If you had a toxic work culture at your company, would you know it?

Signs of a toxic work culture aren’t always as obvious as you’d think. You might notice a few little things here and there, but seemingly small issues are often warning signs of a much bigger problem.

Lots of leaders mistakenly believe that a lack of negative feedback means all is well.

In fact, the opposite is true. If nobody has told you that something can be improved, odds are your team doesn’t feel safe enough to tell you the truth.

You don’t hear every conversation and see every interaction between your team members. Do you know the warning signs that your culture has become unhealthy?

Let’s take a closer look at the realities of toxic workplaces.

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What is a toxic work culture, really?

A toxic work culture is a work environment where destructive and unhealthy behaviors are the norm. These can take many forms, but some of the most common behaviors include complaining, absenteeism, micromanagement, harassment, and gossip. People who work in these toxic environments dread going to work.

Not every toxic culture is the same.

toxic work environment

You might hear someone say “that team is full of drama” to describe a toxic culture where gossip is out of control or people frequently take credit for other people’s achievements.

At a company that has problems with aggressive communication styles and harassment of women and minority groups, you might say “they have a serious bro culture problem.”

Right now, we’re noticing a more common micromanagement approach as more teams shift to remote work. Managers don’t know how to check in on their teams or make sure work is getting done, often relying solely on more invasive software without telling their team what they’re tracking and why. Or, they’ll send constant messages that fill up the workday without allowing for focus time.

Here at Hubstaff, we make software that aims to eliminate unnecessary interruptions and check-ins from management. Our tools require users to allow permissions on their device and encourage managers to create a policy that outlines everything they plan to track. Proof of work features, for example, are only active when team members are actively tracking time.

If left unchecked, a toxic culture can lead to a work environment where people feel unwelcome and unsafe.

The cycle of toxic behavior

Toxic cultures take hold in one of two ways:

  • Leaders start the trend with their own toxic behavior, which then spreads as their team replicates those bad habits or responds in a similarly unhealthy way
  • Toxic teammates are allowed to continue their disruptive behavior unchecked by management. Their co-workers see that there are no consequences for those actions, so they may be less mindful of their own behavior. Or, they start replicating those same behaviors, thinking they’re favorable in management’s eyes

In other words, bad behavior is contagious. If left unaddressed, you can accidentally create a cycle of toxic behavior that gradually sends your culture in the wrong direction.

Toxic culture cycle
  1. Toxic behavior happens. Someone publicly insults a co-worker, a manager calls a personal number after hours, or something else happens that contributes to an unhealthy work environment.
  2. That behavior repeats until it feels like a normal part of your culture. One mean-spirited comment is hurtful, but you can resolve the issue and move on. Toxic culture develops when bad habits continue and create a hostile work environment.
  3. Your team stops trusting you. Normally, team members expect their managers to step in and deal with behavioral issues. The more things happen without your intervention, the less your people trust you to handle it. This is true whether the problem comes from teammates or you — it’s also your job to notice and correct your own bad habits. If you don’t, you lose trust.
  4. Team members feel like more extreme behavior is justified. Since you’re not dealing with the problem, you send two messages. First, it’s clear that whatever is going on is okay with you. Second, your team knows you’re not going to help, so it’s up to them to respond in whatever way they see fit. They may start doing something similar, retaliate, or continue testing your tolerance with a different taboo behavior.

This is a simplified version of the psychology that causes negative behaviors to spread at work, but the point is still the same.

If you don’t address your toxic work culture, it’s likely to get worse. At the very least, it’s not going to get any better until you take action.

Create more visibility and strengthen your team culture

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Let’s talk about how to do that.

Recognizing the warning signs of a toxic culture

Most people are on their best behavior in front of the boss. For every toxic interaction you see, there are likely more things happening out of your direct line of sight.

It can be especially difficult to spot problematic behaviors if you’re the one with the bad habits. Even though you don’t intend to create conflict, you might accidentally cause cultural problems.

Leaders often spot culture issues because they see the side effects.

work culture issues

Each of these things can tell you that it’s time to take a closer look at your company culture. If you notice that there are a lot of these warning signs at your company, it’s time to take a deeper look at the cultural issues that might be causing them.

