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How a toxic work culture destroys your business

2019/10/05 2:24:59 PM Author | Jennilee Peremore-Oliver

People matter more than leaders would like to admit. If people are unhappy at work, it shows on the bottom-line. In this blog post I explain how leaders create toxic work cultures.


As a public relations practitioner, I know how the phrases work culture, employee engagement, recognition and appreciation initiatives are frowned upon by management.

Anything that does not directly and immediately impact the bottom line is not worthy of being mentioned in any boardroom. It’s a waste of time because the thinking is that while we’re writing ‘thank you’ cards, the competition is getting ahead of us with better deals, improved services, and launching new products.

It is usually the PR practitioner who bets on the people in every meeting, because the PR practitioner’s core role in a business is people and relationships, and understanding the subtle nuances of those relationships.

PR Practitioners develop an in-depth understanding of people and what motivates them, and that is how PR practitioners implement campaigns that influence people into action; to take a new action, stop an action or influence their friends to join them in an action. This is what we do, and this is what sets PR Practitioners apart from any other function in a company.  This is also why PR Practitioners are amongst the least valued functions in companies in South Africa. We live in a world driven by productivity, people are viewed as a means to an end e.g. what can you produce for me, how soon and what is the least I can get away with paying you for it.

The results of public relations are rarely immediate. Anything that involves people and relationships will take time to bear fruit. The difference is that when that positive change comes, that change will last longer, even become permanent if those relationships are consistently nurtured.

When you show people that you truly care about them, they naturally start caring about you to. However, with the pressures that many leaders are facing to produce immediate results marketing is the preferred function, because a marketing campaign can be implemented immediately, and these campaigns could produce immediate results. It is questionable though how lasting those results will be.

To influence people, they must respect you, and often that requires that the company’s management need to change the way they interact with people, make decisions in their company and how they communicate those decisions with their teams. Change is difficult for people to accept and even more difficult for PR practitioners to motivate in a company, because to truly be successful at implementing change, people first need to accept that something is wrong with how things are currently done, accept accountability for what has been done and then become positive about the new action that is required and committed to its fulfillment. Now try and convince people who have been leading or managing the same way for decades that they have been wrong all along - welcome to the world of PR. This is the challenge we face and which many companies face - Change Management.

Leaders who haven’t achieved the ultimate success in their companies, haven’t achieved it, because their people are demotivated, employees feel demoralized by the treatment they receive, they don’t know what the vision or mission is of the company. People go to work without any purpose. The leaders are locked up in their offices, mostly behind closed doors, and inaccessible. The employees just do what they are told and don’t take initiative, they don’t try anything different and they don’t work any harder, because no one recognizes when they work harder, they just recognize when they are not there.

This is how leaders create toxic work cultures and how it affects the bottom-line.

  1. Holding onto toxic managers

Regardless of how many complaints the leader receives regarding a manager, or how many times they have witnessed a manager being disrespectful or out of line with clients and staff, they hold onto these bad managers. Even though there is a high turnaround in the department, the leader still chooses to look the other way because they’ll just replace the employee who worked under that manager.  

Toxic managers are one of the main reasons that good employees resign. It’s said that people don’t leave a bad company, they leave a bad boss. People could probably survive poor policies, if they worked for a manager who is not a reflection of those poor policies, and if their manager is someone who motivates them and someone they can learn from.

Leaders who hold onto toxic managers, do so because they believe that people are replaceable (amongst other reasons). People are not replaceable. There is not one person who shares the exact same skillset, talent, motivation, and character as another. Therefore, when you lose a good employee, you lose a good individual, a one-of-a-kind, and you won’t find a duplicate of that person anywhere. Good leaders don’t believe that people are replaceable. When good people leave, it has a direct effect on the bottom-line. Processes, projects, and relationships that the good employee managed and nurtured, a new employee must learn from scratch and those processes, projects and client relationships will suffer while the new person learns the ropes. You could lose important client relationships, or clients could decide to stop doing business with the company because they realized it was not the company but the good employee who left who ensured their project was a success.

2.    Favouritism

The same rules don’t apply to everyone. One employee crosses the line and they face no repercussions, another employee crosses the same line the next day and they are dismissed, suspended or they receive a warning. Team builds, and training is approved for one employee, but another is denied the same. One employee is cornered for a simple infraction when another employee does it, the leader laughs it off and says, “that’s John”. When employees realize that a leader favours one employee over another, they question the leader’s integrity and they wonder what the dynamics are of the relationship with that employee. Once employees start questioning their leader’s integrity, they no longer trust that leader. Once employees lose trust in the leader of a company, they are no longer committed, and they start a frantic job search. As indicated in point one, people are not replaceable. When a top performer leaves your bottom-line suffers.

