When you read stories about toxic workplaces – executives publicly removed from meetings, people crying at their desks or the pressure on new recruits to toe the line – you might think, “This is certainly not how things look around my work.”
However, workplaces don’t turn toxic overnight. The slide is slow – starting with behaviors of put down, resistance to change initiatives, or tiny but cumulative acts of inconsideration. Sometimes, the signs are difficult to spot. Celia Swanson, the first female EVP at Walmart, realized this when she hired a brilliant strategist who would generate visible results, yet, unknown to her, constantly undermine the team.
So how do you recognize toxicity at the workplace and nip it in the bud? Here are some signs to watch out for.
Lack of communication
Executive coach Melody Wilding notes that a lack of communication is a telling sign of a toxic workplace. When important organizational changes are not shared on time, when feedback is few and far between, or there is a clear lack of recognition at the workplace, it could lead to resentment and hostility. If left unchecked, it could affect the team morale and productivity.
The cost of workplace turnover due to poor culture has exceeded $223 billion in the past five years, according to SHRM’s 2019 Culture Report. Ivelices Linares Thomas, Head of HR and Compliance for GardaWorld US Cash Services, suggests raising a red flag when a top performer or long-term employee leaves, as this could suggest a deeper problem. Think challenges like interpersonal conflict, poorly equipped leadership, lack of guidance of teams, and even bad recruitment practices.
Fear of being yourself
WeWork is under fire for its apparently cult-like work culture, but this aspect of a toxic workplace can manifest in smaller ways—an employee who feels scared to talk in an internal channel or group, a new recruit who feels uncomfortable during conversations about gender identity or sexual orientation, a working parent who feels guilty about not staying back for an office party. These subtle signs can fly under the radar but add up over time to create a culture where people’s needs of psychological safety aren’t met.
Few conversations or open discussions
No news may be good news, but this may be a sign of fermenting unrest or a communications strategy gone wrong. Steph Korey, the CEO of Away recently quit as reports of the company’s restrictive policies on Slack communications became public. By not allowing private chats on the messaging platform and forcing all conversations (including berating) to be public, the company culture had become one where few spoke out due to fear. Freedom of expression was curbed, and that’s unhealthy.
No matter their designation or level of seniority, employees can and should step up to tackle the problem before trust breaks down. Remember, it builds up over time. If you spot signs of toxicity, how would you confront the issue?