September 1, 2021

Signs You’re in a Toxic Work Culture

I'm Melissa
I'm a Career and Leadership Coach for Women in Pharma/Biotech. I've been where you are, and I help you create the career you want without working more hours or settling for good enough.
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Do you know how to recognize the signs that you’re in a toxic work culture?

You know when you’re at work and then an email crosses your desk and you think “Wow, I can’t believe they just said that!” or you’re in a meeting and you know there is a better way but it just isn’t comfortable to speak up?

You might wonder if it’s just you……or could it be the company culture?

You might be wondering if your company culture is “normal” or if it really is that awful word, toxic….

Or maybe you suspect there’s a whole lot wrong but you just aren’t sure.

Workplace culture is something I’m super passionate about, and it’s because it is so incredibly important.

In fact, did you know that 88% of job seekers say that a healthy culture at work is vital for success and that having highly engaged employees can lead to a 202% increase in performance?!

If you’ve been feeling like something isn’t quite right in your workplace, this episode will help you understand what the real problem is and get some ideas on how to make it better.

What You’ll Learn

8 signs of a toxic work culture (and why they matter)

How to recognize and identify problems in your work culture

Steps you can take to improve your work culture

Featured in This Episode

Learn more about coaching with Melissa. 

Are you questioning if you are in the right career? Take the quiz. 

Previous Episodes:

The One Leadership Behavior You Need 

How to Be an Awesome Boss 

Master Difficult Conversations

When and How to Speak Up to Your Boss

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Welcome to Navigating Your Career, the only podcast that blends personal development, professional skills, and psychology to help you get happy at work and live the life you want. If you want to stop feeling stuck and start feeling better, this is the place for you. I’m your host, Melissa Lawrence. Let’s get started.

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the podcast. I hope you have loved your summer so far and are staying healthy and happy. Today we are going to talk about something I am super passionate about and that is workplace culture and specifically signs that you are in a toxic work culture. This is something that I studied for years in graduate school.

My thesis was all about psychological safety and creating this in organizations during times of change. I actually talk more about this in an earlier episode of the podcast called The One Leadership Behavior You Need. You can check it out if you want to learn more and geek out over all of the data I found and my recommendations on the topic. Anyway, we’re going to break down eight signs that you’re working in a toxic work culture so that you can identify if those questions you have about your workplace are actually ones you should take seriously and what they could mean.

But first, I want to tell you about one of my clients, Daria.

Daria came to me because her workplace culture was demanding. She had no work life balance, was stressed all the time and made no time for herself. She had a really hard time celebrating her accomplishments and seeing not only the good in herself and in situations, but really seeing how she had the power to change some of those things that she was really struggling with. And she sent me a note the other day with some feedback, and I want to share it with you. Here is what she had to say.

“I no longer think I’m not a good enough employee or that I need to change myself. I set boundaries and I’m able to walk away from work and be okay with it without feeling guilty. Coaching is a difficult process, and you may be asked difficult questions that sometimes you don’t know how to answer, but that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. It changes how you think and handle those situations that cause you stress and anxiety and that make you unhappy. The best part is that you learn how to avoid those situations in the future.  I’m now vocal about my workload and what is important to me. I now take rest and celebrate my accomplishments.”

Such a big shout out to Daria for the work that she did the last few months to create this for herself. So for those of you out there that are feeling like you totally resonate with that message that you don’t have the work life balance that you want, that you need some boundaries and less stress and more time for you, used Daria’s story as proof that it is possible for you.

All right, now, let’s dive into these pesky signs that your culture just may be something you need to do something about.

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that 88% of job seekers say that a healthy culture at work is vital for success. I mean, most of my clients say this is actually one of the top reasons they aren’t happy where they are and what they are looking for. Also, team leaders have the highest impact on company culture. We know this to be true, and a little ways back, I did an episode on How to Be an Awesome Boss. You will want to check it out if you’re a current manager or aspiring to be one.

So I’m not going to dig too much into that here right now. The benefits of a great work culture are pretty astounding. Having highly engaged employees can lead to a 202% increase in performance. 69% of employees would work harder if they received more recognition. So even the companies that only care about the bottom line, I mean, those are the statistics you can stand behind, right?

But then listen to this. A recent study by Society for Human Resource Management found that the cost of turnover due to workplace culture is 223 billion, with a B, dollars in the past five years alone. 58% of those who left a job due to culture claim managers are the reason they left. 40% of employees say their managers fail to frequently engage in honest conversation about work topics, 25% of employees don’t feel safe voicing their opinions about work related issues, and 25% of Americans dread going to work. Further, a 2020 study from M Train and surveyed employees from 125 companies and found that 83% of employees wouldn’t report harassment if they saw it.

