Entire companies as well as individuals can develop toxic traits and cultures. If the person(s) at the top have toxic personality traits, or enough toxic people gravitate towards the company at different levels, then this will start to reflect back out and the culture of the company will become toxic.
In this article we will seek to go over some of the main features to look out for in organizations that may suggest they have toxic cultures. Of course one must always be careful and considered before making this assessment but it is important to have a set of criteria in place as for obvious reasons, high quality, moral and decent people need to avoid and if necessary get out of these types of companies as quickly as possible.
Some common features of toxic work cultures include:
- A high concentration of staff with toxic personality traits.
- A generally unsympathetic and unsupportive culture.
- Whistle-blowers undermined and ignored.
- An extremely power-fixated hierarchical structure
- Each layer of management dominates and mistreats the layers below them.
- Poor staff morale and high staff turnover.
- A generally toxic culture of infighting, backstabbing, division and mistrust.
- Widespread instances of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct.
- A pervasive attitude that any kind of behavior or personality, however appalling and toxic, can be overlooked as long as it’s “good for business”.
- More generally, an almost complete lack of any ethics, morals or dignity in the way the company operates and treats it’s workers.
This list is not exhaustive – we’ll cover these points and many others in more detail in the post – but is a good starter for some of the common things which signal a toxic work culture. Good people can cluster together in companies, but unfortunately, bad people can as well.
Basically, it’s a manifestation of the same traits you’ll find in toxic individuals, but writ large and manifested in an entire company instead. There will be a general “unethical-ness”, callousness and lack of empathy in the entire way the company conducts it’s business.
Let’s run through the issue more systematically though, applying some common individual psychopathic/toxic traits to an organization, showing how entire company cultures can start to take on these characteristics.
Some Common Features of Toxic Work Cultures
We have put together a quick checklist of some characteristics to watch out for which may suggest that you are working (or about to work for) a company with a toxic culture. Again none of these individually are enough to know for sure, but several in conjunction may suggest this is not a company you should stay with or start working for.
- A high concentration of employees in the company with strong sociopathic or Cluster B personality traits. Much higher prevalence than the 1-4% in the general population. Dark Triad Traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism) is another good way of defining these toxic characteristics.
- A good number of the remaining employees, even if they aren’t fully sociopathic, are poor quality, apathetic, easily influenced people, who will not stand up for what’s right, nor call the toxic culture out for what it is.
- The above two factors will often combine to create the sociopath-empath-apath dynamic, where sociopaths/narcissists play apathetic bystanders off against high quality, empathic people who try to stand up to them. An extremely common dynamic in toxic workplaces.
- The line(s) of work or the company has no vocational or charitable aspects whatsoever – it is purely commercial. This is most definitely NOT a telltale aspect on it’s own as many commercial companies exist which are not toxic. However it is a red flag in combination with some of the other factors listed.
- The culture of the company is purely profit seeking to an extreme fixated degree with little or no consideration for more intangible factors such as treatment of workers, quality of life and morality and ethics.
- Watch out also for a culture of moral relativism coming from mid and upper levels – clever sounding management-speak like “There’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you can justify it”, which actually opens the door for workplace psychopaths and narcissists to just do whatever they like and get away with it. Be careful in companies with this relativistic outlook and a lack of true principles and “lines in the sand”.
- There is a strong power-fixated (“master-slave”) psychological dynamic that runs throughout all levels of the company. Upper management treat mid level managers harshly, who in turn treat lower level managers harshly, who in turn treat ground level staff harshly. Everyone is a slave, and so treats the people below them like a slave.
- The line of work exploits, mistreats or has contempt for it’s customers, often preying on despair and destitution. Betting, gambling and pawnbroking are particularly bad industries on this front.
- The line of work requires morality or ethics to be somewhat numbed out or suspended. This relates to the above point and is especially important as toxic people will naturally gravitate towards this type of work as it already fits their psychological disposition.
- There is high staff turnover in the company or the industry in general. Workers treated as replaceable and disposable, and may even be disrespectfully told this to their face by arrogant middle managers.
