8 Tell-tale Signs of a Dysfunctional Toxic Workplace Culture
Good organisational cultures are… rare in my humble opinion.
Most organisations have cultures that range from neutral/moderate to pretty toxic. Of course, all of us have our own likes/dislikes and tolerance levels for different types of cultures.
Some work cultures are an extension of national cultures/attitudes towards work. If you work in say, Europe, work-life balance is an absolute right and a given. Some other parts of the world, not so much.
Is the culture you are working in toxic? Let’s find out. Here are the 8 signs.
#1 Long hours without much compensation or appreciation for your work
Companies that expect their employees to devote most of their hours everyday, most of the week to their work are crap companies. There I said it.
Most people are alright with putting in a couple of hours here and there, on the occassion when it’s a high volume season/lots of clients etc. Decent organisations recognise that employees have lives outside of work and that people have a right to that.
- If you join and find yourself or your colleagues always working longer hours than usual – observe and ask yourself why. Is it the workload? (If so, why are they reluctant to find more people? No budget? Or they think people should be paid less to do more? (another red flag)
- Is it because people are always in unproductive tasks/meeetings? (Another red flag to me as I’m not fond of bureaucracy and people just wasting their time in unproductive meetings
- Or are people wasting their time/unproductive? Amber flag as this is then down to the individual. But, this could mean that things take a long time to accomplish.
Sometimes you can tell from the way they respect your time at interviews
A lot of the time, you can suss this out in an interview by asking about expectations and sometimes straight up asking about working hours. Or you can just tell from the way they respect your time when arranging for interviews.
I was once at the first stage of interviews with the company, and there was a 12 hour time difference. Instead of allowing some flexibility for MY time, they insisted that they could only do 7am, my time (7pm in their timezone). Seriously? Who does interviews at 7am? Will these people be okay if someone asked them to be interviewed at 7am, their time? I bet not.
At another interview, the founder of a company told me recently that all new employees should know that they’d need to be available at any time to take on work. Meaning, if you are in the middle of a driving lesson and the team is called back, you gotta cancel your lesson right then and there and get back to work.
He also mentioned that I had too many hobbies and will never have time for them. Also commented:
“Why do people here work long hours? Cause they are passionate about they do.”
HAHA sorry dude, I’m not taking excessive amounts of time out of my personal life to pursue YOUR dream – cause that’s what it is. Your dream, not mine. I’d gladly work into the wee hours for my dream, not yours.
Also – how am I supposed to be passionate about a workplace or a job role that I’ve yet to experience? Worse, I couldn’t even suss out during the interview what the job actually entails – so how am I supposed to fall in love with a job role that I don’t know head nor tail of?
If you happen to ask about the work hours during your interview, and you sense some hesitation (especially from different sets of interviewers), take it as a sign that they probably aren’t as flexible as they say.
Most companies who really are flexible/have some semblance of it won’t hesitate to tell you that upfront – because companies know that it’s a major attraction factor for alot of candidates these days.
So if they don’t and you are hearing words like “people work hard and passionately”, “it’s a fast-paced environment”, do clarify their working hours. If a company does tell you they are flexible, clarify what that means. Having 10 hour work days vs the 12-hour work days their industry counterparts have, does not make them a flexible company (yes this really happened at my interview).
#2 Wellbeing is a low priority or not a priority at all
Does your company care about its people? How does it care for its people?
- Do you have the support you need? This could be task support from your line manager or having the support
- How do they react when you fall sick – are you expected to be working through your illness/hospitalisation (huge, giant red flag with a thousand alarm bells ringing)? Are you expected to recover quickly and get back quickly? (another red flag). Do they get annoyed as your illness inconveniences them? (get the hell out of there)
- Do you have a well-stocked pantry? I once worked for a mid-sized company that had a fridge that was always empty and you could never find proper utensils, tea/coffee etc anywhere. I’ve always found this interesting to note that companies who aren’t prioritising well-being don’t usually care about seeing to whether their staff has access to the odd cookie/coffee etc in the pantry. It’s like it never crosses their mind that staff may want to take a break and may feel hungry/thirsty during the 8-hour-or-more day. Strange.
