November 7, 2022

  • 10 MIN READ

Watch out for these signs that the company or team you’re interviewing for has a toxic work culture

Blog Team

Finding a work culture that fosters well-being as well as effectiveness isn’t rocket science. But it does require identifying signs of a toxic team or workplace.

Toxicity is big news these days and it takes many different forms. From the gender-based sexual harassment that gave rise to the #metoo movement to the less-obvious ways that unhealthy work relationships grind away at self-esteem (and the bottom line), there have been more than enough incidents to merit a closer look at the ways we relate to each other when we’re on the clock.

And that’s no surprise: research suggests that the work culture in our company or team has a major effect on our productivity, our work relationships, and our general well-being. If there’s something toxic in the air, it can affect performance, and happiness, both at work and at home – and once you’re already embedded in your workplace structure, it can be hard to identify or address toxicity. Which makes it all the more important to identify what’s what while you’re still in the interview process.

You don’t have to go overboard here (some interpret a company’s high turnover rate for toxicity when, really, programmers get scooped up by other companies all the time), but it does pay to look for the signs that your prospective workplace or team leaves a lot of room for growth in this department. Since we at UpTeam know that healthy workers are the foundation of innovative solutions, we’ve put together a list of signs to watch out for when assessing potential toxicity.

A “high-achieving” culture that leaves little room for error, or even human nature

Working in an elite, high-performing company can be incredibly exciting. Many workers describe the pride involved, either from the status it gives or from the sense of achievement that comes with rubbing shoulders with the best of the best.

That said, this kind of environment can easily foster emotionally abusive relationships if people don’t take into account the fact that humans aren’t robots built for maximizing company goals before all else. Workers can be shamed, overtly or passive-aggressively, for not conforming to rhythms that only a small proportion of people can thrive within. This can lead to the infamous “rise and grind” mentalities that often precede burnout, high turnover rates, superiority/inferiority complexes, and general misery.

That’s not to say that high-stress situations are bad for everyone – not at all. Some workers thrive in high-pressure environments and enjoy being pressed to perform at a higher level than they would have otherwise achieved. But you need to know yourself and your limits to gauge this and combine this knowledge with an awareness of a company’s inner culture.

What to do: while interviewing for a company or a team, count how many times they mention high-performance or similar buzzwords. Ask your interviewers about how the company integrates margins for error into their corporate planning and HR strategy.

Unclear or ambiguous goals or expectations of employees.

It can be hard to set concrete goals in an industry that aims to be agile and flexible when it comes to setting targets and milestones. That said, consistently ambiguous goals or expectations are a clear red flag that a company may not take into account their workers’ needs or peace of mind.

This can manifest itself in, for example, a lack of concrete deadlines followed up by unclear directions or a tendency to blame workers for not understanding tasks that weren’t properly communicated. Another way this trait surfaces is in a tendency to let people “figure things out for themselves.” In the right company this can be deeply empowering, but without the right support structures workers can be punished for not taking the “right” kind of initiative, thus disincentivizing innovation or risk-taking.

What to do: ask the company or team for examples of concrete goals, milestones, or expectations they’ve set for recent projects. If they are not able to give them to you off-hand, take this as a red flag.

Emotional immaturity

Emotional intelligence, as a paradigm, has never been more discussed in the industry than today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that companies or teams are necessarily taking it to heart.

Not that this is due to a lack of trying – even well-intentioned workplaces find it difficult to turn around their company’s culture in as short a time as might be liked. But that doesn’t mean that workers need to accept when emotional immaturity expresses itself in toxic ways. Here are some common examples:

  • Inappropriate humor or put-downs. Are team leaders or senior staff looking to form connections with you in problematic ways, especially at the expense of other employees or societal groups?
  • Narcissistic leadership. We’re sure we’ve all encountered managers or executive staff who thrive on taking up space inappropriately, or taking a meeting hostage so as to pontificate on their opinions (which may not even be connected to the task at hand.)
  • Bullying. This can be open or subtle, taking the form of passive aggression or even unclear communication (see the above section on this).
  • Micromanaging. This sometimes emerges because of the lack of confidence a leader has, or even as some kind of compensation for something unrelated to work. Maybe the leadership team were put in their positions for the wrong reasons, which is another thing to think about – is there a scarcity of mature leadership for a reason?
  • What to do: Ask your interviewers about concrete ways they try to develop emotional intelligence in the workplace. If they brush the question off or start with statements like “we’d like to do XYZ, but…”, do yourself a favour and take the hint.

Even though a company ostensibly has an HR department (and, hopefully, perceptive leadership), your mental health is ultimately in your own hands. So do your due diligence ahead of time to ensure that the teams or companies you’re looking to join aren’t going to wear you down.

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EU: Nicu Bordea


US: Michael Philip

Group CEO & Founder