- Related to this, very lax or nonexistent hiring practices, with no real character vetting or reference checking. Often ties into the other point of high staff turnover – constantly need new staff, so aren’t bothered about the character of the people being taken on. Becomes a self repeating cycle as the workforce quality and turnover continues to worsen.
- There is a common pattern of relief among people who leave the company – you commonly hear feedback like “It’s the best thing I ever did”, “It’s a weight off my shoulders”, or “It’s like getting out of prison”.
- There is a culture of backstabbing, division and people throwing their colleagues under the bus in the company. It is difficult to trust anyone.
- There is no respect at all for privacy and confidentiality. Information which should be kept confidential regarding employees and/or customers is routinely disclosed in conversations. Unprofessional behavior is ingrained into the culture and is seen to be “normal”. The abnormal is normalized.
- Gas-lighting – the invalidation of perception – is rampant in the company. Genuine concerns and common sense observations about unacceptable or unprofessional behavior are routinely shrugged off and dismissed. Management are more concerned with “being right” and coming up with a clever answer for everything rather than addressing genuine concerns and creating a good culture.
- There is rampant hypocrisy and double standards within the company culture, with certain “in” people allowed to pretty much get away with what they want without censure, whilst others are ruthlessly cracked down on for much lesser infringements. The rules are not applied consistently and often the more psychopathic members of staff are the ones allowed to get away with more.
- An overall culture of “looking the other way” – tolerating unprofessional conduct from certain workers because they are seen as “good for the business”.
- On top of all this, a constant series of excuses, rationalizations and “clever” answers from management to justify all these toxic cultural patterns. Toxic individuals are always trying to make excuses for their behavior, and toxic companies are exactly the same.
- You generally observe a lack of worker satisfaction and reports of poor treatment of staff are common, from within and/or outside the company. Employer review sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor are excellent resources to get feedback about employers from.
Note – none of these characteristics on their own is a clear giveaway of a psychopathic company; you are looking for a clustering of these traits. That said, these factors usually aren’t isolated and usually do hang together much of the time.
Employee quits a toxic workplace in style (strong language)
Anyone who’s worked in a company with a toxic culture will recognize many of the things she mentions about how bad it is. The industry and job titles might vary, but the patterns in toxic companies are remarkably the same. I wrote many of the above points a year before even seeing this video, and many of them match up perfectly to what she says.
Why Do Toxic Work Cultures Form?
The most obvious explanation for why certain companies grow toxic in their culture is that it all starts at the top. A founder or leader of a company will normally reflect their mindset and values (if they have any) down to the middle and lower levels of the company, so if they are amoral or psychopathic and have little or no morals or conscience then expect this mindset to permeate down to all levels of the company.
You will often find here a “win at all costs” mentality and relentless drive for profit with no care for other things such as staff welfare and work-life balance.
Of course there is nothing necessarily wrong with making money and that is what businesses are set up to do, but the way a company makes money and the way it treats people along the way are also important if any kind of morality and ethics are to enter the equation.
Alternatively, the owner may not be toxic but has ceded much of the day to day control and running of the company to mid and upper level managers who do embody toxic personality traits.
In these cases an owner may lose sight of his original company values if he is not sufficiently involved anymore in the running of the business and just delegates it to others, and the culture and environment there degrade accordingly.
However it occurs though, toxic companies cannot exist without toxic individuals in their midst. Whether they were there all along or they slowly made their way into the company, once they are there then a noxious mindset will permeate down all the layers of the company, in hiring practices, procedures, the way people are treated and so on.
Company cultures often begin at the top and if the CEO or owner has a psychopathic personality, this will trickle down to all the lower layers and permeate the entire organization.
Effects of Toxic Work Cultures on Employees
If you work for a psychopathic company with a toxic culture, then it will start to have predictable effects on you, provided you are a good person with some sense of conscience and decency.
These companies are not good places to work at. Here are some common things you may notice when you work for a toxic company:
- That “Sunday night dread”, when you really don’t want to go to work the next day
- A “prison” mindset, where you are thinking about work, even when you are not in work, even on holidays.
