Wouldn’t it be terrific if you worked at a company that valued you? Where you were rewarded for your contributions and where you had the opportunity to learn and grow professionally? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if this company offered you the ability to get ahead based on your performance and talent — without a lot of politics and game playing? Sounds great, right? Because at the end of the day, we all want to feel that our work matters and leave the office feeling fulfilled, not stressed and drained. It may not be possible to find the perfect organization. You may have to compromise in some respects, but hopefully, the only concessions you need to make are relatively insignificant. Because it’s a fact that working in a toxic environment will not only have a negative effect on your health, but can even damage your self-esteem and your long-term career potential. From the outside, a company may look terrific. For instance, who wouldn’t want to work at a leading edge company like Amazon? But when you look under the covers, the culture at Amazon is far from ideal. A New York Times article on this topic exposed a culture where “workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and are held to standards that the company boasts are 'unreasonably high.'" The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses, and employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts like, “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)
Signs of a Toxic Culture
Who would willingly sign up to work in such a toxic environment? Sadly, it’s not always so easy to determine the culture until you’re already an employee, at which point it’s extremely challenging to navigate and survive in a workplace that consistently undermines your success.
Do your homework. Find out as much as you can about a company: what it stands for, its values. Talk to people who work at the company, especially someone who will be a peer at your level. A peer-to-peer conversation where you can comfortably ask questions can be very revealing. (Not sure of who to ask? You could also check out Fairygodboss’ online database of women’s company reviews!)
As you are doing your research on a company, here are some things you’ll want to know to determine if the organization will undermine your success.
1. Beyond competitive, it’s cutthroat.
Healthy competition is good and usually encourages you to perform at your best. But when the company encourages employees to sabotage each other in order to be successful, that’s toxic. You want to know if the company supports its employees at every level to do their best work — without repercussions for learning along the way. When an employee feels it’s safe to try without concern that they will be punished if the results aren’t perfect, they will continue to learn and grow professionally. Toxic companies prevent their employees from gaining new experiences when they don’t reward their efforts and when the only way to shine and get ahead is to step over others.
2. Gossip and secrets are the basis for finding out information.
In a toxic environment, people are distracted by gossip and form tight cliques that bar others from being “in the know.” Gossip can increase conflict and decrease morale. It results in strained relationships, breaks up teams, and affects productivity. And if someone gossips about others, you know you can easily be the target of malicious gossip yourself which can sabotage your future with the organization. When you are the subject of gossip, it can destroy your confidence and take up all your time and energy to manage or ignore.
3. The company pays lip service to diversity and inclusion.
Many organizations will publicly declare their commitment to inclusion and diversity, but if you look under the covers, you don’t see much time, energy, and focus devoted to improving the culture. The leadership team is still all white males and women are stuck in middle management without the opportunity to move up. Look at the organizational chart. Find out how many women are promoted from within and if they are in a position with profit and loss responsibility. Ask to speak with some women who have been promoted to learn more about their journey.
Seventy-two percent of respondents to a recent Deloitte survey said they would leave or may consider leaving an organization for one that has more of the inclusive aspects they desire. In fact, nearly a quarter of all respondents have already done just that. A lack of inclusion and diversity is now considered to be an intolerable work environment.
4. It’s extremely political.
Every organization has politics. There’s no escaping it. However, in some organizations, the politics are overwhelming and toxic. Unless you have access to the elite power circles, advancement is challenging, and acceptance into these networks can be limited. The only way to get ahead is through politics and who you know. Little attention is paid to performance. It is extremely disheartening to see others promoted over you when you are working hard and have great results. This type of environment is generally not supportive and results in people no longer trying to do their best work and succeed.
5. There are unrealistic expectations of employees.
We learned from the New York Times article referenced earlier that Amazon requires long hours in the office. And there are many other companies that put unrealistic demands on their employees, as well. I have a client in the consulting industry where the norm is to work at least 60 hours a week and have availability 24/7 for emails and phone calls. This is the standard for everyone, which leads to burnout as well as a decrease in productivity and performance.
6. Public humiliation and criticism is tolerated.
Nothing silences employees more than being called out in public without the ability to respond. A toxic environment allows this behavior and it becomes the norm over time. Instead of providing guidance and support, managers don’t allow their direct reports to ask questions or share their ideas. Employees feel frustrated and frightened most of the time and their only goal is to make it through the day without being chastised. They work hard to stay under the radar which stifles their creativity. A good day is finishing your work without having your boss openly criticize you.
7. There’s only one way to do things.
The only accepted way to do things is what the boss says. The boss is always right and never make mistakes. They don’t tolerate any variance to their rules. They aren’t interested in hearing any other suggestions or ideas from anyone else. People who agree with them get promoted and people who even politely disagree are demoted or fired. This is a dictatorship and this type of toxic workplace results in mediocrity. Working in this environment stifles your growth, robs you of your energy and enthusiasm for the work, and damages your career over the long run.
8. Employees have little, if any, freedom to do their jobs.
They are micromanaged and every step of every procedure is spelled out for them. In an environment like this, employees are seldom recognized for innovative ideas or initiating change. Any recognition comes from reaching their assigned goals and by following the rules. Individuality is lost and people are robotic in performing their jobs.
There is nothing more damaging to your career than working in a toxic environment. Over time, you will lose touch with your talent and ambition. You will second guess yourself and question your ability to succeed. All your energy will be focused on surviving in a workplace that undermines you every step of the way.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.