If you had a toxic work culture at your company, would you know it?\nToxic work culture signs aren’t always as obvious as you’d think. You might notice a few little things here and there, but seemingly small issues are often warning signs of a much bigger problem.\nLots of leaders mistakenly believe that a lack of negative feedback means all is well.\nIn fact, the opposite is true. If nobody has told you that something can be improved, odds are your team doesn’t feel safe enough to tell you the truth.\nYou don’t hear every conversation and see every interaction between your team members. Do you know the warning signs that your culture has become unhealthy?\nLet’s take a closer look at the realities of toxic workplaces.\nWhat is a toxic work culture, really?\nA toxic work culture is a work environment where destructive and unhealthy behaviors are the norm. These can take many forms, but some of the most common behaviors include complaining, absenteeism, micromanagement, harassment, and gossip. People who work in these toxic environments dread going to work.\nNot every toxic culture is the same.\n\nYou might hear someone say “that team is full of drama” to describe a toxic culture where gossip is out of control or people frequently take credit for other people’s achievements.\nAt a company that has problems with aggressive communication styles and harassment of women and minority groups, you might say “they have a serious bro culture problem.”\nRight now, we’re noticing a more common micromanagement approach as more teams shift to remote work. Managers don’t know how to check in on their teams or make sure work is getting done, often relying solely on more invasive software without telling their team what they’re tracking and why. Or, they’ll send constant messages that fill up the workday without allowing for focus time.\nHere at Hubstaff, we make software that aims to eliminate unnecessary interruptions and check-ins from management. Our tools require users to allow permissions on their device and encourage managers to create a policy that outlines everything they plan to track. Proof of work features, for example, are only active when team members are actively tracking time.\nIf left unchecked, a toxic culture can lead to a work environment where people feel unwelcome and unsafe.\nThe cycle of toxic behavior\nToxic cultures take hold in one of two ways:\n\nLeaders start the trend with their own toxic behavior, which then spreads as their team replicates those bad habits or responds in a similarly unhealthy way\nToxic teammates are allowed to continue their disruptive behavior unchecked by management. Their co-workers see that there are no consequences for those actions, so they may be less mindful of their own behavior. Or, they start replicating those same behaviors, thinking they’re favorable in management’s eyes\n\nIn other words, bad behavior is contagious. If left unaddressed, you can accidentally create a cycle of toxic behavior that gradually sends your culture in the wrong direction.\n\n\nToxic behavior happens. Someone publicly insults a co-worker, a manager calls a personal number after hours, or something else happens that contributes to an unhealthy work environment.\nThat behavior repeats until it feels like a normal part of your culture. One mean-spirited comment is hurtful, but you can resolve the issue and move on. Toxic culture develops when bad habits continue and create a hostile work environment.\nYour team stops trusting you. Normally, team members expect their managers to step in and deal with behavioral issues. The more things happen without your intervention, the less your people trust you to handle it. This is true whether the problem comes from teammates or you — it’s also your job to notice and correct your own bad habits. If you don’t, you lose trust.\nTeam members feel like more extreme behavior is justified. Since you’re not dealing with the problem, you send two messages. First, it’s clear that whatever is going on is okay with you. Second, your team knows you’re not going to help, so it’s up to them to respond in whatever way they see fit. They may start doing something similar, retaliate, or continue testing your tolerance with a different taboo behavior.\n\nThis is a simplified version of the psychology that causes negative behaviors to spread at work, but the point is still the same.\nIf you don’t address your toxic work culture, it’s likely to get worse. At the very least, it’s not going to get any better until you take action.\n\nCreate more visibility and strengthen your team culture.\nWith Hubstaff, you can see work as it happens. Get the transparency you need to build the culture you want.\n\n\nLet’s talk about how to do that.\nRecognizing the warning signs of a toxic culture\nMost people are on their best behavior in front of the boss. For every toxic interaction you see, there are likely more things happening out of your direct line of sight.\nIt can be especially difficult to spot problematic behaviors if you’re the one with the bad habits. Even though you don’t intend to create conflict, you might accidentally cause cultural problems.