Your workplace culture influences how employees interact, communicate, perform, and even how long they stay at your company. A positive workplace culture incentivizes retention, continued engagement, productivity, and growth, while the opposite is true as well.
A toxic workplace culture leads to employee burnout, high turnover, lower engagement, reduced productivity, less innovation, and damage to profits.
The Great Resignation shows just how important it is to correct and prevent a toxic culture in your organization – nearly 4 million people quit their jobs every month of 2021. While many conversations about the Great Resignation focused solely on workers’ discontent with wages and benefit packages, in actuality, a toxic work culture was the top reason employees gave for quitting their jobs, according to a recent MIT Sloan study.
A Voice from the Field: Sim Sitkin, Professor of Management and Organization at Duke University
“What has eroded in our society generally, including our workplaces, is the degree to which different groups trust each other and the degree to which people trust in authority. Businesses and business leaders are more trusted than other institutions, but that trust is still fragile and not as strong as it needs to be.
Fundamental to establishing or reestablishing trust is the belief that those in power truly understand and care about our needs and our aspirations and will treat us fairly. When work arrangements are damaging or disrespectful, when profits are not shared fairly with all of those contributing to those profits, and when a different set of rules are applied to the elite – why would it be surprising that the culture is considered toxic and the level of trust is severely damaged?”
What is a Toxic Workplace Culture?
Disrespect and lack of trust are the hallmarks of a toxic work environment. In toxic workplaces, leaders often disincentivize individual contributions by failing to create psychological safety for their teams. Sometimes, employers may also inadvertently codify toxic behaviors like bullying, microaggressions, micromanaging, and the unequal application of policies and rules. Tolerance of negative behavior leads to several common types of toxic workplaces.
Left unchecked, toxic behaviors lead to a sense of exclusion, separation, and uncertainty at work. Employees feel isolated, unsupported, and constantly on edge, which negatively impacts employee and company performance.
The Cost of a Toxic Culture
Although the cost may not be immediately obvious in year-end revenues or profits, over time, companies pay a high price for failing to correct a toxic office culture. Effective workplace leaders prioritize and balance both the performance of their company and the health of their employees because they know the two are intrinsically linked. Toxic work environments cause high stress levels and frequently lead to chronic health problems, loneliness, anxiety, and sadness. In the workplace, high stress manifests in low employee morale and burnout, which in turn lead to high turnover.
High turnover is exceptionally costly, as fleeing employees impact both productivity and company cohesion. Replacing great workers is expensive, and high turnover makes community and client relationships nearly impossible to sustain. Remaining employees may feel unappreciated and overworked. The onset of these toxic conditions can start a domino effect, leading those employees to eventually make an exit as well. The Great Resignation shows that employees will leave if they feel that working conditions are damaging to their mental and/or physical health.
While the repercussions of a toxic culture impact a company’s revenue and productivity, leaders must also consider the human cost of unsustainable working conditions. Employees thrive when they feel a sense of connection, safety, and purpose in the workplace. All people want to feel respected and valued at work. Unfortunately, the real cost of a toxic culture is that employees have experiences that are antithetical to a sense of true belonging.
Toxic behaviors also are incompatible with organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Toxic work environments negate any DEI initiatives that a company implements because these negative patterns are inherently exclusionary and inequitable, generally relying on different sets of workplace standards for different people or groups.
Is Your Workplace Culture Toxic?
Leaders often struggle to identify and address burgeoning toxic workplace cultures and negative patterns of behavior at work. Despite how common these cultures are, certainly, no leader intends to create one. They are often unintentional and unrecognized, born from an occasionally negative behavior that evolves to a pattern and then into a toxic environment – often without anyone consciously noticing the slow shift in company culture.
