Recognising the signs of a toxic culture

The right culture can help organisations hire and retain top talent, grow and be more productive. But the wrong culture can have a really negative impact on everything from working environment to the bottom line.

It can be hard to think objectively about a culture you’re a part of — particularly if you’re at a senior level in the business and slightly removed from the day-to-day activities of the company.

Part of the HR Team’s role is to facilitate that ability to step back and think about company culture objectively.

Here are 10 red flags to watch out for that show you may have a toxic culture:

  • 1. The alpha office:

    Do one or two big personalities seem to dominate every conversation? When only a few people feel empowered to speak up, it’s a sign that the business isn’t particularly democratic and you may have a toxic culture.

  • 2. Under performance:

    When someone isn’t meeting their objectives, it’s easy to blame the individual, but often poor performance may be more about a lack of engagement. Whether it’s a lack of resources or a tough line manager, it’s worth scratching below the surface when someone’s performance slips.

  • 3. Micro management:

    Successful companies hire good people then empower them to get the job done. When senior leaders feel the need to get involved in day-to-day operations or leaders micromanage, it’s a sign that something is broken.

  • 4. Lack of communication:

    Understanding why you’re doing something and what you’re working towards is key to being engaged in your work. When tasks come as a surprise and the bigger picture isn’t clear, it leads to a demotivated, disengaged workforce and a toxic work culture.

  • 5. Reluctance to challenge:

    Healthy work environments empower people to ask questions and challenge one another in a constructive way in order to move forward. When people don’t feel like they have a voice, they won’t speak up. As well as being a sign of a toxic culture, this holds real business risks as you’re not fully utilising your people and their ideas.

  • 6. Time-based promotions:

    Understanding why colleagues have been promoted or the expertise a leader brings to that position is crucial to creating professional trust and motivated teams with momentum. When the only reason for a promotion seems to be length of time at the company, it sends a message that it’s ok to coast until you’ve done your time rather than earning that next step through strong performance.

  • 7. Authenticity:

    Talking about changes or culture is easy; putting them in to practice is hard. When a company says all the right things but doesn’t act on them, employees will pick up on this and become disengaged.

  • 8. Negativity:

    Though it’s normal for everyone to get frustrated every now and again, an office where complaining is more common than celebrating is a big red flag.

  • 9. Leavism:

    To perform at our best, we all need time to recharge. A common sign of a toxic environment is when the work-home balance isn’t respected by regularly expecting employees to work overtime or during holidays. Our Health & Wellbeing Index found that leavism is more common than you might expect: a quarter of workers say they feel they’re expected to miss lunch and over a fifth said the same about staying late and missing dinner.

  • 10. High turnover:

    Ultimately, when staff are unhappy, they vote with their feet. If you’re seeing turnover spike either in a specific team or across the company, it’s time to capture learnings from those leaving, engage with employees and take a close look at the company culture.