- You may count the days until you are back in. The company, and the toxic people in it, start to occupy your thoughts more and more.
- If your direct line manager and/or colleagues are also toxic, then you will notice more immediate mental health issues, like rising anxiety, depression, irritation and sleeplessness.
- A loss in passion for the job, if you used to like it.
- In really psychopathic companies, you may over time start to take on toxic personality traits yourself as the culture starts seeping into your own mindset. Here are some examples:
- You may notice you are treating others worse than you used to.
- You may notice in general you are more calculating and manipulative, and less trusting and open than you used to be.
- You start to be drawn into scheming, back-biting, malicious gossip and politics more than you used to.
- You may engage in deceptiveness and manipulative behaviors that you may not have before. Lying and misleading others becomes the norm.
- You may get drawn into bullying others, or alternatively, not stand up for others who are being bullied. See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath tried for a framework of how psychopaths commonly play others off against vulnerable targets.
- In general, you find yourself displaying less empathy and honesty and more cold, calculating and self serving behavior.
The effects of these kind of company cultures on a person can be deep and long lasting and take a long time for people to detox from. It is down to individuals who get out of companies who they suspect are toxic to “check in” with themselves, and take an honest inventory of whether their personality has changed for the better or worse, since joining that company.
How to Stop a Workplace Culture Becoming Toxic
If a company has already crossed the line from being an otherwise good company with a few “bad eggs”, to being a full blown psychopathic organization, then there isn’t much hope in achieving any reform, and these companies sometimes collapse from within with their own corruption anyway.
However, for companies that have not reached this point of having an irreversibly toxic culture, there are some things to do to prevent this happening and to prevent the general culture from becoming “psychopathized”
Here are some suggestions:
1. Understand Cluster B personality disorders – Training on the so called Dramatic or Cluster B personality disorders (most specifically the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities) should form part of the training of middle and upper management.
If the company is already psychopathic then there is no point in doing this, since most the middle and upper managers will probably have these traits themselves, but for healthy work cultures, educating your high quality managers and executives on these personality types – what motivates them and how to spot them – can be a crucial first step in stopping them infesting your company.
Our article on the Psychopathy Checklist Traits is a good place to start for understanding the psychopathic personality.
2. The “Quality of People” Principle – Simply aim to get good quality people in your workforce. Sounds like common sense, but many companies have turned their hiring and promotion processes into a pure competency test in an extreme sense, with a 100% focus on whether someone can do a job, and zero focus on general character traits like decency, empathy, honesty, integrity, treatment of others etc.
Take this approach and you leave the door open for psychopaths and other toxic personalities to “smooth talk” their way into a company and bed themselves in, turning the culture toxic as they gain more power over others.
Following simple processes, like always doing thorough character and reference checks before taking on new people, will often weed out these personality types, since the people most likely to turn a workplace toxic always leave a trail of wreckage and destruction behind them in both their work and personal lives if you dig deep enough and aren’t taken in by their initial glib charm and charisma.
3. Differentiate True High Performers vs Psychopaths – It is crucial for companies to implement screening criteria to separate out the true high quality employees from the psychopaths, who merely mimic these workers and parasitically feed off their efforts.
This way, you can tell whether someone really is contributing towards the success of the company, or whether they are just hiding in among the high performers and taking credit for their work, while secretly undermining those they see as a threat.
See our article on screening for workplace psychopaths for more on this.
4. Be Careful With Promotions – The psychopathic/narcissistic personality is obsessed with gaining power and control over others. Therefore it is very important to take the vetting process for promotions seriously and thoroughly assess the character (not just the competency) of those being promoted.
Are they progressing out of a genuine desire to grow, help the company and provide for their families? Or is the promotion all about seeking more power, influence and the opportunity to dominate and control others?
Does the person succeed whilst also supporting others, or do they see life as a zero sum game, where for them to win, others must lose and be trampled on? Be very careful in assessing the mindset and character traits of those you promote.
