In every industry, there are some companies or businesses that just seem too good to be true to potential employees. While the hope is that the organization really is that awesome, there are situations where a flashy, outwardly-advertised culture masks a toxic work environment.
Nearly everyone on the LMP team has experienced one toxic work environment — so we understand firsthand the signs and struggles. That’s why building an inclusive culture is so important to us, and why we think it’s vital to share that if you’re desperate for a job, it’s important to learn the difference between a truly wonderful work culture and smoke screens to avoid more problems down the line.
Don’t let a toxic work environment affect your life. Know the signs so you can find the right company for you. In this blog post, we’ll explore:
- What a toxic workplace looks like, and how both interviewees and current employees alike can spot the signs and help themselves find a better work environment
- The effects a toxic workplace can have on employees and teams
- Numerous companies that are guilty of having toxic work environments and how to avoid toxic companies during The Great Resignation
Table of Contents
What is “toxic work culture”?
Toxic work culture is a colloquial term used to describe a workplace/office/business environment that negatively affects employees with common characteristics of infighting, burnout, conflict, and more.
While awareness of toxic workplace practices has stepped into the spotlight much more recently — especially with the “Great Resignation” — the term originated in Japan in the late 1970s in the form of the word “karoshi,” meaning employees who literally work themselves to death.
No workplace sets out with a goal to become toxic, but it’s a surreptitious transformation that leaders and managers can miss if they’re not attuned to the inner workings of their team and are only focused on the company’s bottom line.
Signs of a toxic workplace
So what are the signs that a workplace is toxic? Do tumbleweeds blow past the parking lot? Is there a sense of impending doom and foreboding music as you step in the front door? Can you see the look of panic and fear in current employees’ eyes?
While I’m mostly joking, there definitely is some truth to having a gut feeling. Here are some common signs of a toxic workplace for both interviewees to watch out for and current employees to survey their own situation.
Nearly every breakdown starts with poor communication. Whether it’s a complete lack of communication or inappropriate communication, both can lead quickly to a toxic work environment.
A lack of communication can signal a toxic work culture if it is consistent — and consistently ignored. When employees can’t get the information they need to complete their job or receive no feedback on how or what to improve upon, resentment can build on both sides.
Communication goes beyond face-to-face verbal conversations, though. Poor communication can also be in the form of weak listening, constant off-hours communication, passive-aggressive verbal and nonverbal cues, and more.
Gossip and resentment
Poor communication can swiftly devolve into resentful feelings and gossip. Employees who are told two different things by a boss (poor communication!) may not only have trouble figuring out who is right but spark interpersonal conflicts with each other or the boss along their way to solving the problem. They also may tend to internalize an issue rather than confronting its root cause.
Gossip, which Dictionary.com defines as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others,” is usually hearsay that others share to spark interesting (though unfounded) conversations or drama. However, every adult who’s weathered high school knows how damaging gossip can be, and it’s logical to say gossip is counterproductive to workplace productivity.
Unimpeded gossip can also turn to resentment if gossip is continually believed, spoken, and spread.
An unmotivated team
Energy levels are a great indicator of happiness and satisfaction in the workplace. Though each employee’s demeanor is different and complex, a team of unmotivated employees who spend their time talking to each other and producing lackluster work — or continually complaining or procrastinating simple tasks — may indicate a deeper issue.
Why do these employees feel unmotivated? Is it an issue with the actual work — do they need more instructions or guidance? Is it because they aren’t energized by the work they do? Is there an interpersonal conflict getting in the way of accomplishing a project?
Identifying the root of the lack of motivation may shed light on a potentially toxic work culture. In the first and third scenarios, there’s a lack of communication. However, in the second, this employee may just be in the wrong job (which can also create a toxic environment, but more on that later). In any case, it’s on leadership to set an example of working with intention and motivation.
Turnover rate may be one of the best ways for an incoming or potential employee to gauge workplace culture without actually being in it. As long as the company is being transparent about its numbers, it gives a candidate an idea of how long employees like to stick around. Knowing turnover rate will vary widely by industry and type of job as well as the employee who left.
It’s not guaranteed that the employee left only because of a toxic culture issue (if at all), but reasons for leaving are important to know in case a repeated reason may affect you too. Did they get a job with a higher salary and fewer responsibilities somewhere else? Did a new opportunity with a better work-life balance present itself? Are they making a career shift and leaving the industry completely? Was there a lack of confidence in leadership?
Unfortunately, turnover reasons aren’t usually publicized to incoming employees and may be twisted by the gossip of existing employee speculation.
Bad gut feeling
As I mentioned before, there probably won’t be obvious omens as glaring as tumbleweeds, flashing lights, or DUN-DUN-DUNNN music, but there may be a gut feeling.
