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5 Definite Signs That You Work in a Toxic Company

By Marcel Schwantes 2 years ago2 Comments
Home  /  Culture Change  /  5 Definite Signs That You Work in a Toxic Company

Harvard University published a new study by Michael Housman and Dylan Minor called “Toxic Workers.” They conclude that talented and productive people who engage in harmful and negative behavior may hurt your bottom line.

Nicole Torres wrote about it in Harvard Business Review:

Avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer–specifically, avoiding a toxic worker was worth about $12,500 in turnover costs, but even the top 1 percent of superstar employees only added about $5,300 to the bottom line.

If that’s not a wake-up call to your C-suite or HR department, I don’t know what is. There are many telltale signs of a toxic work environment, including these patterns that send good employees out the door.

Sign 1: Look out for gossipers.

One clear sign is a group of disgruntled employees actively acting out their unhappiness. It’s easy to spot them–they’ll congregate in hush-hush circles around cubicles after meetings to put a negative spin on what just transpired.

They are quick to gossip, and even quicker to crucify leadership and company direction. They’re basically corporate teenagers whose time with the company is about to expire, and who now rely on each other for strength and safety.

Keep a close eye out for their whereabouts; they may go out of their way to befriend new hires to vilify someone or something and spread their cancer.

Sign 2: Beware of unmotivated workers.

This usually indicates a fear-based culture lacking the practice of encouragement and respect often found in a caring environment led by strong servant leaders.

A toxic work culture does not welcome employees to offer their ideas, input, creativity, or strengths to the overall company strategy because they are merely worker bees.

Managers dismiss the value of their people and employees are seen as “cogs on a wheel” rather than worthy colleagues and business partners in producing excellence. This will suck the life, energy, and motivation straight out of your employee.

Sign 3: Watch for sneaky managers that hoard information.

This is particularly worrisome if your manager is doing it. Here’s the real reason why they withhold information: it’s about power and control. And control at any level, across any function, or between peers is one of the most effective ways to kill trust.

The opposite, of course, is someone–especially a leader–who acts responsibly by being transparent and sharing information to benefit the whole team.

Sign 4: Watch for managers who act like dictators.

The feeling of watching your back (for your manager’s whereabouts) is never a pleasant one. It means you either fear or loathe your manager, and facing him or her during the day probably means bad news because the exchange is never positive.

This type of manager will create a toxic culture of distrust where it’s not safe to disclose information, offer input, or work in close collaboration.

We’ve been preaching about this over the years as one of eight common management mistakes that lead to high turnover.

Job survival under a dictatorship is day-to-day, due to the unpredictability of the environment you’re in. Everybody is on their own.

Trusting your peers is risky–they may really be your enemies. Trusting your manager is just corporate suicide. Consider updating your résumé.

Sign 5: Watch for stress levels going up and health levels going down.

A toxic workplace is stressful and unhealthy, and over time, people will break down and experience health issues–physical (think fatigue) and emotional (think depression or anxiety).

As more people become discouraged and frustrated under the grip of a toxic workplace, you’ll note a rise in anger, conflict, irritability, and frequent blowups, not to mention more sick days and disability.

Now What? How Do You Zap Your Office of Toxicity?

It is every manager and HR’s responsibility to keep a finger on the pulse of the organization to make sure people are being cared for to do their best work, and that the fear is being pumped out of the room regularly.

As a good starting point, rid toxicity from your workplace by doing these things:

  • Conduct a culture or engagement survey, such as the Gallup Q12.
  • Conduct stay interviews to keep your good people from leaving.
  • Include behaviors like “respect” and “encouragement” into your performance planning and measure it.
  • Invest in leadership coaching for your managers.
  • Share your leadership and let people make decisions.
  • Share and give people access to data and other information to make decisions.
  • The bravest thing you’ll do: expose the problem, talk about it, campaign against it. And be ready to leave with a backup plan in place.

Have you worked in a toxic workplace, or helped overcome one? What would you add to this list?


At Leadership from the Core, our business is developing the types of leaders that people will willingly and enthusiastically follow! If this post struck a chord, subscribe below to receive a download link to a FREE 35-minute webinar….

8 Common Management Mistakes that Lead to Turnover

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  • The Most Common Reason for Voluntary Turnover
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  Culture Change, Leadership
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 Marcel Schwantes

  (21 articles)

Marcel Schwantes is Principal and Co-Founder of Leadership from the Core, a global leadership training and executive coaching boutique with one core purpose: growing leaders and transforming teams and organizations through the best leadership philosophy in the world -- Servant Leadership.


  • Mandla says:

    A great article and and workplace analysis. The worst is when the ultimate leader ,CEO, is the source of toxic influence and callously goes on without sop. The effects are not only felt by the executive team but proliferates in the whole organization. My reading of that kind of environment, is that the leader is totally out of depth in managing the entity or worse still lacks empathy and is a totally disconnected leader. Is it possible to rehabilitate such a person?

    • Marcel Schwantes says:

      Mandla, thanks for your comment. I think the answer to your question, in the best-case scenario where healthy organizations operate on values such as integrity and servant leadership, is never to put such a leadership in the role of influencing others in the first place.

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