The importance of culture has been becoming more evident as more and more workplaces strive to redefine what it means to work and be happy. Books like Delivering Happiness and The Culture Code are becoming required reading for early-stage startups to unicorns like AirBnB.
Bottom line: a good culture is important.
That means most places are now promoting their great culture, sometimes through books, videos, tours, articles, etc. When there is so much noise it can be hard to figure out if a place actually does have a good culture. I’ve spent an immense amount of time in the last few years and even more time in the last six to nine months studying what makes a culture toxic.
When I say “toxic culture” I don’t simply mean you may not be happy working there, but it may lead to serious trouble for the business. You’ll be able to match these traits with many stories in the startup graveyard. One outrageous and crazy example is Theranos, which you can read in the blood-boiling narrative: Bad Blood.
It’s my intention to empower you with more information about any company you’re looking at. This can help if you are:
- Interviewing at a company
- Looking to invest in a company
- Trying to define/adjust your own culture
A final caveat I want to mention is that there certainly may be exceptions — these are just indicators. Without further ado…
One of the biggest repeating themes you’ll see is that someone controls the narrative. This is often a founder or manager. Do the investors only talk to one person? Does your boss only get information about what is happening from that person?
Having a unified front is understandable in marketing efforts or even pitches. Make sure you are talking with many people when doing due diligence. Find the depth behind the narrative. Question points that seem unlikely.
Along with this is top-down communication/decision making. Is the technology team cut-off from the marketing team which is cut-off from the product team?
Apple might be a famous counter-example of where this has worked, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s provided a good workplace environment. It has also been used to prevent people in one department from hearing how bad things really are in another department. It’s another example of controlling the narrative.
Remember, a lot of people won’t speak up if they believe they’re the only one.
While this seems obvious I often see that people dismiss it because someone provides some excuse, “they were too junior for the work we’re doing now.”
This is bad. Make sure you actually understand why and could feel comfortable explaining it to someone else.
Suddenly your co-worker or another employee doesn’t show up one day. Nothing is said or you get some small announcement, maybe over Slack, “so-and-so has left, we’ll be getting a replacement soon.”
This usually means that a person has been “shut-up” behind legalese.
If it’s not obvious why they left or why they were let go, there should be more communication (you should ask about it). You should understand why and so should the person who left.
Another way this is sometimes communicated is by suddenly flipping the narrative on someone. They may have always been spoken of in high regard and how great they were. Then, suddenly, it flips and you’re told they were bad at their job and have been performing poorly.
“History is always written by the winners.”
- Dan Brown
Most people who are leaving have to sign an agreement to receive severance, agree not to sue the company, and to make sure that the company won’t sue them.
When someone leaves there is almost certainly some sort of trouble, and the narrative gets told by those who remain. If you’re looking into a company, I would highly suggest trying to reach out to those people to get their side of the story.
There’s nothing wrong with loyalty to a company or a founder, except when their propitiation makes them the “go-to” and “favorite” of a founder. But when a founder gives someone more power and authority, despite lack of merit and as a response to agreeing with them… bad sign.
Debate and differing opinions are healthy for a company to have. If this is being dismissed because the messiah of a CEO — you’re in trouble.
“You’re not a team player” is often another version of this. I don’t know if I’ve heard this in my adult life when someone was really using it in its honest sense, but I have seen it when it was fake-speak for “stop pushing back”.
The opposite of this is also true. When those who offer healthy debate and differing opinions or stand up for their team get fired, it’s a very unhealthy sign.
This is another “obvious” one, but it happens frequently. It also doesn’t mean lying or deceiving you. Are you being asked to lie to your members about the most recent bug? Are you being asked to do things that make you feel uncomfortable and not in your job description? Are they breaking laws with no effort to fix?
These may seem like very different things, so let me explain. Cajoling. An exec comes and gives you a bunch of praise, specifically when you have been having inner turmoil, and when they are asking for something, is a bad sign. It’s a common way to use your emotion against you. The idea is to make you feel good so that you forget everything else.
Similarly, the “sun shines” when someone is around — that by itself is great. The line I want to delineate is when you only feel good when they are around. Does your workplace feel heavy, unfun, except when someone comes around and tells you how great you are? For those few minutes you might feel great — and whether or not it is them specifically who might be problematic, that’s not a healthy workplace to be. Don’t let it be the thing that holds you back.
“He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.”
- Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
I see this in well-meaning companies. The idea might be benign and they want to focus on the positive and ignore the negative… but this is opaque. It is important to recognize when company objectives aren’t going as planned, too.
It also may not be benign. It might be talk to get you to forget about the hell you’ve been working through, or to forget about all those issues: “… and remember, we’re going to change the world.”
Missions should be strong enough to keep you inspired through rough times. The rough times should not be dismissed or accepted.
This could be investors, personal friends, other execs. This might look like:
“They’re just young”
“I’m sure [he/she/they] means well”
“It’s a learning process, give them time”
All these excuses may very well be valid but they should not be dismissed. As with many of the other reasons, make sure you can confidently defend this point to someone else. There is nothing wrong with being young, but if they’re causing severe problems you have to do something.
- Controlling the narrative
- Siloed communication between departments
- High turnover rate
- People “vanishing”
- Execs/Board Members/Founders Leaving
- Loyalty To Founders, Or “Yes Men”
- Lying/Deceiving People/Crossing Questionable Lines
- Cajoling/”Sun shines” when someone is around
- Inspirational talk, but deflects when asking for specifics
- People making excuses for leadership
That’s my list. I’ve successfully used it to spot toxic culture and have seen few exceptions to it so far. Trust your instinct; trust your gut.