Toxic Culture Isn’t Inevitable

Colin Ellis
5 min readOct 18, 2022


📷Davide Baraldi

🔊 Listen to this blog instead of reading it!

I was sitting on a tram into Melbourne city centre a few weeks ago and I heard a couple of fellow passengers talking about work. I don’t remember the conversation exactly (if truth be told I was trying not to listen!), but it centred around the behaviour of individuals and ended with one of the people saying, ‘well…it was always going to turn toxic, wasn’t it?’.

I always feel a great sadness when I read or hear about toxic culture (Exxon being the latest in a long line) and the instances of it in the media seem to be increasing. Partly that’s a result of the fact that we’re now taking the mental health and unjust treatment of employees more seriously — and that’s a good thing. Partly, it’s a result of media negativity bias. After all, there are lots of fabulous working cultures, but how many of those do you get to read about?

Actually, if we had more of the latter, then maybe some of the former would use them as inspiration to address their own cultures. It’s not that I don’t want the work to help these organisations (I’ll always want to help those that want to help themselves), it’s just that sometimes all people need are some practical stories of things that people do well to help them with their own issues.

Anyway, I digress.

Toxic culture is still the biggest reason why people quit their jobs and, according to one survey, this turnover costs US businesses alone over $200bn a year. The bigger problem, however, is the fear this creates in those who can’t simply walk away from their jobs; the lack of productivity as a result of this fear and the mental health issues that this leads to.

There was a recent story about China’s 996 working culture (9am-9pm, 6 days a week) that had led to the suicide of two people. And unfortunately these are not isolated incidents. Toxic cultures lead to stress, anxiety and depression in many individuals in many workplaces around the world. Even Amnesty International was found to have one!

There are a significant number of warning signs that are evident to staff and management every single day that the culture is one of fear and potentially harassment and bullying. These signs include (but are not limited to):

  • Excuses being made for poor behaviour
  • Different behaviour rules for managers than staff
  • No challenge of management is allowed
  • Gossip is tolerated
  • Culture is mandated not built collaboratively
  • Trust has to be continually earned
  • Diversity (cognitive as well as gender and race) is a policy that’s never practised
  • People are routinely and deliberately excluded
  • There are no consequences for poor performance
  • The performance management process takes too long to follow or else people are actively discouraged from using it
  • There is too much work for the number of people available
  • Bullies are promoted
  • Technology is used to track employees
  • No time is available for breaks
  • People are told what to do and how to do it
  • Employee assistance is provided, but it’s difficult to access (or you’re limited in how much you can use).

How many signs have you seen? I’d like to say that I didn’t see any of these during my working career, but the reality is that I saw all of them and none of them are acceptable. And yet (and coming back to the conversation that I heard on the tram), they are not inevitable, they are 100% preventable.

Most toxic cultures stem from the behaviour of one or more individuals and everyone has a duty to deal with this as it arises, not bury their heads in the sand and hope that it improves. It won’t.

If you don’t feel comfortable addressing it directly with the individual then it should be reported to those that are responsible for safeguarding the wellbeing of all employees. If you work in HR or People or Culture, then it is your responsibility to ensure that the organisation takes these complaints seriously at a senior management level and excuses aren’t made e.g. ‘that’s just who he is…’, ‘they’ll get used to her…’, ‘people are so touchy these days…’.

I worked with one team whose culture had been ‘infected’ by the behaviour of one individual. The team took it upon themselves to address the behaviour and when it was clear that the employee didn’t want to change, it was escalated to HR who followed due process. Again, no change was forthcoming so they had no choice but to exit the person concerned. The culture improved immediately and important lessons were learned by everyone involved.

Also, if you’re a senior manager involved in the promotion of people to management positions, you need to ensure that these people aren’t merely promoted based on their technical expertise or length of tenure. They need to have the skills to be able to inspire and motivate different people, from different generations in different ways to build the culture required to deliver results. This will mean building a learning program that provides practical information on the ‘how’ of management as well as the behaviours required to do the job well.

If you’re getting multiple reports of culture issues, then the best time to address these is right now. Employ someone to audit the culture and provide a report on the actions that need to be taken and then…TAKE THEM! Most organisations run an engagement survey every year and yet fail to action the feedback provided and wonder why engagement doesn’t improve.

It’s tempting to think that the responsibility for dealing with toxic culture sits with HR/People & Culture, but this is not true. Everyone has a responsibility for addressing it and they have a responsibility to support people in dealing with it.

Once the source of the toxicity has been addressed the culture will improve but only if positive steps are taken to inject new ideas, energy and a different perspective to create a new foundation for employees moving forward.

To say that toxic culture is inevitable is to abdicate yourself from all responsibility, but we can all make a difference to culture — if we want to.



Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot