Coworkers huddle around a crystal ball letting off a green glow to find the source of their toxic work culture
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By the time we’re midway through our career, most of us have experienced a toxic work culture—or at least a few red flags. And yet, creating a healthy work environment is something every company claims to prioritize.

There are plenty of toxic workplace practices to watch out for. Whether you’re building an organizational culture from scratch, trying to fix an existing one, or wondering if it’s the right time to quit your job, here are just six signs of cracks in the foundation.

Organizational Behavior and Leadership

Ever wonder what makes a great leader? Whether your role requires leadership or not, understanding organizational behavior is useful for your career. This course from GLOBIS Unlimited can set you on your way.

Poor Pay

It’s worth mentioning salary tables right up front—after all, people work to get paid.

Every company needs to put careful consideration (and transparency) into how it compensates its people. And that “how” needs to reflect company values.

Does a longer tenure at the company push someone up the ladder? Or is it experience that makes a difference? Or education?

Also keep in mind that your organization doesn’t exist in a bubble. No company should ignore market rates and economic trends like inflation—at least not if they hope to hold onto the strongest talent. HR might like to believe salaries are private, but people talk. There are almost certainly rumors about how many zeros are on the directors’ Christmas bonus checks.

Poor and unfair pay is one of the top drivers of the Great Resignation. A 2021 PEW Research survey found that 63% of employees cited low pay as a major reason for quitting—a factor that tied with no opportunities for advancement.

Speaking of which…

Infographic showing 6 signs of a toxic work culture
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Blocking Internal Mobility

We’ve all heard the stories from the golden age of Hollywood: A young go-getter gets a job in the mailroom, and just a few months later, he’s personal assistant to the CEO.

When was the last time you heard a story about a guy who happily spent forty years in that entry-level mailroom job?

Though some people see work as “just a paycheck” and don’t care much about promotions, there are many more who want to change things up. That could mean climbing the ladder to the C-Suite, changing departments to expand a skillset, or transferring away from an ill-fitting position or team.

A strong company culture allows internal mobility for employees who want it. A toxic work environment locks people in place forever, or near enough to it.

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Ignoring Achievements

People who do well generally like to be rewarded for their effort.

This doesn’t mean throwing a party for everyone who meets their KPIs. In fact, a unified approach to praise runs the risk of disrespecting some individuals’ authentic selves. Different employees will want a different show of appreciation from their employer. Some expect a monetary bonus, but others prefer extra time off, a pizza party, a gift card, or even a shoutout in front of the CEO.

A healthy corporate culture clarifies goals, establishes that there will be rewards, and then (this is crucial) tailors those rewards so they are meaningful to the team members receiving them.

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Looking for Loopholes

There’s nothing more toxic than a company that goes out of its way to squeeze value from its employees without giving anything back. It’s like a hotel charging for Wi-Fi. Are those extra few bucks really worth the inevitable bad reviews?

A company that says, “Yes, we will pay overtime except in the following cases” or “You have precisely one hour for lunch and not a minute more” is putting its own interests above the needs of its workers.

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Be generous to your employees, and they will be loyal in return.

Putting Customers First (No Matter What)

“The customer is always right” may have a certain ring to it, but in the age of Karens, we know the price of treating customers like gods.

In addition, we’re witnessing the decline of shareholder capitalism, in which profits and shareholder return are the ultimate drivers of business strategy. The future, by many accounts, is stakeholder capitalism. That means everyone with a stake in your company—customers, employees, suppliers, etc.—should reap the benefits of business practices.

For that to work, companies need to let go of the toxic obsession with customer feedback as the singular sign of success. A healthy workplace culture is often more important.

Big Brother Micromanagement

The COVID-19 pandemic created a distributed workforce—generally, a good thing. Unfortunately, going remote digitalized one of the top signs of a toxic work environment: micromanagement.

There’s no better way to say “I don’t trust you” than to literally track your employees’ every move. Luckily, it’s really easy for leaders and managers to avoid this toxic culture hallmark: Just don’t do it.

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Any organization considering digital monitoring software should take a moment to ask themselves why they don’t trust their people. The next step should be a conversation with those people about how to fix any known issues.

Employees need to feel like they’re part of a solution, not a problem.

Turning Off the Toxicity for a Healthy Work Environment

It’s scary how easy it is for toxic work culture practices to creep into any workplace, despite the best of intentions. One minute, your boss is asking you to push a little harder to reach the end of a sales cycle, and the next thing you know you’re buckling under allostatic overload.

Work-life balance and psychological safety are a big part of the conversation nowadays, but the old concerns about salary, micromanagement, and employees feeling like insignificant cogs haven’t gone away.

It’s up to leaders to regularly remind themselves what a healthy work environment means. If you find yourself suffering under leaders who fail to do so, give yourself permission to detox and look for something new.

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