These are the 5 biggest signs of a toxic workplace

Toxic work culture is the top reason people quit, and ten times more important than pay, according to a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. But what exactly does a toxic workplace actually look like?

Researchers analyzed 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews from nearly 600 major US companies and found that employees describe toxic workplaces in five ways: non-inclusive, disrespectful, unethical, cutthroat and abusive.

“Employees can have hundreds of different criticisms of their company that they discuss on Glassdoor,” from IT issues to clueless management, says Charlie Sull, a researcher on the analysis. “Most won’t have a strong emotional impact on their rating of the company, but we look at a small selection of issues that have a large impact on a company’s Glassdoor rating.” The same factors can cost companies billions of dollars when employees quit .

For their analysis, the researchers focused on themes repeated in employee reviews that correlated with both a negative value in company culture score and high employee turnover rates from April to September 2021.

“These aren’t just annoyances,” says Sull. “Those are the things that create an emotional response that makes you afraid to go to work.”

What toxic work culture looks like

Based on anonymous reviews, employees say the following five descriptions are textbook elements of a toxic work culture:

  1. Not included, where members regardless of gender, race, sexual identity and orientation, disability, and age do not feel treated fairly, welcomed, or included in important decisions. Researchers warn that while these identity-related issues may not apply to all employees, they do have a major impact. For example, “respect” is mentioned 30 times more often than LGBTQ justice in employee reviews, but both issues have the same impact on an employee’s attitude towards culture when discussed negatively in an evaluation.
  2. Disrespectful, or lack of consideration, courtesy, and dignity toward others. The researchers’ previous work found that respect, or lack thereof, was the strongest predictor of how employees as a whole evaluated organizational culture.
  3. unethical behaviorincluding descriptions of the organization being dishonest or failing to comply with regulations including Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards protecting worker safety and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protecting sensitive patient information.
  4. Cutthroat or sneaky behavior and ruthless competition. Almost 10% of employee reviews identified poor collaboration at their company that didn’t impact sales much. However, what went hand in hand with low culture values ​​and higher turnover were employees who said their office was “Darwinian” or that co-workers often “backstabbed one another.”
  5. Abusive Administration, including bullying, harassment and hostility. Almost a third of Glassdoor reviews address management in general, but 0.8% described their manager as abusive.

Toxic jobs are a billion dollar problem

When people quit because of a toxic work culture, it’s both a human and a business cost.

Employees who work in toxic environments experience higher levels of stress, burnout, mental health issues, and other stressors that can lead to poor physical health.

The Society of Human Resources Management estimates that 1 in 5 employees have left their job at some point in their career due to a toxic culture that cost companies more than $44 billion a year before the Great Retirement.

Disengaged and unemployed employees mean lower productivity, and replacing an employee can cost up to twice the employee’s annual salary, according to Gallup.

As the business world today focuses on retention and recruitment, MIT Analysis researchers say organizations need to build and model a supportive, inclusive culture as the pandemic transforms the way we work.

They also recommend leaders break down how people evaluate culture, such as by geographic region, department, function, or seniority, to find “microcultures” where employees don’t feel psychologically safe and supported. “Even in relatively healthy corporate cultures, even a small proportion of people who identify the culture as toxic can lead to attrition,” says Sull.

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Chrissy Callahan

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