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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB)

Toxic work culture: Identifying the signs and addressing the causes

Signs of a toxic work culture

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Anyone who’s been part of a great company culture knows that it boosts productivity and wellness both on and off the job. And anyone who has experienced a toxic work culture knows that it leads to just the opposite: pervasive feelings of stress and disengagement that quickly lead to a search for other opportunities. If you’re concerned that your organizational culture is exhibiting signs of toxicity — and if you want to take steps to build a more positive culture that contributes to employee and business success — take a look at this guide to recognizing and addressing the causes behind toxic work cultures.

What is a toxic work culture?

A toxic work culture is an environment characterized by pervasive negativity, fear, and dysfunction. Employees in a toxic culture often feel undervalued and unsupported — but the impact of a toxic workplace culture extends beyond individual team members, impacting the organization as a whole. It disrupts teamwork and collaboration, as mistrust and competition replace cooperation, while making harmful behaviors related to bullying, favoritism, and discrimination the norm.

A toxic workplace culture can also damage your company’s reputation with consumers and potential employees, making it difficult to attract top talent and valuable clients. High turnover rates also become more common as employees decide to escape the negative environment. These and other effects compromise your company’s performance as toxicity erodes the foundations required for a thriving business. That’s why organizations that want to ensure long-term health and success must identify the signs of a toxic culture and move quickly to address the factors driving it.

The signs of a toxic work culture

The symptoms of a toxic work culture can vary from company to company, but there are some signs that are seen time and time again. Here are five of the most common:

  • A low retention rate can indicate problems with organizational culture, as employees are much more inclined to seek opportunities elsewhere when they feel unhappy and frustrated with their work environment.
  • High stress levels are a strong signal of a toxic work environment. Stress can result from unrealistic expectations, an excessive workload, and a lack of support from leadership and peers.
  • Cliques and exclusionary behavior reflect deep-seated cultural issues at an organization along with a failure of leadership.
  • Low employee engagement is often the result of a toxic culture where team members aren’t recognized, there isn’t a clear company vision, and the connection between daily tasks and the organization’s long-term goals aren’t clear.
  • A lack of trust between employees and management is a major sign of toxicity, whether caused by inconsistently applied policies, unfulfilled promises, or other instances of perceived dishonesty and unfairness.

The causes of toxic work cultures

Now you know what to look for when deciding whether an organization’s culture is toxic — but what are the root causes? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest drivers of toxic work environments:

  • Poor leadership is a major driver of toxicity in the workplace. Leaders that micromanage, bully, or fail to provide clear direction create a stressful and demoralizing atmosphere for their team members.
  • A lack of recognition for employees’ efforts and achievements makes them feel invisible and unappreciated, reducing motivation and causing resentment.
  • Ineffective communication can disrupt a workplace like little else, whether it takes the form of providing misleading statements, poorly communicating directives, or keeping certain employees out of the loop.
  • Unmanageable workloads quickly lead to burnout and drag your organizational culture down. Unrealistic expectations and constant pressure bring out the worst in any employee.
  • Discrimination and bias in the workplace has perhaps the most destructive impact on company culture. Employees who experience or witness unfair treatment based on race, gender, age, or other factors are likely to feel alienated and very demoralized.
  • Inconsistently applied company policies and practices lead to confusion and resentment among the workforce, eroding trust and creating a toxic atmosphere.

6 ways to combat a toxic workplace culture

Creating a healthy workplace culture requires addressing the causes of toxicity while supporting positive behaviors at every level of the organization. Here are six effective ways to combat a toxic workplace culture.

1. Build an employee recognition program

You’ve just crossed the finish line of a multi-month project critical to your organization’s future — successfully, no less! Or perhaps you’ve simply turned in another day’s worth of solid work. In either case, you deserve to be recognized, and if appreciation is never or only rarely forthcoming, you’re not going to keep putting in the same level of effort. You might even start looking for employment elsewhere, or complain to coworkers about the lack of recognition — and you’d have every right to.

