Telltale Signs of a Toxic Workplace Culture

When you think of a toxic work environment, what does it look like? Do you picture an angry boss who’s screaming all the time? Or a ‘cool kids’ table, where nobody else is allowed to sit? Unfortunately, the signs aren’t always that obvious. The truth is, toxic culture is actually quite common, yet rarely acknowledged.  

1 in 5 employees have left a job at some point due to toxic culture (costing businesses over $44B per year).

The Society of Human Resources Management estimates that 1 in 5 employees have left a job at some point due to toxic culture (costing businesses over $44B per year). But these studies fail to recognize the droves of people who experience a toxic culture and either don’t realize or don’t do anything about it. For some people, a toxic workplace is all they know. For others, their workplace became toxic slowly over time and they didn’t really notice.  

Here are some telltale signs of a toxic workplace culture. 

High turnover 

The number one sign of a toxic workplace is a high turnover rate. When people are jumping ship left and right, that’s definitely a red flag and should be cause for concern. Sometimes, amid the chaos of the day-to-day, it might not be blatantly obvious that more people are leaving than staying, so be sure to check in on your turnover rate regularly. 

Homogeneity and/or exclusion 

When you look around the workplace and you see a lot of the same – same gender, or skin color, or socioeconomic background, or or or – that is definitely toxic. Whether the bias is conscious or unconscious, there is clearly some sort of hiring discrimination at play. Or if there are some ‘diverse types’, but they tend to be separated from the group (at lunch, at meetings, and so on), that is a clear sign of exclusion.  

Surface level connections 

A toxic work environment almost always prevents coworkers from developing genuine relationships with each other beyond the strictly professional necessities. When your team members are more focused on being ‘nice’ than being real, that opens doors for gossip, distrust, and a dysfunctional team. 

Fear governs 

Fear-based work style is a common trait of toxic work environments. This type of leadership is abusive and takes a serious toll on the employees’ mental health. Scaring people into a job-well-done is not sustainable and will always create more problems than it solves. 

Lack of communication 

Toxic culture is often characterized by a lack of psychological safety, which means that people don’t feel comfortable to honestly voice their opinions. That causes innovation to suffer, bad work to slide, and tension to build. Pay attention to whether or not people are giving real feedback, including constructive criticism, and not just nodding and smiling. 

Unbending hierarchy 

When title trumps talent, and input from lower level employees is discouraged or disregarded, that’s a big problem. Sometimes, particularly in today’s world, flexibility is not just an asset, it’s a must. A strict hierarchy of power tends to result in unnecessary jumping through hoops, unrealistic expectations, and a resentable imbalance overall.  

Does your company display any telltale signs? If you aren’t sure, have a third party do an assessment to give you an unvarnished perspective. After all, companies with strong culture tend to experience a 4x growth in revenue. Not to mention lower turnover, higher engagement, and stronger talent attraction. Is your organization missing out? 

Shaara Roman is founder and CEO of The Silverene Group, a culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals.

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