With HR battling both a turbulent jobs market and the ongoing Great Resignation, the last thing they need to worry about is a toxic work environment.

However, it seems that toxic workplaces are a big worry for many people. For example, an article in Forbes published in June this year reported that Google search volumes for “toxic work environment quiz” had increased a staggering 700% in April 2022 alone!

Forbes’ article appeared at the same time as McKinsey published their own report into why employees are leaving their jobs in record numbers. Based on their findings, they postulated that employees are re-evaluating their relationships with their employers, and many are not liking what they see.

company culture toxic employees

In addition, our own research conducted in February this year, discovered 54% of employees had left or would leave a role if the company’s core culture was poor. Clearly, despite the financial hardships we’re all enduring thanks to the cost-of-living crisis, people are more than prepared to leave a job if they don’t like working for their employers.

It makes sense then, that HR keep on the lookout for the signs of toxicity in their working environments. But, what do we mean when we talk about a ‘toxic workplace’?

Defining what a toxic workplace environment is

A toxic workplace is one where drama and dysfunction are commonplace. It’s a culture that encourages cutthroat working environments, turns a blind eye to poor or abusive leadership and does little to prevent discriminatory work cultures.

If your organisation has a poisonous culture, the work, the people, and the environment can cause unhealthy levels of mental stress that can spill out of the workplace and affect people’s personal lives. In turn, this can decrease a person’s overall quality of life and hinder their professional growth.

When a business has a toxic work environment, it’ll more than likely experience lower levels of productivity, find it tough to hold onto employees for a significant amount of time, and encounter difficulty attracting the best talent.

If you’re concerned a toxic culture may be stifling the success of your business, these are the biggest red flags HR should be looking out for…

Gossip and bullying are considered normal

It’s typical for friendship groups to form in businesses – especially if you’re spending 7-8 hours a day with a team! There is a danger, though, that workplace ‘cliques’ can emerge where gossip becomes normalised and bullying is excused as just ‘banter’. This is something HR teams should pay close attention to.

Although joking around with colleagues in the workplace can seem like a bit of harmless fun, more malicious behaviour excused as ‘friendly banter’ can take its toll on your employees. If left unchecked, inappropriate workplace behaviours can quickly escalate into harassment or bullying.

At worst, people can start believing they can get away with anything and won’t ever be held accountable for their actions. This is something that should never be tolerated in a healthy work environment.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are you seeing higher churn in some teams than others that you can’t explain?
  • Have employees flagged any concerns with you that indicate there could be a problem?
  • Are pulse surveys indicating a downturn in employee trust and motivation?

No clear DEI initiative

Toxic workplaces can develop very quickly if members of staff across gender, race, sexual identity and orientation, disability and age don’t feel they are treated fairly, welcomed or included in key business decisions. Having a diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) policy in place that everyone knows about is something that can help reduce that risk and ensure a more inclusive and welcoming workplace culture for all.

It’s also worth noting that the CIPD predict that more robust diversity, inclusion and equality strategies will be a core workplace trend for 2022 and beyond. This is because DEI strategies have become an essential aspect of building engaged and happy employees. In fact, organisations with strong DEI initiatives are more likely to have employees with increased job satisfaction, engagement and higher levels of trust.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are people from underrepresented groups noticeably lacking in leadership positions?
  • Are employees from diverse backgrounds moving up through your organisation or are they leaving after comparatively short periods of time?
  • Do pulse surveys show that your employees don’t feel comfortable reporting racism, microaggressions, hate speech or bullying behaviours?

Purely top-down decision making

Teamwork and collaboration are two big parts of a healthy work environment. They help generate fresh ideas and new ways of working, and can help foster cooperation between teams and departments. However, a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to leadership can be a tell-tale sign that a toxic working culture has developed.

In this situation, decisions will come from higher up the managerial chain and won’t include input or consultation from other members of staff – even though they may have vital insights or direct understanding that could help.

When communication or decision making becomes one-way traffic, it can lead to managers and their employees making up two separate groups that rarely interact. As a result, there’ll often be no consensus on how to approach a project or solve a problem. Key business decisions will be poorly informed and, from a cultural perspective, employees will become discouraged from sharing their feedback or ideas – stunting creativity and driving workplace disengagement.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are key business decisions seemingly made on a whim with little or no consultation?
  • Do performance check-ins reveal that your employees feel as if their opinions or contributions are not valued?

