Toxic Workplace : What Makes One And What To Do About It

The C-Suite and Board Directors have been talking about harassment and bias since the start of #metoo in 2017 when some leaders were fired for their own transgressions or the culture failure of their business. Even so, business leaders still don’t understand when workplaces are dangerously toxic. Unfortunately, most leaders learn their workplace is toxic when they see their Glassdoor reviews, high turnover, claims against the business, or they’re fired because of the culture failure.

What Makes a Toxic Workplace And What To Do About It

Here’s the issue… no business leader has ever analyzed how these situations evolve or figured out a strategy for detoxing a workplace. Instead, leaders defer to HR and Legal to manage symptoms of toxicity without actually figuring out how to detox the workplace.

Given my experience as a lawyer, HR professional, and technology business leader, I decided to figure out an early warning system for a toxic workplace. Eventually, I came up with a Workplace Culture Diagnostic™ that decodes culture failures into 6 core indicators. Using the diagnostic, my team at Emtrain inserted 134 diagnostic questions into our online harassment training course that we provide to hundreds of companies to meet legally mandatory compliance training requirements. We generated 2.5M employee sentiment responses about workplace culture, allowing us to benchmark the core indicators that correlate to healthy, average and toxic workplace cultures. Here’s what we found out about these 6 core indicators:

Respectful Interactions Microlesson
  1. The Existence of Power Dynamics

    Power dynamics refer to the way people use or abuse their authority. Many managers are unaware of how their power impacts their social interactions with co-workers and how co-workers don’t feel comfortable saying “no” to them. Our global average has 37% reporting their managers are not aware that employees find it difficult to say “no” to them. Along those same lines, 17% report they do not feel comfortable speaking up if they have a concern. That’s the global average, but the more toxic cultures had a much higher percentage than that. So, if you have higher than 37% reporting their managers are not aware of the impact of their power on employees and/or higher than 17% reporting they don’t feel comfortable speaking up — you’re below the global average and could be in the red, toxic zone.

  2. The Presence of In-/Out-Groups

    When certain groups are favored, there’s power in belonging to an “in-group” and disadvantages to being relegated to the unfavorable “out-group.” Out-group employees feel less respect and empathy from co-workers, less confidence that management will take a complaint seriously and they are less likely to share corrective feedback with their colleagues. Our global average has 26% reporting their experience of being an out-group employee. Healthier companies have a lower percentage and toxic companies have a much higher percentage. If you have higher than 26% reporting being part of an out-group, you’re below the average and a warning light should be flashing on your culture meter.

  3. Minimizing Bias and Promoting Inclusion

    The more bias that exists in an organization, the more there will be in-group/out-group dynamics that are negative in any workplace. Employees in our dataset are generally aware of unconscious bias and its effects. Yet 66% report they don’t see any processes in place at their workplace to minimize bias. Despite that, we encourage people to “bring their whole selves to work,” only 32% of employees strongly agree they can be their authentic self in the workplace. So, if you have higher than 66% reporting they don’t see processes to minimize bias and/or less than 32% who feel like they can be their authentic self at work, a warning light should be flashing on your culture meter.

  4. Co-workers with Social Intelligence Skills

    Social Intelligence defines how skilled employees are at adapting to others and various communication styles. Strong social intelligence skills correlate with the healthiest companies in our dataset. Employees who report that colleagues have low social intelligence indicate their co-workers don’t accurately pick up the mood in the room, don’t understand the impact of their words and behaviors on others and don’t often show empathy. In our global average, only 23% state they strongly believe their co-workers can accurately pick up on a mood in the room. If you find you have less than 23% strongly believing their co-workers can accurately pick up on a mood in the room, a warning light should be flashing on your culture meter.

  5. Consideration of Pre-existing Mindsets

    Pre-existing mindsets and behaviors are formed by life experiences that shape our perspective and behaviors. Pre-existing mindsets and behaviors may create views that are diametrically opposed, causing stress and conflict in the workplace. Therefore, the more multi-generational and multi-cultural your workforce is, the higher the risk for conflict because different demographics will have very different perspectives on the same situation. So without well understood behavioral norms and practices (as summarized below), the higher the number of different perspectives, the larger the opportunity for conflict.

  6. Well 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. In our global average, 51% strongly agree there are well-understood norms of behavior where they work. If you have less than 51% strongly agreeing there are well-understood norms of workplace behavior, a warning light should be flashing on your culture meter. Lastly, the healthiest companies in our dataset had very well understood norms and practices and conversely, the most toxic workplaces had a vacuum of norms and practices, which provided an opening for the toxicity to enter the workplace.


How many flashing red warning lights indicate you’re in imminent danger of a culture failure? Uber had at least 4 flashing warning lights going off in early 2017: power dynamics, in-group/out-group, bias, and lack of inclusion and lastly, the absence of well understood, positive norms of behavior. It’s probably safe to say that when you’re below the global average in 2 of the core indicators, those 2 flashing warning lights should be your signal to focus on those issues and detox your workplace before you experience a culture failure.

Get an inside look into each of these signs by downloading your copy of Emtrain’s Workplace Culture Report 2020.

diversity and inclusionunconscious biasWorkplace Culture
Janine Yancey
Founder & CEO Workplace Visionary
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