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5 red flags to watch out for in workplace culture

office and iceberg concept graphic

At a glance

  • Workplace toxicity can impact company culture and lead to problems in your career and your personal life, ranging from professional stagnation to feelings of despair.
  • It’s possible to spot signs of a toxic workplace culture before you take a job. Look for things like whether employee growth is a priority, how communication is handled and how both wins and failures are managed.
  • Signs of a positive company culture include transparent communication, successful cross-functional collaboration and a clear understanding of a company’s vision for success.
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Landing a position at a new company should be an uplifting moment, paving the way for greater success down the road. But if you wind up winning the role only to find yourself enmeshed in a toxic work environment, that dream can quickly turn nightmarish.

Where a healthy company culture should challenge you, stretch your abilities and give you plenty of experience to learn from, a toxic culture could leave you with feelings of exhaustion, mistrust, self-doubt and failure at the end of each workday.

Over time, a poor culture and the associated workplace toxicity can lead to career stagnation and problems with your mental and physical health as well as your relationships, according to the American Psychological Association.

And it can happen to any of us. Ask anyone who’s been in the workforce awhile, and they’ll likely have at least one horror story to tell. I myself have made the wrong move more than once and found myself looking for the exit almost as soon as I finished orientation because I’d ignored obvious red flags before signing on.

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Fortunately, it’s possible to spot a toxic workplace culture before you take the job, and turning down a role is almost always better than scrambling to get out of a bad situation. But you can’t rely on grand statements from a company’s website to tell you what the culture is. Even highly toxic companies tend to describe their workplace cultures in positive terms and make claims of collaboration, diversity, productivity, transparency, work-life balance, human-centeredness and all the things prospective employees would hope for. It’s part of their marketing, and you should take it with a grain of salt.

As you’re researching a company and interviewing with team members, you can assess the culture of the business for yourself. Here are five workplace warning signs to watch for as well as corresponding positive signals that will help you steer toward good culture and avoid the bad.

1. Is the company’s vision clear and consistent?

In a positive, healthy work environment, everyone understands the vision they’re working toward and how it applies to them. Regardless of what role you’re in, from marketing to product development, clarity in a company’s vision gives you clarity in your role, a solid understanding of success criteria and a shared understanding of what good looks like. If the people you interview with don’t seem aligned on the overall vision, that’s a warning sign.

Case in point: I’ve often been hired to lead significant shifts in processes or business strategies. In one particular instance, the company’s old product line had been underperforming, while the new product was still mostly in development. While I liked everyone I interviewed, it was obvious the CEO and the CTO had very different ideas about what the vision was, and individuals throughout the organization all expressed the vision differently.

I was so excited about the opportunity to make big changes and turn things around that I convinced myself the disconnect on the vision was just part of the transformation process. Unsurprisingly, a few months into the role, I realized the disconnect was fundamental, and there was little alignment between the company’s sales, marketing, product and services departments. That schism only worsened with time, ultimately exacerbating leadership misalignments and undermining collaboration at every level of the business.

How can you avoid this kind of misstep? See if the company’s mission and vision are clear through its website and social media channels. Ask everyone you interview with about the company’s vision and what it means to them. Listen for inconsistencies. It’s not unusual to hear some personal interpretation differences and minor tweaks in phrasing, but what you hear overall should paint a coherent picture and fit with what the company says about itself on its website and in its marketing. If it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to ask about inconsistencies you notice. Informed questions of this kind show you’re curious and attentive to detail. Failing to probe could land you in a deeply dysfunctional workplace culture.

2. Are leaders aligned on operations and priorities?

One layer beneath overall vision alignment is the critical importance of leadership alignment. We’re talking about alignment at the practical, execution level of the business. When leaders are aligned, the various departments in the company execute their functions with consistent, shared goals. In healthy environments, this shows up as clearly defined roles with clear and consistent handoffs between members of different teams as part of a thoughtfully defined workflow.

In the best company cultures I’ve experienced, leadership alignment means sales and marketing are collaborating to achieve revenue goals. Sales is selling what the product team has built, which is rooted in informed market strategy and customer feedback, and the customer service teams are ready and able to deliver it when customers sign up.

When needs aren’t being met, there’s a process for capturing information and adapting processes or products to respond. In great companies, this alignment is always a work in progress, but it’s clear that everyone has a defined role in the workflow, is accountable for their piece of it, and trusts that people in other departments are equally accountable.

Signs that leadership alignment is lacking typically come through as criticism of other departments. You might hear, “Sales is always making promises we can’t deliver,” or, “Product is always late with new features.” Or maybe, “We handle that ourselves because we don’t trust Support.” Anytime you hear this kind of cross-functional angst, take note. It’s a sign that leaders aren’t on the same page and that a lack of alignment is causing interdepartmental frustration, which can affect productivity and workplace culture.

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3. Is communication open, transparent and trusting?

Communication is the lifeblood of company culture. How people talk to each other, how electronic messaging and email are used, and the expectations people have for tone, detail and responsiveness constitute a big part of the daily experience of work life.

