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What is meant by a ‘Toxic Work Culture’?

A Toxic Work Culture can be defined as a working environment that is characterised by negative and hostile feelings, ineffective communication, toxicity among employees and a feeling of not belonging.

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It can also be characterised by a lack of trust, respect and fairness. Working within a toxic culture is not only damaging to the people who experience it, but it also has serious ramifications for the overall success of the business. Toxic workplaces can generally be identified by having very low employee engagement and high turnover of staff. Employees are less likely to feel motivated, engaged, or committed to their work, which affects productivity.

Am I working within a Toxic Workplace Culture?

A Toxic Work Culture often begins with the leadership. Managers can contribute to a toxic culture through various behaviours. An example of this could be managers who play favourites and treat individuals unfairly, or it could be poor communication and failing to listen to employees.

Some other identifying warning signs that point towards a toxic culture could be:

Unclear Expectations When a role is not clearly defined, it leads to confusion, leaving employees feeling lost and anxious about their role in the business. Furthermore, without clear expectations, it is difficult to evaluate performance and identify areas of improvement.

Poor Communication This could include lack of feedback, communication from leadership that is unclear or inappropriate, or a lack of clarity around processes and policies. Additionally, communication within the team can suffer if gossip and rumours permeate the culture, leading to increased stress and mistrust among team members.

Unhealthy Competition When there is excessive competition, such as comparisons between employees or constantly comparing oneself to others, it destroys morale and encourages a negative environment. Unhealthy competition can also result in unfair rewards, as employees may begin to compete for recognition because there is no clear path provided for success.

Poor Working Conditions This could be a lack of resources, an uncomfortable environment, or safety issues that put employees in danger. Poor working conditions can lead to a lack of motivation and feelings of being unvalued. Additionally, inadequate tools might result in decreased job satisfaction and performance due to the lack of support provided.

Micromanagement When managers excessively control and monitor their employees' every move, it creates a hostile and disempowering environment. Employees feel stifled and undervalued.

High Turnover Rates A consistently high turnover rate suggests that employees are unhappy and leaving the company in search of a better work environment. This can be costly for the organisation and damaging to morale.

Lack of Work-Life Balance An expectation of long hours, excessive overtime, or an inability to disconnect from work can lead to burnout and decreased job satisfaction.

Unfair Treatment Favouritism, discrimination, or unequal opportunities based on personal connections rather than merit can create a sense of injustice and resentment among employees.

Inflexibility A culture that is resistant to change or adaptation, where new ideas are dismissed without consideration, can stifle innovation and discourage creative thinking.

Blame-Shifting In a toxic culture, people often avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes and instead point fingers at others. This creates a culture of fear and defensiveness.

Lack of Recognition and Appreciation When hard work and achievements go unnoticed or unappreciated, employees may become demotivated and disengaged.

Excessive Competition Healthy competition can be beneficial, but when it becomes cutthroat, employees may sabotage each other, and teamwork suffers.

Low Moral A pervasive sense of unhappiness, negativity, or apathy among employees can be a clear indicator of a toxic work culture.

Lack of Training and Development Failing to invest in employee growth and development can lead to stagnation and dissatisfaction.

Unrealistic Expectations Setting unrealistic goals or constantly pushing employees beyond their limits can result in stress and decreased job satisfaction.

Lack of Diversity and Inclusion A lack of diversity in hiring and a failure to foster an inclusive environment can lead to discrimination and exclusion, making certain employees feel unwelcome.

Resistance to Feedback When management or colleagues dismiss constructive feedback or fail to address concerns, it can create an atmosphere of hopelessness and frustration.

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When should I leave a Toxic Work Culture?

Questions to ask yourself to check whether your workplace has a toxic culture could be as follows:
  • Are your colleagues tense and easily agitated? 
  • Are you frequently required to perform tasks outside of your scope? 
  • Do you regularly feel like you’re doing other people’s work?
  • Can you pursue alternative methods of getting the tasks done? 
  • Are creative freedom and resourcefulness encouraged? 
  • Would you feel uncomfortable asking for feedback?
  • Are people being guilted or scared into working longer hours to meet certain milestones? 
  • Do your supervisors make you feel guilty when you want to take a day off? 
  • Do employees frequently quit?
  • Do you worry about negative consequences if you make a mistake?
  • Do you feel gaslit in your place of work? 
  • Is your supervisor addressing you in a condescending tone? 

If you are answering yes to these questions, it could be that you are experiencing some negative effects of a toxic culture and it is more than likely that you are feeling undervalued and unappreciated by your employer. No one deserves to be treated in this way, and all employees have the right to be treated fairly and with respect.

MIT Sloan developed its Toxic Five framework, offering a helpful picture of what behaviours signal a toxic work culture.

These attributes (coined the “Toxic Five”) describe what poisons company culture.
  • Disrespect
  • Non-inclusive
  • Unethical
  • Cutthroat
  • Abusive

If the environment in which you work has becomes unbearable, impacts your relationship and/or home life, or jeopardises your health, it may be time to consider finding a healthier new role elsewhere.

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If I leave, how can I stop the same thing happening again in a new workplace?

When interviewing and researching for your next role, be aware of red flags which might alert you to a toxic or negative culture. Make sure you ask questions which will allow you to find out more about the new company you’re interviewing for to help you to avoid finding yourself in a similar situation.

Toxic culture red flags could be:
  • Unclear company goals and values
  • A disregard for your time
  • Unclear and undefined responsibilities
  • No plan or defined path for growth/training
  • Signs of a high staff turnover
  • Irrelevant questions about your personal life
  • Discriminatory comments or gossip about people who may have left the business

Use your past experiences to make a list of things you want to avoid and stick to the list. Trust your instincts and listen to your own intuition. Don’t be persuaded to fall into any traps that don’t feel right or make you feel anxious.

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