7 signs you have a poisonous workplace

by January 14, 2014 in HR Benefti Alerts:


Poison can be a silent killer, undetectable until it’s too late. The same can be said of a poisonous workplace. You may not know there’s a problem until your best workers start dropping like flies — that is, unless you can spot the symptoms.

There are a number of things that can poison the well, so to speak. But each manifests itself in unique ways that can help HR spot the poison early and apply the antidote.

Here are the signs your workplace has been poisoned:

1. Managers play favorites

Managers tend to make friends in the office just like everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with that. But problems occur when those managers start to give preferential treatment to those they’ve befriended. This kind of treatment can take many forms:

  • Offering some more chances to earn bonus compensation than others
  • Providing friends with special training or perks
  • Looking the other way when certain workers abuse the time-off policy or other rules, and
  • Being more lenient with select employees when it comes to things like handing in assignments on time.

2. Leaders lead by poor example

The actions of your leaders, whether they’re in the C-suite or middle management, have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the workforce. Abrasive leaders breed abrasive subordinates, which creates a hostile work environment.

Some signs you’ve got a poisonous leader in-house:

  • He/she thinks sexual harassment policies don’t apply to him/her
  • He/she makes promises to the staff but fails to keep them
  • He/she will step over employees if it means making another dollar, and
  • It’s common to hear phrases like, “Because I said so,” “Because that’s how we’ve always done it,” or “I sign the checks, so I’ll make the decisions.”

3. The boss thinks a paycheck is ‘the benefit’

Of course, not every employer can afford to provide an extensive benefits package. But most employers at least acknowledge the important role benefits plays in the workforce today. But not every employer does — and that’s troubling.

If you’ve ever heard your boss utter something to the effect of, “They (employees) should just be happy they’re getting paid” at the mention of a health plan or retirement account, it’s a sign you have a Scrooge on your hands.

4. A negative clique has formed

Employees will naturally sort themselves into peer groups. Again, this is OK, unless one of the groups is always badmouthing company initiatives or trashing superiors.

You never want to stomp out friendly banter, but sometimes exceptions must be made when that banter is hurting morale.

5. Not everyone is treated equally

Every company has its high-performing standouts and those whom the company relies on to keep the ship afloat (like IT personnel). But there’s a harmful tendency for organizations to walk on egg shells around those individuals, letting them get away with unruly behavior or break the rules now and then. The fear is that if they’re reprimanded, they may quit.

While turnover is a risk, treating these employees differently from the rest of your workforce makes your law abiding citizens feel disrespected. And that could be more disastrous than letting one standout worker walk.

6. Members of the Good Ol’ Boy Network are hired

Most workplaces welcome the thought of their best employees recommending peers for employment. After all, if the recommended candidates are anything like the workers, they should fit right in.

But some company leaders can take this concept too far, hiring friends and past associates who aren’t good fits for the company — all while forgoing the normal interviewing and hiring process.

7. There’s no clear benefits communication

Benefits communication needs to be a two-way street. Not only must you be able to clearly explain the benefits you offer to employees, there also needs to be a system in place for employees to have their benefits questions answered.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the reality is benefits can actually be a detriment to the work environment if employees don’t know how to access or use them.