IMPACT@Work: Toxic Culture

Over the past decade, the concept of “Corporate Culture” has become an increasingly relevant factor in why people choose to work where they work. I imagine a person would be hard pressed to find an interviewer or interviewee that doesn’t bring up the topic in an interview, and there are more and more stories of people turning down hefty salaries or leaving jobs because there wasn’t a good culture fit.

Most websites for companies will include a section on company values or culture, and these are generally good attributes, or statements about how business is conducted. Google is an excellent example where company culture is key, and employees often comment on how a main motivator for them to work harder is because of the culture. Facebook offers employees bias training, because recognizing and reducing bias is something they place emphasis on.

However, the problem with the culture at some companies is that the initial idea may be good, but the execution of that idea may be flawed. For example, a company I once worked for valued the concept of continuously making things better and never settling for the work that was being done. While in theory that was a good idea, it meant that nothing I ever did was good enough. There was no positive reinforcement, there was no recognition, and the only feedback that trickled down from management was about what needed to change or be done better. Several employees spoke with me about how instead of it being a motivator, it actually made them feel like there was no point in trying because it would never be good enough anyways. It sounded a lot like something I would say about my life in the deepest throws of my depression.

In a conversation with HR at a previous company about working long hours, I was informed that the concept of work-life balance was solely the responsibility of the employee, and that the company really didn’t need to play a role in emphasizing balance. Rather, the company should push employees harder because it was part of our corporate culture to challenge people to exceed their own limits and expectations. Again, the concept in theory makes sense – being challenged is a great way to achieve more than you thought you could, but the execution of it was completely flawed. Basically, our needs as humans to have rest didn’t matter, and work output was more important than our mental state. Toxic culture doesn’t begin as toxic culture; it begins with a well-meaning idea and that’s what makes it all the more toxic. Take Amazon for example, their website says that employees have an obligation to “challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.” Even when it is uncomfortable or exhausting. I’m sure you can imagine how if people are encouraged to disagree with one another to the point of exhaustion, it would take an incredible toll on their mental health. I remember having a disagreement with a colleague once, and though we are now great friends, we went back and forth arguing for at least ten minutes until one of us walked away. I was the one who ended up walking away, shaking because I was on the verge of a panic attack and quite honestly, I was exhausted and uncomfortable. I was still shaking when I got home that night.

A common concept that more companies are adapting is the notion of having employees take their results and outcomes personally. In other words, if the company succeeds, they succeed and subsequently, if the company fails, they fail. For the most part, I like this notion of ownership – it can be a motivator and is often tied to profit sharing or bonuses, which employees generally appreciate. However, with there being an increase in people (especially millennials) deriving a lot of their self worth from their careers or professional progress, a failure at work means failing in life. When we consider that we spend most of our day at work, if we are consistently reminded of corporate failures, it can pose a great risk to employee mental health.

A friend of mine previously worked for a company where employees were encouraged (read: expected) to give “110% effort 110% of the time”. In other words, their best simply wasn’t enough. When 5pm rolled around, anyone who walked out was either glared at or frowned upon. Strolling in after 8:45am meant you were late, and God forbid if you actually took your legally allotted lunch break. People never noticed how hard people were working, or how late they were working, but people were always quick to point out if someone had to leave early or didn’t answer emails after hours. This concept started with senior leadership – they were always working, and therefore expected that everyone else would be willing to put forward the same effort. In fact, the concept of giving that extra effort was a selling point of the company’s culture – everyone is willing to go the “extra mile” to get the job done. My friend called me distraught one night; they hadn’t slept in weeks because of the constant stress and had received a less-than-satisfactory performance rating. Apparently the company didn’t believe in giving top ratings, because they wanted to encourage working even harder, and my friend hadn’t proven they were a “110% performer”. Doing their job well wasn’t enough – they had to do their job, complete extra projects, and pick up the slack when they were down a teammate. The extra hours and stress had caused a strain on their relationship with their partner, they were forced to cancel a pre-planned vacation to meet a deliverable at work, and their self-esteem had plummeted. It sounded like the plot of The Devil Wears Prada.

Another common aspect of company culture is the way that the company views competition. While there is nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, there is something wrong with fostering a culture where competitiveness trumps collaboration or stunts growth. I’ve often found that the more competitiveness there was between myself and my teammates, the more distrusting we were of each other, and the easier it was for us to throw each other under the bus. If something went wrong, we were quicker to blame each other and pass the buck, because the cost of being wrong was too great. As a result, new employees were often forced to “sink or swim”, and were left to fend for themselves, without the support of their teammates.

Another friend told me that they had a two week rule for new employees – the company was so competitive and demanding that they didn’t bother to learn the names of new employees until they had survived at least two weeks in the role. A third friend said their company had the concept of the “third day cry”, where it was almost certain that by the third day in a new role, an employee would break down and cry. It had happened to almost every single one of their colleagues. How is it acceptable that by three days into a new role, employees are on the verge of a mental breakdown, and receive no support whatsoever? These issues are not unique to one corporation either – they are concerns that plague many employees, especially ones who are still starting out their careers and feel they have no choice. That feeling of being trapped can be crippling, and cause traumatic, long term impacts to employee mental health and performance.

Every single time my mental health has been impacted by toxic corporate culture, I have found it harder to bounce back and recognize how toxic it is. I’m grateful that the company I work for now has a wonderful corporate culture, where work-life balance is not only emphasized, but the “life” portion has more value. My team works together to play off each other’s strengths and we offer help when we see someone struggling. My mental health is considerably better than my friends who work in organizations with toxic, or even abusive, company culture. Even if the nature of my work is harder or more stressful than theirs, I am much happier and more relaxed because the culture at my workplace plays such a significant role in shaping my perspective.

Most of the concepts discussed above can be positive parts of corporate culture in theory, but become increasingly toxic when executed in the wrong way, or taken too far. Sometimes it’s a classic case of good workplace culture gone wrong. So I have a challenge for you: think about your company’s culture. Are there parts of it that can be toxic for some people? What role do you play in fostering a positive experience for colleagues and employees, and what can you do to make it better?

Thought about it? Good.

Now go change it. Make it better.

Keep Surviving by Living.

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