\nLeaders often spot culture issues because they see the side effects.\n\nEach of these things can tell you that it’s time to take a closer look at your company culture. If you notice that there are a lot of these warning signs at your company, it’s time to take a deeper look at the cultural issues that might be causing them.\n \n\nTurnover is high\nIt’s hard to recruit people\nWhen people leave, it’s often on bad terms\nYou’ve experienced multiple instances where people stopped showing up to work without giving any notice (no-call, no-shows)\nAbsenteeism is high\nTeam members often arrive late and leave early\nEngagement is low\nJob satisfaction is low\nYou’ve received HR complaints\nCurrent or past employees have claimed they experienced harassment or a hostile work environment\nYour company has a negative rating on review sites like Glassdoor\nYour company has a bad reputation\nProject failure rates are high\nThe quality of the products you produce is low\nIt’s hard to meet company goals and you regularly miss targets\nYou have a hard time keeping clients\nYou’ve never intentionally developed your culture before\nYou don’t have any guiding principles or core values\n\nTypes of toxic cultures\nThere’s a wide range of culture issues that fall under the umbrella of a toxic culture. Here are some more specific things to look out for.\nUs-vs-Them culture\n\nThe most obvious symptom of this kind of cultural issue is an extreme lack of trust.\nIn this situation, managers believe that if they let their guard down, their team will take advantage of them. Meanwhile, employees feel like they’re being exploited.\nThis dynamic creates an us-versus-them mentality on both sides of the divide. Instead of building a healthy team where collaboration comes naturally, you end up with a split between decision-makers and people who feel like they have to take orders.\nIn this environment, managers feel like they have to micromanage in order for anything to get done.\nHowever, micromanagement actually makes the problem worse. More micromanagement leads to lower engagement and less trust, which is exactly the cultural problem you’re trying to solve. This bad management habit also leads to high turnover that costs companies billions of dollars each year.\nWatch out for these warning signs that you have an Us-vs-Them culture.\n \n\nManagement doesn’t trust employees to do their jobs without constant supervision\nEmployees don’t trust management to be fair and reasonable\nTeam members feel exploited\nSome micromanagement is normal and even expected. However, these managers believe that if they give any leeway, their employees will take advantage of the business\nManagement uses unhealthy monitoring practices such as tracking computer activity without being honest about if\/what\/how they are being monitored\nManagers yell at or insult their team members instead of communicating in a constructive way\nTeam members are secretive about their career goals\nWhen someone leaves the company, their manager does not allow them to give two weeks’ notice. They are walked out immediately\nManagers try to catch team members “slacking off” by constantly checking in throughout the day\nRumors spread quickly, especially about things like layoffs, pay cuts, and organizational changes\nMost team members don’t know the company’s overall goals\nThere’s a lack of transparency in business practices and decisions\nTeam members don’t give any feedback\nManagers only give feedback during scheduled performance reviews\nThe team is reluctant to talk about issues, so you only find out about problems when they get too big to hide\nDespite extreme oversight, management feels like they lack visibility and don’t know what their team is doing\nTeam members steal, including both physical theft and time theft\n\nMadison Tong, who now works at My Supplement Store, experienced a culture like this before she found her current position.\n In my previous workplace, the management would yell at me for the littlest things or mistakes. You always had to be doing something, and you had to stand for the entire shift. You couldn’t even stand still for one minute. If you did, you would get yelled at. For example, if I finished ringing up a customer, I had to immediately find something else to do, or else I’d get in trouble.\nWhen managers raise their voice and immediately assume the worst when they see a team member taking a break, that’s a strong sign that the culture is toxic.\nBro culture\n\nBro culture is a term that refers to work environments that embrace traditionally masculine behaviors to an unhealthy degree. These cultures embody an extreme work hard, play hard mindset and all the negative repercussions that come with it. They value confrontational attitudes, bravado, and high-risk behavior.\nHowever, bro culture is a lot more than just a male-dominated environment. Although these cultures tend to alienate women and minority groups, the defining characteristics of a bro are the way they act, not their gender.