- How are the benefits like? Companies who don’t care about their employees/don’t see them as people would have very little benefits available, and they expect you to be okay with it.
How a company treats their employees when someone is down and out or not at their best health-wise is incredibly telling
An ex-colleague had her dad fall very ill one day, suddenly, and the doctors told the family he had weeks/months to live. As she was working in a different country, she’d fly back to see him each weekend. It was just a 2-hour flight, max. And sometimes she’d take the Friday or following Monday off.
Imagine her utter disgust and anger when top management (which she also was a part of) told her in no uncertain terms to stop taking so much leave and to stop travelling home.
I mean, how utterly inhumane do you have to be to even think of that, let alone suggest that to someone whose father was dying?
Well, her father did pass away shortly after and she unfortunately was away and could not get to him in time. She quit on the spot.
I probably would have done the same.
I draw the line at my physical/mental well-being getting affected at work and if a company can’t even be humane, I sure as hell am not exchanging my time to work with them.
#3 Bullying culture, nastiness and general abuse is normalised
If you’ve worked in places where people communicate by screaming at each other, people in positions of power see no problems humiliating people/treating people like children, you get abusive, scolding emails or you are allowed to get abused by clients and nobody says a word?
Toxic culture alert! Big red screaming flag.
This is one of the fastest ways to negatively affecting your mental health. You will be unhappy, disengaged whilst feeling anxious, on-edge all the time as you have no idea when/who the abuse is going to come from.
Worse if it’s your boss
I remembered once deciding to leave a job as a new line manager was not only a bully – the irony was that she always said she’d champion women but she was the one bullying ALL the women in office. YIKES – she’d send long scolding emails just as people were probably sitting down at home to enjoy their breakfast/just logged into their laptops.
Her emails were incredibly triggering to me, it’d bring up lots of buried childhood stuff and send me into a panic – heart palpitations and all – whenever I saw her name on my phone/inbox.
She was also incredibly aggressive, it was almost like she had a split personality. She once confronted me in office to get me to hand over a card that I rightfully owned. She talked so rudely and condescendingly to me, it was like a teacher/principal reprimanding a nine year old. My parents don’t even speak to me like that.
But after doing all that, she would gaslight you and tell you that her behaviour was not aggressive and she wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Okayyy.
The bonus to this story? After I left the company, she still had the nerve to text me, asking me to Talk about poor boundaries and such a complete lack of common sense.
If you feel anxiety, nervousness or if the culture is making you physically ill, please find somewhere else. Staying in such an abusive culture will eat away at your self-esteem and you’ll start normalising it.
#4 A culture of fear permeates so people are afraid to speak out or voice out what they truly feel
You’ve probably heard of companies that have culture/values that they never live up to. Or leadership tells you they want feedback and innovation and all the good stuff but they never live up to their words. Sound familiar?
The worse is when they penalise people for doing what they suggest, despite the people living up to their culture. The most common would be the constant emphasis on employees to speak up and give feedback, but when employees do so, they are berated, told off and scolded.
Who would want to speak up after that? That’s right, nobody.
Another problem that I’ve seen is people/managers not addressing anybody’s feelings or holding space for emotions. When someone is upset or rattled, nobody provides support, plays down their feelings or just sweeps it under the rug.
Cultures like that don’t provide space for people to be themselves and they do not walk the talk. To be honest, many companies do not walk the talk, so it depends on you and to what extent you can tolerate this.
#5 A culture of not holding people accountable/discomfort with conflict
Some cultures have such a poor track record of holding employees accountable that is no wonder that they have such low productivity and then they wonder what is going wrong. When you are not holding people accountable or responsible for their actions, it gives people the message that they can do anything and get away with it.