Knowing the signs of emerging toxic patterns starts by looking closely at common misbehaviors in the workplace. Here are seven signs of a toxic workplace culture:
- Lack of Established Core Values. If a company does not have established core values, or if leadership ignores those values, toxic patterns may emerge. A company’s core values establish its culture and define expectations for employee behavior. Companies can prevent toxic work subcultures from forming by emphasizing the organization’s values of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
- Pervasive Workplace Gossip. Because workplace gossip is inherently divisive and isolating, it can undermine inclusive initiatives. Gossip leads to a sense of insecurity and distrust in the workplace.
- High Turnover Rates. People choose to leave organizations for a variety of reasons, but a consistent pattern of high turnover is a good indication that employees are not feeling respected, valued, and fulfilled in their workplace. Leaders at organizations with high turnover should examine their workplace culture for signs of toxicity. Companies also need to recognize that not promptly addressing employee departures can prompt toxic behavior if remaining employees feel overworked.
- Overworking. Employees working late nights, through lunches, or on weekends can also indicate a negative work culture. Frequent overtime can also signal that employees view themselves as working in a hyper-competitive environment and are uncomfortable – or feel unsafe – setting healthy boundaries around work. Employees who are consistently overloaded are typically headed toward burnout.
- Lack of DEI Initiatives. Another significant factor in toxic workplaces is a lack of diversity and inclusive practices. When organizations fail to emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), employees often feel excluded or undervalued.
- Casual Disrespect. Leaders need to recognize they set the tone for workplace culture through their own habits of communication. Employees often emulate the actions and attitudes they witness from their leaders. Signs of disrespect include dismissal of employee feedback, passive aggressive remarks from leadership, microaggressions, disregard for boundaries and mental health, casual insensitivity, and outright derogatory statements.
- Inconsistent Treatment of Employees. Toxic work environments often emerge when expectations are not consistent and evenly applied. Any signs of favoritism from leadership may prompt toxic behaviors in employees. Employees notice a lack of accountability when management team members do not clearly implement procedures, unevenly and unfairly apply workplace rules, or reprimand some employees for behaviors that are tolerated in others.
Types of Toxic Work Cultures
Work cultures are as complex as the nuanced individuals who compose the workplace. But, there are three common types of toxic work cultures to consider.
The Low-Trust Workplace
In a low-trust environment, there is little or no psychological safety. In other words, people don’t feel safe sharing their input, ideas, and feedback, and so, they often keep quiet instead. A low-trust workplace values consensus over individual perspectives. Employees in a low-trust workplace often fear that they’ll face negative consequences for pushing back, raising their hands to share a new idea, or calling out bad behavior because they do not trust that the organization is on their side. Over time, the low-trust workplace creates a quietly unhappy workforce and an environment that relies on uniformity and acquiescence – not an environment where the best ideas win.
The Dictatorial Workplace
The dictatorial workplace relies on power, fear, intimidation, and punishment. Often, it perpetuates the old-school, command-and-control style of leadership. In this type of culture, management uses threats, manipulation, and dominance to control employee productivity and behavior. Employees at a dictatorial workplace often report harassment or bullying and a lack of psychological safety. Leadership may even encourage employees to bully one another by rewarding bad behavior with promotions, raises, and better treatment. Such workplaces prompt jealousy, fear, and secrecy, which in turn suppress necessary communication, reduce productivity over time, and increase turnover.
The Disjointed Workplace
A disjointed workplace emphasizes the importance of self-awareness at the leadership level but does not connect organizational values to specific actions that are expected or prohibited in the workplace. Often, a disjointed culture will appear well-structured and hierarchical but, in reality, shows a lack of alignment between stated values and real-life values, making stated values feel performative or disconnected from employee experience. In this type of workplace, there are few checks and balances on management power, and leaders are ill-equipped to address conflict or concerns. Management often holds unclear policies, which leads to unequal treatment and favoritism. Employees with personal connections to management receive promotions and raises, while the rest feel excluded. This environment leads to high distrust, low productivity, and overall confusion.