\nIn the last few years, more people have spoken up about their bro culture experiences, especially in the tech industry. You might have even heard of “tech bro culture” in the news.\nIn fact, the main cause of turnover in tech companies is mistreatment — specifically discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and unfair management.\nBro culture leaders use embarrassment as a motivator. Confrontation is expected, embarrassment is normal, and macho bro behavior is perfectly acceptable.\nThis combination invites harassment.\nWatch out for these warning signs that bro culture is taking hold in your company.\n \n\nIn group settings, the same people always speak while others rarely speak up\nLeaders and peers feel that it’s appropriate to insult people publicly\nYou hear yelling or raised voices in work conversations\nPeople talk over each other and interrupt frequently with no concern for letting someone finish a thought\nCo-workers insult each other\nPeople use derogatory language and humor regularly, and it is rare that someone objects\nSocial events are attended mostly by men, and they revolve around traditionally masculine activities like drinking or competitive sports\nPeople make comments about co-workers’ personal appearance or sex appeal\nYou hire women, people of color, or LGBTQ team members that quit quickly\nYour team is mostly men from similar backgrounds\nYour entry and mid-level staff is diverse, but your leadership team is all men from similar backgrounds\nYou take an all-or-nothing approach to business strategies, commitment to work, and attitude. Your mantra is “work hard, play hard.”\nYou use partying as a motivator\nWorkism runs rampant and team members derive their entire identity\/purpose from their job\nYou receive complaints like these:\n\nThis is a boy’s club\nYou have to know someone to get promoted\nI don’t feel safe at work\nI’m never included in decisions because I’m not one of the guys\n\n\nYour HR is often forwarded emails and screenshots of questionable behavior. Or you don’t have an HR department — a fact that is referenced often by those making questionable comments\n\n\nWriting this section reminds me of my own past experience. Before I came to Hubstaff, I worked in two different tech companies that had bro culture issues.\nAt one, the CEO had a habit of commenting on the cup size and general attractiveness of every female business client. I was one of only two female employees, and I could tell that we both felt uncomfortable around the CEO. Many of our clients did, too.\nThe first time I raised an issue, my manager made it very clear that if I felt uncomfortable, I was welcome to find somewhere else to work. After that, I kept things to myself.\nIt’s no wonder that 60% of workplace misconduct goes unreported.\nOne of the hallmarks of bro culture is its exclusiveness. If you’re not part of the bro inner circle, you don’t have a voice in the organization.\nThat was the case for Nelson Sherwin, who is now the manager of PEO Companies.\n After college, I knew I wanted to work in HR, but wasn’t quite sure where to begin. I found a local law firm and thought that would be a fantastic career opportunity. Then I started to notice aspects of the workplace that I wasn’t comfortable with. The partners at the firm had little respect for the team and seemed to take issue when others had ideas. When I suggested some ways we could improve quality of life in the office, the higher-ups not only shot me down, but ridiculed me for criticising how things were done.\nThese kinds of situations actually make bro culture harder to spot because leadership discourages honest feedback. If you’ve had this type of culture for a long time, it may take extra effort to open the doors of honest communication and see what’s going on.\nWorkaholic culture\n\nA workaholic culture is an example of good intentions gone bad. You think you’re rewarding the hardest workers and most dedicated team members, but instead, you’re creating an unhealthy work environment.\nYour team should have the time and freedom to step away from work and recharge.\nWorkaholism is more than just working long hours. In a culture that rewards the people who put the most time into their jobs, you can create an environment where it’s hard to shift your thoughts away from work and recharge.\nPeople in this culture feel pressured to meet unrealistic expectations. They feel guilty when they fail to meet impossible standards, and yet they still have a hard time saying “no” when they’re asked to take on another unattainable goal.\nWork becomes a constant source of stress.\nEven taking a vacation may not help because team members feel like they have to answer emails, be available for questions, or work on high-priority projects. If they don’t work, it still dominates their thoughts.\nThis culture leads to burnout and other serious health issues. You’re also likely to deal with high turnover and lower productivity as people struggle with their physical and mental wellness.\nWatch for these warning signs.