3 Signs You Work in a Toxic Company Culture

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How would you describe your job? Not just your job title, but your exact job — your position, for your boss, at the company you work for. Is it fun and exciting? Maybe challenging and rewarding? Alternatively, maybe it’s draining, exhausting, and stressful. Just like your personality impacts your relationships with your friends and family members, your company’s culture plays a large role in how you and your colleagues feel about your careers.

To find out more about corporate culture and its impact on employees, we spoke to S. Chris Edmonds, chief executive of Purposeful Culture Group and the author of several books, including The Culture Engine.

When people think of a solid company with a stable culture, they may think of financially stable firms that have been around for many years. Because a company’s culture may naturally evolve over time, sometimes people assume problematic cultures are reserved for young companies, start-ups, companies undergoing change, or those experiencing financial troubles. This is not necessarily the case.

“The stages a business goes through don’t always correlate with the quality of the work environment. In some companies, the early growth stage finds the healthiest work environment and it erodes over time. In other companies, the early stages are difficult for employees. The work environment may stabilize and become a more inspiring culture years after its growth stage,” said Edmonds. “The biggest drivers of workplace trust, dignity, and respect are the organization’s leaders, at any stage of a company’s evolution. Senior leaders have the ability to revise policies, procedures, and systems to create a safe, inspiring work environment — employees do not have that authority.”

As an employee, you may not be able to rush into the CEO’s office and demand that he or she makes specific changes. But you can, however, improve your day-to-day work life for yourself. Do you work in a toxic environment? Here are a few signs that indicate you might.

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1. You’re not sure if everyone is on the same team

Have you ever wondered whether your coworkers are working with you to achieve a common goal or are competing against you for brownie points, recognition, promotions, or raises? What about your boss? Does she frequently take credit for your ideas or your work? When you bring a new idea to the table, does she provide you with constructive feedback and recognize you for your contributions? Or does she — whether it be passively or directly — shoot down your ideas and make you feel as though you have no place bringing a new perspective forward?

If your boss or coworkers compete with you — and with each other — instead of working together, this is a clear sign of a problematic company culture. What can you do in this situation?

Document your work achievements. Include dates, details of your role on the task or project, and numerical data (metrics) that represent how you exceeded expectations. Finally, keep in mind that just because there’s a game going on around you, that doesn’t mean you have to play. You can do your job, go above and beyond what’s expected of you, and excel without channeling Will Farrell’s character, Ricky Bobby, from Talladega Nights. Also, stand up for yourself when appropriate while still giving credit where credit is due. And, in the worst-case scenarios, you may have to find a better work environment.

“If the culture of their organization is competitive rather than cooperative, ‘I win and you lose’ rather than ‘we win together,’ etc., an employee has to make a choice. If the employee has a good boss in a lousy system, that employee may choose to stay and contribute in the safety of that boss’s team. Or that employee may choose to leave that organization and take their talents to a more safe, more inspiring workplace,” says Edmonds.

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2. There are rats in the building (metaphorically speaking)

If your company houses characters who are seedy at best, your work environment may suffer as a result. Bullies, liars, cheats, and scoundrels all create an office environment that’s unsettling to work in. If your boss says he’s just “bending the rules” as he shreds legal documents, it may be time to look for another place to work.

We asked Edmonds if there was any opportunity for employees who work in toxic cultures — specifically, any advancement opportunities. “As Lily Tomlin said, ‘The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.’ The only way for an employee to thrive in a toxic culture is to model toxic behaviors,” he said. “This may be a huge temptation for an employee in a toxic culture if the only role models you’ve had in your organization behave badly — lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, etc. — and were rewarded for that bad behavior. The bottom line is, bad behavior never builds sustained success.”

He adds: “Could an employee take the high road — applying their skills, meeting their goals, smiling in the face of ridicule, keeping their commitments, never saying a bad word about anyone, etc. — and have the organization value them for those behaviors? They might, but it would be exhausting to fight that battle every day. Could an employee outlast the toxic culture and advance to a team leader level? It’s possible, but once there, the company would expect the same toxic behaviors it expects of other leaders. That would be immensely stressful and frustrating for the values-aligned employee.”

Sometimes people forget about this aspect of it. They are so focused on the grind and working their way up to the top that they forget that the top may not be a place they want to be — at least not the top of that current company. Ask yourself: Where do you want to be? What type of environment do you want to be in?

“I coach employees — and leaders, actually — in toxic cultures to rise above, to do the right things, to model values that they’d be proud of if their actions made the morning newscast the next day. And look for an opportunity with a different part of the company or a different company, where values like honesty, integrity, and kindness are demonstrated daily. No one is going to look out for those employees — they have to be proactive and find a better fit for themselves, sooner rather than later,” Edmonds said.

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3. Performance and values expectations are unclear

Edmonds explains that while there are several signs of a toxic culture, like a competitive environment, these variables are symptomatic of the organization’s culture. “They are ‘logical consequences’ of the rules and norms that have evolved over time. For example, a culture founded on competition between team members — rather than cooperation — causes less trust, less information sharing, stronger silos, etc.,” he said.

The root foundations of organizational culture are deeper and beyond these symptoms. “I have learned to examine two primary elements: performance expectations and values expectations. When performance expectations are clear, leaders and employees know what is expected of them. When leaders and employees are held accountable for agreed-to performance, company goals are consistently met,” Edmonds explains.

He adds: “When values expectations are clear — with values defined in observable, measurable, behavioral terms — leaders and employees know how they are expected to act with peers and customers. Good citizenship is specifically defined. When leaders and employees are held accountable for those valued behaviors, trust, respect, and dignity increase. Cooperation increases. Aligned contributions are the norm. When leaders and employees are held accountable for performance and values expectations, really good things happen.”

At the end of the day, your interests have to come first, and if you work for a company with a toxic environment, you only really have a few viable options: adapt and adjust, or move on. “It’s unlikely that an employee can shift a toxic culture at work to a safe, inspiring culture at work. They must either develop a very thick skin or find employment where they can work and contribute in peace, cooperation, and inspiration,” said Edmonds.

Is the stress and frustration worth the money, challenge, prestige, or whatever other benefits that come along with your job? That’s a question only you can answer.

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