Top signs your workplace culture is toxic

Kerry Drury, Culture and Engagement Strategist, O.C. Tanner Europe, discusses how to identify a toxic workplace culture and considers the impact it has on stress

Few workplaces are stress-free, but some have more toxic cultures than others, leading to disengaged staff with poor physical and mental health. The impacts of stress are considerable, leading to 50 per cent more voluntary turnover and being attributed to 80 per cent of doctors’ visits. In fact, according to the HSE, over half of all UK sick days are due to stress.

Toxic cultures can even lead to people compromising their own ethics and values, acting in ways that would normally be ‘out of character’. Morally questionable and illegal behaviours could even result, with the notorious destruction of documents relating to the Enron scandal proving how far people can sink when toxic cultures take hold. But how do you spot a culture that is toxic? Perhaps you don’t realise that your organisation is sucking the life out of its employees and leaving them demotivated and miserable.

Here are the top seven signs which indicate your workplace culture is poisonous and destructive:

  1. A ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality is instilled into its staff rather than encouraging teamwork. This leads to unhealthy competition, including staff withholding information and knowledge, especially if it could mean them ‘getting ahead’. Leaders will permit and even encourage this behaviour, leading to individuals vying for attention and promotion rather than staff working together towards a common goal.


  1. Criticism of others, game playing and politics are permitted. This will be evident in a culture in which individuals push their needs above what’s best for the team. Leaders will allow the bad mouthing of others and may even nurture it by asking staff their “honest” views of their peers. Those staff who don’t involve themselves in ‘political game playing’ will simply be viewed as weak and lacking ambition.


  1. Leaders are controlling and don’t encourage collaboration and advocacy. Power-hungry and manipulative staff who ‘play the game’ will inevitably be the ones promoted to leadership roles. In order to retain their positions, they will be keen to maintain control over their teams, perhaps micro-managing them and ensuring they bathe in their team’s achievements rather than giving credit. Any form of collaborative approach to how the team is managed will be avoided, as will opportunities above and beyond their team’s ‘day jobs’. This will ensure that any ‘shining stars’ who could threaten the leader’s position remain unnoticed.


  1. Staff are terrified of failure, stifling innovation and creativity. When criticism and blame are so embedded into an organisation’s culture, staff will be fearful of suggesting new ways of working in case they fail. As such, the organisation will be ‘stuck in its ways’ and slow to change. Any innovations will be few and far between and most likely brought about by the ‘current favourites’ in the leadership team.


  1. There is an overriding feeling of distrust. Perhaps unsurprisingly, suspicion and distrust will be felt across the organisation. Leaders won’t be trusted to be open, honest and supportive and peers won’t be trusted to ‘have each other’s backs’. Staff will become introverted and morale will be low.


  1. Staff are rarely “thanked” and feel unappreciated. With staff constantly vying for attention and leaders terrified of losing their power, the show of appreciation will be rare. Recognition moments may come in the form of awards for top-performing sales people or when ‘favourites’ are called-out. With appreciation few and far between for the majority of staff, there will be an overriding feeling of being unappreciated and under-valued.


  1. People’s working lives encroach on their personal lives. In a toxic culture, the expectation will be that staff’s working lives come first, and if they aren’t constantly ‘on call’, then they aren’t committed to the company. Emails will be sent all times of the day and night and staff will be expected to reply quickly. And if staff aren’t working late every evening then they simply aren’t showing ambition. Staff who leave work on time and try to maintain a healthy work-life balance, will be frowned upon and are unlikely to experience career progression.


Unfortunately, toxic organisational cultures are all too common, infiltrating all types and size of company. The impacts can be catastrophic, resulting in disengagement, high staff turnover, escalating levels of sickness, stifled growth and perhaps even the collapse of the company, as demonstrated by the liquidation of ethically-questionable construction company, Carillion. When such an industry giant can fall foul of a destructive company culture, it’s clear that no organisation should rest on their laurels. And so if your company might be suffering from toxic culture syndrome, isn’t it time to act?