woman frustrated at her desk

What Does a Bad Work Culture Look Like?

What does it mean to have a toxic work culture? Here, we discuss how it shows up for us and the problems it can cause for a company.

Is your company struggling to retain top talent? Is recruiting difficult? Is the lack of teamwork noticeable in meetings? 

Maybe you notice no one can actually communicate with each other. There is a general sense of unease among employees. It seems like no one really wants to be there. 

Businesses that thrive create a work environment people actually want to be a part of. The people at your company are your top resource. Isn't it worth it to establish a work culture that keeps people engaged and excited to be a part of something?

At MacklinConnection, we have worked with businesses with serious work culture problems. This resulted in loss of revenue and an inability to keep enough employees on board to function properly. But, by shifting focus to creating a better work environment for everyone, these businesses have grown beyond what they thought they were capable of. 

Here, we discuss what a bad work culture looks like and how it can impact your company.  

What Does Bad Work Culture Look Like?

Deb Dendy: So what does a bad work culture look like to you?

Kara Large: I notice it more as how I feel going to work, and how I feel leaving work, and how I feel when I'm thinking about work. And there's a sense of dread. Driving to work, you feel jittery or your stomach hurts. Or there's a lump in your throat where you already feel like you're going to cry.

So, for me, first a feeling would show up. Then I could point to specific things like someone's going to come in and yell at me. Or you're always worried someone is going to blame you for something failing. 

I also notice a bad work culture has a stringent hierarchy, where people are treated differently according to status. For example, the receptionist is treated differently than an assistant who is treated differently than maybe someone who was more established with the company. The pecking order is clear and leadership and management talk to people differently depending on their standing. 

Something else that stands out to me is creating an environment where people are actually not encouraged to be friendly with each other. I worked at several companies that felt like an elementary school where people would get moved around the office because they were too friendly with each other. If you got too chatty with your desk mate, you'd get moved. So you felt like you were 7 again. That attitude was "This is work and you guys can be friends on your own time." 

Or, in office meetings, you start to get nervous walking to the meeting. You would think, "I don't know how this is going to be, and I'm really scared." Someone's getting in trouble every time. It doesn't matter how good things are going. It can always be better, and that's always being hammered. 

Deb Dendy: How willing were you in that situation, to share your ideas?

Kara Large: Not at all. It was a situation where I would only want to speak up if I was explicitly asked. I felt that no matter what I said, it's going to be wrong. It's not going to be appreciated. Or maybe they're not going to even get it, because there was such a close minded atmosphere that had already been created. So you don't feel like anything you say is valuable because they've already figured it out, and they just want you to do what they're telling you to do.

Deb Dendy:
Well, I can tell you, for me, the clear sign is Sunday night. I've barely had a good weekend, because it takes Saturday to decompress from the bad culture. And then Sunday, after dinner, all I'm thinking about is, "I have to go to work tomorrow. I have to go to work at that place. And I have to not be myself, not share my ideas, with people who don't believe in me."

And it feels bad in the pit of your stomach. So many people are sick on Mondays because it's that feeling of "I don't want to be here."

You relive it every weekend. 

And that for me is the clear sign of a toxic culture. 

You also mentioned blame. That's also part of a bad work environment. Others are not taking responsibility for what is happening, but always looking for who else to blame. 

This is part of a work culture where you don't believe anyone you work with believes in you. So there's backstabbing. People are telling you about other people behind their back. You know that they're also saying things about you behind your back, right? Instead of actually offering help or advice, everyone just talks down on the person that might be struggling. So you could go to work every day, never knowing that you were the one that needed help, except everyone talked about it.

And this is a lack of care. There's a lack of care for the people. And, instead, only the outputs they're supposed to produce matter. And when they don't produce those outputs, something's wrong with them, rather than something's wrong with the culture. 

Benefits Don't Compensate for a Bad Work Environment

Deb Dendy: The company could be offering these great external perks, right? Maybe they have different outings or events or really good food in the break room. But that's just a mask when the culture isn't good. No one even wants to go because you don't want to see your coworkers.

Kara Large: Oh, yeah, I'm thinking about how there's certain holidays like secretary's day or administrative assistant day. There was one place I was working where everyone would get to go out to lunch for administrative assistant day - everyone in the company. No one wanted to go. We didn't have a great work environment. So it felt like just another thing that you had to do. But it was supposed to be this fun reward. 

It was the same thing when the company would bring lunches in for holidays or special quarterly events. Nobody even wants to go to the break room because we didn't have good working relationships with each other. We were scared of our bosses. We didn't want to run into them and have to fake like, "Oh, this is great." You were forced out of your office. At least in your office you could hide and not have to confront the awkwardness, or the tension, or the passive aggressiveness, or the full on aggressiveness. Yeah, the food is nice, but it would be really nice for us to not be yelling at each other.

How Does a Bad Work Culture Start?

