No company openly tells you that they have a toxic culture. They don’t advertise that their employees are unmotivated, their customers are dissatisfied, or their leadership has less trust than Ellen DeGeneres.
And yet you need to know this. In today’s world, culture remains our best sustainable advantage. Others can copy a service or reverse-engineer a product. But few can replicate a high-performing culture.
If you’re evaluating a prospective employer, considering a new supplier, or deciding on a potential merger, you need to understand a company’s culture. Or you’ll end up living with the results.
While few companies actively advertise this information, you don’t need them to. There are plenty of minor things that can tell you a lot about a company. They’re not foolproof. But if you’re lacking information, they’re better than nothing.
So whatever your reasons, keep an eye out for these 10 simple signs. And if you see them at your company, recognize that they could be a warning sign of a much bigger problem.
1. They have assigned parking spaces
Imagine texting all of your employees each morning to remind them that company management sees themselves as above the front-line workers. Everyone could start their workday with a refresher that titles matter more than contribution.
Is there that much of a difference between that and reserving the closest parking spaces for management? Every employee starts their day by walking past a bunch of reserved parking spaces. They get an immediate reminder that the company is happy to sacrifice their convenience if it makes the boss’s life a little easier.
There’s absolutely no reason that managers should feel entitled to a closer parking spot than their employees. If the boss doesn’t want to walk, she should get in at 6am and park right up front. Otherwise, drop the status symbols and prove your worth where it counts.
2. They try to sell you on their perks
People want to do challenging work that matters in the world, alongside a strong, collaborative team. That should always be the differentiator. Not the presence of a ping-pong table.
If a company tries to sell you on their perks, instead of the work, be wary. Perks are not culture. They can enhance a good culture. But they’ll never make up for a bad one.
I’ll happily pay for my own snacks. I’d much rather have a high quality work environment.
3. “That’s the way it’s always been done,” is an acceptable justification
Maybe it’s true. But that doesn’t mean its right. Just because you’ve done something for the past half-century doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.
If anything, it likely means the opposite. As the world changes, it’s naïve to think that our practices shouldn’t change with it. If a company’s following the same 1950s protocol, chances are it’s less of a groove and more of a rut.
When people use “It’s always been like that,” or “That’s just the way it is,” as justification, they’re really saying that they don’t know. They don’t know why they do it that way. They don’t know if there’s a better way. And they’re unwilling to educate themselves about it.
There’s no easier path to irrelevance than abandoning first-principles thinking.
4. There’s trash on the floor
There’s only one reason for there to be trash on the floor — employees don’t care enough to stop and pick it up. When people take pride in their work, they take pride in their environment. When they don’t, they’re content to walk past some trash on the floor without stopping.
It’s usually not excessive. It’s not as though you’re walking through the inside of a Dollar General. But if there are small wrappings or a random screw on the floor, it’s usually because several people have walked past and not cared enough to pick it up.
5. People preach about the chain of command
To succeed in an agile world, people need the freedom to communicate with anyone else in the organization, without unnecessary bureaucracy. If a company’s communication structure matches their organizational structure, it’s a sign of too many self-important middle managers.
Managers that hide behind the chain of command do so because they value their title more than their contribution. For them, not being involved is a sign of disrespect. Instead of increasing their contribution so that people actually want to include them, they fall back on bureaucracy to justify their existence.
A company that prioritizes chain of command will always be slow to respond. You simply can’t pivot when you’re dragging around a bunch of middle management dead weight.
6. There’s no excitement around challenges
Watch what happens in an emergency. Are people invigorated or downtrodden? Do they see it as a chance to make an impact or is it a regretful distraction from their social media time?
Challenges and problems are a great way to build team cohesion and reinforce the company mission. But only if people like working with their coworkers. Only if they believe in the work that they do. Otherwise it’s just another headache where they need to spend more time doing meaningless busywork with people they can’t stand.
When the unexpected happens, high quality cultures recognize it as an opportunity to deliver something new. Toxic cultures see it as a punishment waiting to happen.
7. Everyone looks the same
When the management staff meetings are full of nothing but old white dudes, it says something about a company. Companies can preach diversity and inclusion until they’re blue in the face. But until these efforts show themselves in promotions and hiring, it’s just talk.
Diverse companies are better companies. And those unwilling to recognize this reality will always struggle in a changing world.
8. They have 50 KPIs
Every good manager knows that if you want to improve something, you need to do two things: measure it and report on it. So yes, metrics are a critical tool for growth. They focus attention on the key areas that will drive the company forward.
But with every focal point comes a trade-off. In order to emphasize what matters, people need to lessen their focus on something else. Otherwise people lack priorities and they can’t focus on the areas that will truly make a difference. If it’s all important, then none of it’s that important.
If a company has more metrics or KPIs than necessary, they either refuse to acknowledge this reality, or they don’t understand the critical needs of their business. Neither is good.
9. They hire all of their management from the outside
Two potential scenarios. Either the company doesn’t invest in developing their people, so there are no upcoming leaders. Or they treat people so poorly that no one’s willing to take on the additional responsibility and inevitable punishments.
Again, neither one is good.
10. No one can tell you about the company mission, vision, and values
It’s not a memorization test. People don’t need to recite it word-for-word. But they should be at least able to talk about what the company stands for. Everyone should know the company’s reason for existing.
If the common response is a blank stare, or a vague reference to the company website, it’s safe to assume that the majority of employees don’t connect to the mission.
Which is unfortunate. People want to identify with a strong mission. They want to be engaged. They want to enjoy their work. If they don’t, it’s because management is actively giving them reasons not to.
Bad Cultures are a Disaster. Recognize Them Early.
“Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” — Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Former CEO of IBM,
There are few more important indicators of a company’s long-term viability than it’s culture. Culture determines the decisions that people make each day. It reinforces expectations and promotes the company’s values. And it transforms a myriad of strengths into a competitive advantage.
A negative culture can be a disaster. It encourages micromanagement, hypercompetition, and makes everyone look out for their own best interest at the expense of the whole.
Thankfully, there are any number of warning signs that can help advertise a poor culture. Remember that companies will always try to show you their best face. If you’re still seeing these minor issues, you’ll likely uncover bigger ones if you start digging.
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