Transforming Your Workplace Culture
There are many meaningful steps you can take to reverse a toxic workplace culture. Intentional, inclusive leadership is vital to setting a precedent of positive behavior in the workplace, but inclusion is not only a leadership imperative. Every employee must participate in preventing and reversing toxic behavior to create – and sustain – a more positive workplace culture. If you recognize any of the stated symptoms of a toxic workplace culture, consider these suggestions.
The Executive’s Responsibility
Executives set the tone from the top, and are responsible for naming, publicizing, and modeling the organization’s core values, including diversity and inclusion. Remember: your employees are watching and will emulate your leadership behavior, so it’s critical that you lead by example. Learn best practices for inclusive language and inclusive leadership, and work to implement clear and uniform processes for transparency, accountability, and communication.
The Middle Manager’s Responsibility
Middle managers are responsible for applying the company’s core values and policies in their daily leadership actions. It is every manager’s duty to model appropriate workplace behavior, hold employees accountable for disruptive attitudes or actions, and reward those who actively foster and preserve a healthy work environment. Managers are also responsible for setting clear expectations about workloads and work boundaries in order to prevent burnout. Finally, management must apply rules and guidelines consistently, emphatically discouraging any bullying or harassment.
The Employee’s Responsibility
All employees participate in culture, whether intentionally or not. Although leaders set the tone, each individual is responsible for their own behavior and for holding colleagues accountable for behavior. Employees must also actively participate in reversing any of their own poor habits. By participating in DEI initiatives, employees can play an active role in creating a more respectful, positive workplace culture. Employees should take responsibility for their actions, and refrain from falling into toxic habits like gossiping, forming cliques, expecting special treatment from managers, or ignoring company values.
Dealing with Detractors
As leaders strive to reverse toxic workplace cultures, they may notice certain employees are impeding – or detracting from – their efforts. Employee detractors may refuse to acknowledge the impact of their damaging behavior. To shift problem behaviors, leaders should start by holding private conversations with employees and giving gentle, persistent reminders that draw attention to unacceptable actions. Eventually, if employees refuse to change, leaders may need to consider termination. Retaining employee detractors is often incompatible with full culture transformation. One significant part of transformational leadership is acknowledging the extent to which the organization must change in order to create a positive, diverse, and inclusive workplace culture.
A Voice from the Field: Nicole Case, Leadership & Executive Coach
“Toxic work environments go beyond competition, a desire to move up into powerful positions, or simply being negative or unfriendly. In toxic work environments, employees face harassment and discrimination, gaslighting, disrespect, backstabbing, and outright false campaigns against them. Employees are left feeling demoralized, their confidence and self-esteem at all-time lows, and even questioning their sanity.
They don’t feel safe to bring up new ideas, take risks, or make mistakes for fear of what could happen to them — not exactly a recipe for innovative or productive work. Some experience major physical and mental health issues and need to take leaves of absence or resign. Toxic work environments cost companies billions of dollars in turnover and lost productivity.
Employees feel like they are failures, when in reality, leadership has failed them. Toxic work environments don’t happen overnight, but the pandemic and economic uncertainty have amplified what has been simmering below the surface for some time. As we are seeing with the Great Resignation, employees aren’t willing to put up with it anymore.
Toxic work environments aren’t just bad for business – they are abusive. A negative work environment isn’t just the result of a few bad actors. It’s the result of those at the top tolerating bad behavior from their team.
The first thing leaders need to do to reverse a toxic work environment is to acknowledge the role they have played. Then, leaders should take plenty of time to observe and listen. Talk to your employees about what they are experiencing and what they need to feel psychologically safe at work. Leaders may even want to engage with a third-party firm to conduct surveys, focus groups, or investigations.
Once leaders have a full and accurate picture of the situation, they need to take swift and appropriate action. This could mean changing policies, providing more resources for teams to do their best work, and even separating with certain team members. In my experience, it is not enough to merely remove offending leaders from people-management responsibilities. Moving a problem around sends the message that these individuals are more important than having a positive and healthy culture.