41% of employees aren’t confident that if they made a harassment complaint, their management would take it seriously. And only 20% of employees think managers are aware of how their power influences workplace interactions. So that’s a lot of data and statistics. So a toxic work culture continues to be all too common. So if you’re listening and you’re wondering if you’re in fact, part of a toxic work culture, let’s get your answer right now.

We’re going to go over all of these ways, eight in total, that signify that you could be working in a toxic work culture. And so the first one is turnover. Yep, no big surprise here, but we need to look at turnover, also known as attrition. If you have employees ready to jump as soon as that bonus pays out, that’s not great. It’s to be expected that attrition will go up around performance review time.

But when people are waiting for that payout to exit, they clearly weren’t happy. And we have to be transparent here and really set expectations that no company is going to be able to make 100% of employees happy. But we aren’t talking about one to two people. When you have over 10% of employees leaving on an annual basis, that’s a sign that things really aren’t great. You can also look at the percentage of employees that are leaving.

Are they high performers, or are they low performers? If the employees that are awesome at what they do are leaving for a competitor that tells you something. So generally you want to look at how many people and who are staying and who are going. And if you have a lot of people leaving, especially if they’re high performers, this could be a sign that you work in a toxic culture. Number two, people are more worried about fitting in than standing out. Eek.

So, what makes cultures great is when you have people with different perspectives coming to the table, when you share your ideas, and can really be yourself. But if you’re working for a place where most employees are trying not to be seen, this is another sign that you could be working in a toxic culture. You know, when someone starts at a company, maybe this was you, and had a lot of experience and ideas of how to make things better or solve different problems. But you realized over time that you speaking up was actually a problem, that your ideas weren’t well received, that your company doesn’t want different.

It wants you to be like everyone else, or at least those that are deemed to be the people going somewhere with the company, those that get promoted, and you’re wondering why. So, you slowly start to change who you are.

You stop speaking up in order to fit in. You worry what others think If you speak up. You worry about checking your email and being visible. And when you’re seen walking in and out of the building, just trying to keep up with how you’re supposed to be. Yeah, all of that. Not great. When speak up and included in diversity are really just on a poster but the behavior in your meetings with your manager during one-on-one or in town halls, it’s a whole other story.

You probably already know this, but that can be a sign of a toxic culture. There are definitely ways to speak up more effectively and communication strategies. And you know what? I have an episode on that, too, but I’m assuming you’re doing a pretty decent job at speaking up, and when you do, it’s frowned upon.

No, not good. I had a client who was deemed a problem child for not fitting in. She was told she had a target on her back. That’s a more serious case but in toxic cultures, that can happen.

All right, let’s move on to number three. There is no psychological safety and people are afraid to fail. So psychological safety is closely related to the last sign we talked about. It’s at its core, a feeling that you have that you can be yourself and you can make mistakes without fear of retaliation, meaning you can try new things, you can work on a project that is maybe new or requires new skill and you don’t make yourself all stressed out thinking that you can’t make a mistake or something bad is going to happen.

You’ll lose a promotion, you won’t get a good review. You’ll be shamed somehow within the team.

In healthy cultures, you can not only speak up, share your ideas, but you can also make mistakes and learn from them without fear of it negatively impacting your job. Number four, Lack of empowerment to make decisions. So what I mean by this is you or your manager have shackles on when it comes to making decisions, and you cannot make decisions within your realm of expertise and scope of work. You should have a certain level of decision making that you can do on your own without your manager having to approve.

Your manager should also have that same ability. If there is so much red tape or you have high level managers needing to sign off on little things that are within your scope of responsibility, then this can be a problem.

You can feel paralyzed and create huge bottlenecks in productivity and efficiency when you have to always go one, two, or three levels above to make day to day decisions. You should be empowered to use your skills and expertise to make decisions related to your work. And if you aren’t, this can be a sign that your culture is toxic and has trust issues and or poor leadership. Number five, Employee ethics are an issue. So, this is really getting to the heart of the behavior of the employees where you work.

Is it an atmosphere with respect and kindness?

Do you have the sense that people want what is best for each other, or is it more like fighting between groups or within them? Do you have people taking credit for others’ work gossiping, maybe throwing people under the bus when something doesn’t go right to avoid blame? All of that is an issue with employee ethics. Further, would employees feel safe to report this to HR? When there’s harassment or other violations of company policy or even the law, do you and other employees feel they can bring this up to someone without fear of retaliation?

If not HR, is there a leader or someone that issues can be escalated to or is it more, “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Probably more gossip and talk about it, being frustrated nothing changes, but you don’t want to be the one to say something. If employee ethics are a concern, then this is a big sign of a toxic work culture.