\n \n\nIt’s not unusual to make or receive work calls outside of normal business hours\nYour team experiences a high rate of burnout, which can look like:\n\nA sudden drop in productivity\nIrritability\nFeelings of self-doubt and inadequacy\nLoss of motivation\nA negative attitude and outlook\nExhaustion\nMore mistakes or poorer quality of work\nMissed deadlines and forgotten tasks\n\n\nPeople answer emails and messages at all hours\nIf someone doesn’t answer a message immediately, the sender will follow up several times, often over different channels\nTeam members feel anxious if they don’t answer messages right away\nTeam members lack personal hobbies and don’t pay attention to their personal life\nThe people who get promoted are the ones that put in the most hours, even if that level of work is unsustainable\nTeam members are afraid to say no when asked to take on more work, even if it’s not a reasonable request\nNobody takes breaks\nPeople at all levels are motivated by fear of failure\nMost deadlines are too short and teams regularly need to work overtime to meet goals\nPeople have no time to focus on individual tasks — multitasking is expected\nQuantity of work is more important than quality of finished items\nHigh turnover\nA common complaint is “You want me to do the work of two people for the cost of one!”\n\nJeremy Yamaguchi, CEO of Lawn Love, watches out for workaholism at his company by setting limits on how long his team members can work. There’s a set time when employees need to stop working for the day.\nHe also teaches his leadership team to watch out for overwork:\n You also need to train your managers not to reward this behavior. They should want employees to work efficiently, not just win awards for being logged into the work portal for the most amount of hours. That’s not healthy, and when managers reward that behavior with promotions and other opportunities, it sends a bad message.\nAnother CEO, Andre Kazimierski of Improovy, learned from his own experiences in this kind of toxic environment.\n I had a job many years ago in which the management did not make any effort to respect our work-life balances. I would get so many phone calls in the evenings and on weekends, and they usually were not good conversations…I am now CEO of my own company and I make it my personal mission to create a good environment for my employees. We all work remotely, so I have made it clear that I want my employees to be able to completely unplug from the job when the workday is done. Setting boundaries and having empathy as a leader is so important.\nIf your team is dealing with productivity issues despite long hours, take another look at the checklist. This toxic culture might be to blame.\n\nEasily set limits and measure productivity with Hubstaff\nSet maximum hours and get alerts when team members get close to their limits. Hubstaff helps keep work balanced and reasonable.\n\n\nClique culture\n\nIt’s a great thing to have friends at work. However, there’s a difference between friendships and destructive cliques.\nAt work, cliques are small groups of people who intentionally exclude their teammates from joining them. Cliques treat people outside of their in-crowd like they’re the enemy, and they’ll often try to undermine their co-workers to gain some kind of benefit for their group.\nTo create their own advantage, people intentionally withhold information. They want their team to succeed and look good, even if it means that a project fails. In fact, a clique might be happy that a project fails — as long as it’s someone else’s fault.\nThis kind of culture is an example of what happens when competition becomes unhealthy.\n There are two ways to have the tallest building in town. One is to tear everyone else’s building down, and the other is to build your building taller.\n–Jim Rohn \nClique culture can also take shape without people forming groups. If every person feels like they have to look out for themselves, even at the expense of their peers, your culture is toxic.\nThe hallmarks of this kind of toxic culture are drama, betrayals, and passive-aggressive behavior.\nLeaders can create this kind of environment by giving preferential treatment to specific people. If your team feels like you have favorites, they’re a lot more likely to resort to clique-ishness.\nSometimes, this type of toxic culture just looks like extreme corporate politics. But corporate politics should never involve malicious gossip or attempts to make teammates look bad for personal gain.\nKeep an eye open for these warning signs of a toxic clique culture.