NEW: Seventeen signs of a toxic organisational culture

16 Sep, 2021 - 10:09 0 Views
NEW: Seventeen signs of a toxic organisational culture

The Sunday Mail

Memory Nguwi  

Organisational culture can be defined as “the way we do things around here”.

You can also look at organisational culture as the rules and practices respected and often practised by a group of people or the entire organisation.

What is evident here is that such practices can be good or bad for the organisation’s greater good.

A toxic culture can be characterised as one dominated by infighting between individuals or factions angling for control and power.

Below I list some of the signs of toxic work culture:


  1. A ruthless leadership that puts self-interest ahead of organisational interest is one of the easy signs to spot a toxic corporate culture.  Such a leadership gets involved in gossiping and setting employees against each other. They take pride in winning temporary factional battles.
  2. An organisation where nepotism is practiced is an indication of a toxic culture. It means that if you do not belong to a particular group or faction, you rarely get recognition or reward. People get hired based on personal connections that have nothing to do with advancing the organisation’s interests.  You can be noticed once you have a relationship in the correct faction. Without such a connection, you can give your best, but you will never be recognised
  3. The organisation is fear-stricken at every level. The sight of senior executives gets people terrified. People pretend to do something whenever the executive is available but do nothing when the executive is out of sight.
  4. People get fired on the spot for crossing the path of the feared executives. Everyone in the organisation is focused on preserving their jobs.
  5. Bosses worshipped. Everyone in the organisation is looking for opportunities to please the boss, even off work.
  6. Romantic relations are the order of the day. Bosses will be in romantic relations with lower-level employees. The employees are terrified, and they end up being submissive. Sexual harassment is high and people have nowhere to report as senior people often perpetuate it.
  7. Staff turnover is often remarkably high. People leave the organisation in large numbers out of frustration. The leadership is such an organisation is happy to be on the market looking for new employees all the time. No one seems to care about the high turnover.
  8. Trips and opportunities for per diem payments are reserved for those in good books with the bosses.
  9. Employee grievances are often ignored. Those who continue to complain are often targeted for dismissal, or their names are put on the retrenchment list.
  10. Management meetings are often convened to give orders and not to discuss pertinent issues. The contributions from other managers are often ignored because the boss thinks they know everything. In such situations, in meetings, the boss speaks and everyone listens. The environment created forces everyone to agree with the boss even when they have contrary views. The consequences of disagreeing with the boss are too high for people to take risks.
  11. Mental health problems are prevalent among staff. This is often observed through the number of sick leave days taken by staff and the number of other unplanned absenteeism.
  12. An environment where people are viewed as nothing. Bosses shout at employees in public, including threats to fire them.
  13. Poor customer service often results from employees whose employers ill-treat them in a toxic culture. Look around and check those organisations with extremely poor customer service. You will notice that their employees are not happy and are ill-treated.
  14. Poor performance is also another sign that the organisation could be operating with a toxic culture. When you find your organisation’s performance is on a downward trend, assess your culture for toxic practices. However, this assessment can only yield results if the leadership is honest and desire to move in a positive direction. When the organisation’s leadership is the one at the forefront of promoting toxic practices, it is tough to change the practices.
  15. When everyone in the organisation blames others when things go wrong, you must know you face a very toxic culture. In this kind of culture, people do not own up when things go wrong but are quick to take credit when things are going right.  This kind of culture creates conflict between individuals and between departments. The bottom line is that in such situations, no one wants to take ownership. Excuses are tolerated as long as there is someone to blame internally or externally.
  16. In toxic cultures, people move due to threats not that they desire to support such initiatives to get things done. The language used is raw and unprofessional, even between colleagues.
  17. One of the big signs of toxic work culture is the rate at which outside and potential employees decline your job offers. Usually, when you offer someone a job, they do their research by talking to current employees. They may even have colleagues working for the organisation, and these colleagues are willing to share in detail how it feels to work for your organisation.  I have seen so many organisations complaining that their jobs offers are being declined. Many erroneously think that they are being declined due to poor remuneration. While remuneration can lead to that, it helps the organisation discover why the offers are being rejected.


A toxic culture saps the energy out of genuine employees who are eager to contribute to the organisation’s success. The psychological hazards of a toxic culture are too many. Employees will experience severe mental and physical health issues in toxic cultures.  It takes serious leadership to turn around a toxic culture.  It is even more challenging to turn around a toxic culture primarily driven by the organisation’s shareholders and senior leadership.


Memory Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker, & managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm. email: [email protected]  or visit our website at



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