Kara Large: Where do you think a bad work culture comes from?

Deb Dendy: Well, I think it starts with your purpose for the company. For example, if you really don't care about people, that doesn't create a great place to work. You think that people are only there to serve your purpose, and you just want them to do exactly what you want them to do. In this environment people are just cogs in the machine. Anyone is seen as replaceable. 

So what is your purpose for the company? Are you working in a company whose purpose is to provide great products, but also to care for their people and to help them create a good life?

Or are you just really there for the profits?

If it's all about the profits, it really shows up in everything.

And I also believe a bad work environment can form from fear. I think that there's a lot of fear that people don't talk about. And when you're scared, it feels like not believing in yourself. And if you can't believe in yourself, especially if you're a leader, you look more like a micromanager. If you are afraid and don't believe in yourself, you might mask it by acting like the smartest person or by telling everybody what to do. So then they won't know you're so afraid.

Bad Company Culture Prioritizes Profits Over People

Kara Large: Going back to what you were saying about profits, I feel like there was a time when that worked. If your intention was only profits, that was somehow maintainable for a company. I'm thinking decades back. Yes, there were companies that were focused on the people. And those companies did well. But then there were the companies that were purely profit driven, and they were still able to stay in business. 

There's been some kind of shift, I think. 2020 really helped catapult that, and got people thinking more long term about what would actually make them happy. And now you absolutely cannot be profit focused anymore. You have to be people focused in order to keep up.

The innovative, creative people can't just be replaced with a machine, right? You have to focus on cultivating an environment that people want to be in to be able to remain competitive.

There was a time where you could have a poor work environment and the company wouldn't suffer all that much. But now it seems like we've reached the limit for that. And if you are purely focused on profits over people, and you aren't cultivating a work environment people actually want to be a part of, you're not going to be able to succeed much longer.

Deb Dendy: People now have choices. Whereas in other decades people didn't necessarily have a choice. And now that people have choices, they're doing the research on companies to see, "Is this a company I want to work for? How do they treat their people?"

And it's not just about what benefits. It's really about how a company treats people. You can see it in the indeed reviews or the glassdoor reviews

For there to be a mind shift in a company, someone has to realize the company has to adapt to what people want. Otherwise you could end up with no employees. You could end up not being able to produce products or services, or whatever is needed, because people genuinely don't want to work at the business.

That's a real threat companies are going to have to take seriously if they want to create an actual change in the culture. 

Employees No Longer Settle for a Bad Company Culture

Kara Large: And this is already happening all over. I don't know a single fast food restaurant in town that doesn't have a hiring sign up at all times. There's fast food restaurants that have had to completely change their hours of operation, or menu items, because they just don't have the the same ability to retain employees anymore. And there's lots of industries like that that are experiencing hiring shortages. The construction industry is another one that I can think of immediately where there just isn't enough people willing to subscribe to an old model of doing business where they're not being treated like humans, and they're being run ragged. And so they just aren't doing it anymore. 

My background is in law, and this is happening even in the legal industry. I'm watching colleagues of mine go through this who I thought would never leave the big firm environment because it's so lucrative. But I have watched half a dozen classmates that I graduated with leave their big cushy law jobs in favor of more untraditional positions. They can't take the toxic environment anymore. 

I've known people who have quit big tech jobs to drive for Uber because they want to be free. They aren't being treated well. So they decide to create their own life. The money isn't worth it anymore.

It feels like we're living in a time where there are so many options, like you said, not just within industries. You can create your own business or have some kind of passive income. So people aren't necessarily stuck being treated poorly. They can only take so much before they're willing to to say, "No, this isn't right for me."

Deb Dendy: I mean, I left a lucrative position to do something that was more existential.

Bosses used to think, "Everybody's just working for the money. So as long as I keep paying them they're going to keep working." And people are now saying it's not just the money. Yes, that's a part of it. But the other part of it is existential. People care about how they feel working for a company. And they also care about the ethics around a company, too. Does the company pollute? Does the company pay attention to how they treat the environment? All of these things matter.

In the past those things didn't matter. People wanted that paycheck. And, today, people need to take care of their concerns, and they want the paycheck, but that's part of it, not the whole thing.

Is Your Work Culture Impacting Your Business?

Are people slowly starting to leave your company? Or is your business a place people want to work? 

Creating a work environment where people feel safe to contribute ideas and enjoy collaborating with each other can improve retention rates and make your company a place people are actually proud to work for. Instead of being metric focused, shifting the purpose to valuing people over profits, allows the metrics to get met anyway. If your company is a place that people want to work, everything else falls in line. When people are treated well, they want to contribute. They want to succeed. And they will show up fully.

Whether you are already in a leadership role, or looking to influence a more positive environment in your workplace, we are here to help you improve your company's work culture. You can Schedule A Consultation with one of our executive business coaches to learn more about how we can work with your company.