The Startup
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The Startup

“Bro Culture” and Other Signs Your Company is a Toxic Work Place

There’s a talent crisis with more jobs than great talent to fill them — or so we keep hearing. Whether you buy-into the hype or not, your company has a need for great talent ready and willing to do great work; however, attracting and retaining exceptional people is easier said than done. And your most important asset to winning in the way of talent — and many other business areas — is the state of your company culture.

After working, consulting and supporting numerous startups and scaling companies to source great talent and connect with effective agency partners, I’ve heard a lot of reasons why people accept or reject working with certain organizations. What tops the list for rejection is: Work Culture.

Photo by sanjoy saha on Unsplash

Sometimes, when circling back to speak with the CEO, hiring manager or founder to offer that feedback, they are immediately shocked. They offer some lame excuses like “Well, they must have really misunderstood what we’re about here?” Or “Our company culture is great, people love working here, I know I do” Or “That’s why we think culture fit is so important.”

I get it. This is not the kind of insights people are always receptive too. Company culture is a difficult thing to both cultivate and change. But at the end of the day, if you’re unwilling to reflect and address your workplace culture, you will continue to lose out on great talent, at the very least. And the costs to your bottom line are impactful.

Let’s say you’re not in denial and have a desire to know whether your workplace is or has the makings of a toxic workplace, here are 11 common signs.

  1. You have an active Bro Culture. This particular subculture is characterized by young, white men who spend a lot of time partying, being generally sexist, with high expectations of privilege and entitlement. Perhaps a great culture for a fraternity or rugby club, but not ideal when it comes to your workplace. Bro Culture is damaging because employees can feel as though work and the company is not taken very seriously, the culture is exclusive, and further privileges privilege. Duplicating, embracing and facilitating a Bro Culture is killing your recruitment and retention game for women, people of color, as well as our white male and female allies.
  2. The Rumor Mill is Overflowing with Activity. People talk. You can’t help that, but gossip and rumors tend to fly during times of uncertainty, such as potential mergers and acquisitions, layoffs, outsourcing, and new leadership. Rumors typically circulate when someone has ascertained small bits of uncontextualized information, and create stories to fit the content. Rumors and gossip are often signs that employees feel as though they cannot trust the “official” word from the company, and are using unofficial sources to try and get at “the real deal.”
  3. Homogenous Teams, Staff and Leaders. There’s no better illustration of your homogenous team than your about page. Although there may be different people pictured, they all look like, went to the similar institutions, or came from many of same companies. Of course you want people with relevant experience, but diverse employees will run for the hills when they see this sign because it says “If you don’t look like or have the same qualifications as these folks, you won’t go very far here.”
  4. You Accommodate Workplace Bullies. Workplace bullies are the worst and they frequently operate with immunity because managers and HR don’t know how to deal with them. What usually happens when an instance is reported is rather than disciplining or coaching the bully, an entire team or department is penalized and new policies are created for everyone. This illustrates to current employees that when you speak up, you can expect to be penalized and the workplace bully continues their a**hole antics. Many managers opt to spend their time managing the work of their teams, and avoiding managing the people of their teams. When an employee calls attention to issues with another employee the manager or HR “partner” encourages the complaining employee to “deal with it themselves,” or worse encouraged to change their behavior in an attempt to lessen their target status for the bully. These situations ensure your best employees leave your team or company because managers illustrate they are unwilling to manage.
  5. High Employee Turnover and Absenteeism. This is the most obvious, easiest qualitative measure you can review to generate data-informed insights. Are you seeing high turnover or absenteeism in a specific department or team or during a particular time of year or business life cycle? If so, consider something is afoot and do a little digging to get a better idea of what’s happening. Avoid the easy way out of “that’s just a few bad apples,” or “if people don’t want to be here, we don’t want them here.” That’s the kind of attitude that may moving you forward with creating a toxic workplace.
  6. Lack of Open, Multi-Channel Feedback Options. You do an annual survey and annual retreat, isn’t that enough? The answer is no, it’s not. A toxic workplace grows when employees feel as though they do not have outlets to confidentially share with higher ups their experiences, recommendations or challenges. Now in the instance you have implemented multiple channels for feedback; however, when employees provide feedback that is negative or challenges leadership in some way, they experience negative consequences, you’re looking at a toxic work environment.
  7. You Expect Employee After hours and Weekends. Elsewhere I’ve talked about burnout for people of color; however, burnout is a phenomenon that is impacting employees across demographic categories and industry verticals, and I think the issue of expecting employees to work after hours and weekends to get their work done and contribute to key business goals, is what’s driving many people to leave their corporate, government and non-profit jobs. It’s 2020, people want to work hard, and they want to have down time too. The ongoing expectation that employees work 50 or 60+ hours because “we’re lean, understaffed, or experiencing growth,” only carries weight for so long. Additionally, studies show productivity decreases as longer hours are worked, so the budget you think you’re saving by “going lean,” is likely yielding less actual savings than you think.
  8. Stated Values Don’t Reflect Lived Practices. It can be a great introduction to a company’s culture to see their values posted prominently on the walls and website. However, beyond the glossy posters and stunning web presence are practices that clearly do not reflect the stated “shared values” of the company. Unilateral decisions are called collaboration and team work, diversity equates to tokenization, and innovation masquerades as status quo. When employees cannot trust your company to live into those values in a meaningful way, they become disheartened and disengaged creating a fertile ground for toxicity to emerge.
  9. Lack of Employee Referrals. The value of employees referring their colleagues and associates to openings at your company is immeasurable. Great people associate with other great people and your company has established a killer employee referral program to leverage this important recruitment activity. But for some reason, the referrals are slow, if nonexistent. When team members decide they will not refer their friends and colleagues to your open roles, you can take that as a strong indication that employees do not enjoy working at your company, and would not suggest others do so. What’s worse are the instances you don’t know about, where potential candidates reach out to employees currently at the company or previously in the role and that individual may discourage the candidate from applying because of some of these factors.
  10. Key Senior Leaders Openly Don’t Get Along. This is one of the most damaging elements of a toxic work environment. Heated debates at team meetings, undermining activities and private trash talk are all examples illustrating that certain people don’t get along. For employees, these troubled relationships often leave underlings in the awkward position of managing and negotiating their leaders’ disagreements. This is not to suggest members of a leadership team have to like each other or always agree, but it does mean that when team meetings look more like fight night, with leaders behaving disrespectfully to one another, and inappropriately tasking teams with negotiating their differences, it’s a clear sign to employees to get out fast.
  11. Leaders speak disparagingly about clients/customers. I once worked for an organization where the CEO during an informal lunch and learn stated something to the effect of “The public and the media are really too stupid to understand what we actually do here, so we should not waste our time and resources trying to educate the public or meaningfully interact with the media.” The CEO later echoed that sentiment during a private meeting among key senior leaders of the organization. I was shocked to hear this sentiment coming from our leader not once, but twice. I saved this one for last because to me this is the most egregious and the most obvious demonstration of a toxic work environment. The attitude of leadership is what sets the tone for the organization. In public saying leaders have been properly prepped to speak glowingly about the importance of their customers/clients/users, while behind closed doors they are dogging them, it’s disingenuous and instills a lack of trust.

Now if you’re really into learning whether your company culture has any of these toxic workplace signs, go beyond your assessment and consider this approach. Bring this list to the newest employee on your team. Assure them they will not receive negative consequences for their actions, and ask for their honest assessment. You may be very surprised by what you learn.



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Erika Pryor

Erika Pryor

Founder, CMO @ EPiC Creative + Design, Culturally-informed Storyteller, Startup Evangelist, Community Builder. Dr. Mom.