In this vein, all staff at the area/regional/MD management level must have strong character traits, with good assertiveness skills to deal with any difficulties, BUT also balanced off with strong empathy and a lack of toxic personality traits like narcissism and sociopathy which leave them open to treating others badly. They must have a balanced healthy, proportional ego, with appropriate assertiveness BUT also not too big an ego, since those with oversized egos are generally very easily manipulated and “played off” against others by troublemakers (see the sociopath-empath-apath triad). Get the right people in these positions and a positive culture will flow down; get the wrong people in and a toxic culture will flow down.
5. Cluster B’s as Provocative – Another crucial thing for weeding out toxic Cluster B personality types is to understand that they are fundamentally provocative and reaction seeking personality types. They are looking to provoke reactions from others and smear them based on these reactions. Understand this and you understand one of their main manipulative tricks.
Stamping out this kind of behavior and removing overly dramatic and trouble-making people from your workforce is crucial in keeping the culture healthily.
See our article on the main ways psychopaths manipulate and cause trouble in the workplace for more on this and other common tactics they use to stir trouble.
6. Amend Your Conduct/Disciplinary Policies – Another good thing to do is to write your workplace conduct policies in such a way that they incorporate in very precise language so many of the common manipulative tactics toxic troublemakers use to cause trouble in work. That way you can pin down their often covert and sneaky trouble-making tactics and escalate disciplinary procedure to manage them out of the company.
See our article on a draft workplace conduct policy for a conversation starter on some things we suggest including in your conduct policy to protect against toxic employees causing trouble, especially in more sneaky and undercover ways.
7. Do Not Tolerate Disordered Individuals – This is the last and most crucial general point. Do not tolerate sociopaths or narcissists in your workplace, no matter how expedient or useful they may seem in the short term. They are only ever bad for a company long term, as they relentlessly scheme, play politics and manipulate as they seek to cement their own position and drive out anyone they see as a threat.
Continue to tolerate these toxic personality types in your organization, and you’ll find the overall quality of your workforce declining as they undermine, set up and drive out good workers so they can progress un-threatened, whilst they bring little or nothing to the table in terms of real talent themselves.
How Sociopaths Destroy Companies From Within
Other Tips & Resources For Coping With Toxic Work Cultures
If you suspect you may be working in a company with a toxic culture, but are not in a position to exit right away, here are some short term coping strategies and information to help you through.
- You must thoroughly document all unprofessional conduct you see from toxic people in the organization. This can include screenshots, emails, text messages, minutes of meetings and accounts of formal and informal meetings.
- If you suspect your direct line manager is a sociopath/narcissist, then you can ask for minutes to be taken of all meetings you are involved in with them, since they will misrepresent what was said to them to cause trouble if they can. Anything you say will be used against you at a later date, so be very careful and guarded.
- If it is very clear to you that the company itself has a psychopathic/toxic culture, do not speak out to try and change or reform it. Once companies have crossed this line, they do not go back. You won’t be supported, so simply work on getting out as quickly as possible.
- If you sit back and unhappily wait or “hope” that the situation in a toxic company will somehow improve, then you run the risk of falling in “Toxic passivity“, where you essentially “give up” and start to soak up all the toxicity around you. Be more proactive in how you move through your life by cutting your losses and moving on quickly.
- Also, do not gossip about toxic work colleagues behind their back, even if you know they are doing this to you. Simply document everything and play an otherwise clean game. Don’t try to beat them at their own game.
- See our lengthy, detailed article on the most common ways psychopaths manipulate and cause trouble in the workplace for some common things to look out for.
- See also our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad, for a crucial framework of how toxic people play apathetic onlookers off against higher quality people to further isolate them. This is a very common manipulative tactic in workplaces.
- Work on an exit strategy, but realize that really toxic workplaces can drain you of so much energy that it’s difficult to find the motivation to do anything else. Work on it in small but determined steps.
- For workers – see our guide on dealing with toxic colleagues in the workplace.
- For mid/upper level managers – see our guide on managing toxic workers lower down in the business.