Company Culture Matters—Look for These Signs of a Positive or Toxic Workplace

Your company shouldn't promote burnout or exclusivity.

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Whether you work at a small startup or a booming legacy brand, company culture directly (and indirectly) affects everything from your everyday job performance to your overall quality of life. But why? What exactly does it mean when people talk about "culture fit" or "office culture"?

Sure, a company's culture can be reflected in its more superficial offerings, like free lunches or employee discounts—but a truly healthy, positive company culture is rooted in something much deeper.

"A company's culture is the combined values, attitudes, and goals people in a workplace share," says Christina Hall, senior vice president and chief people officer at LinkedIn. "The most positive work cultures are aspirational and create an environment where employees feel more engaged and in tune with one another."

LinkedIn research revealed that 70 percent of American professionals wouldn't work at a leading company with a negative workplace culture—in fact, they'd rather get paid less and suffer a title demotion than deal with subpar office culture. If these stats don't validate the significance of positive company culture, we don't know what does.

Signs of a Positive Company Culture

Talent retention speaks volumes about the quality of an organization's culture. Organizations with good benefits, an appreciation for work-life balance, and a dedication to fostering a sense of belonging will entice employees to stay—and attract new talent too.

"One of the top factors keeping professionals at their company for more than five years is having strong workplace benefits like paid time off, parental leave, and health insurance," Hall says. "[Employees] are also proud to work at companies that promote work-life balance and flexibility, foster a culture where they can be themselves and have a positive impact on society."

As an employee, these big, sweeping missions—the company's deep values, sense of direction, and overall purpose—should ultimately parallel what you think is important.

Lesie Tarnacki, senior vice president of human resources at WorkForce Software describes a positive workplace culture as one that makes all involved feel empowered to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

"A company has to have a culture of trust, a culture of empowerment," she says. "One of the phrases that our CEO uses quite often is 'Be the CEO of your own role,' meaning, you know, manage yourself, manage your time, make decisions, take risks."

In other words, micromanaging from upper management. And just as those employees are trusted to do their jobs well, management should also respect and allow their input on crucial aspects of the business. Janine Yancey, chief executive officer of workplace culture training company Emtrain, says there are three dynamics that can determine whether a workplace has a positive or toxic workplace culture: in-group/out-group dynamics; power dynamics; and clear norms of behavior. She suggests looking at whether cliques have formed among staff, how managers interact with their reports, and what the cultural norms are in the office to determine whether it's a healthy place that you'd like to work in.

Signs of a Negative Company Culture

If talent retention indicates a good environment, the opposite is true for negative places. "If people are leaving an organization in waves, culture likely plays a part in this exodus," Hall says. It's possible the unrest is coming from only one or two people, but if they're high enough up in the organization they'll be the ones setting the tone for everyone.

Kyra Kyles is the chief executive officer of YR Media, an Oakland-based national nonprofit that provides creative resources and career opportunities to predominantly BIPOC youth in the areas of media, music, and technology. From her career experience, she says one of the more covert red flags of negative company culture has to do with the kind of employee that managers at a company applaud. Praising an employee who never takes a break from the grind, for example, might be a sign of a culture that views burnout as normal, so be wary of companies that brag about the hustle over things like their maternity leave offerings.

"Workplace toxicity is driven by fear," Jen L'Estrange, founder and managing director of management consulting firm Red Clover, says. "It permeates communications, decision-making and constrains employees' ability to innovate because they are unable or unwilling to take risks. Signs of toxic workplace culture include tightly controlled centralized decision making or generalized workplace inertia, leadership that acts in opposition to stated company values, higher turnover among employees who have recently joined the organization, and siloed priorities where individual teams or departments move forward independently of one another."

Is Your Current Company Culture Right for You?

Hall insists that feeling a sense of belonging at work is essential to your success. "When employees feel a sense of belonging they feel empowered and inspired in the workplace, which provides a significant advantage to the bottom line," she says. If you're constantly asking yourself, what am I doing here?, or find yourself disagreeing with the company's overall priorities and direction, it could be time to step back and reassess. "Take a step back to reflect on the exact area making you feel uneasy," Hall Says. "If it's a larger issue regarding values, then it may be time to look for a new opportunity."

Similarly, if you feel unsafe to be yourself, or unsafe sharing your opinions during meetings, etc., you could be struggling with a toxic workplace.

"Great workplace culture is any organization where employees feel safe," L'Estrange says. "By safe, I of course mean physical and social safety, but I also mean safe to try things that are new and different. Safe to innovate. Safe to fail miserably, get back in the game, and still be OK. Safe to learn and grow."

How Can Job-Seekers Learn About a Company's Culture?

You can't really succeed if your personal values and preferences don't match up with your company's, but it's hard to tell if you don't work there yet. If you're job-seeking, all you need to do is ask (the right way). "I'm a big believer in asking questions during the interview process—especially about a company's culture," Hall says. "Candidates should ask what the company culture is like from the interviewer's point of view and decide if this aligns with their own values."

During an interview, ask questions that get to the heart of company values and how managers and employees typically interact. "​​Ask about a time when someone has tried something new, and it failed miserably. What happened and how was it handled?" L'Estrange says. "We learn more through our failures than our successes and if the organization that you're applying for doesn't know how to fail gracefully, then your opportunities to learn and grow will be limited."

But don't forget to do research before your interview. "Social media is an excellent way to do a little digital digging. Of course, online feedback can veer toward the negative like anything, but if you consistently see problematic feedback on sites, such as Glassdoor, or a company getting dragged from Twitter to TikTok, you may want to direct your search elsewhere," Kyles says. "Check to see who you know that currently or previously worked at an organization with some help from LinkedIn."

And don't feel bad about doing a little sleuthing of your own outside of an interview. "Employers will research you, so you should feel free to return the favor as this is a two-way street," Kyles adds.

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