4 Signs Your Workplace Environment is Toxic

The data-driven signs that entrepreneurs and executives should be looking for.

learn more about Janine Yancey

By Janine Yancey

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Harassment and bias have been hot topics within C-suites and corporate boards since the dawn of #MeToo in 2017 when high-profile cases started to hit the headlines.

Despite lip service to the contrary, most business leaders only realize their workplace is toxic when they see their Glassdoor reviews, start to experience high turnover, get slapped with a lawsuit or even get fired. With this in mind, last year my company decided to embark on a benchmarking study that collected data from 40,000 employees at 125 healthy and unhealthy companies. This Workplace Culture Report 2020 allows companies to benchmark how they measure up to the best and worst cultures along six key indicators (including these four warning signs).

Here are some of the very clear, data-driven signs your company's culture is infected and headed down an increasingly unhealthy road if untreated. Consider these the four deadly horsemen of a toxic workplace culture.

1. Unchecked power dynamics

Power dynamics refers to the way people use or abuse their authority. Many managers are unaware of how their power impacts their social interactions with coworkers and how coworkers don't feel comfortable saying "no" to them. The result: Managers do not get the feedback they need when they misstep, and employees tolerate disrespectful behaviors they would not accept from others.

For example, consider the scene from a harassment training video showing a manager who, at the end of a long "stressful" day at the office, asks a very visibly uncomfortable subordinate to walk on his back to massage out the stress. One in three of the employees who saw the video said they would still have trouble saying no to this clearly inappropriate request.

According to recent data collected from 40,000 employees across 125 companies, more than one-third of employees (34 percent) report their managers are not aware that employees find it difficult to say no to them. In addition, 17 percent report they do not feel comfortable speaking up if they have a concern.

2. Too many people who feel they are part of an "out group"

When certain groups are favored, there's power in belonging to an "in group" and disadvantages to being relegated to the unfavorable "out group." Think of the office in a liberal-leaning city like San Francisco. An out-group employee could be someone with conservative political views. This type of employee feels less respect and empathy from coworkers, less confident that management will take a complaint seriously and is less likely to share corrective feedback with their colleagues. Or it could be a company comprised of mostly millennials as the in group, while those in the gen X/boomer demographic are in the out group.

This is more than just a case of people not liking the cool kids. Out-group dynamics have a real impact on the workplace. Our research has found that out group members are less comfortable speaking up and less trusting that their colleagues will speak up for them if they are subject to offensive comments. Only 40 percent of out group members are confident that if they report a workplace incident, their manager will take them seriously.

3. Your employees don't believe the company is adequately addressing unconscious bias

The more bias that exists in an organization, the more there will be in-group/out-group dynamics, which are negative in any workplace. In some cases, unconscious bias shows up right from the start of the hiring process.

For example, often-cited research by the MIT Department of Economics showed that fictitious resumes sent to help wanted ads with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews compared to the same resumes with African American sounding names. Race is just one of many factors that come into play. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that for every 1 percent increase in a woman's body mass, there was a .6 percent decrease in family income.

Sadly, despite the fact that we often encourage people to "bring their whole selves to work," only 32 percent of employees strongly agree they can be their authentic self in the workplace, and about two-thirds of them say they don't actually see any processes in place at their workplace to minimize unconscious bias. Actions speak louder than words. And if employees don't see and believe that you are working to address bias, they won't care if you say it's important.

4. Lack of commonly understood behavioral norms and practices

Norms and practices define "the way we do things here." Positive norms and practices, where people's behavior is generally respectful, civil and inclusive, are widely recognized by employees who rate their organization as healthy. When there aren't strong positive norms in an organization, significantly fewer employees rate their organization as healthy. Unhealthy organizations have a vacuum of norms and practices, which provides an opening for toxicity to enter the workplace. This matters because every workforce is going to bring employees with different mindsets. Without understood norms, problems fester.

If you suspect these danger signs are present at your company, what's the solution? Well, we can't change what we don't measure. And yet, we spend $5 billion each year on harassment training for a problem we don't diagnose, measure or benchmark. It's not surprising, then, that we're no closer to eliminating harassment and bias despite decades of effort. I hope these key insights (and the rest of the report) help entrepreneurs focus and prioritize resources more strategically and in a way that generates the best results for their organizations. Together, we can spare Gen Z from these workplace culture failures.

Janine Yancey

CEO & Founder of Emtrain

Janine Yancey is an expert in healthy workplace culture, harassment, ethics, diversity and inclusion. A former employment attorney, she founded Emtrain to deliver engaging online sexual harassment and compliance training as well as data and analytics to identify toxic workplace issues in real-time.

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