If you’re not sure. One way I like to define culture is it’s the stories that people tell. You can’t look to a poster or what the leader says the culture is. You can’t even always look to the employee surveys. You have to listen to what the employees say to their friends and family and close colleagues.

Are they talking about positive experiences or negative ones? Are they talking about how they felt great that they used their skills or felt empowered? Or are they talking about someone who took credit for what they did, someone who made a meeting awkward because of tension between groups or individuals and so on? The stories you’re hearing can be a good indicator of how healthy your culture is. Number six, Heavy pressure on work over life quality.

Is your work demanding so much so that you can barely keep up with the work? You feel you need to check email and in the evenings, you can’t relax and you’re worried that you’re going to miss something. Do you find that even if you bring this up, you’re not told not to be online late or not to work extra hours? It’s more of an empathetic, “Yeah, that’s just how the job is sometimes.”

Or, “Yeah, it stinks right now, doesn’t it? I’m with you. I’m also working a lot.” Can you take vacation or time away and truly unplug, or is it expected that you are on call? Are there things you feel you can’t step away from because you’re the one holding them together? Now, this is something I work with my clients a lot on.

We identify what can be changed and create boundaries and establish routines that create the work life balance that you want, even when it seems impossible. But if you’re working for a place that celebrates being overworked, if you’re in a constant state of when we get the head count filled, when this other thing gets done, then you’ll get to work less. That is a problem. To do your best work, you need to rest and recharge. If your work doesn’t support that, this can be a sign of toxic work culture.

There are also ways you can establish boundaries to stop this, too, and I can help you if you are looking to take that step. Number seven, no focus on the employee experience. So, what I mean by the employee experience is think of your employer as a concierge for a resort. Yes, I’m serious. When you started working there, you made a deal based on what they would provide and what you would provide.

When you go in, did you have a proper onboarding experience, were you greeted, did you feel welcomed and that you belonged? Do you have adequate training to do your job? Was someone checking in with you to be sure that you had what you needed? As you worked there, were there benefits or services to help you understand the company, to take care of yourself and to be able to do your job to the best of your ability? Does your company share they care about your development and tell you about the tuition reimbursement plan or how they help develop employees to build their careers with the company?

If you go into management, is there training to ensure you know how to lead effectively? Is the communication clear? Do you feel connected to your employee vision and the purpose of what you do? Do you know what you need, where to ask questions and what to do if you don’t? All of these things contribute to your experience as an employee.

If no one is focusing on your experience and you feel more like a cog in the wheel, this can be a sign that you’re working in a toxic culture. And there’s one more that I would add, and that is really around how problems are handled. So when there’s a problem at work, when something goes wrong, what is the response to that? And this goes beyond the psychological safety and the communication and the retaliation and all of the things I talked about before. But really, when you look at a culture you want to look at also how it is in the good times and how it is in the bad times.

When you have employees that are working really hard and giving their all and then something happens, could be outside of their control, could be a bad day, could be a restructuring of a team that caused it to not perform as well. What’s the response you get? Is it compassion and understanding, and let’s get to the bottom of it and see what support you need? Or is it more around criticism, telling you to work harder and no understanding or empathy?

How people respond in the bad times says as much about them as how they respond in the good. So there they are. You have turnover, people that care more about fitting and then standing out, no psychological safety, a lack of empowerment to make decisions, employee ethics are an issue, heavy pressure on work over life, no focus on the employee experience and how problems are responded to.

If you’re struggling with one or more of these and aren’t sure what to do about it, then I encourage you to head over to my website and schedule a call with me so we can create a plan to help you get where you want to be, whether that’s fixing the issues where you are or moving on to something else. Head to my website at to learn more about how I can help you. And have an amazing week.

Coaching with me is the best way to guarantee you get happy at work and achieve your career and life goals. Getting started is easy. Head over to to learn more and apply. It is the first step to get you from feeling stuck to knowing exactly what you want and have the tools to make it a reality. I will be by your side the entire way.

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No longer settles for “good enough”

Hi, I’m Melissa.

Career & Leadership Coach for Women in Pharma/Biotech

I'm a former Talent & Development leader in Pharma/Biotech turned CEO and Certified Professional Career & Life Coach. I also host the podcast, Your Worthy Career.

I've been where you are, and I help you create the career you want without working more hours or settling for good enough.

I'm leading a movement of women in the industry who are figuring out exactly what they want and shattering the glass ceiling. The very real ceiling in the industry, but also the one that we impose on ourselves. 

So long, imposter syndrome and overthinking. It's time to step into the impact and life you're worthy of having.

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