Toxic company cultures are driving workers to quit their jobs. Here's how to spot the signs before accepting a job.

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Toxic company cultures are driving workers to quit their jobs. Here's how to spot the signs before accepting a job.
Toxic work cultures are causing employees to quit their jobs and putting a talent drain on companies.Getty Images
  • Toxic company cultures are the main reason that workers quit their jobs, according to research from MIT.
  • It can be difficult to identify them during the recruitment process, however.
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Research published by MIT Sloan School of Management earlier this year found toxic work cultures were the main factor pushing workers to quit their jobs and can even affect employees' mental and physical health.

The research found that toxic work culture was the biggest cause of attrition, even more so than bad pay or job insecurity.

It's easy enough to tell if a workplace is toxic when you're in it but accessing a company culture can be difficult to do in the interview process.

Interrogating a company on its culture can feel confrontational, asking senior management may not result in an honest answer, and it's unlikely a candidate will get to speak to a junior employee before their first day on the job.

But getting a sense of company culture is a vital part of the recruitment process and will have the biggest impact on how much workers enjoy a new job, organizational psychologist and author, Adam Grant, said in a June podcast.

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How can candidates identify a bad work culture without insulting their potential employers?

Grant recommends familiarizing yourself with the key signs of bad workplace culture and carefully analyzing the company stories and values.

Look for key signals of a bad work culture

All workplace cultures vary but the worst among them often have a few things in common.

Grant said that identifying some of the main signs of bad work cultures can help potential employees get a sense of the company's priorities.

A toxic organization will tolerate "disrespect, abuse, exclusion, unethical decisions, and selfish cutthroat actions," according to Grant.

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"But at the opposite end of the spectrum is ... mediocrity," he said. A mediocre culture will often value relationships above results, resulting in under-qualified employees getting promoted just because they are well-liked.

Another warning sign is bureaucracy, according to Grant. "Bureaucracy happens when a culture is all rules, no risks," he said.

Candidates can be on the lookout for excessive red tape during the recruitment process to spot an over-bureaucratic company.

The last warning sign of a bad workplace culture is anarchy, Grant said. "You have risks but no rules. Anyone can do whatever they want, strategy and structure be damned," he said.

To find out if a company exhibits any of these warning signs, candidates should try to interview their potential employers after they receive an offer, Grant said.

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Analyze a company's 'culture stories'

Asking people outright what they think of a company's culture may not always lead to honest answers.

Instead, asking for stories about how an organization functions and what it prioritizes can help potential employees understand what they're signing up for.

Grant calls these "culture stories." They can be gained from asking current or former workers, questioning interviewers, or even looking on job-networking sites like LinkedIn.

"Collecting stories can help you understand a culture from the outside, and identify toxicity, mediocracy, bureaucracy, and anarchy before you join," he said.

If an executive tells a story about how he was promoted faster than anyone else in the company because he worked 12-hour days and was always available, that company more than likely encourages a culture of overwork.

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Grant said that one revealing question to ask during an interview is: "Tell me about something that happens here that wouldn't elsewhere?"

Analyzing the stories a company willingly offers up can tell you more about its culture than any values published on an organization's website.

"It's not about the slogans on the wall or the values on the website. Culture is revealed in the stories people tell," Grant said.

Listen to the full podcast episode here.

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