  • Turnover is high
  • It’s hard to recruit people
  • When people leave, it’s often on bad terms
  • You’ve experienced multiple instances where people stopped showing up to work without giving any notice (no-call, no-shows)
  • Absenteeism is high
  • Team members often arrive late and leave early
  • Engagement is low
  • Job satisfaction is low
  • You’ve received HR complaints
  • Current or past employees have claimed they experienced harassment or a hostile work environment
  • Your company has a negative rating on review sites like Glassdoor
  • Your company has a bad reputation
  • Project failure rates are high
  • The quality of the products you produce is low
  • It’s hard to meet company goals and you regularly miss targets
  • You have a hard time keeping clients
  • You’ve never intentionally developed your culture before
  • You don’t have any guiding principles or core values

Types of toxic work cultures

There’s a wide range of culture issues that fall under the umbrella of a toxic culture. Here are some more specific things to look out for.

Us-vs-Them culture

Us vs Them work culture

The most obvious symptom of this kind of cultural issue is an extreme lack of trust.

In this situation, managers believe that if they let their guard down, their team will take advantage of them. Meanwhile, employees feel like they’re being exploited.

This dynamic creates an us-versus-them mentality on both sides of the divide. Instead of building a healthy team where collaboration comes naturally, you end up with a split between decision-makers and people who feel like they have to take orders.

In this environment, managers feel like they have to micromanage in order for anything to get done.

However, micromanagement actually makes the problem worse. More micromanagement leads to lower engagement and less trust, which is exactly the cultural problem you’re trying to solve. This bad management habit also leads to high turnover that costs companies billions of dollars each year.

Watch out for these warning signs that you have an Us-vs-Them toxic culture.

  • Management doesn’t trust employees to do their jobs without constant supervision
  • Employees don’t trust management to be fair and reasonable
  • Team members feel exploited
  • Some micromanagement is normal and even expected. However, these managers believe that if they give any leeway, their employees will take advantage of the business
  • Management uses unhealthy monitoring practices such as tracking computer activity without being honest about if/what/how they are being monitored
  • Managers yell at or insult their team members instead of communicating in a constructive way
  • Team members are secretive about their career goals
  • When someone leaves the company, their manager does not allow them to give two weeks’ notice. They are walked out immediately
  • Managers try to catch team members “slacking off” by constantly checking in throughout the day
  • Rumors spread quickly, especially about things like layoffs, pay cuts, and organizational changes
  • Most team members don’t know the company’s overall goals
  • There’s a lack of transparency in business practices and decisions
  • Team members don’t give any feedback
  • Managers only give feedback during scheduled performance reviews
  • The team is reluctant to talk about issues, so you only find out about problems when they get too big to hide
  • Despite extreme oversight, management feels like they lack visibility and don’t know what their team is doing
  • Team members steal, including both physical theft and time theft

Madison Tong, who now works at My Supplement Store, experienced a culture like this before she found her current position.

In my previous workplace, the management would yell at me for the littlest things or mistakes. You always had to be doing something, and you had to stand for the entire shift. You couldn’t even stand still for one minute. If you did, you would get yelled at. For example, if I finished ringing up a customer, I had to immediately find something else to do, or else I’d get in trouble.

When managers raise their voice and immediately assume the worst when they see a team member taking a break, that’s a strong sign that the culture is toxic.

Bro culture

warning signs of a bro culture

Bro culture is a term that refers to work environments that embrace traditionally masculine behaviors to an unhealthy degree. These toxic cultures embody an extreme work hard, play hard mindset and all the negative repercussions that come with it. They value confrontational attitudes, bravado, and high-risk behavior.

However, bro culture is a lot more than just a male-dominated environment. Although these cultures tend to alienate women and minority groups, the defining characteristics of a bro are the way they act, not their gender.

In the last few years, more people have spoken up about their bro culture experiences, especially in the tech industry. You might have even heard of “tech bro culture” in the news.

In fact, the main cause of turnover in tech companies is mistreatment — specifically discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and unfair management.

Bro culture leaders use embarrassment as a motivator. Confrontation is expected, embarrassment is normal, and macho bro behavior is perfectly acceptable.

This combination invites harassment.

Watch out for these warning signs that bro culture is taking hold in your company.

