6 signs of toxic and healthy work cultures

A work culture can be crudely defined as ‘the way things are done around here’. It can be considered as an entity of its own, the collective subsequence of the workforce, policies, practice and management. Despite best efforts, it’s something that cannot be tamed or controlled, but organisations can certainly focus their energy on the individual elements that direct it. It’s also an important part of working life and has a very direct influence on job satisfaction.

For example, you could have the best job in the world but if the culture is toxic, the job itself isn’t enough to keep you there, or at least happy. Often companies neglect the significance and impact a culture has on their staff and scratch their heads at their appalling attrition rates.

Being aware of this, and beginning to identify the sort of work culture you can flourish in, will add to your efforts to reaching job satisfaction. When it comes to this particular element of job satisfaction, it’s important to consider the consequences of a work culture to your life outside of work, for example, a culture that encourages late nighters and regular weekend work might not work well with keeping a family, working on a side hustle, or studying a course.

As I touched on in this post about the secret behind ‘the perfect career’, the work culture is a particularly important element for those who find job satisfaction by fitting in with their lifestyle and contentment rather than the actual role itself.

Or for those who consider themselves as ‘multipotentialites’ (which I talked about in this post), a work culture that encourages entre/intrapreneurialship and has a strong focus on training and learning new skills will play a strong contribution to job satisfaction.

So with this in mind, below I list 6 signs each of toxic and healthy work cultures.

  1. Recruitment

Toxic – From the beginning of the process, the job description is ambiguous, over-generalised and rife with spelling mistakes. Communication during the interview and onboarding processes is flaky and unprofessional. Rocking up to work on your first day, you’re given a desk, a computer and told to get on with it; no induction, no introductions, no first day training. These signs suggest that the culture isn’t professional, and it likes to cut corners at the cost of quality. The lack of communication suggests that they don’t invest in the employee experience before they’ve even started the role and could come across that they just don’t care. This can also be a sign that the company has experienced high attrition rates as the process is one that doesn’t have a long impact on new starters as they’ll soon be out of the door any way!

Healthy – From the beginning of the process, the job description details everything about the job and what is expected of the successful candidate. The pay respectfully reflects the nature and level of the role, as well as the qualifications needed for it. Communication is led with consistently, constantly and with integrity. A formal induction program is ready for you on day one (if not before) and you’re introduced to everyone in the office. You’re walked through the upcoming training and all of your new starter objectives. This culture is one of professionalism and respect and shows that they value their workforce.

  1. HR Policies

Toxic – HR policies and procedures are either very short or excessively long. They also focus only on how management should use them and to control staff. Heavy policies that deal with attendance, disciplinary and grievance matters are rigid, strict, unreasonable, and restricts or altogether forbids professional flexibility or judgement. Or very little measures are in place to protect staff from bullying and harassment, manage poor performance before disciplinary action is instigated or to assist staff who are experiencing physical or mental health problems.

Healthy – HR policies and procedures provide enough information that is transparent for employees and their managers that have equal and proportionate weight in terms of assisting employees and managers. All policies provide a clear structure for managers to align their professional judgement to individual circumstances, while providing appropriate flexibility. They also have the right sort of measures in place to ensure staff are protected, assisted and supported while giving managers a guide to work alongside when implementing remedial action.

  1. Work-life Balance

Toxic – Leaving on time is discouraged as putting in extra unpaid hours is expected of you; sometimes you’re expected to be able to take calls or step in at a minute’s notice on your days off. Flexible working applications are refused as standard without assessing each case appropriately. The process of applying for annual leave is tedious and doesn’t feel like an entitlement but a privilege; some leave might also be denied for multiple months, showing extremely poor workforce planning. Leaving work unexpectedly for emergencies to do with dependants is either not allowed or something begrudgingly granted with a consequence of being made to feel guilty upon your return.

