Is Your Company Culture Toxic?

No organization’s culture is perfectly healthy.

But there are some organizations where the culture is toxic — way beyond the ‘normal dysfunctional’ level. These cultures tolerate or encourage behaviors that suck the life out of people. And no matter how great a business’s strategy, marketing, and financial operations are, a toxic culture will poison business success.

How do you know if your company culture is toxic?

Here are a few signs:

  • Leaders can’t be trusted. I know of one senior leader who openly stole new accounts from the junior sales reps she oversaw. I know of another senior leader who routinely lied to make herself look good. More subtle are ‘little white [collar] lies’ and corporate spin and lack of follow through. I’m all for healthy competition and proactive image management. But when leaders aren’t trustworthy, this taints the whole culture; you can kiss a healthy culture goodbye – along with your healthy employees, who won’t put up with it.
  • Screaming, swearing and demeaning language is the norm. Managing by intimidation and bullying sometimes gets the job done – in the short-term. But is the fallout (higher attrition, lower engagement, stalled careers, and excessive stress) really worth it? And is management by intimidation the only option? No and no.
  • People have no life outside of work. Some industries, companies, and careers are notorious for working long hours. Add to this a disregard for people and their need to sleep, see family, or do anything other than work, and that’s a recipe for hazardous waste. (E.g., A boss gives an assignment on Friday afternoon and asks for turnaround by Saturday or Sunday when this weekend crunch could have been avoided. And that’s the norm.)

Does your organization show any of these toxic signs? If so, here are some tips to help steer the ship back into healthier waters:

  1. Help influential leaders face the painful current reality. Presenting a combination of hard statistics (e.g., attrition, employee engagement survey scores and $bottom line impact, if possible) and personal stories can be effective. One organization first presented the abysmally true statistics, and then they had each top leader sit down with a group of people who had been affected by the negative behaviors in their culture. I remember seeing light bulbs go on for these leaders as they viewed the truth with their heads and then their hearts – and ‘got it’ for the first time.
  2. Help them see the inevitable future. If attrition is trending alarmingly high, show top leaders the hit on projected net income (and their bonuses) if this trend continues for 1-2 more years. Gulp.
  3. Get rid of the ring-leader. You’ll need to convince this person’s boss with hard-hitting evidence that there’s no other option. See 1 and 2 above.
  4. If leaders aren’t willing to change, then plan your exit. Get regular sanity checks from objective outsiders to help you assess when it’s time to quit banging your head against the wall and, instead, spend your energy finding a different non-toxic organization.


Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.

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