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Bad Company Culture? How You and Your Business Can Avoid a Toxic Workplace

company culture

Your business has bloomed from brainwaves on the back of napkins to a fully-fledged office with employees. Your balance sheet is looking less and less daunting. Money is being made. You’ve secured funding and you’ve found an office space that helps you thrive. 

You think things look hunky-dory. 

But under the surface, something’s not quite right. Employees are feeling burned out, team leaders are becoming frustrated and it would seem morale is on the decline.

Something might be wrong with your company culture. 

The importance of company culture

Startups are fantastic environments for attracting new talent. They welcome ambitious millennials keen to swim in the deep-end and hear the CEO sitting next to them debate decisions. They welcome experienced professionals eager for the rollercoaster of challenges of what really could be ‘the next big thing.’

But startups are wired to grow quickly. Their ambition is to scale-up and streamline existing workflows. But when the focus is on year-on-year revenue stats, it’s not uncommon for the people actually driving the growth to be overlooked. This is a fundamental symptom of poor company culture and as we’ll come to see, it can seriously impact your bottom line.


reduction in absenteeism has been found in teams who score in the top 20% of engagement.

What does good company culture look like?

Defined simply, company culture is the environment in which your employees operate. If you’re on the hunt for good company culture examples, think about whether your employees can: 

  1. Take a full hour for lunch
  2. Share personal issues with their colleagues
  3. Say: “No”
  4. Speak openly about their mental health
  5. Stand up for themselves
  6. Feel excited about their career progression
  7. Feel safe enough to fail
  8. Say: “I don’t know how to do that”

If not, you might need to look at changing your company culture.

What's a bad company culture?

A bad company culture breeds presenteeism, burnout and high turnover. While these sound a bit buzzwordy, they’re poisonous symptoms of poor company culture – and it’s essential that every CEO, founder and manager actively avoid them.

Not only can they create toxic work environments, but they’ll push your top talent out the door. Here are some of the prime symptoms explained:

  • Presenteeism is turning up to work for more hours than required. For some business leaders, that might sound like real dedication. But regularly getting in early and leaving long after contracted hours can be a sign that your employees are trying to overprove their abilities or worse, trying to overcompensate for imposter syndrome.
  • Imposter syndrome is believing you got a job out of luck and are anxiously waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and say, “You don’t really know what you’re doing, do you?”. Employers can unwittingly worsen this in their employees by setting unrealistic targets and a “never let them see you sweat” mentality.
  • Burnout is the result of excessive, prolonged, work-related stress. Symptoms include poor performance, low levels of creativity, nausea or headaches, exhaustion and workplace insecurity. Employees experiencing burnout have usually overworked themselves due to a pressure to perform or have not had a support system to help them cope effectively with workplace stress.

Gallup research from 2018 found that two-thirds of workers experienced burnout on the job. And it costs your business too: “Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.”

Naturally, employees can’t thrive in a poor company culture, and they will leave in search of a more supportive environment.

Companies with strong cultures saw a 4x increase in revenue growth.


How to avoid a toxic company culture in your startup

  • Create a culture where it’s okay to say no

If your employees are feeling insecure, they’re likely to say yes to every extra task that comes their way, even if it means staying late – and especially if they don’t know saying no is an option.

You can lead by example here. When you’re open about pushing back on your workload, your employees don’t need to fill in the gaps. They’ll stop comparing their behind the scenes stress to your highly productive highlight reel.

When they’re given extra work, give them a lesson on stakeholder management by suggesting they say, “My current priorities are XYZ, which would you like me to deprioritise to fit your new task in?”.

  •  Offer clear expectations

In startups, it’s common to have one-man-band departments. Give your employees clear expectations of what success in their role looks like and be realistic with them.

A lack of clarity combined with unmanageable workload can lead to a burnout. It runs the risk of keeping employees behind to stay late to meet difficult demands.

Remember, you want to encourage sustainable growth – not firecracker growth that shoots up to the sky, shines brightly, then dissolves.

  • Build a company culture where failure isn’t punished

Everybody knows that failure is part and parcel of success. No big great thing ever prospered without its fair share of setbacks – and not just in the world of startups.

Twelve publishers turned down JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. The French state railway ordered $15bn worth of trains that were too wide for hundreds of platforms. George Bell could have bought Google for $1m in 1999, but he said no, and now it’s now valued at $365bn.

Create an environment where sharing failure is just as important as sharing success. Focus on what both can teach you and how both can help you reach your goals.

  • Introduce a wellbeing offering

Your wellbeing offering should be less of a perk and more of a necessity. Generation Z, the next generation of workers, can spot tokenism when it sees it. So, try to think beyond free fruit on a Monday morning.

Rather than piecing together a package and hoping it lives up to expectations, considering asking your employees to help you design your startup’s wellbeing offering.

Ask them what they expect, what they value most and what gives them the most stress. Remember, workplace wellbeing is financial, physical and mental. Offerings can even stem as far as budgeting support. For extra inspiration, take a look at how these office spaces can boost employee wellbeing.

  • Make it everyone’s responsibility to contribute to your company culture

Bad company culture can sometimes give life to an “us-versus-them” mentality. In this, the more junior employees feel disconnected from the more senior employees – even in startups that say they have no hierarchy.

Giving your employees accountability also gives them agency. If they’re responsible for contributing to the company culture by helping others, cheerleading their team and boosting morale, they become part of the solution too.

paper clipTwo thirds

of workers experienced burnout on the job according to Gallup research in 2018.

A great company culture can boost your startup’s revenue

If you successfully increase employee engagement, wellbeing and job satisfaction, you’ll also be improving your bottom line. According to CultureIQ, “companies with strong cultures saw a 4x increase in revenue growth.”

Forbes also reported earlier this year that highly engaged teams showed 21% more profitability. In fact, “Those teams who score in the top 20% in engagement realise a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less turnover. Engaged employees show up every day with passion, purpose, presence, and energy.”

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