What Does a Toxic Work Culture Look Like?

Work doesn’t have to be a lifeless cycle of logging your hours, taking down minutes, downing cups of coffee, etcetera, etcetera. And for organizations, a healthy working environment has become more important than ever.

Company culture is often based on a set of values by which an organization stands. These values often direct a company’s goals and future, but it can be lost amidst all the busyness of the business.

Today, a toxic work culture comes hand in hand with high turnovers. In a recent survey, employees identified toxic work cultures as one of the main reasons for burnout.

But, how do we know if our company has a toxic work culture?

Perfectionism and Poor Work-Life Balance

In a toxic work culture, people work too hard to derive meaning and purpose from the job. This workaholic and perfectionist attitude, although seemingly good for the company on the surface, may hurt the culture in the workplace.

Organizations that promote competition to make employees more productive are especially prone to this issue.

As toxic work cultures result in high turnovers, workloads increase for the remaining employees. The need to increase, or even just maintain, productivity may cause organizations to fall into this poisonous cycle and place employee well-being on the sidelines.

An investigation into Amnesty International’s work culture showed that employees cited a culture of “martyrdom” as one of their main stressors at work.

They cited the following as some of the things that cause stress to build up over time: conflicting priorities and demands, long working hours or heavy workloads, lack of time and resources for the job to be done properly, poor communication from the management, and overly hierarchical organizational structures.

In addition to this, systematic perfectionism serves as the perfect breeding ground for imposter syndrome. This means that high-achieving employees feel like they are fakes and would be exposed anytime due to the slightest mistakes.

What can be done?

Employees shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes—instead, the workplace should become a place for development. Managers, instead of serving as judge and executioner, should become mentors and coaches and offer help without judgment.

The company should also implement policies that encourage better work-life balance.

Management should assign work while keeping employees’ current workloads in mind. One good way of doing this is by having only one manager assign tasks to an employee, instead of several supervisors delegating tasks.

Lack of Communication and Collaboration

A quiet office isn’t necessarily toxic, but if it’s quiet even in the worst of situations, we may want to take a step back and reflect on how our team is faring.

In a toxic working environment, team members don’t trust each other, and they no longer engage in dialogues. We may also observe unhealthy interactions or complete lack of social activity in the office.

Interactions in a toxic workplace are too formal, and it is often a silencing one, too.

People simply stop speaking up even in the face of the most nonsensical ideas. This is results in a “heads down” environment, in which employees don’t express opinions freely and are stuck in the receiving end of communications.

Because of this, employees tend to not push back against unreasonable tasks or heavy workloads, leading to resentment.

When employees do communicate with one another, it’s often done in hushed tones and with strange looks—a sign that the rumor mill is churning.

Information often flows through gossips, and employees’ conversations mostly contain complaints and resentment towards the organization. Social cliques start to form as well.

Toxicity also shows in relationships between managers and employees. Subordinates don’t talk with managers unless it’s to receive orders and instructions.

What can be done?

A good way to check if the workplace is turning toxic is to check the more outspoken employees. This type of employee often struggles in these situations.

If communication is a problem at the office, try decentralizing access to information and resources. Encourage a culture of transparency and community in which leaders place value on employees’ insight.

Take the time to review company values and keep everyone in line with the organization’s visions through relevant employee engagement activities.

Emphasis on rules and hierarchy

Are your employees keen on quoting every rule in the book? This may be another sign of a toxic workplace.

In a toxic working environment, employees are more inclined to adhere to pre-established rules instead of trusting another employee’s judgment or experience. People are afraid of trying something new and would rather stick to what they already know.

The lack of trust not only affects decision-making but team dynamics as well.

Employees also cling to their titles and job descriptions more instead of company values. People become obsessed with their work and overly critical of colleagues.

Toxic workplaces are also prone to talks of punishment with little mention of rewards and celebration for small and big achievements.

A big part of a company culture relies on managers. According to a social psychologist, status often dictates work cultures.

In the workplace, the behavior exhibited by people in higher positions often become normalized. On the other hand, if someone in a lower position acts in a way opposite to the existing culture, they often do not last long and are pushed out.

What can be done?

A great way to overcome a toxic work culture is to improve leadership.

Get managers to be more flexible and influence employees to become more flexible with their colleagues as well. Not everything has to be done by the book. It’s also important to let people be people when they need to be.

Celebrate small achievements to create a more positive atmosphere at work.

Throwing a small get-together or eating lunch together as a means of celebrating also doubles as a way to build relationships within the team.

Normalized Bullying and Discrimination

An obvious sign that a workplace is toxic is if managers or employees bully or harass their colleagues. This is even worse if employees experience this so often that they see this as “normal.”

Employees may also view themselves as helpless against such issues if leadership proves to be weak in fighting it.

Bullying causes many employees to leave. In such cases, we might observe that the company never runs out of new employees, yet the organization itself isn’t growing.

Discrimination, on the other hand, manifests not only in behavior and social interactions. It is also evident in employees’ wage gaps, benefits, and career opportunities.

Common examples of institutionalized discrimination include:

  • assigning tasks to workers based on race
  • rejecting applicants based on race, gender, religion, etc.
  • providing unequal pay to employees of the same level and with similar qualifications
  • denying employee benefits, such as maternity and paternity leaves and retirement options

What can be done?

Choose managers who relate to people better, and don’t be afraid to let go of managers who promote immoral or questionable practices at work. After all, they set the standard of what’s OK or not in the team.

Work with the HR department to figure policies that can help avoid discrimination in the workplace. And lastly, reward successful efforts toward diversity to actively fight against workplace discrimination.