And guess what sorts of people love this kind of culture? Yes. The freeloaders, the talkers and those who like to shift responsibility around. I mean, why should they care about holding themselves accountable when their line managers or the entire culture isn’t? This results in a situation where the more hardworking people in the team will be doing everything to hold the fort whilst most of the others will just skive.
This will definitely slow down productivity in the long run.
#6 A culture where people are uncomfortable with conflict
Whilst you most certainly do not want to be working in an incredibly abrasive and aggressive work culture, a culture where everyone is afraid of having conflicts is not going to be very productive in the long run.
What usually happens in a place like that is, passive-aggressive behaviour will be widespread. So – people acting nice in front of you but then gossiping or deriding you behind yor back. You may hear more personal feedback through the grapevine and through gossip than through any official, direct channel.
Passive-aggressive cultures can do a number on people’s self-esteem and trust in the organisation and in their colleagues. There is a sense of unease as individuals do not know if their actions are being watched or if they are being talked about by people who seem to treat them nicely. They are unable to predict when or what form the aggression is going to take.
Communication is indirect and people may tend to read more into words/emails and other people’s actions than they should. So more time and energy is spent on reading the room or reading people’s intentions and managing the potential fallout than doing the actual work.
#7 Last minute, structure-less culture
Overly structured cultures have their incredibly toxic ways. However, cultures without much semblance of structure, where plans are made last minute and without any heads up/warning.
Granted, lots of things at work are sudden and you can never fully predict what is going to happen in your day. But if you are constantly being thrown work at the last minute, asked to change plans last minute etc – it’s not only incredibly annoying, it’s very anxiety-inducing.
At the back of your mind, you will constantly be wondering when is the next thing that is going to come in and when, and you are constantly on vigilant mode/feeling the strong need to be mentally prepared for it.
Imagine constantly being in fight-or-flight mode to deal with a last minute request, that comes in so unpredictably? I’d argue that this is even worse than working in an overly
#8 Toxic leadership
Some of the worst companies I’ve been at had some of the most toxic management teams ever, usually headed by an incredibly toxic, usually very narcissistic leader at the top. It’s amazing how some bosses act like they God.
I feel that every company has its own form of toxicity within leadership. It could be someone who are not pepople-oriented jerks, people who enjoy punishing employees for small mistakes (or non-mistakes), people who verbally and emotionally abuse their colleagues to get what they want etc etc.
Toxic leadership can also take the form of behaviours like piling on workload onto people, disallowing people from taking leave/medical leave and constantly pressuing people to work long hours.
Something to remember is that the top management usually sets the tone for the culture. So if you have top leaders who are aggressive, work long hours and don’t see anything wrong with punishing their colleagues for small mistakes, that sort of mentality will trickle down and spread throughout the entire organisation.
There is no perfect organisation or organisational culture and each organisation will come with its own set of issues. Unfortunately alot of the time, no matter how much information you try to suss out about the culture during the interview, it can be the case where you see how things really are only after you’ve joined them and started working.
I tend not to be the type to advice people to stay in toxic situations as it will do a number on your mental health and your self-esteem. But if you really cannot leave due to contractual obligations or financial responsibilities, take stock of some of the things that you look forward to at work. It could be a bunch of very fun colleagues, the food in the pantry or even the short commute to work.
In difficult times, these things can be the source of your joy and strength, even if in small doses. If you are in a toxic culture like some of those described above, I feel you, and please start your job search when you can.
For the rest of us, these are things to look out for in interviews and also after you join a place. Discern the types of behaviour and culture that you can tolerate, as nowhere is perfect, and stay as long as you can tolerate.
With 10 years of experience as a Researcher (MSc) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Mental Health, Consumer and Organisational Behaviour; I help action-oriented, time-strapped people and solopreneurs crush their inner critics, navigate toxic workplaces and relationships and build their self-esteem so that you can have the freedom, happiness and confidence you desire. I spend the rest of my time daydreaming and downing cups of tea/coffee – my life’s vice. Ask me any question and I will answer it in a post.