  • In group settings, the same people always speak while others rarely speak up
  • Leaders and peers feel that it’s appropriate to insult people publicly
  • You hear yelling or raised voices in work conversations
  • People talk over each other and interrupt frequently with no concern for letting someone finish a thought
  • Co-workers insult each other
  • People use derogatory language and humor regularly, and it is rare that someone objects
  • Social events are attended mostly by men, and they revolve around traditionally masculine activities like drinking or competitive sports
  • People make comments about co-workers’ personal appearance or sex appeal
  • You hire women, people of color, or LGBTQ team members that quit quickly
  • Your team is mostly men from similar backgrounds
  • Your entry and mid-level staff is diverse, but your leadership team is all men from similar backgrounds
  • You take an all-or-nothing approach to business strategies, commitment to work, and attitude. Your mantra is “work hard, play hard.”
  • You use partying as a motivator
  • Workism runs rampant and team members derive their entire identity/purpose from their job
  • You receive complaints like these:
  • This is a boy’s club
  • You have to know someone to get promoted
  • I don’t feel safe at work
  • I’m never included in decisions because I’m not one of the guys
  • Your HR is often forwarded emails and screenshots of questionable behavior. Or you don’t have an HR department — a fact that is referenced often by those making questionable comments

Writing this section reminds me of my own past experience. Before I came to Hubstaff, I worked in two different tech companies that had bro culture issues.

At one, the CEO had a habit of commenting on the cup size and general attractiveness of every female business client. I was one of only two female employees, and I could tell that we both felt uncomfortable around the CEO. Many of our clients did, too.

The first time I raised an issue, my manager made it very clear that if I felt uncomfortable, I was welcome to find somewhere else to work. After that, I kept things to myself.

It’s no wonder that 60% of workplace misconduct goes unreported.

One of the hallmarks of bro culture is its exclusiveness. If you’re not part of the bro inner circle, you don’t have a voice in the organization.

That was the case for Nelson Sherwin, who is now the manager of PEO Companies.

After college, I knew I wanted to work in HR, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin. I found a local law firm and thought that would be a fantastic career opportunity. Then I started to notice aspects of the workplace that I wasn’t comfortable with. The partners at the firm had little respect for the team and seemed to take issue when others had ideas. When I suggested some ways we could improve quality of life in the office, the higher-ups not only shot me down, but ridiculed me for criticising how things were done.

These kinds of situations actually make bro culture harder to spot because leadership discourages honest feedback. If you’ve had this type of a toxic work culture for a long time, it may take extra effort to open the doors of honest communication and see what’s going on.

Workaholic culture

Workaholic culture signs

A workaholic culture is an example of good intentions gone bad. You think you’re rewarding the hardest workers and most dedicated team members, but instead, you’re creating an unhealthy work environment.

Your team should have the time and freedom to step away from work and recharge.

Workaholism is more than just working long hours. In a culture that rewards the people who put the most time into their jobs, you can create an environment where it’s hard to shift your thoughts away from work and recharge.

People in this culture feel pressured to meet unrealistic expectations. They feel guilty when they fail to meet impossible standards, and yet they still have a hard time saying “no” when they’re asked to take on another unattainable goal.

Work becomes a constant source of stress.

Even taking a vacation may not help because team members feel like they have to answer emails, be available for questions, or work on high-priority projects. If they don’t work, it still dominates their thoughts.

This toxic environment leads to burnout and other serious health issues. You’re also likely to deal with high turnover and lower productivity as people struggle with their physical and mental wellness.

Watch for these warning signs.

  • It’s not unusual to make or receive work calls outside of normal business hours
  • Your team experiences a high rate of burnout, which can look like:
    • A sudden drop in productivity
    • Irritability
    • Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy
    • Loss of motivation
    • A negative attitude and outlook
    • Exhaustion
    • More mistakes or poorer quality of work
    • Missed deadlines and forgotten tasks
  • People answer emails and messages at all hours
  • If someone doesn’t answer a message immediately, the sender will follow up several times, often over different channels
  • Team members feel anxious if they don’t answer messages right away
  • Team members lack personal hobbies and don’t pay attention to their personal life
  • The people who get promoted are the ones that put in the most hours, even if that level of work is unsustainable
  • Team members are afraid to say no when asked to take on more work, even if it’s not a reasonable request
  • Nobody takes breaks
  • People at all levels are motivated by fear of failure
  • Most deadlines are too short and teams regularly need to work overtime to meet goals
  • People have no time to focus on individual tasks — multitasking is expected
  • Quantity of work is more important than quality of finished items
  • High turnover
  • A common complaint is “You want me to do the work of two people for the cost of one!”

Jeremy Yamaguchi, CEO of Lawn Love, watches out for workaholism at his company by setting limits on how long his team members can work. There’s a set time when employees need to stop working for the day.

He also teaches his leadership team to watch out for overwork:

You also need to train your managers not to reward this behavior. They should want employees to work efficiently, not just win awards for being logged into the work portal for the most amount of hours. That’s not healthy, and when managers reward that behavior with promotions and other opportunities, it sends a bad message.

