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12 Signs Of Toxic Work Culture & How To Spot Them!

Kate Williams

Last Updated:  

2 November 2021

11 min read

Only 60 firms that were on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 remained in the 2017 list. The reason? Many. One of the biggest – unhappy employees. Yes, one of the biggest reasons 9 out of 10 such firms are gone or merged is because they couldn’t keep their employees motivated and satisfied. They had a toxic culture that soon became unbearable for almost every employee to work in. To be honest, before 2010, finding toxic workplace culture was as common as finding a cab now!

Google, Netflix, and a handful of others were the only organizations willing to work towards and spend on employee satisfaction. Just look at them now! We want the same for you, hence we’ll talk about the 12 toxic work culture signs and their solutions based on our overall experience. You’ll find no fluff here. Only actionable fixes that we and our clients have ourselves used. Time to start, then. A strong cup of coffee would be a great reading companion; you know. 😉

What Exactly Is A Toxic Work Culture?

Simply put, when things at work or your work affect life in a degrading way, that workplace or culture is toxic. Disruptions are created in your life because of toxic work culture, and these disruptions start from physical health and end up harming you mentally.

Why Does A Workplace Become Toxic?

Normalizing stress. That’s a prime reason why a toxic workplace exists. There are associating factors too, but when organizations promote a stress culture for achieving goals, it becomes a major factor for workplace toxicity.

We’ve seen people arguing about who’s responsible for toxic company culture? They want to hold someone accountable. That’s the problem, as workplace toxicity is because of individuals, not groups. Individuals at any level in the organization can create a toxic work environment through too much gossips, rumors, office politics, and mico-managing.

There are more examples that we’ll talk about, but toxicity at work is because of individuals. A colleague, manager, and leader, every one of them keeps the working environment healthy. For individuals to act right, the organization needs to communicate office values, culture and believes clearly. Otherwise, nobody can adapt to the requirements efficiently.

A workplace is toxic when individuals don’t try creating a positive workplace, and when organizations don’t try outlining or rectifying the office culture. These together work as catalysts in creating a toxic work culture.

12 Toxic Work Culture Signs. How To Spot And Fix Them?

A threefold increase in the risk of depression.

That’s what the British Medical Journal stated as the consequences of toxic work culture in their June 2021 report. At a time when mental health issues are rising at an unprecedented level, this result is alarming.

Toxic work culture, as we’ll explore more, was there before the pandemic too. But the emphasis was not there to research and be more critical about it. Things have changed for good now. Mental health issues aren’t just a reason for someone to take a day off. It’s a real thing, one which can be stressed by toxic work culture.

We, at SurveySparrow, pride ourselves on being an employee-first organization. And it becomes our responsibility to address the different signs and fixes of toxic work culture. So, with no further ado, we give you the 12 toxic work culture signs that should be spotted and fixed as soon as you notice them. Time to let the cat out of the bag.

No Core Values

The Sign: A toxic work culture at any organization starts when they give no focus on having some core company values. Such organizations have only one goal in mind – maximizing profits. And if it means neglecting employee satisfaction, so be it. These companies are the breeding grounds of a toxic work culture where employees don’t feel empowered, and their wishes are ignored. Having no defined core values means the office culture will progress with no sense of direction. This will lead to the forming of unwanted subcultures that’ll ultimately hurt the business itself.

The Solution: See, not having a company culture at the start is fine. As a leader, you focused on growing the business and left the culture part for later. But 2021 is the year to do that. Start by sitting with your team leaders and brainstorming on the list of core company values you wish the organization should stand for. Make sure the team leaders have had prior discussions with all their team members about this.

This brainstorming is important as it’ll align what values you want the company to get known for and what your employees want the organization to represent. A synergy between these two would give your organization’s core values. Then, during the hiring process, refer to these to ensure each new employee shares similar values.

When Managers Don’t Give A Damn About Values!

The Sign: “I don’t care how you do it. I want it at my table by 12 today.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s evening or midnight. You’re going home only when it’s done.”

These 2 statements suggest explains the exact toxic work culture we’re trying to explain. When managers don’t care or stop caring about the company or its values, the workplace environment deteriorates. If a workplace allows for complete creative freedom, and your manager ain’t giving that to you, work would become boring pretty soon, and the working environment utterly toxic.

This sign is furthermore troubling because if the leaders, who lead the way, aren’t following the company values, the employees will act the same. They’ll start ignoring all values, and start distrusting their leaders, who aren’t saying anything about their conduct. Their authority will slowly be discredited, and a clear divide will form between the leadership group and the rest. That’s a toxic work culture at its peak!

The Solution: This is an issue that we, at SurveySparrow, faced too. We faced situations where a few team leaders weren’t respecting the diversity in our workforce the way we want them to. That led to great animosity between them and the rest of their team.

The first thing our top management did was to sit with these managers and discuss our expectations clearly. The model behavior of a team leader was explained to them, and they were given time to rectify areas where they went wrong. After that, we conducted leadership sessions for all our teams to promote equality and diversity in the workplace. Everyone, from the CXOs to new employees attended the event and an employee pulse survey was used to find their learnings from it. The problem was corrected in no time!