Finally, it’s critical throughout this process to communicate clearly and often to the company about what you are uncovering and what steps you are taking. Reset clear expectations for behavior moving forward, and again, take swift action with those not willing to behave in this new environment.”
First Steps to Transform Your Culture
Reversing a toxic culture is essential to helping your organization and coworkers thrive. No matter your role, you have the power to break the cycle of toxicity and transform your workplace. Here are steps you can take to begin reversing a toxic culture.
- Listen to the People Around You. Ask questions, and make an intentional decision to listen to and learn from the people around you. By acknowledging that everyone has unique strengths, gaps, and preferences at work, you learn what others need to increase their engagement, sense of belonging, and productivity. These conversations also generate opportunities for learning and development and show colleagues that you value how they feel at work.
- Learn Best Practices for Inclusive Language. Inclusive language helps establish the foundation of respect, trust, and psychological safety that are necessary for culture change. Learn the 6 core guidelines for inclusive language and the right words to use when naming other people’s identities, experiences, backgrounds, and communities. Deeply-ingrained word choice habits can be difficult to shift. Remember the point isn’t to be perfect all the time, but that practice makes progress and consistency shows intent.
- Hold Space for Others. If you lead meetings, think about which employees speak most often and which ones need more encouragement – or a separate channel – to contribute ideas. When leading a discussion, make a point to ask each person for opinions or comments. This practice makes everyone feel heard and valued. For additional tips to reset the way you hold meetings, see CEO Donald Thompson’s article in WRAL Techwire, “How to lead better meetings: five strategies to foster collaboration and productivity.”
- Interrupt Interruptions. Discourage interruptions by redirecting the conversation back to the person who was interrupted. Say “Wait. I’d like to hear ____ finish their thought.” Gestures like this help frequent interrupters understand that their behavior is unacceptable while acknowledging the valued ideas of the person who was speaking.
- Give Credit Where Credit Is Due. Acknowledging the success and contributions of your colleagues is a great way to raise morale and make everyone feel appreciated.
- Provide Direct Feedback. All employees benefit from direct feedback, whether it comes from their leader or a peer. Constructive feedback and clear expectations help employees improve their performance.
- Pay Attention to Hiring Practices. If you are in a leadership position, reconsider your organization’s hiring and recruitment practices. Unconscious biases often show up in the hiring process. A diverse team can raise awareness of these factors and help mitigate them.
- Address Microaggressions. Make it clear that microaggressions are not acceptable by addressing each one with a quick, firm, and respectful micro-interruption.
- Understand That Mistakes Happen. One key part of facilitating a healthy work environment is accepting that no one is perfect. If you or another employee makes a mistake, apologize or accept their sincere apology. Don’t dwell on the moment, but do apologize, move on, and don’t do it again. Mistakes are human, but making the same mistake repeatedly shows a lack of care and respect.
Outcomes of a Positive Work Culture
Just as there are consequences of toxic office cultures, positive work cultures generate better results. Employees complete projects faster and more efficiently. They show more initiative and creativity in their work, reporting higher engagement, productivity, and fulfillment. And they stay put longer because they feel welcome and accepted. That’s how a positive workplace culture improves retention and reduces employee turnover.
When employees feel safe and comfortable communicating with managers and colleagues, and managers provide positive, constructive feedback to improve their performance over time, the full team benefits from a shift in culture. In addition, team members do not feel overworked and are able to balance their professional and personal lives.
Who Can Help
Culture change can be challenging and can take time, but there are many resources to help. The Diversity Movement’s subscription-based membership program – DEI Navigator – is one great way to get started. Members receive curated content, actionable, expert guidance, change management coaching, and exclusive events.
Katie Gaebel, Ph.D., is the Director of People and Culture at The Diversity Movement. She has spent more than 12 years in career development and learning spaces and has extensive background in higher education and nonprofit work. Connect with her on Linkedin.