Toxin Detector: How to Spot and Avoid Toxic Work Cultures

Plenty has been written recently about fallout from toxic cultures, but how can you spot them from the outside? A recent article on The Ladders provided insight into what to watch out for, whether you’re interviewing or settling into your workspace.

Rex Conner points to subjectively-written expectations and policies as a key problem area. Subjective processes and systems leave room for differing opinions to emerge, which can create conflict and toxicity for even the most well-meaning managers and team members.

Valuing internal competition is another drop of poison. Companies that adopt a “survival of the fittest” mentality or encourage employees to compete against each other, rather than market competitors, are creating a toxic environment. Researchers such as Robert Cooke and many others have long identified this value as an aggressive work style that is ineffective for long-term sustainability and growth.

Jobseekers should read job descriptions carefully. Think about how you’ll be evaluated on the items in the description. How can an employee expect to be evaluated on nebulous concepts such as “be a team player,” “go the extra mile,” or “be a power user”? The same goes for the processes around recognition and promotion. The more open to interpretation systems and processes are, the more likely they are to leave the door open for conflict.

The heart of a company’s culture is how people are expected to act every day. It is the rules (written and unwritten) and the expectations. Strong cultures have values that employees can live out through their work and clear systems and processes that support meeting and exceeding these expectations.

What are you doing to avoid reinforcing toxic behaviors? To keep job descriptions and processes objective? To keep competition focused outward?