It’s easy to see how inconsistent recognition can lead to a toxic work culture. If you want to avoid this at your workplace — and instead keep employees motivated and productive — begin by implementing an employee recognition program. These initiatives encourage frequent acts of recognition by making them fun and easy, leveraging the capabilities of modern employee recognition and reward platforms. The best recognition tools offer accessibility on any device, engaging social recognition features, and point-based reward systems that let every team member provide tangible forms of appreciation along with words of thanks.

2. Give your employees a voice

Providing team members with opportunities to share their thoughts, concerns, and suggestions is an important part of any healthy workplace. Support employee voice at your company through a mix of feedback channels, like pulse surveys, team-wide and one-on-one feedback sessions, and HR chatbots. Your company can leverage an employee engagement platform to centralize and analyze input from all these sources and more, guiding leaders as they attempt to address the issues employees raise and build a culture everyone can take pride in.

3. Promote effective leadership

If you’re seeing signs of a toxic culture, problems with leadership are one of the first things you should investigate and address. Leaders should be held to the highest standards and act as culture champions, modeling the behavior they expect from their teams. This means being honest and direct in all their interactions with employees while establishing clear, reasonable goals and expectations. It also requires offering ongoing support and feedback with the aim of building up employees and helping them succeed, rather than dragging them down with criticisms they don’t know how to act on.

Start addressing leadership issues by evaluating current hiring practices for managerial and executive positions. Your company may need to place a greater emphasis on positive personality traits and the ability to lead with empathy, rather than solely focusing on the candidate’s skills and experience. For current leaders, establish training programs to educate them on how and why to engage in successful leadership strategies like practicing transparent communication, coaching rather than micromanaging, and working to empower their team members. With these resources in place, begin evaluating leaders’ performance more holistically, and heavily weigh employee feedback when determining whether and how leaders need to improve.

4. Develop clear and consistent company policies

Your organization’s policies — along with how your company’s HR professionals and leaders interpret and enforce them — can be the decisive factor in whether your company culture is toxic or a contributor to business success. Well-written and thoughtful policies act as guidelines for expected behavior and decision-making, reducing the possibility of favoritism and ambiguity-driven conflict. It’s simple: when employees understand and trust the rules, it creates a stable and fair work environment.

All policies should be well-documented, communicated clearly, accessible to every employee, and applied uniformly across the organization. They shouldn’t be set in stone, either — as your organization’s values and practices change, update your policies to reflect them. Importantly, draft and enforce policies with an eye to keeping employees happy and healthy, instead of wielding them like a tool used for the sole benefit of your organization. This approach fosters significant goodwill among your workforce and leads to a level of sustainable success your company might otherwise struggle to reach.

5. Address employee wellness

Overworked, stressed out team members are both a symptom and a cause of workplace toxicity. Employee wellness requires an organizational commitment to ensuring team members are physically and emotionally healthy. This involves everything from keeping workloads manageable, to providing flexible work arrangements, to offering wellness resources like mindfulness training. It also relies on leaders who understand the importance of employee wellness and keep it in mind when setting goals, assigning work, and communicating with team members.

6. Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are much more than buzzwords — they’re one of the best ways to keep your organization culture from becoming toxic while promoting innovation and a sense of belonging. It isn’t a very complicated concept: when employees see that diversity is prioritized at every step of the employee lifecycle, they’ll understand that negative, discriminatory behavior won’t be tolerated. When they notice everyone has the same opportunities to succeed at your company, they actually trust in what your company says and engage with its initiatives. And when they find that diverse perspectives and experiences are valued and embraced, they feel more included and confidently show their real selves. So if your company is serious about avoiding toxicity, start prioritizing DEI.

Change your organizational culture for the better

Your company can take concrete steps to fight toxicity and start developing a winning culture today with the help of the Achievers Employee Experience Platform. With features for listening to your workforce — and acting on what they say — along with recognizing and connecting team members no matter where they are, it’s built to turn culture into a competitive advantage for your organization. See for yourself by checking out a free demo of the Achievers Employee Experience Platform.

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Profile image of author: Aleksandra Masionis

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