\n \n\nGossip is common and usually focuses on malicious rumors about people\nEvery person looks out for themself first, so there’s little team spirit\nManagement has clear favorites, or team members feel like there are favorites\nTeam members try to take credit for other people’s achievements\nWhen someone accomplishes something, teammates react negatively with jealousy or criticism\nTeammates rarely celebrate other people’s achievements\nPeople try to discredit their teammates, even when they do great work\nTeam members are passive-aggressive with each other\nPeople and teams keep information and resources to themselves so that they don’t help their teammates succeed\nYou have a high failure rate for team projects\nThere are obvious information silos at your company\nTeams are reluctant to share updates and information\nThere’s an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd\nPeople and teams are focused entirely on personal achievements and don’t care about larger company goals\nComplaining is common, especially about other people\nPeople are likely to insult or criticize co-workers and unlikely to praise achievements\nPeople are likely to brag about their own accomplishments\nWhen someone speaks up, they’re unlikely to receive support (except from people in their clique)\nComplaints may include:\n\nThere’s too much drama\nPetty complaints about personal slights\nManagers play favorites\nTo get ahead, you have to play corporate politics\n\n\nSmall incidents are often treated as a big deal while more serious and work-related issues are ignored\n\nRoy Ferman, CEO of Seek Capital, has this advice for leaders.\n If you see that a certain subset of your workforce are constantly spending either lunch, their breaks, or any other form of time together, and are purposely excluding others, this is a telltale sign of a toxic environment.\nThe key there is that they purposefully exclude their teammates. It’s okay — and even healthy — for your team to form friendships with their peers.\nGadget Review CEO Christen Costa points out that the people who want to make themselves look better are rarely the team members that produce the best results.\n [People who are more concerned about appearing important than being useful] comparatively do very little work, but they always want to seem like they’re the hardest worker in the company. They make sure people in power see them working late into the night, even if they only just started being remotely productive at that time. They take credit for things they have no business taking credit for and don’t recognize the accomplishments of others.\nNeed to work on your culture? Here’s what to do next\nCulture issues are a costly problem.\nEvery year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles more than 12,000 sexual harassment charges. In 2020 alone, the EEOC dealt with more than 67,000 employment discrimination cases — employers paid $439.2 million in settlements to victims.\nOn top of that, you have to deal with expensive turnover. Your cultural issues make employees quit in search of a better work environment.\nReplacing an employee can cost the equivalent of six to nine months of that person’s salary.\nIf you want to expand despite your turnover rate, it’s like pouring water into a cup with a hole in the bottom. You keep adding new people to the team, but you spend so much time and money replacing the ones who quit that it’s tough to fill new positions.\nDriving cultural change is a long journey. Here are some tips to help you get started.\n1. Live your values\nIntegrity means that what you say, what you think, and what you do align.\nIf you say that you care about everyone having a voice, do you create policies that make that possible?\nA company would never say that they believe harassment is acceptable behavior. However, tech companies with bro cultures embody the value that harassment is not only acceptable, but expected.\nWhat values do you want your company to embody?\nStart by listing the core beliefs that are most important to your company. Those might include things like:\n\nThe best idea should win, no matter who comes up with it\nOur team should care deeply about the success of the company\nWe make products that solve real problems\nWe want our team members to stay and succeed with us for the long term. None of us are just here for a job; we’re here for the mission\n\nOnce you have your list of values, take an honest look at your policies. You might be getting in your own way.\nFor instance, if you want people to stay with the company and care deeply about the mission, you should practice transparency.\nAt Hubstaff, our policy is to promote healthy discussion. We encourage people to speak up while making room for quieter voices. Here’s an excerpt from our policy:\n At Hubstaff, we strive to implement a culture where the best ideas win. It means that everyone’s voice and ideas should be heard and evaluated fairly. No matter their title, everybody should be able to impact what we build and how we build it.\n\nWe respect each other and treat each other equally.\nWe speak calmly and never raise our voices.\nWe never interrupt each other.\nIt’s not allowed to shut down other people’s ideas despite how strongly you disagree with them. Instead, clearly explain your thoughts on why the proposed idea might not be the best.\nIn case of disagreement, all participants will back up their position with objective and detailed reasons.\nNever be afraid of asking other people’s opinions and publicly sharing concerns or feedback. The first step to implement your proposal is to share it loudly.