Warning signs of a toxic company culture

If you’re up too close, you can’t see the cracks but one HR guru says there are some clues to look out for.

Warning signs of a toxic company culture

Culture plays a key role in the success of any organization but sometimes employers are too close to see there’s a problem – so what can HR professionals do to help when leaders can’t see the forest for the trees?

“There are a number of warning signs that could signal the company’s culture may be ‘off’,” says Soula Courlas, national lead of people and change services at KPMG Canada.

“Routine data points like a rise in turnover and absenteeism in general and in particular amongst key talent at all levels, point to potential workplace issues including the underlying culture,” she warns.

“Increases in usage of employee assistance programs, employee relations issues relating to workplace harassment (e.g. bullying, anger, raised voices, aggressive behaviour) – basically an increase in the frequency and nature of ‘negative’ behaviour or negative business results are all signs the organization’s culture is not healthy,” she continues.

“In addition, the general ‘mood’ becomes more apathetic, lifeless and listless, and people aren’t as inclined to help or support each other.” 

Toronto-based Courlas is a 25-year industry veteran – she says the perception of what makes a culture ‘toxic’ is often an individual assessment made against an “internal barometer” measuring degrees of pressure, tolerance, fairness, support, trust, empowerment, and infringement on personal values.

“If a culture is going bad and issues are emerging, you can almost begin to spot a microcosm of society within your workplace,” she told HRM.

“You’ll see more instances of people getting sick, increased mental health issues, more accidents, more conflict – when people aren’t engaged, they’re not happy, they’re not motivated, they don’t feel valued, recognized, or appreciated, it starts to manifest in this negative behaviour.”

Courlas pointed to employee engagement surveys as another indicator of company culture.

“If you have internal benchmarks from a history of executing employee surveys, results trending downward or if there is a sudden change, you need to probe further to determine what could be causing those results – figure out what the organization is trying to say,” she stressed.

“Can you rationalize the results to a specific event like a change in leadership, change in strategy, acquisition, change fatigue, etc.?”

Customer feedback can also offer insight into company culture, according to Courlas.

“There is enough research that reinforces the linkage between a positive employee experience and a positive customer experience – and vice versa,” she told HRM.

“If there is data from an external client survey or customer feedback data that starts coming back negative, then this could be a pointer that something could be going on inside and is very useful information for HR professionals to reinforce the impact culture can have on business results.”

Soula Courlas will be joined by her colleague Robert Bolton - partner of KPMG's global HR centre of excellence - at the up coming HR Leaders Summit. The duo will be discussing the future of work in engaging session aimed at senior HR leaders.

For more information on the November event, or to purchase advance tickets, click here

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