Another CEO, Andre Kazimierski of Improovy, learned from his own experiences in this kind of toxic environment.

I had a job many years ago in which the management did not make any effort to respect our work-life balances. I would get so many phone calls in the evenings and on weekends, and they usually were not good conversations…I am now CEO of my own company and I make it my personal mission to create a good environment for my employees. We all work remotely, so I have made it clear that I want my employees to be able to completely unplug from the job when the workday is done. Setting boundaries and having empathy as a leader is so important.

If your team is dealing with productivity issues despite long hours, take another look at the checklist. This toxic culture might be to blame.

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Clique culture

Clique toxic culture signs

It’s a great thing to have friends at work. However, there’s a difference between friendships and destructive cliques.

At work, cliques are small groups of people who intentionally exclude their teammates from joining them. Cliques treat people outside of their in-crowd like they’re the enemy, and they’ll often try to undermine their co-workers to gain some kind of benefit for their group.

To create their own advantage, people intentionally withhold information. They want their team to succeed and look good, even if it means that a project fails. In fact, a clique might be happy that a project fails — as long as it’s someone else’s fault.

This kind of a toxic culture is an example of what happens when competition becomes unhealthy.

There are two ways to have the tallest building in town. One is to tear everyone else’s building down, and the other is to build your building taller.

–Jim Rohn

Clique culture can also take shape without people forming groups. If every person feels like they have to look out for themselves, even at the expense of their peers, your culture is toxic.

The hallmarks of this kind of toxic culture are drama, betrayals, and passive-aggressive behavior.

Leaders can create this kind of environment by giving preferential treatment to specific people. If your team feels like you have favorites, they’re a lot more likely to resort to clique-ishness.

Sometimes, this type of toxic culture just looks like extreme corporate politics. But corporate politics should never involve malicious gossip or attempts to make teammates look bad for personal gain.

Keep an eye open for these warning signs of a toxic clique culture.

  • Gossip is common and usually focuses on malicious rumors about people
  • Every person looks out for themself first, so there’s little team spirit
  • Management has clear favorites, or team members feel like there are favorites
  • Team members try to take credit for other people’s achievements
  • When someone accomplishes something, teammates react negatively with jealousy or criticism
  • Teammates rarely celebrate other people’s achievements
  • People try to discredit their teammates, even when they do great work
  • Team members are passive-aggressive with each other
  • People and teams keep information and resources to themselves so that they don’t help their teammates succeed
  • You have a high failure rate for team projects
  • There are obvious information silos at your company
  • Teams are reluctant to share updates and information
  • There’s an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd
  • People and teams are focused entirely on personal achievements and don’t care about larger company goals
  • Complaining is common, especially about other people
  • People are likely to insult or criticize co-workers and unlikely to praise achievements
  • People are likely to brag about their own accomplishments
  • When someone speaks up, they’re unlikely to receive support (except from people in their clique)
  • Complaints may include:
  • There’s too much drama
  • Petty complaints about personal slights
  • Managers play favorites
  • To get ahead, you have to play corporate politics
  • Small incidents are often treated as a big deal while more serious and work-related issues are ignored

Roy Ferman, CEO of Seek Capital, has this advice for leaders.

If you see that a certain subset of your workforce are constantly spending either lunch, their breaks, or any other form of time together, and are purposely excluding others, this is a telltale sign of a toxic environment.

The key there is that they purposefully exclude their teammates. It’s okay — and even healthy — for your team to form friendships with their peers.

Gadget Review CEO Christen Costa points out that the people who want to make themselves look better are rarely the team members that produce the best results.

People who are more concerned about appearing important than being useful] comparatively do very little work, but they always want to seem like they’re the hardest worker in the company. They make sure people in power see them working late into the night, even if they only just started being remotely productive at that time. They take credit for things they have no business taking credit for and don’t recognize the accomplishments of others.

Need to work on your culture? Here’s what to do next

Culture issues are a costly problem.

Every year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles more than 12,000 sexual harassment charges. In 2020 alone, the EEOC dealt with more than 67,000 employment discrimination cases — employers paid $439.2 million in settlements to victims.

On top of that, you have to deal with expensive turnover. Your cultural issues make employees quit in search of a better work environment.

Replacing an employee can cost the equivalent of six to nine months of that person’s salary.

Driving cultural change is a long journey. Here are some tips to help you deal with a toxic work culture.

1. Live your values

Integrity means that what you say, what you think, and what you do align.

