One of the biggest things a leader must guard against is the onset of toxicity in their workplace. There are plenty of easy-to-miss signs that your workplace is toxic which contribute to reasons your best employees quit. But there’s also more than enough work to be done in just spotting and acting on the most surefire, blinking neon light signs of a company culture about to go really south.
Help is on the way, as research pinpoints just what those signs are. A study was conducted in September by Public Relations firm Weber Shandwick in which they combined their own insights with interviews with PR crisis managers, an analysis of peer-reviewed articles, and a 1,000 person survey of workers across industries –all to determine what best predicts when a company’s culture is about to experience a crisis-worthy adverse event.
I took the biggest, most common signs from their research and added to it with my own perspective having built many cultures over a three-decade corporate career. The number in the parentheses is the percent of surveyed employees that agree their company is not vigilant in the corresponding area.
1. Value for the company over company values (37 percent).
We’ve all experienced pressure cooker environments where the need to produce results is more than palpable, it’s omnipresent. There’s nothing wrong with pressure, the best perform well under it; it’s a part of being in business. The problem arises when that pressure translates to unrealistic deadlines, overly aggressive sales targets, poorly thought through incentive systems, and overbearing management with much to lose that squeeze the workforce relentlessly.
Such environments cause people to stray from company values, and personal values, to do morally questionable things to hit their numbers. In times of adversity, we reveal our true character. But when it’s made to feel like a workplace is in constant adversity with continual high volumes of pressure applied, human nature dictates corners will be cut. Costly corners that can even lead to illegal activities and a company culture in crisis.
As an example, in 2017 Wells Fargo and their questionable sales practices led to a public cultural meltdown requiring painful damage control and rebuilding of consumer trust. A product of the environment they created.
2. Reprehensible behavior from top leaders (32 percent).
Employees take cues from those at the top, both good and bad. When CEO’s at stalwart companies like Barnes & Noble and Papa John’s(to, unfortunately, name just a few) engage in sexual harassment or racist behaviors, how are employees supposed to feel? Betrayed, is how.
Perhaps more common are smaller violations, when top leaders are willing to push ethical boundaries of fair competition and accounting practices to achieve artificial success; when what is achieved overtly overrules how it’s achieved. When you sense this sentiment from the top, look out below.
3. Absence of accountability (27 percent).
There may be nothing more frustrating in the workplace than when poor performers or cultural offenders aren’t held accountable. A lack of accountability encourages employees to not bother reporting incidences and makes them callous about engaging in them themselves. The idea of collective stewardship becomes a joke and the culture veers towards toxic as integrity and any value system whatsoever fly out the window.
4. Insufficient investment in people (25 percent).
No good can come from this. Damage can range from an untrained workforce that drags down output, productivity, and overall results. It can also produce a lack of cultural understanding that leads to issues like what Uber experienced, as the Weber Shandwick study points out. The study cites that consultants found ethics violations and sexual harassment were the cultural norm among more than 3,000 Uber managers, and its 15,000 employees were given no understanding of Uber’s strategy.
An extensive training effort followed, including 6,000 employees being trained online by Harvard professors on leadership and strategy. All good efforts, but too late to avoid a major public relations nightmare.
5. Lack of diversity and inclusion (18 percent).
Environments that have too many people that look, think, and act alike means gaping holes in cultural sensitivity are bound to appear. A diverse, inclusive workforce not only amps up the quality of decision making (as diverse viewpoints get blended into the mix), it also serves as a system of checks and balances to ensure one swath of opinion or way of looking at things doesn’t get too dominant.
In any company culture, you want employees feeling welcomed, at ease, and like they’re being treated fairly. A lack of diversity and inclusive spirit makes this far less likely.
These are more than just signs of a broken culture, they’re predictors that things are going to get worse. Spot them, name them, and reverse course.