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21 October 2019

10 Signs Your Company Culture Is Turning Toxic

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yellow poisonous frog in grass

Company culture is a tricky thing to get right. You might have a fantastic mission statement and the most-inspirational core values, but unless your people are living and breathing these at every level of the organisation, they don’t mean much.

What’s more, the success of company culture is not something you can easily quantify – unlike turnover or profit, there’s no clear-cut way of measuring how healthy, or unhealthy, your culture is.

Instead, we must look for certain clues – symptoms, if you will, of a company culture gone bad. If you start to notice these things, there’s a good chance the culture in your workplace is turning toxic.

1. High turnover rates

Most employees – and particularly younger ones – no longer expect or even want to be in the same job forever. The average employee is more likely to view a new job as a stepping stone in their career journey than a job for life.

That said, a high turnover rate is generally a classic symptom of a workplace that is failing its employees. People may not plan to stay forever, but they almost always leave for a reason. That reason could be anything from a lack of opportunities, flexibility, or support, to poor management.

Whatever the reason, the constant coming and going unsettles remaining employees, undermines any sense of togetherness and community, and costs the businesses a fortune in continuous recruitment campaigns.

2. Poor communication

Good communication is essential to any healthy organisation. It allows information to flow freely between individuals, teams, departments, and locations, ensuring that people benefit from each other’s knowledge and expertise.

It also ensures that everyone knows what their goals are, and how they relate to the wider goals of the organisation.

Poor communication, on the other hand, is the root cause of so many problems. It denies employees access to the information they need to do their jobs, or forces them to waste time battling to find it. It causes uncertainty and confusion around the direction of work, and ultimately leads to frustration and disengagement.

3. High absence rates

Everyone gets sick from time to time, but when lots of people are off sick regularly, it could be a sign of a deeper problem. We often view ‘pulling a sickie’ as dishonest, unprofessional, and irresponsible – and in many ways it is. But there is also a more serious side to consider.

If people feel so demoralised, stressed, bored, or fed up that their only option is to fake illness, something has gone seriously wrong.

4. Complaining is the norm

The overall mood of employees is generally a good barometer for company culture. When people start complaining to each other about their managers, their workloads, or anything else work-related, it’s a bad sign.

Generally, employees only feel comfortable complaining to people whom they think will agree. If only one person in a team is fed up, they usually keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of being viewed negatively. When complaining becomes the norm among a team, it’s a sign that most people feel the same way. If those complaints are then made public through Glassdoor, you have a job on your hands not only to solve the internal problem, but to fix your external reputation too.

5. The echo chamber effect

A good indicator of whether your company culture is healthy is whether people feel comfortable challenging established ideas and ways of working. In companies where fear rules over curiosity or creativity, people keep their ideas to themselves, and the status quo is never challenged. Meetings end up being the same people saying the same things, and everyone else agreeing.

This echo-chamber effect stifles much-needed change, and reinforces unhealthy power hierarchies. As a result, those in power stick to practices that perhaps no longer work.

6. A lack of feedback and support

The modern employee expects feedback and support to be given on an ongoing basis, and for their managers to play a hands-on role in discussions around performance, goals, and personal development. Yet many organisations still treat feedback as something to be handed out once a year, as part of an uninspiring administrative process.

If managers aren’t having regular conversations with their employees, how do they know if they are engaged in their work? How do they know what barriers are stopping them from producing their best work? How do they know if their work is aligned with personal and company goals?

7. A lack of recognition

Recognising effort or achievement is such a simple way to engage and motivate staff, but in many organisations, regular people are overlooked, and their hard work goes unnoticed.

Instead of the tired ‘Employee of the Month’ award, which recognises one person out of an entire workforce, healthy organisations promote a culture of recognition, where both employees and managers can call attention to outstanding work at any time.

8. A lack of diversity

You may champion diversity and inclusion as a core value, but the demographics of your boardroom may suggest otherwise. A lack of diversity in positions of power can reveal unhealthy biases, whether unconscious or otherwise, and sends a negative message to your workforce.

And remember: diversity isn’t just about gender or ethnicity. It’s also about personality types, and ways of thinking and working. Diverse teams are more creative for the simple reason that they can approach challenges from more than one angle.

9. A fear of change

In today’s rapidly changing times, companies that refuse to adapt can quickly get left behind. These employers will be the ones still insisting that their staff work in an office five days a week, while their competitors offer flexible working conditions as standard.

This inability to move with the times can be a result of stubbornness, ignorance, or a ‘we know best’ attitude that looks to the past, rather than the future, for inspiration.

In the long-term, this approach not only leads to a disengaged workforce, but also a business facing an existential crisis.

10. Managers never have time for their staff

The modern manager has a lot on their plate. Not only do they have to manage their team, they also have to make strategic decisions about the direction of their team’s work. When there isn’t enough time to juggle both the human and the strategic side of management, the former is often sacrificed for the latter.

The result is a manager who simply doesn’t have time for their people. As a result, people don’t receive the feedback, support, and clarity around goals that they need to do their jobs, ultimately leading to disengagement.

What to do next

If you have noticed some of these signs in your own workplace, perhaps it’s time to look more closely at your company culture.

Some of these issues can be fixed relatively easily – perhaps by embracing a more modern way of working, replacing annual appraisals with real-time check-ins, rethinking the way your business uses technology, or the way your managers manage.

As a result, those broader indicators of a toxic culture, such as high turnover and absence rates, will naturally improve, as employees become happier and more engaged in their work.

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Nick Edwards

Nick Edwards is a Content Writer at MHR

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