Start by listing the core beliefs that are most important to your company. Those might include things like:

  • The best idea should win, no matter who comes up with it
  • Our team should care deeply about the success of the company
  • We make products that solve real problems
  • We want our team members to stay and succeed with us for the long term. None of us are just here for a job; we’re here for the mission

Once you have your list of values, take an honest look at your policies. You might be getting in your own way.

For instance, if you want people to stay with the company and care deeply about the mission, you should practice transparency.

At Hubstaff, our policy is to promote healthy discussion. We encourage people to speak up while making room for quieter voices. Here’s an excerpt from our policy:

At Hubstaff, we strive to implement a culture where the best ideas win. It means that everyone’s voice and ideas should be heard and evaluated fairly. No matter their title, everybody should be able to impact what we build and how we build it.

  • We respect each other and treat each other equally.
  • We speak calmly and never raise our voices.
  • We never interrupt each other.
  • It’s not allowed to shut down other people’s ideas despite how strongly you disagree with them. Instead, clearly explain your thoughts on why the proposed idea might not be the best.
  • In case of disagreement, all participants will back up their position with objective and detailed reasons.
  • Never be afraid of asking other people’s opinions and publicly sharing concerns or feedback. The first step to implement your proposal is to share it loudly.

Think about career development, health resources, and other ways you can demonstrate your values with action. It may be cliché, but it’s still true — actions speak louder than words.

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2. Don’t let things slide

Don’t wait to address toxic behaviors. Reach out to the person immediately to have a private conversation about why their actions are a concern.

Your quick response sends the message that this is important — it’s a high priority and you’re paying attention. If you wait a long time, people may view your lack of urgency as a lack of severity.

3. Accept anonymous feedback and complaints

While you’re working on your culture, it’s wise to set up a tool that allows your team to submit information anonymously.

We use Officevibe for this. Twice every month, we ask the team to answer survey questions to collect anonymous data about how we’re doing. Plus, people can send a message to their manager any time without having their name attached.

Remember that it can be hard for people to speak up, especially if there have been negative consequences for being honest in the past.

By using a tool to collect anonymous feedback, you’re making space for quieter voices to speak up.

4. Reward the behaviors you want to see

A study from the Harvard Business Review found that positive feedback helped good employees become excellent ones. With this approach, 62% of above-average employees moved from the 55th percentile up to the 79th.

Publicly and privately recognize people who embody the behaviors you want to see.

This habit goes beyond recognition. Wherever possible, offer incentives and rewards if people meet specific goals.

It can be difficult to measure cultural behaviors, but some things are specific and measurable enough to set achievable goals.

For example, if your team has a bad habit of competing instead of cooperating, set a team goal that everyone has to pitch in to achieve. If the team meets the goal, everyone gets the reward.

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5. Take complaints seriously

If someone raises a concern, take it seriously. Don’t dismiss it because it only happened once or doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Most of the time, people won’t complain to leadership unless it’s truly important. For every person who raised a complaint, there might be more who decided not to say anything. Most likely, this isn’t an isolated incident.

Ignoring a report of toxic behavior sends the message that it is totally acceptable at your company. Victims are less likely to raise issues in the future. When this happens, bullies become more bold.

If you have a human resources department, report the incident immediately.

7. Hire mindfully

Culture is made up of shared behaviors, but some people don’t want to change the way they act. No matter how many policies you enforce, you can’t force those people to change.

One of the fastest ways to develop a new culture is to hire new people.

Make sure you have a plan to retain those people while you work to eliminate the toxic culture in your team.

“We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them. If you’re willing to do that, then you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is in line with the brand you want to build.”

Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos

Jim Collins talks about this “First Who, Then What” concept in his book Good to Great. He compares businesses to a big bus that leadership is driving:

The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”

If a healthy culture is the destination, you must first make sure that you have the right people on your team.

Final thoughts

As someone who has worked within toxic cultures and now works at a place with a healthy and respectful culture, I understand how a lot of negative behaviors can be downplayed or overlooked in the moment.

It can be tough to see the full extent of cultural issues when you’re still in that environment.

Some things that are very harmful feel “normal” because they happen so frequently.

In other cases, it’s in your best interest not to notice problems. Trying to address the issue might cost you your job — or your top performer.

The fact that you read this article is a great sign. It proves that you’re willing to admit that your culture might not be perfect, and you’re ready to do something to make it better.

What about you? Have you ever worked in a toxic culture? Tell us about it in the comments.

Category: Culture