person frustrated sitting at desk

3 Characteristics of a Toxic Company Culture

If your business isn't a place where employees are engaged and contributing, could your company culture be the problem?

Are people "quiet quitting" at your company? Is there a general lack of engagement? Do people show up and just do the bare minimum? 

Or maybe people are actually quitting. You are struggling to retain a talented workforce to keep your company operating. Forget about growth - you're worried about just staying on track without being able to keep people on board. 

It isn't enough for a business to be focused solely on profits anymore. In order to remain competitive and thrive in today's marketplace, your company also needs to be a place people actually want to work. 

When people enjoy their work environment and feel valued by the company, they want to contribute. They want to share ideas. They work together and provide help. There is more creativity present because people want to solve problems. The innovation that is present in a workplace people actually want to be a part of gives companies a cutting edge. 

Here, we identify three qualities that contribute to a toxic company culture:

  • Lack of care for employees;
  • Not allowing people to be themselves; and
  • Distrust in the workplace.

Not Caring About Employees Results in Negative Work Culture   

Kara Large: What characteristics does a company have where people don't want to go to work? 

Deb Dendy: I think people start to dread going to work when no one at the company cares about other people. If no one cares about people, they will do something at your expense to get noticed and be better. There's yelling. There's a lack of respect for others. Leadership does not hold people accountable for their behaviors in the workplace. 

I think there's this hierarchical structure that sets this up. You have people in certain positions that don't have to play by the same rules. 

Kara Large: To me, that indicates a general lack of caring about anyone at the company. It's more centered around self-interest like, "What can I do to get ahead?" Because if you really care about the people you work with, you don't necessarily care so much about getting ahead or who's getting the best assignments. You just want everyone to be successful. 

When you don't care about others, you do whatever you need to do to get by. It can show up passively. And this looks like someone only doing what they have to do to make it to the end of the day. Or it can show up as someone doing everything to get to the top at the expense of others.

Both of these don't seem like they would be great for a company in the long run. You have people who are disengaged and just do the bare minimum. They're just trying to get by because they know nobody cares about them. So why show up fully? Or you have people who are very engaged, but maybe not in the best way. They are more interested in how they can succeed than in how everyone can succeed.

So if leadership is not caring about people, and if everyone within the company is not caring about each other you have a bunch of individuals just running around doing their own thing instead of a cohesive team.

Deb Dendy: If you genuinely had care for your employees, it would show up in care for your customers, too.

Kara Large: If you don't care about your employees, then they're not going to care about the customers. That becomes a public facing problem, right? Customers notice when employees don't care.

Deb Dendy: You probably have been to a store where you could tell an employee doesn't care about their work. They are just there to get a paycheck. Because they don't feel like anyone cares about them.

Kara Large: I know as a customer, it makes me uncomfortable.

Deb Dendy: Yeah. How likely are you to want to go back to that place? Then you go to a place where the employees are treated well. I want to go back to that place because of the way I was treated there as a customer.

Kara Large: That reminds me of Zappos customer service. Talking with them is like talking to your best friend. I think they're one of the companies that's consistently recognized for having such a positive work culture. Every other customer service line I dread. They don't want to be there. They're not being taken care of. As a customer you notice if an employee cares about what they're doing. And that signifies their company cares about them.

How does lack of authenticity contribute to a toxic work culture? 

Kara Large: Another aspect, I think, that contributes to a toxic work environment that people don't want to be a part of is feeling like you have to put on a mask. You show up, and you can't be yourself. You have to act like how you think you're supposed to act, so you're exhausted. You feel like nobody knows the real you. 

Deb Dendy: There's this idea that you have to be a different person at work, for some companies.

Kara Large: But you're always you. You take yourself everywhere. So then you have to compartmentalize different aspects of you. It makes you feel like you don't really matter. And then I think it contributes to a lack of creativity at a company if you have to partition yourself.

If you have an idea, you might not feel comfortable sharing it. You don't feel seen as you are, so why put yourself in a position to be seen and to be heard? It's almost like you're expected to be a machine. You show up. Do your work.There's no room for you to be yourself or to think outside of the box.

I think that impacts a company's ability to evolve. If you have a bunch of people showing up, and they're just being treated like machines, not like the people that they are, where is there room for growth and creativity and engagement?

Those are the things a company needs to be able to be competitive and to be able to thrive. You need people thinking outside the box. You need people being human and not machines. That's where innovation comes in.

Have you worked in an environment where you couldn't be yourself?

Deb Dendy: Early in my career, I was working as an engineer and worked mostly with men. My first job out of college there was a quota. So 10% of the people going into the training class had to be women. Sure enough, there were only 3 women out of 30 in the class. At the end of this training class, we all got recruited to work in different divisions of this company. Our boss pulled the 3 of us aside and said, "You guys were recruited last. I want you to know, because this might be indicative of what you're going into." 

I thought I would try to fit in as much as I could. I'll try to be more like a man, right? So I would put up with some behaviors that were not appropriate. I was worried that if I didn't, they'd treat me differently. I thought I had to put on a mask to fit in.

That didn't allow me to give of myself until I had one specific leader.He allowed me to be who I was. And I followed him. For 30 years we worked together in many different companies because he believed in me, and he allowed me to be who I was, and that made the world of difference for me.

Kara Large: So when you can be yourself at work, it's not as exhausting. You can just show up. You're more willing to want to go and to stay. Like in your example - you stayed with the one person for 30 years, right? In a time when companies are struggling to retain employees and are having difficulty recruiting, why wouldn't you want to do everything you could to ensure that people want to stay.

Deb Dendy: As a company, it's important to notice people leaving your organization. Why are they leaving? Why are they saying they're leaving?

Kara Large: Are you giving the room to be themselves? Is there something in the work culture that's telling them they have to hold back?

Deb Dendy: There may be a decision a leader knows they have to make to give people an opportunity to really be themselves and share what they think.

Why is distrust bad for a company?

Kara Large: What does it look like if there isn't trust at a company? Why is lack of trust bad for a company?

Deb Dendy: I've had experiences where managers didn't want to give their employees constructive feedback. Rather than do that, there's this rumor mill around the person. And when someone else is telling you about someone, you know they're talking about you, too. So it builds this general distrust. 

Kara Large: So nobody wants to work together. If you know that people are talking about you, I would avoid interactions. It's like walking on eggshells. And then you're not free to be engaged in your work in the same way or with your team. If your team doesn't trust each other, what's the point of having a team? You're not a team, right? You're not actually working together. 

Deb Dendy: It's like a football team where everybody has a different playbook. How could you ever score a touchdown? How could you ever do anything together when everybody is not on the same page. Without trust, there's no coordination or collaboration. It's just a group of individuals.

I think when you start seeing that lack of trust seep in right, that breakdown impacts the way that you work together. You're always questioning if someone is going to actually help you, or if they are only going to take care of themselves. 

Kara Large: But if the leaders trust their employees, it's more difficult for other people within the company to have competitive, disingenuous exchanges with each other. And then people will actually collaborate.

Do people want to work for your company?

According to a recent MIT Sloane study, a toxic work culture is the number one driving force behind people leaving a company. If your company isn't a place people want to work, you might not be able to survive, let alone thrive, in today's marketplace.

Whether you are already in a leadership role, or looking to influence a better environment in your workplace, we are here to help you create a work culture everyone wants to be a part of. You can schedule a consultation with one of our executive business coaches to learn more about how we can work with your company.