We spend eight hours a day at work. Some of us see our coworkers more than we see members of our own family. We want our work to be satisfying and meaningful, and as human resource executives and business leaders, we want to create companies where our employees want — rather than need — to be. Increasingly, companies are investing more heavily in developing motivational and positive employee experiences, knowing that the payoff will be engaged and productive employees. Sometimes, however, managers take their eyes off of the ball, resulting in a toxic work environment.
So what is a toxic workplace, exactly? While all jobs have an element of stress, for some, going to work (or even the thought of going to work) is enough to fill them with dread or depression. A toxic environment can have a physical effect, while also impacting employee well-being and mental health. A toxic workplace makes employees feel unappreciated, uncomfortable, and undervalued — hardly the recipe for a high-performing and productive team. In fact, toxic company cultures can have a very real impact on a company’s bottom line.
We all like to think our companies are dynamic, motivational places that our employees are proud to work for. But are you familiar with the signs of a toxic workplace culture? Below, we’ll explore red flags and signs of a toxic workplace that should be addressed immediately.
A toxic work environment can cause an employee to hate their job. When they dread coming to work, one of two things can happen:
- The pressure, tension, and stress can present in physical symptoms, leading to employee burnout, illness, and fatigue.
- The employee is so put off by work that they take any opportunity to avoid going to work, even if they feel well.
Both of the options above lead to an increase in employee absenteeism. If you notice levels of absenteeism increasing, this could be a sign that your workplace is turning toxic.
On the other side of the coin, you might notice that your employees are turning up to the office even when they are ill. This might be because they are worried about taking even one day off work because they feel it will reflect badly on them. Presenteeism is just as concerning as high levels of absenteeism. If your employees are ill, they should feel able to take the time they need to recover and recuperate, without fearing reprisal.
High Levels of Voluntary Turnover
Unsurprisingly, if your employees aren’t content at your company due to the toxic work environment, they will likely be on the lookout for a new job or for a company that will appreciate and value them more. A high turnover rate is a sure sign your company’s culture is far from motivating.
Lack of Recognition and Reward
We all need to earn a living, but hardly any of us want to work for money alone. We want a job we care about; we want to contribute to something greater than ourselves; we want to know our efforts and hard work are being noticed and appreciated. Employee recognition and reward should be something your company takes seriously. If it doesn’t and your employees aren’t receiving this positive feedback, they will ultimately become disgruntled and frustrated. Thankfully, acknowledgment doesn’t have to be costly — there are a lot of low-cost ways of appreciating your employees.
Poor Employee-Employer Relationships
Managers are an important part of the employee experience. In fact, it’s been shown that managers account for a 70% variance when it comes to employee engagement levels. This is one of the reasons many companies are beginning to incorporate regular one-to-one performance reviews, or check-ins, where employees and managers can develop trusting relationships and employees benefit from productive coaching conversations.
Toxic working environments can rapidly emerge when leaders are intimidating authority figures who are rarely, if ever, present. Similarly, if a manager is unsupportive or dismissive, this can lead to poor morale. Consider how often your employees meet with their managers, how often feedback is exchanged, and whether there is a lack of communication in your organization. If you feel things can be improved, provide managers with appropriate training on how to deliver feedback effectively, how to motivate employees, and how to develop authentic workplace relationships.
Nobody Appears to Smile or Have Fun
An obvious warning sign of a toxic work environment is low levels of enthusiasm. Next time you take a walk around the office, pay attention — are people smiling? Do they appear happy to be working there? Or are they clearly miserable, keeping themselves to themselves and watching the clock?
There are real benefits to employees developing good relations at work. Informal discussions can help to improve levels of collaboration and feelings of teamwork. If you feel this is an area that can be improved, consider putting effort into creating a more social workspace.
Infighting, Workplace Incivility, and Bullying
Sometimes managers turn a blind eye to workplace bullying and incivility — after all, grown adults can deal with their differences independently, right? The problem is, the longer you leave these problems to fester and develop, the more ingrained they become in your company culture. Make a stand and let it be known that your company won’t accept infighting, rumors, or unhelpful and negative communication. Become familiar with the different forms of workplace bullying and how such behavior can lead to a hostile workplace.
Employees Seem Scared to Take a Break or a Day Off
Have you noticed that your employees always spend lunch at their desks? Do you tend to reward employees who are the first to arrive and the last to leave? Mistaking hours spent in the office for actual productivity would be a mistake. It’s what you get done while at work that matters. What also matters is a healthy work-life balance.
It might be that you have inadvertently created a company culture where your employees are afraid of leaving their desks or taking a day off. To remedy this, managers will have to take the lead. Take lunches outside and remember to take the occasional day away from the office. Let your employees know that it is okay to prioritize their friends and family the way they prioritize work.
Employees Have Stopped Asking for Development Opportunities
When was the last time your employees discussed opportunities for development? It’s altogether possible that they have stopped asking because they have been knocked back one time too many. But training and development are important to the modern employee. Top talent won’t be satisfied to remain at one company for a long period of time unless they are being challenged and given the opportunity to grow. Managers should be regularly meeting with employees to discuss opportunities for development. Consider putting together a personal development plan — and stick to it. Employees will become quickly disillusioned if this is a tool you simply pay lip service to.
Certain Bad Behaviour (from Certain Employees) Gets Excused
Do you have an employee at your organization who seems to get away with a multitude of sins and bad behavior simply because it is “Matt being Matt”? This is a good sign of a toxic workplace — you are effectively saying “We should really address his attitude … but we’re not going to”. Poor behavior simply can’t be excused because it’s coming from a top performer or someone with seniority. You can’t allow yourself to play favorites. If you wouldn’t accept the behavior from a new employee, you shouldn’t accept it from an existing employee.
Employees Are Unwilling to Venture out of Their Job Description
Particularly with SMEs, you expect (and need) employees to pitch in when and where they can. They need to adapt to shifting priorities and get things done, regardless of their role or position. When your employees are engaged and content at work, they will more than likely be happy to chip in and help, even if they’re not strictly obligated. When employees regularly do only the bare minimum and refuse to help out in times of trouble, this is a sign your employees don’t care about the company or its culture.
Employees Throw One Another Under the Bus
If you have a happy, healthy company culture, your employees will act as a team and support one another. In such a culture, an employee also benefits from psychological safety, meaning they are confident about owning up to their mistakes. If you have a toxic company culture, when an employee feels threatened, they will throw a coworker under the bus to avoid blame or repercussion.
Your Employees Have No Autonomy
If employees are constantly monitored and micromanaged, they aren’t likely to thrive. A lack of autonomy can breed workplace hostility and toxicity. You want your employees to have a sense of ownership over their jobs, but this can’t happen if they are being told exactly what to do and how to do it. It might not be easy, but managers need to take a step back to allow employees to flourish.
Employees Have Been Stuck in the Same Roles for Years
It’s a good sign if your employees have stuck with your company for years — but not if they have been in the same role the whole time. Toxic workplaces are unable to recognise good performance and promote promising employees. They tend to keep employees in the same positions for years because they don’t want to have to deal with the fallout of finding a replacement. If this isn’t rectified, your employees will become disillusioned, and your company will gain a poor reputation, making future recruitment efforts more difficult.
Employees Never Get the Chance to Give Feedback
Giving employees feedback is, of course, important — but feedback needs to flow both ways. When was the last time you asked your employees for their insights on your workplace culture? Your workforce is a goldmine of useful information. Regularly solicit information from your employees on how you can streamline and improve the employee experience and conduct regular employee surveys, and it will become clear to your team that their voices and opinions genuinely matter.