Healthy – Managers practically push you out the door if they suspect you working longer than they should and respect your time outside of work. Flexible working is dealt with sensibly, compassionately and pragmatically, and arrangements are reviewed regularly to make sure it’s still fit for purpose for the individual. Annual leave is worked out fairly amongst the team and within sensible time frames. Emergencies are dealt with realistically as there is a strong working family culture and understand unforeseen things do actually happen in real life. When you return to work after the emergency, your manager and colleagues are genuinely concerned. Temporary working patterns are offered to accommodate any further disruptions.

  1. Learning and Development

Toxic – Professional development and learning is an afterthought and is considered an add-on rather than something that needs investment or strategic planning. Even with little learning and development opportunities offered by the organisation, self-directed learning is scoffed at and you’re reminded by management that it won’t get you anywhere within the company. Skill gap analysis isn’t conducted leading to a severe skill shortfall, and self-assessment and learning objective setting are alien concepts.

Healthy – There is investment and strategic forethought in learning and development, on both an individual and company-wide basis. There is an intrapreneurial spirit that encourages everyone to fully utilise the full spectrum of their skills and interests. Self-directed learning is encouraged and taking time out to study can be a form of a flexible working arrangement. Skills are regularly assessed and very rarely are skill shortfalls detrimental to business-as-usual activities.

  1. Staff Engagement

Toxic – Company values are forced upon staff without exemplary behaviour demonstrated by management. Feedback is rarely asked for, but when it is, any constructive feedback from staff is considered negative and therefore dismissed. Employees have very little influence on policies, procedures or processes even when they have ideas on improving costs and efficiency. Team and individual meetings are tick-box exercises with little or no value to either the manager or individual. There is a strong focus on penalising those who get things wrong but little or no emphasis on lessons learned or celebrating successes.

Healthy – Core values are demonstrated by managers and senior managers throughout the whole organisation and every action from the organisation is evidently aligned to these core values. Internal communications are for the benefit of staff to provide useable information and requesting thoughts and feedback. Employees have a strong influence on how policies, procedures and processes are shaped and can be involved in projects or stretch assignments that implement these changes. Team and individual meetings are very useful and benefit everyone involved. They’re used as a safe opportunity to share views, concerns and successes, and any failures are used as an opportunity to learn lessons.

  1. Management

Toxic – Management favour organisational inertia over progress because ‘this is how it’s always been done’. Efforts are focussed in fire-fighting and keeping business-as-usual items ticking over without any focus on the future or putting in developmental plans. Line managers use their position to shirk responsibility, duties and to exert their power. As a line manager they also feel they can do no wrong and don’t require any training as they know everything already. Management lack any forward thinking in terms of succession and workforce planning which has an overall negative impact on organisational performance, attendance and staff morale. Hostile and toxic environments are left to fester.

Healthy – Management pay attention to what’s on the horizon and make sure their efforts on current activity are future proof and may lead to future opportunities. Line managers use their position to coach and mentor their teams and actively keep involved in their team’s work. Line managers have management-specific objectives and keep their training up to date. Succession and workforce planning is an integral part of business-as-usual and is a need-to-have, not a like-to-have. Early intervention is a key part in nipping any hostility in the bud and management actively play a part in promoting and supporting a healthy work culture.

These are just a few signs to look out for in toxic and healthy work cultures, the effects of which are detrimental to your work life and job satisfaction. During your search for a career or job that provide job satisfaction, you might find it hard to judge the work culture in organisations or sectors you know very little about. Even if you were to read up on the legal sector, you might hear stories of late nights, micro-management, heavy workloads and tedious hourly rate calculations, which might be completely untrue for a number of firms.

Your perfect work culture

Using the first point above on recruitment will be evident from the point of reading the job description, as well as any proactive phone enquiries. But in the meantime, you can use these signs to begin to think about the work culture you want to work in. In the absence of knowing what career you want to do, you can start thinking about what culture you want to be in, the one that allows you to work with the least stress, the most flexibility or the emphasis on continuous career progression.

This is the third of a 5 part series of posts on discovering how to find job satisfaction. Next week, I will be talking about professional motivation and how it can help you towards job satisfaction.