3.   Tolerating disrespect

You allow the ‘favourites’ to disrespect the authority of the ‘non-favourites’. The leader sits silently while employees constantly cross the line, and make personal attacks at other employees. When a leader tolerates this kind of disrespect to permeate amongst a team, the leader gives up their control. When there is no control, and thus no leader, a company cannot function, because people need to know where they are heading. It is the leader’s job to draw that path and show them where they’re headed. When a leader tolerates this kind of disrespect amongst his/her team, they communicate that they are a puppet and that there is another invisible hand that is in charge. Who runs the show? Employees start asking this question. The result of this will be that when employees face issues, they face it alone, even when it is above their paygrade because they believe nothing can or will be done. They silently face the abuse, until eventually they get fed up and leave. Which brings us back to point one listed in this article. Once an employee feels powerless in a company, they leave, and they take everything that was good about them with them.

4.     Holding onto the underperforming staff members

Your top performers are working hard, you expect them to work even harder, and you give them more tasks, because you can’t depend on the other people in the team, because they don’t have the discipline or skillset to fulfill the tasks. The top performer already has a lot on his/her plate; they’re taking work home, working over weekends and coming in early to meet the leader’s impossible demands. Despite the leader being aware of the poor performance of the other team members, nothing is done about it. Instead, they just give the most important work to the few hard-working employees, even though they know it would mean the employees will have to pull all-nighters to get it done. The top performers will eventually become resentful towards the company, and they will make sure they only give the company the 9 hours they owe them as per the contract. They will come to work on time and leave on time. Eventually, they will do what any self-respecting Individual does when they are disrespected, they will resign and leave you with the employees you’ve been paying for doing the bare minimum. Your clients will then be left with the poor performers to implement their projects, and when it is not delivered on the standard that is required, your clients will also leave.

5.   Making management politics known to staff

Managers who gossip with employees about the employees’ direct managers. They tell employees to do work for them which is not in the employees’ portfolio without checking with the employees’ manager. Managers tell employees to break rules set by their direct managers. Managers disrespect and disagree with managers in front of the manager’s team. This kind of behaviour communicates to employees that there is no unity amongst the leadership of the company, and for employees who are ill-intentioned, it teaches them how to manipulate the leadership of the company. Managers should always maintain a united front and be supportive of each other in front of employees even when they disagree behind closed doors. Employees need to know that they are moving in one direction. When managers undermine each other, it communicates to employees that the leadership is broken and that the company will fail. When employees notice this type of interaction amongst managers, they worry about the future of the company, because a company can only succeed if it has a mature united leadership. This type of behaviour is a warning sign to employees that they must search for new employment.

6.    Showing an intolerance for constructive criticism

Leaders get upset and confrontational with employees who give them their honest feedback about why a project didn’t work or won’t work. The employee is then treated differently and ousted from important meetings they were usually invited to because the leader does not want anyone to disagree with him/her. A leader who is unable to accept feedback or criticism will eventually be left with silent employees. To prevent being rebuked, or treated differently, employees will become silent and not provide any helpful suggestions or advice. Eventually, you’ll be left with advice from the yes-people, the ones who agree with everything you say, the ones who agree with how things have always been done. Innovation is the future of business. If you are not providing innovative solutions to customers, then you won’t be able to retain them. And guess what, your competitor who was able to develop a thick skin and accept criticism about his products, processes and even about him/herself, that leader is the one leading the market place.

7.   Not listening to your professionals’ advice

Leaders who do whatever they want even against the advice of the professionals they have hired. Yes, you are the leader, but you have various department managers who serve as specialists in their fields. If you are going to go against the advice of your employees, then expect that they will eventually stop giving you their advice. If you tell a professional to do something they don’t believe to be right, as per point 1, they will eventually resign when your imposed instructions are placing their professional brand in jeopardy.

Last thoughts.

Toxic work cultures are prevalent everywhere. This is also one of the reasons many professionals have decided to start their own businesses. If they cannot find a healthy workplace, they’ve decided to create it for themselves. The companies that are leaders in their respective industries are also the ones that take care of their people; who know how to nurture relationships with their employees, and who celebrate, appreciate and recognize their talent.

Every business is selling to people; therefore, I’d say that having a people’s champion in your company is imperative for those moments when you think you’re operating a machine and robots. PR practitioners are people’s champions. PR practitioners are imperative to the success of any business. Their advice and guidance should carry more weight because a positive work culture with happy people produce positive business results that can catapult your bottom-line. Ignore this fact at your own detriment.