Do You Have a Toxic Work Culture? 4 Telltale Signs

June 24, 2016 Pete Jansons


tired girl

Any size workplace runs the risk of acquiring a toxic culture. When such an atmosphere permeates a small business, however, the effects can be particularly dangerous. You depend on your close-knit team to function as a harmonious unit. Discord or discontent can spread quickly and impact operations profoundly.

An effective small business owner needs to be alert to infiltration. Unfortunately, clues are not always obvious, and busy leaders are often so tied up with other things they fail to recognize subtleties. Knowing what to look for can be helpful, so take heed of these possible signs of a toxic work culture at your small business before they kill morale and damage your bottom line.

Hushed conversations

Feel an uncomfortable silence take over when you enter a room? Notice certain employees whispering to one another when a co-worker isn’t around? Unless someone’s birthday is next week, secretive discussions tend to spell trouble.

Punching the clock

Speaking of conversations, has your watercooler turned into simply a place to grab a drink? Do employees high-tail out the door each evening and barely utter “hello” in the morning? Is it getting harder to find workers willing to do overtime? Toxic environments discourage camaraderie and promote clockwatching.


If you seem to have the staff doomed to catch every bug going around, perhaps employees have lowered immune systems due to chronic stress. Likewise, an increase in absenteeism may mean workers find it difficult to drag themselves to an unpleasant workplace – or need some time off to look for another job.

Lack of effort

Small businesses thrive when everyone on staff contributes equally. While a decrease in productivity or an increase in error-filled work certainly merits investigation, watch out for these less obvious signs of disengagement:

  • Meetings have become monologues; nobody besides you wants to say anything.
  • New projects bring more sighs than excitement.
  • People seem reluctant to jump in to help a co-worker in need.
  • The phrase “That’s not my job” enters the workplace vocabulary.

Smart bosses take action when they discover the possibility of a toxic work culture. Oftentimes, getting problems out in the open can be a valuable first step. Small businesses have the advantage of being a manageable-sized group that can be gathered together in a room for an air-clearing discussion. Present what you’ve noticed in a thoughtful, yet factual, manner. (Being accusatory will lead to defensiveness or silence.) Encourage people to present their concerns and work together to come up with possible solutions.

Another strategy is to administer regular (annual or semi-annual) employee engagement surveys to get honest feedback from employees on their satisfaction. Keep the surveys anonymous so employees will feel more comfortable being honest and you can get a more accurate read on their engagement level. Try to get as specific answers as possible so you know how to proceed and address any areas of concern.

Finally, consider conducting one-on-one “stay” interviews. This measure of employee satisfaction resembles an “exit” interview – but you get valuable information in enough time to actually do something with it. Ask individuals what they like best and least about the company, how the workplace might be improved, and what might tempt them to leave. You’ll gain insight, and employees will feel they have a voice.

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