red flags of a toxic workplace

Red Flags of A Toxic Workplace Culture (And How to Go About Fixing It)

March 27, 2019

When a workplace culture is toxic, employees in the organization typically know about it or sense it very quickly… meanwhile company leaders often fail to recognize the signs of a toxic workplace for a long time.

Why is this?

There are a number of reasons:

  1. Senior leaders of an organization oftentimes aren’t fully tuned into the real day-to-day happenings in their own workplace and with their own employees (whether intentionally or unintentionally), let alone something so intangible as the level of toxicity that might exist in their workplace culture.
  2. Toxic employees often elicit fear in those around them, so other team members are less likely to bring their concerns forward to members of leadership.
  3. Oftentimes, good employees don’t like to bring problems forward unless they have solutions to them.
  4. Employees worry that complaining might give them a bad reputation or prevent them from getting promoted, so they opt not to do it at all.
  5. Toxic employees might have a very good rapport with leaders so other employees are left feeling afraid that anything they would bring up would not be taken seriously.

6 red flags of a toxic workplace

The above reasons aside, how can you as a leader identify a toxic workplace so that you can take steps to fix it? To start, let’s talk about the 6 red flags that can indicate toxicity, particular if they present themselves on regular or frequent basis:

1. Lots of people are leaving and you’re not sure why.

Employees quit their jobs for many common reasons and losing a few good employees is totally natural for any company. However, if your turnover rate is noticeably increasing without explanation, and yet most of the employees who are leaving aren’t forthcoming about why they’re leaving, sharing vague answers like “another opportunity” or “it was time,” you might be dealing with a toxic workplace without even knowing it.

Employees don’t necessarily leave a toxic workplace disgruntled; they leave weary, yet relieved to be leaving an unhealthy situation. And when one employee “escapes”, it inspires others to make the same leap. Take a good hard look at your turnover rate and the reasons behind it if you want to get to the bottom of whether you have a toxic workplace culture that needs fixing.

2. Employees stop talking when you pass by.

If you overhear more gossip than you hear work-related conversations, or if you find that conversations die down altogether (and abruptly) when you pass by employees, there might be some toxicity in your teams. More specifically, this could be a sign that your team members are either overly-focused on non-work topics, or even worse, that they’re tearing one another down – or tearing their leadership down – instead of building one another up.

3. There’s a heavy feeling in the air.

This one is hard to describe, but typically easy to sense when you pay close attention. Are people no longer smiling at or greeting each other? Are people coming into work looking downtrodden and lacking in energy? Do the attitudes throughout the office demonstrate that employees are on edge, rather than light-hearted, motivated and positive? If so, then you might have a toxic workplace on your hands.

4. Nobody speaks up in meetings.

If you schedule meetings hoping for feedback, insight and productive discussion, but nobody speaks up throughout entire meetings, there might be something that’s got employees’ minds preoccupied and unwilling to speak openly. It could be that they don’t feel safe sharing their opinions and concerns without repercussions, whether from leadership or certain colleagues, or there is some other hidden issue lingering in the workplace culture that’s hindering teamwork and collaboration.

5. None of your new hires are referrals.

The best workplaces receive the benefit of word-of-mouth advertising from their current and even former employees. If your referral program is dead and you’re hiring people who don’t know anybody who works in the organization who’s willing to speak positively about working there, there’s a good chance the workplace is toxic.

6. No employees are focused on career growth or leadership positions. 

If you’re noticing that there’s a lack of ambition among your employees, and that new leadership positions are consistently being filled externally because nobody internally has bothered to apply, those are strong indications that the gap between management and team members is wider than you think. It could stem from employees not believing in the company, having doubts about the company’s future, or simply not feeling motivated or inspired by what they’re doing or those around them… but whatever the reason, lack of employee motivation is a sign that there could be something really wrong with your workplace culture.

How to fix a toxic workplace

You can’t fix a toxic workplace overnight, but you can at least get the process started with these steps:

Establish leadership buy-in and awareness.

Get all members of management on the same page about whether you might have a toxic workplace culture and, if so, committed to finding a solution.

Confirm that the signs you’re seeing relate to your workplace culture (and aren’t just individual circumstances).

In other words, keep in mind that a lot of the signs that we mentioned above are more likely to be indicative of a toxic workplace if they appear broadly and across many employees. Because, for instance, if only one or a few employees don’t speak up in meetings and aren’t focused on career growth…they just might not be in the right role or they might have individual issues that are causing that type of behavior.

Challenge your company’s core values.

When making business decisions, challenge yourself to consider whether they reflect the organization’s positive core values. And when hiring new candidates, ask about their values and choose candidates whose values are aligned with yours as a company.

Identify toxic employees and make a plan on how to address them.

Have an open conversation with your troublesome employee(s) and give them an option: commit to showing compassion, kindness and respect in the workplace or leave. If they aren’t able to improve, make good on the consequences you discussed by removing them from the organization.

Empower good employees to be part of the solution.

Coach your strong employees on how to handle conflict constructively, and give them credit when they help resolve workplace conflicts respectfully and productively. And overall, always remember to be open to suggestions for improving the workplace and to also honor your employees’ valuable feedback and input by actually implementing their ideas if they are feasible and likely to improve results.

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Linda Le Phan
Senior Content Marketing Manager at kununu.

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