\n\n\nThink about career development, health resources, and other ways you can demonstrate your values with action. It may be cliché, but it’s still true — actions speak louder than words.\n2. Don’t let things slide\nI’ve mentioned this a couple of times, but it’s worth repeating. For every “little thing” that you see, there are a lot of other, bigger things happening out of your sight.\nDon’t wait to address toxic behaviors. Reach out to the person immediately to have a private conversation about why their actions are a concern.\nYour quick response sends the message that this is important — it’s a high priority and you’re paying attention. If you wait a long time, people may view your lack of urgency as a lack of severity.\n3. Accept anonymous feedback and complaints\nWhile you’re working on your culture, it’s wise to set up a tool that allows your team to submit information anonymously.\nWe use Officevibe for this. Twice every month, we ask the team to answer survey questions to collect anonymous data about how we’re doing. Plus, people can send a message to their manager any time without having their name attached.\n\nRemember that it can be hard for people to speak up, especially if there have been negative consequences for being honest in the past.\nBy using a tool to collect anonymous feedback, you’re making space for quieter voices to speak up.\n4. Reward the behaviors you want to see\nA study from the Harvard Business Review found that positive feedback helped good employees become excellent ones. With this approach, 62% of above-average employees moved from the 55th percentile up to the 79th.\nPublicly and privately recognize people who embody the behaviors you want to see.\nThis habit goes beyond recognition. Wherever possible, offer incentives and rewards if people meet specific goals.\nIt can be difficult to measure cultural behaviors, but some things are specific and measurable enough to set achievable goals.\nFor example, if your team has a bad habit of competing instead of cooperating, set a team goal that everyone has to pitch in to achieve. If the team meets the goal, everyone gets the reward.\n\nRead, learn, and grow your remote company\nGet more expert advice to help you grow by subscribing to the Hubstaff blog.\n\n\n5. Take complaints seriously\nIf someone raises a concern, take it seriously. Don’t dismiss it because it only happened once or doesn’t seem like a big deal.\nMost of the time, people won’t complain to leadership unless it’s truly important. For every person who raised a complaint, there might be more who decided not to say anything. Most likely, this isn’t an isolated incident.\n\nIgnoring a report of toxic behavior sends the message that it is totally acceptable at your company. Victims are less likely to raise issues in the future. When this happens, bullies become more bold.\nIf you have a human resources department, report the incident immediately.\nAsk for more details, document everything, and ask how you can help that person feel more comfortable while you investigate. Stay neutral and explain how leadership will investigate the allegation.\nYour duty isn’t finished once the investigation is complete. Sit down with both parties separately and discuss the actions you plan to take and why.\n7. Hire mindfully\nCulture is made up of shared behaviors, but some people don’t want to change the way they act. No matter how many policies you enforce, you can’t force those people to change.\nOne of the fastest ways to develop a new culture is to hire new people.\nMake sure you have a plan to retain those people while you work to eliminate the toxic culture in your team.\n “We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you’re willing to hire and fire based on them. If you’re willing to do that, then you’re well on your way to building a company culture that is in line with the brand you want to build.”\n– Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos\n \nJim Collins talks about this “First Who, Then What” concept in his book Good to Great. He compares businesses to a big bus that leadership is driving:\n The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”\nIf a healthy culture is the destination, you must first make sure that you have the right people on your team.\nFinal thoughts\nAs someone who has worked within toxic cultures and now works at a place with a healthy and respectful culture, I understand how a lot of negative behaviors can be downplayed or overlooked in the moment.\nIt can be tough to see the full extent of cultural issues when you’re still in that environment.\nSome things that are very harmful feel “normal” because they happen so frequently.\nIn other cases, it’s in your best interest not to notice problems. Trying to address the issue might cost you your job — or your top performer.\nThe fact that you read this article is a great sign. It proves that you’re willing to admit that your culture might not be perfect, and you’re ready to do something to make it better.\nWhat about you? Have you ever worked in a toxic culture? Tell us about it in the comments.