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Know if You Are in a Toxic Work Culture

by Rajesh Gotan

When the industrialisation started, employers had domination over workers and employees. There were fewer jobs and employees and workers did not have much choice. Money was the driving factor for employees and workers and alternatives were limited, therefore and they unwillingly surrendered to prevailing work culture, howsoever bad to good it was.

However, in recent times, in no longer an employer’s market.

Employers realise that workplace culture has a profound impact on the productivity of the teams. The day to day wellbeing of employees is a key factor in retaining the talent. The candidates take feedback about the work place culture of the organisation prior to joining.

In a study done by Harvard Business School in 2015 found that nearly 50% of the employees experienced incivility in the work place due to which they reduced their effort and made a conscious choice to spend less time at work.

During Pandemic, organisations got a jolt and were forced to adjust their ways of working very quickly and the existing work culture issues got worse. During this phase, Employers saw huge number of resignations which they never experienced before. They learnt that work culture is very important, no matter how much you pay your employees, the toxic work culture will drive the employees away.

While employees are the immediate sufferers of toxic work culture, but the larger impact is on the employers in the long run.

Sometime the toxic culture is visible sometimes it is not out rightly visible. A leader must endeavour to unearth the work culture issues and should put it conscious effort to build a positive work culture.    

The signs of a toxic work culture that employers and employees must watch out for are as below:

1. Lack of Enthusiasm

The low enthusiasm amongst employees is a clear sign of toxic work culture. A positive attitude and high morale to accomplish tasks is contagious. In positive culture employees smile, speak politely, have fun together and are at ease. On the contrary, employees in toxic work culture look sick. There is a black cloud hanging always. Employees display low energy, lack of interest and joylessness at work place. Employees predict the gloomy future and are anxious.

2. Communication Deficit

In toxic work culture employees are not fully informed and they do not communicate either. Information flow comes to a halt.  Whatever information comes, it one way – flowing from top to bottom. They are directed to act and are not involved to give input information, howsoever important that may be. Employees are afraid to ask questions with the fear of getting singled out. Due to lack of communication, there is no harmony and there is repetition of work.

3. Employees Avoid Their Bosses

Employees are scared of their bosses. There is no element of the respect that employees carry for their bosses, it is the fear that keeps the employees mum. In the meetings, it is only the boss who speaks and no one else. The employees are even scared of getting bumped into their bosses in corridor and cafeteria. It is common for the boss yelling at employees and they endorse negative behaviour. This all flows from the top. If the top boss yells and is rude to with the direct reports, the same behaviour is replicated down the hierarchy.

4. Policies Are Over the Employees  

 The framework of the policies is to support the employees hence the business. People cannot adhere to them all the time even in the best of the companies. A toxic culture puts policies ahead of people and gives no space to people. Even a small deviation from the policies results in some punishment to the employees. This will invariably make the employees stressed and they will not step out of policy zone even if that benefits the organisation.   

 “You only have to do a few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”

5. Employees Do Not Stick to the Organization

When the employees just keep leaving, it’s a prime indicator of toxic work culture. Employees do not stick for a long in toxic work culture – it can be few months. Yes, Employees move out when they get better opportunities, but abnormally high employee turnover is a clear sign that the work culture is toxic.

The feeling of suffocation drive employees to constantly look out for a job where they find a good work culture.

6. There is Groupism in the Office

A office group can add or divide the interest of the rest

There are groups in the office and there is a constant drama and politics. It is not a healthy friendship that people form with people having common interests and traits in the organisation. There is a constant battle between departments and functions and people. In toxic culture, the groups and people work against each other. There is no healthy competition – people backstab, sabotage and blackmail. 

The top bosses have sort of enmity against each other and such a culture actually stems from there. The bosses force employees to form their own cliques.

7. The People in the Middle Rung Are Redundant

Whenever employees reach out to middle management, even when they understand and agree that there is an issue but can do nothing about it is a sign of a toxic work culture.  All control of policies, processes and resources is with top bosses – they control things the way they find it appropriate. The individuality of the bosses takes over and best practices are not implemented. These top bosses are not accessible and they do not delegate. In such a culture the middle management does not see any chances or growth or advancement. Employees are the sufferers as they find no way to get the help. This can lead to apathy of employees and they making their own rules – they start to lie and give excuses

8. Fear of Failures in Employees

The employees find their bosses uncaring. They have consistent fear of failure – there are unfair punishments even on small mistakes or errors. They avoid taking risk and are not motivated to try new things.  Not every time there is a straight way or formula in the work – the fear of failure prevents the employees to think independently to figure out solutions. This makes work getting stuck resulting in loss of organisational efficiency.


It may look like the sufferers of the toxic work culture are employees. But the ultimate sufferer is the business. Therefore the onus of building a good work culture lies on management. It can be built with the involvement and feedback of employees.

Remuneration is an important part but it plays second fiddle to work culture. Therefore employers must build good work culture consciously and consistently.

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