5 ways to spot a harmful workplace culture

We are at a tipping point in terms of our public acknowledgment of, and willingness to confront, sexual harassment. In many respects, it was a final frontier in terms of behavior that needed to be brought out into the open.

While it is important to have a conversation about how we keep everyone safe in the workplace, we should view this as an opportunity to not only create safe and supportive work environments, but also to examine the underlying work cultures that permit harmful behaviors to thrive.

From years of experience surveying and auditing hundreds (if not thousands) of employees, there are several tell-tale signs that a culture might be unhealthy, and therefore harmful to employee’s emotional and physical health. Here are five signs that a workplace culture needs a re-make:

  1. Employees are afraid of speaking up. If speaking up is dangerous, meaning employees are penalized when they share ideas, the culture might be problematic. In a healthy work environment, managers actively solicit, genuinely want, feedback from their teams. They understand that their innovation comes from their staff, and they do everything in their power to encourage all team members to share input that improves the organization. If this isn’t happening, there may be a perception that employees are marginalized or assigned lower-profile projects when they speak up, and in particular, when they offer contrarian viewpoints. Perception can be as good as reality, and if this is the perception of your work environment, team members may be unlikely to risk sharing ideas and feedback.
  2. Employees who dare to take counter-cultural positions are considered trouble-makers. If out-spoken team members are maligned, or characterized as trouble-makers, the work culture is likely unhealthy. If organizational leadership gives the impression, either explicitly or implicitly, that they do not appreciate outside-the-box thinking, or that they don’t want to be challenged, more often than not, team members will do everything in their power to “fall in line.” And those who go against the grain by sharing information that could be painful for leadership to hear, but costly for leadership to ignore, may be considered problem employees.
  3. Leaders only hear positive feedback. If colleagues aren’t sharing constructive feedback, it’s possible management has set a tone that their way is the “right way.” However, no one is all good, or all bad. If employees only feel comfortable sharing positive information, the culture is likely toxic.
  4. Information flows from the top down. If employees are on a “need-to-know” basis and management behaves as if employees need to know very little, they’re setting the tone for a harmful workplace culture. You’ll know information flows from the top down if employees have little information about what happens in senior leadership meetings, or if they don’t have an opportunity weigh in on major issues prior to implementation. You’ll know information flows from the top down if employees don’t feel a sense of ownership in the organization or in corporate decisions. For instance, in a work environment where there is a healthy flow of information, employees will generally feel brought in because they’ve been welcomed into the information loop.
  5. If employees spend most of their time managing egos versus managing the organizational vision, the workplace is likely toxic. If employees are focused less on their work responsibilities and more on how to keep (executives) happy, the culture may be harmful.

Bonus: There are always lots of new employees but the organization isn’t growing. If it feels like more people leave than join, that’s a key clue that the work culture isn’t up to snuff.

Once you’ve identified the characteristics of a harmful work environment, it’s time to go about the business of creating a healthy and engaging culture. Creating an engaging culture is partially about identifying harmful behaviors, but it’s also about being clear on what you want, where your organization is going and how to get there.

To create and sustain an engaging culture, leaders must highlight the “why” behind the work, align their team members’ work with their strengths, and create a sense of autonomy.

Author Simon Sinek tells us that when an organization starts with WHY, they stand for something bigger than a tangible product, result or metric. Their brand has real meaning and value in the world. When a company is clear about their “why,” they’re better positioned to attract and unite employees, customers and partners. A bonus is their teams love coming to work as their work has a bigger, deeper meaning.

The next way to create an engaging culture is to provide employees with autonomy. For employees to thrive, they need autonomy. This is about giving employees control over their tasks, their time, the techniques they chose to employ, and their teams. Employees need the freedom to be entrepreneurial and to innovative. They should feel they have ownership of their role; like they’re the CEO of their jobs. When this happens, they are empowered and motivated to perform well.

Finally, it’s important to align team member’s work with their strengths. Too many times organizations place great people in the wrong positions. Ensure that your people are matched with jobs that leverage their strengths and passions – and if they do have to do work that isn’t challenging or is boring, try to mix in stretch assignments so they experience the joys of mastery.

The importance of workplace culture cannot be understated. Companies should examine their cultures, both when current events, such as sexual harassment, make such a review timely, but also as a proactive, preventative measure. Without an intentional strategy around workplace culture, employers are bound to attract undesirable habits that become toxic stressors on their teams.


Shaara Roman is Founder and managing partner of the Silverene Group, a boutique firm that consults with organizations to help them create amazing workplaces. The company supports leaders as they build engaging cultures. Follow the Silverene Group on Twitter at @silverenegroup.