate or encourage behaviors that suck the life out of people. And no matter how great a business’s strategy, marketing, and financial operations are, a toxic culture will poison business success.

How do you know if your company culture is toxic?

Here are a few signs:

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  • Leaders can’t be trusted. I know of one senior leader who openly stole new accounts from the junior sales reps she oversaw. I know of another senior leader who routinely lied to make herself look good. More subtle are ‘little white [collar] lies’ and corporate spin and lack of follow through. I’m all for healthy competition and proactive image management. But when leaders aren’t trustworthy, this taints the whole culture; you can kiss a healthy culture goodbye – along with your healthy employees, who won’t put up with it.
  • Screaming, swearing and demeaning language is the norm. Managing by intimidation and bullying sometimes gets the job done – in the short-term. But is the fallout (higher attrition, lower engagement, stalled careers, and excessive stress) really worth it? And is management by intimidation the only option? No and no.
  • People have no life outside of work. Some industries, companies, and careers are notorious for working long hours. Add to this a disregard for people and their need to sleep, see family, or do anything other than work, and that’s a recipe for hazardous waste. (E.g., A boss gives an assignment on Friday afternoon and asks for turnaround by Saturday or Sunday when this weekend crunch could have been avoided. And that’s the norm.)

4 tips to help with a toxic culture

Does your organization show any of these toxic signs? If so, here are some tips to help steer the ship back into healthier waters:

  1. Help influential leaders face the painful current reality. Presenting a combination of hard statistics (e.g., attrition, employee engagement survey scores and bottom line impact, if possible) and personal stories can be effective. One organization first presented the abysmally true statistics, and then they had each top leader sit down with a group of people who had been affected by the negative behaviors in their culture. I remember seeing light bulbs go on for these leaders as they viewed the truth with their heads and then their hearts – and ‘got it’ for the first time.
  2. Help them see the inevitable future. If attrition is trending alarmingly high, show top leaders the hit on projected net income (and their bonuses) if this trend continues for one or two more years. Gulp.
  3. Get rid of the ring-leader. You’ll need to convince this person’s boss with hard-hitting evidence that there’s no other option. See 1 and 2 above.
  4. If leaders aren’t willing to change, then plan your exit. Get regular sanity checks from objective outsiders to help you assess when it’s time to quit banging your head against the wall and, instead, spend your energy finding a different non-toxic organization.

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.


8 Comments on “Do You Know If Your Company Culture Is Toxic?

  1. I love this, Joe. And agree – it comes down to what is expected. I have seen leaders who would thrive in a toxic culture clean up their acts when they knew if they didn’t their career was going nowhere and it wouldn’t be tolerated. It’s all about what is accepted and expected! Nice post.

  2. There is one major factor that precludes trying to change or address a toxic culture.  All too often the owners of small privately held companies are in full assent of the behavior of the way managers treat their reports.  In the end most will drive the remaining employees even harder as long as they get theirs.  It is said, “When the character of a man is in doubt, look at his friends.”  The greatest indicator of company ownership is in their appointments.  Reason has no effect on these types as reason has long since left the room.  Better to move along and preserve your own future.  In the end some people only learn the hard way.

  3. I know I’ve worked in cultures that were incredibly toxic before Joe – so thanks for sharing your tips on how to do something practical about it when you find yourself in that situation.

  4. This is so true!  As a recruiter, I know how fast word spreads on these toxic companies and/or work environments. Once it has been labeled as toxic, it is difficult to hire the talent needed to change the culture.  In difficult times, toxic managers may not care because they can easily replace employees, but when the competition for talent is tight, they will lose. This has a huge negative impact on the company.

  5. Joe, great post. All 4 of your tips are tough actions to take – but I agree that toxic environments require swift action.

  6. Ugh, we’ve all been there Joe.  And I think your suggestions are practical and workable.  And, its always good to remind people that leaving is always an option, when nothing else works.  

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