Lack Of Positive Reviews

The Sign: Anonymous review platforms like Glassdoor have massively empowered employees in recent years. They can be transparent about their experiences with their employer or ex-employer. As a leader, you need to be wary of this, as this can hurt the brand image. But positive reviews can bring improved opportunities for growth, too. So, it’s a double-edged sword, one which we realized a tad bit late. Not that it was a problem for us, as our company culture is revered for a lot of different reasons, but we weren’t taking any benefits of having positive reviews. Don’t be us here. Read the solution and follow suit.

The Solution: Sit with your HR team and work on how you want to attract better and better employees. You can’t control the public perception of your company, but you sure can control what the employees are experiencing every day in the organization. Make sure that’s worthy of appreciation and a positive review. Innovative rewards, impactful and future-ready training sessions, a focus on employee well-being above company goals will do the trick for you.

Public Criticism

The Sign: Employees make mistakes. There’s no getting away from that. Sometimes that mistake is terrible. But if there’s a culture of public criticism in a company, it’s a clear sign of toxic work culture. This is because public humiliation affects a person on both emotional and mental levels. They take unnecessary pressure to get things right, leaving their creative edge behind. Employees in such organizations just look to get the job done, not to do it in a way that brings results. Basically, they stop taking risks to not be on the receiving end of a public bashing.

The Solution: The solution is pretty simple. Stop criticizing in public. Yes, stop criticizing an employee publicly. Keep that for private conversations. In public, be full of praise for their good work. if they’ve done something wrong, call them in your office to talk about it. Such a healthy work environment will allow employees to learn from their mistakes and get better.

Dismal Appreciation & Rewards

The Sign: If you’re only recognizing the top sales performer or performers of each quarter while ignoring the efforts of the rest, you’re doing a disservice to the culture and setting it into a toxic work culture. Recognizing and rewarding a select few individuals from a select few domains is a sure shot way of developing workplace toxicity. The reason we’re saying this is that the rest of your workforce, who aren’t recognized for their work, feels disengaged. They lose the motivation to keep putting in the hard yards that ultimately hampers their and the organizations’ growth. A clear warning sign, we would say.

The Solution: Do you know why people are overjoyed when they join the search giant Google? And why their employees don’t have a single bad thing to say about them? Well, they give 50% of the salary to a deceased employee’s spouse for 10 straight years under their employee death benefits program! How’s that for rewards?

As a leader, empathy is your biggest asset. And it should prevail in employee appreciation and rewards. Monetary rewards, gift coupons, and yearly raises won’t suffice in 2021 and beyond. If you believe that keeping employees happy is the way to reach long-term business goals, it’s time to get innovative with appreciation programs. Take feedback from employees to start with and analyze to personalize the entire appreciation and reward process. All employees would then believe they’re doing the best job in the world. It would be the best case, isn’t it?

High Churn

The Sign: High rate of churn has cost companies $223 billion in the past 5 years. $223 billion! Ain’t that a number to be worried about? Employees leaving to take up a new challenge or take the entrepreneurial leap is one thing, but employees leaving a job because of toxic work culture is a thing to worry about. A bad culture drives employees away, and the ones who’re there don’t take the organization seriously. Over one-third of U.S. employees agree to turn down a “perfect job” if they think the culture is not right. Saying goodbye to employees left and right would clearly indicate a toxic organizational culture.

The Solution: You need to get back to the table and work on the company culture strategy. Before that, finding the root of the problem is crucial. Exit interview surveys are the best way to do that. This way, you’ll understand the problem with your company culture and how it’s creating a toxic work culture.

Talking to employees should come next, especially those who’ve been there for long to understand what’s kept them around. Conducting and analyzing an employee engagement survey would do the trick here. Finally, act on what needs to be acted upon.

Unnecessary And Unfriendly Competition

The Sign: Healthy competition is good (great!) for both employees and businesses. Employees are motivated to give a stellar performance worthy of recognition which helps them and the organization grow. However, the sign of competition as company culture is a warning sign for toxic work culture. Why? This is because such competition hampers teamwork and brings an individualistic approach among employees. They stop caring or working towards the overall growth of the company, their team, or colleague and focus only on their own. This brings animosity among them, and it’s a clear warning sign of things not being right.

The Solution: Employees being too competitive means you’re putting too much value on performance. Up to a certain extent, it’s good. After that, it’s certainly not. So, this is where the rectification process should start. The ways of appreciation and rewards should also be checked and redefined if they only involve monetary rewards. Innovative rewards and appreciations, like publicly appreciating an employee for helping his/her colleague with a task, or giving gift coupons for winning an in-house baseball match, would go a long way in instilling a spirit of togetherness and teamwork within the team. They’ll stay competitive but in the right way.