In a healthy company culture, whether in person or online, people should feel safe in communicating clearly, forthrightly and expediently to get important information across to their colleagues, without worrying that bad news will meet with backlash or that their words will come back to haunt them.

Transparency should go both up and down the chain of command as well as across departments. When you’re interviewing, ask different people about the communication habits in the company. How transparent is leadership about the goals and performance of the company? Is the company dedicated to diversity, understanding and inclusion? Do line workers and middle managers share the same view about how open and trusting communication is? Do employees feel management is holding back key information?

While in larger companies, direct communication from executives may be less frequent, employees in any size company should feel they have a good understanding of the business’s performance and priorities and how changes in the business affect staff roles.

At the same time, employees at all levels should feel comfortable reporting transparently about what’s happening in the business. If people don’t feel safe giving bad news to leadership, they’ll withhold key information that could affect business outcomes. Ask peer-level interviewers how bad news is communicated, both up and down the chain, and pay close attention to any signs that only good news is welcome. If employee concerns or potential risks and challenges are met with resistance from managers, beware.

4. Is employee growth a priority?

In an increasingly competitive workforce, professional development should be an ongoing priority. While you yourself should expect to take charge of your overall professional development plan, it’s important to understand how the company can support career growth.

Great company cultures promote professional development. The best take the time to develop career ladders for workers, providing training along the way, and promoting workers who demonstrate defined capabilities based on proficiency criteria.

While you don’t want to appear hyperfocused on when you’ll get your next raise and promotion, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask about growth opportunities in the business. Listen for real, recent examples of workers being promoted and try to get a feel for how management approaches employee training and development.

Early in my career, I asked an interviewer about growth opportunities in the company, and he answered, “Well, I’m not planning on retiring anytime soon.” I passed on that opportunity and never looked back.

Helping people develop their careers has always been the most rewarding part of management for me, and every time I hire, I’m thinking about that person’s growth path and how they might take on more responsibility as the company grows and their skills develop.

Even in relatively cash-strapped startups that lacked the resources for formal training programs, I’ve made an effort to develop promotion ladders and paths to advancement for workers on my teams. Top performers moved into management or higher-level, individual-contributor positions. Or they were promoted out of my department to roles that met their ambitions and abilities. So as a hiring manager, I’m always happy to talk to prospects about their ambitions and growth goals.

If you see any signs of discomfort from your interviewing manager or get the impression that there’s nowhere to go from the role you’re being hired into, pause and examine that further. In a great culture, your growth is a priority from day one.

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5. How are wins celebrated? How are mistakes or failures handled?

How a company handles successes and failures is one of the best indicators of its overall culture. No matter what platitudes you see on the company’s careers page, if wins aren’t shared across the teams and failures aren’t absorbed with a growth mindset, you’d be well advised to steer clear.

I had the pleasure of leading a services team in one startup that had a fantastic practice of sending out companywide emails with every newly won sales deal. In that email, the sales rep closing the deal thanked everyone who helped out in any way with the win. Those acknowledgments went well beyond just the sales engineer and marketing reps, and often included thanks to support technicians, data engineers, product managers — literally anybody who influenced the deal.

This culture of celebrating wins across the whole company made people feel genuinely appreciated for their contributions. Even entry-level workers far removed from the sales side of the business saw their names attached to the revenue that sustained and grew the company.

At the same time, we worked hard in that company to ensure we learned from losses. Not just lost deals, but misfired product features, customer complaints and other failures. At one point, six months after launching a new product that had been particularly problematic for customers, we held a painfully (but refreshingly) honest leadership meeting to evaluate the situation and subsequently sunsetted that product.

We reassigned resources and team members to other initiatives and refocused on a fundamentally different product that we built from the ground up based on what we’d learned. That self-reflective, blameless process led to the creation of a better product, a rebound in sales and a new wave of growth for the company and its employees. 

Your happiness and success in any role will depend heavily on how the company’s culture views your own workplace successes and failures. Ask interviewers for examples from their own experience. Look for signs that contributors share the glory, such as on social media, and beware of any indication that managers take the credit for their teams’ efforts.

At the same time, look for positive signs that mistakes are treated as learning and growth opportunities in the workplace, not occasions for punishment or embarrassment. Ask for examples of challenges or missteps in the recent past and how they were handled. Are mistakes and challenges understood in a way that leads to change, or are the errors of the past described as the fault of past employees no longer with the company?

In a healthy culture, honest mistakes signal an opportunity for change in process, enablement or strategy, and leadership takes steps to implement changes based on what’s learned rather than assign blame and distance themselves from failures.

And that’s ultimately how everyone can win.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Strohmeyer is a serial entrepreneur and executive with more than 30 years of experience starting and running companies. He has served in leadership roles at three successful software startups over the past decade, and his writing on business and technology has appeared in such publications as Wired, PCWorld, Forbes, Executive Travel, Smart Business, Businessweek and many others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

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