For prospective employees, take a look at Glassdoor.com and other job review sites. While it’s important to take each review with a grain of salt — especially because the unsatisfied take to their keyboard much quicker than the satisfied do — getting a picture of consistent issues and positives can give you a better idea of what the culture is like. Red flags for toxic workplace culture in reviews include everything on this list, from cliquey coworkers to poor communication to high turnover. You can also arrive at interviews a little early and either find a space to people-watch (if it’s a large corporate campus) or ask the receptionist to show you to the bathroom and take a peek at how current employees are interacting with each other.
For existing employees trying to identify if their workplace culture is toxic, the most important method to figure that out is to be honest with yourself and your co-workers about what you like and dislike. And, if you’re afraid to be honest, you may have your answer. Self-reflecting on questions like, “Am I excited to go to work?” “Do I enjoy what I do?” and “Is my life progressing the way I want it to go with this job?” can also offer valuable insights on if you’re happy and satisfied. If you feel that work is where your personal issues stem from, you may be in a toxic work environment.
A poor work-life balance
We believe it’s really important to ask current employees (if given the chance) what they like to do in their spare time. If several employees consistently answer “I don’t get much downtime,” or simply answer “sleep,” there may be an issue of burnout afoot. A healthy work culture not only allows employees the correct amount of downtime to recuperate from the day; the workplace also shouldn’t drain a person of all energy so that when there are days off, all the person feels like doing is saving up energy for when they have to drag themselves to work next.
Toxic work culture examples
Unfortunately, toxic company culture examples are all too easy to find, from reviews on Glassdoor.com to subreddits to personal experiences of colleagues.
Personally, I’ve experienced each of the signs mentioned above in more than one workplace in my career. Toxic company culture examples can be seen by many today online, as more employees are coming forward to demand better treatment. Some of the most popular examples include:
- The Ellen DeGeneres Show. In the summer of 2020, the show came under fire from multiple past employees citing a harsh and toxic work culture. The claims alleged that Ellen herself is part of the problem and “one of the meanest people in the business.”
- Amazon. One of the repeat offenders of a seemingly horrible toxic culture is Amazon, with reports out the wazoo of employees making emergency calls for their mental health, firings over raised concerns for employee safety during the pandemic, and more.
- Uber. A 2017 report published in the New York Times cited the company culture as aggressive, unrestrained, and unnecessarily competitive. Alleged horror stories from former and current employees include “workers are sometimes pitted against one another and where a blind eye is turned to infractions from top performers,” “a manager allegedly groping a female co-worker’s breasts at a company gathering, and yet another top employee allegedly shouting homophobic slurs at a subordinate,” according to Cheapism’s blog.
- Goldman Sachs. A former employee penned an op-ed in 2012 to explain why they were leaving the company after 12 years (hint: it was because of a toxic work culture).
Ways to avoid getting sucked into a toxic workplace
Looking for some ways to avoid getting sucked into a toxic culture? We have seven suggestions for you.
- Recognize and remove yourself from gossip circles or cliques. Everyone wants a buddy or group of friends at work, and it’s important to have close friendships in the office! However, it’s also vital to take stock of how these interactions are structured, and if they detract or add to the culture.
- Strive for open communication. Open communication between peers, bosses, and direct reports will always be the first step in alleviating a negative or toxic company culture. By taking small steps (like asking for more instructions, getting feedback, or talking through an interpersonal conflict), a greater base of healthy communication will start to develop on the team, and you’ll be able to avoid unhealthy communication practices.
- Reflect on what you need that makes you happy. Is this the right job or industry for you? Do you enjoy the work that you do, or would you be happier in a position with different projects? Job dissatisfaction can be a powerful catalyst, so self-reflection can help discern if the negativity you feel is directed toward the job itself or the people.
- Trust yourself. If you have a bad gut feeling about a job that won’t go away or be shaken off no matter what you do, it’s time to think about how trusting that feeling looks. Are you able to leave the job? Is its root in more than one problem? Would accommodations like not going to meetings or working remotely enable you to better complete your work in a healthier environment?
- Focus on the work. After all, the reason you get paid is to complete a job or project! Focusing more on work will not fix a problem, but it can give you some clarity, especially if you truly enjoy what you do. In addition, completing projects and receiving positive feedback might improve your mindset.
- Find extra-curricular activities. Work is not everything! In addition to doing what you can to avoid the toxicity at work, having a multitude of activities you like to do in your off-time (like physical, creative, and intellectual activities) can help the workday pass quicker.
- Leave. While we’re very aware that leaving a job voluntarily is a privilege not everyone has the opportunity to take advantage of, we think it’s worth mentioning on this list because no job is more important than your mental and physical health. If the toxic work environment becomes too taxing on your physical, mental, or emotional state and begins affecting your life outside of work (especially relationships), start looking for other jobs or freelance opportunities to allow you to support yourself while getting out of the bad environment.