High Absenteeism

The Sign: Excessive absenteeism from employees is a clear sign that something is wrong with your company culture, and it’s leading to the workplace slowly getting toxic. Absenteeism hurts an organization in 2 different ways. When the company culture is not right or becoming toxic, employees get disengaged, and when employees are lazy or not serious about their work, it negatively affects their team members. 40% of workers believed that company culture is important in their decision to work for an employer. This stat was at 37% in 2020, which reveals that uncharacteristic employee absenteeism means a toxic work culture is growing inside your office.

The Solution: For starters, make sure the mid-level and senior management are setting the right standards with their time punctuality. This is because employees learn from their team leaders, so you wouldn’t want someone as a leader who’s not serious about his/her work. From there, make sure your HR team sits with employees who’re regularly taking leaves, stating one reason or the other. If it’s genuine, it’ll get rectified in some time, otherwise, the HR team would know what’s causing trouble for the employee.

The HR department can also work to improve your team’s sick days track sheet to ensure leaves for appropriate reasons are granted with no friction. This small step would take your employee’s satisfaction to the next level. We’re saying this from our experience. Try it, you’ll see!

Too Much Office Gossips

The Sign: Office gossips is often not taken as seriously as it should be. It’s considered being fine in many organizations. Some of it is alright, no doubt, but too much can cause trouble. We’re talking about gossips that start a rumor mill and lead to disharmony among employees. Employees turn against each other, and the culture of groups, not unity, takes precedence at the office. These are obvious signs of toxicity taking center stage at the workplace.

The Solution: Address the situation head-on. Don’t leave it for later. That’s the best solution we can give for this. Identify, and have crunch talks with individuals who’re involved in such gossiping antics. Also, address all your teams and team leaders to be proactive in such toxic work culture signs. It’ll give a clear message that you stand against such actions, and that’s how great leaders act!

No Inside Promotions

The Sign: This is something we’ve seen happening with quite a few of our clients. Managers or team leaders give little heed to promoting existing employees and look to hire fresh ones every time. This starts a toxic work culture at the workplace where existing employees feel let down by the manager. Their motivation to keep doing great work dives along with their satisfaction levels. When there are no inside promotions, an obvious message is sent that either the current employees don’t matter or they aren’t good enough to be promoted to the next level.

The Solution: Start paying close attention to what the employees are saying in reviews. Add questions to figure out if an employee wants to take up a new role or wants a move up. Then, start a training program to mentor such employees in fulfilling their potential. You’ll see the improved satisfaction in their behavior right from the first day!

Late Night Work Culture

The Sign: 40% of employees say their team leaders miss out on discussing crucial work-related topics properly. The late-night work culture is one such topic. If the work timing is till 5 p.m., then it makes no sense for an employee to slog late till night every day for work. One-off late-night work is fine, but if it has become a routine, it’s a clear sign of toxic work culture.

The Solution: One of the not-so-good things about WFH culture, that got highlighted, was how there weren’t any boundaries between work and home for employees. Many employers expected employees to work any time of the day or night since they were at home only! This thinking needs to change. Work is work, and it should have its boundaries, WFH or not.

Then, the reason employees work late till night in a company is primarily because they juggle a lot of responsibilities and their team leaders expect them to achieve unrealistic goals. Such toxic work culture should be corrected immediately, otherwise, it’ll lead to employee burnout and dissatisfaction. One way to correct this is by talking to managers and team leaders about how they’re setting targets and giving work to their teams. Workload reassessment for teams would do the trick here. Making sure that every employee has enough responsibilities to be challenged and contribute to the business’s success productively without getting burnout is crucial.

Communication Barrier

The Sign: Lack of communication is a massive indicator of a company having a toxic work culture. Across teams, between managers and their team members, the way information flows impacts a company’s culture. Plus, this very thing hurts their bottom line, too. Because when employees aren’t communicating properly, their productivity and creativity take a hit creating an inefficient working environment. So, when you see a lack of clarity in the information your leaders and their teams have, the reason is a communication barrier.

The Solution: Launch company-wide initiatives along with team building sessions to get all teams on the same page in terms of known information. The crucial part is to break any silo or communication wall between hierarchies or teams. Making everyone get comfortable with each other is the way to do that. Additionally, creating open-door policies at the top-management works wonders in lowering the communication gap. When engagement and transparency are encouraged from the very top, the flow of communication would be way smoother. We know it’s hard to abandon a particular communication style, but having gone through this transition ourselves, we can say it’s worth the change.

The Bottomline

“Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” – Simon Sinek

Well, this is absolutely true. Customers will indeed never love a company until the employees do. It might have worked in the past, but in 2021 and beyond, toxic work culture is a big no-no for employees globally.

The present and coming generation of employees want to be empowered by their employer, and they want to be valued for their worth. And to be honest, that’s how the culture should be. We feel that in every organization, the first goal should be to make employees feel satisfied with the culture and working environment. After that, they’ll automatically take care of your company goals!

Remember, you wouldn’t want to spend time working in a toxic environment, so why should your employees?



Kate Williams

Product Marketing Manager at SurveySparrow

Excels in empowering visionary companies through storytelling and strategic go-to-market planning. With extensive experience in product marketing and customer experience management, she is an accomplished author, podcast host, and mentor, sharing her expertise across diverse platforms and audiences.

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