It’s all about the job titles

Alongside the top-down decision making, another sign of a toxic workplace can be when people are overly concerned about titles, job descriptions and levels in the company hierarchy. If staff are purely driven by their status, visibility, and perceived power over others, it could be fuelling deep divisions and feelings of resentment.

Of course, people employed to do a certain job should be expected to do it and handle the responsibilities that come with. But, an employee’s skewed perception of power within a role – especially at manager or more senior level – can turn a working environment sour if it’s constantly used to justify work-based actions or belittle others.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are employees obsessing about job title and status, rather than what contribution they can make to the business?
  • Are performance reviews flagging up a lack of awareness about the purpose of your organisation and the role each individual plays?
  • Are your exit interviews revealing any concerns by employees regarding the behaviours of managers or senior leaders?

Cutthroat working practices

A business that encourages or ignores cutthroat working practices is one where success is demanded at any cost. As long as either the company or its people succeed (in whatever objective that might be), it doesn’t matter if it comes at the expense of others.

This is perhaps one of the worst – and most damaging – types of environment to work in. Although a degree of healthy competition within a business can beneficial, a ‘success at any cost’ mentality can be incredibly damaging to both a business and the wellbeing of its people.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are business leaders purely focused on the quality or quantity of work, rather than the people doing it?
  • Do your employees feel their efforts are not rewarded or recognised?
  • Do your employees rarely help each other out or support one another in achieving their objectives?

Excessive absenteeism

Poor cultures or toxic working environments can destroy any feelings of engagement an employee may have with a business. And, when someone doesn’t feel a connection to their job or is continually stressed out or dissatisfied with it, the more likely it’ll be that they start taking unplanned absence as a way of coping.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are unauthorised absences – including persistent long lunches, late starts and regularly finishing early – commonplace and largely ignored?
  • Have employees with a previously excellent attendance record started to take more unplanned leave? Could it be because of a change in their team or reporting relationships?
  • Are more staff taking time off for stress, or giving stress as a reason for leaving your organisation? Do you know what is causing it?

High staff turnover

A high rate of employee turnover compared to other businesses in your industry can be one of the clearest indications of a toxic workplace culture. Although a degree of staff turnover is to be expected, there could be something seriously wrong if your business has a revolving door of employees joining and then leaving after relatively short periods of time.

Regardless of how well your jobs are paid, how good your industry reputation or how stellar your benefits packages may be, good employees won’t stick around in an environment they hate.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Does your organisation have higher rates of staff leaving the business compared to similar businesses in your industry?
  • Are there sudden and unexplainable spikes in staff turnover in certain divisions or departments?

Bad social reputation

A booming jobs market means that people are spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding on their next career move. Sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor can provide a ‘warts ‘n’ all’ insight as to what it’s really like working for a business and it’s well worth HR’s time to keep an eye on what’s being said.

A consistent stream of negative reviews may indicate deep-rooted issues within the culture of a business. If genuine feedback from ex-employees has a consistent theme or the same issues keep being raised as a negative, don’t simply dismiss it as just the mumblings of a disgruntled employee.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are company ratings consistently low with reviews that feature negative comments about your culture, work environment or work ethics?
  • Do you find it difficult to recruit employees compared to other businesses in your industry?
  • Does your eNPS match up against others in your sector?

Your company vision or values are being ignored

Lastly, successful working cultures are built around shared ideas, values, and goals that are good for everyone in the business and the wider community. If these ideals are not immediately obvious, or ignored entirely, employees can lose sight of what their organisations truly stand for and what their ultimate aims and ambitions are.

Without clear leadership from the top, vision, values or goals, cultures can develop on their own accord. If that culture is not aligned with what the business defines as necessary to support its growth and success, it’s more likely that undesirable actions and behaviours will arise instead.

              What HR should look out for:

  • Are your organisation’s values, vision and mission clearly visible throughout your organisation – and evidenced by your senior managers?
  • Are positive workplace behaviours that match your desired values rewarded or acknowledged?
  • Do your employees know what your company stands for?
Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.

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