EngagementCultureRecognising the signs of a toxic culture

Recognising the signs of a toxic culture

The right culture can help organisations hire and retain top talent, grow and be more productive. But the wrong culture can have a negative impact on everything from working environment to the bottom line.

It can be hard to step back and reflect on a culture you’re part of — particularly if you’re at a senior level in the business, slightly removed from the day-to-day activities of the company.

That’s where HR have a crucial role to play. Whether it’s helping to define an organisation’s values, putting in place the policies to support them or calling out senior leaders who aren’t living them, HR departments have an important responsibility to help organisations reflect on how culture is helping or holding back a company.

Richard Holmes, Director of Wellbeing at Westfield Health, identifies the 10 red flags to watch out for that show you may have a toxic culture.

The alpha office

“Do one or two big personalities seem to dominate every conversation in your office? When only a few people feel empowered to speak up, it’s a sign that the business isn’t particularly democratic and you may have a toxic culture. You’ll also be missing out on getting an accurate measure of how things are across the company if employees don’t feel like they can be honest.”


“When someone isn’t meeting their objectives, it’s easy to blame the individual, but often poor performance may be more about a lack of engagement. Whether it’s not having enough resources or a tough line manager, it’s worth scratching below the surface when someone’s performance slips to look at the root cause.”


“Successful companies hire good people then empower them to get the job done. When senior leaders feel the need to get involved in day-to-day operations or leaders micromanage, it’s a sign that something is broken. Lots of meetings and slow decision making might be signs that micro management is an issue at your organisation.”

Lack of communication

“Understanding why you’re doing something and what you’re working towards is key to being engaged in your work – knowing how our tasks contribute to an overall goal really helps us stay motivated. When tasks come as a surprise and the bigger picture isn’t clear, it leads to a demotivated, disengaged workforce and a toxic work culture where individuals aren’t engaged with the wider purpose.”

Reluctance to challenge

“Healthy work environments empower people to ask questions and challenge one another in a constructive way in order to move forward. When people don’t feel like they have a voice, they won’t speak up. As well as being a sign of a toxic culture, this holds real business risks as you’re not fully utilising your people and their ideas.”

Time-based promotions

“Understanding why colleagues have been promoted or the expertise a leader brings to that position is crucial for creating professional trust and motivated teams with momentum. When the only reason for a promotion seems to be length of time at the company, it sends a message that it’s ok to coast until you’ve done your time rather than earning that next step through strong performance.”


“Talking about changes or culture is easy, but putting them in to practice is hard. When a company says all the right things but doesn’t act on them, employees will pick up on this and become disengaged. It’s important to practise what you preach, otherwise confusion and resentment may build up, creating a toxic environment.”


“Though it’s normal for everyone to get frustrated every now and again, an office where complaining is more common than celebrating is a big red flag. Looking at the reactions to staff meetings as well as paying attention to the way people talk to each other in the office are good qualitative ways to measure whether negativity is the norm in your company.”


“To perform at our best, we all need time to recharge. A common sign of a toxic environment is when the work-home balance isn’t respected and employees are expected to work overtime or during holidays. Our latest Wellbeing Index found that leavism is more common than you might expect: 36% say they think their employer expects them to be on standby or thinking about work during annual leave. Productive companies with positive cultures recognise the importance of protecting their staff from burnout by ringfencing recovery time.”

High turnover

“Ultimately, when staff are unhappy, they vote with their feet. If you’re seeing turnover spike either in a specific team or across the company, it’s time to capture learnings from those leaving, engage with employees and take a close look at the company culture.

For more support on evaluating your company culture, take a look at Westfield Health’s CIPD-accredited e-learning course on Organisational Culture.

About Westfield Health

 Westfield Health is an award winning not-for-profit health and wellbeing provider, dedicated to making a healthy difference to the quality of life of their customers and the communities in which they live and work.

Working with more than 450,000 customers and more than 8,000 companies, Westfield Health has been supporting the nation to live healthy, independent lives since 1919.

It has donated over £14.5m to the NHS and medically related charities over the last 20 years, supporting the health and wellbeing of communities across the UK.

Westfield Health believes in well beings, and that when you begin to truly believe in the physical and emotional wellbeing of your staff it can completely transform the face of your business, improving productivity, helping you retain staff and making you a desirable place for prospective employees to work.

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