4 major warning signs of awful company culture

It’s not hard to spot bad company culture, even from the outside looking in. This makes it easy to know which companies to avoid. After all, if a workplace is known for its toxic and negative environment, why would you want to start a day job there?

According to a survey by RAND, nearly one in five American workers (of those surveyed) experienced toxic work environment symptoms, including threats, humiliation, and verbal abuse, within a month of the survey’s request for data.

If you know the world of work, you know it’s not a stretch to imagine that one out of five people is trapped somewhere with bad culture. So for those of you considering joining a new organization, be sure to do your research and look for these four major warning signs of awful company culture.

Examples of awful company culture

Since company culture can be loosely defined as the ethos a company tries to promote in its workers and work environments, symptoms of awful culture are usually easy to spot and categorize. Depending on what field you work in, the signs of awful company culture may vary, but here are some fairly common examples:

  • Unpaid overtime, extreme hours, and crunching
  • Leadership-endorsed toxicity, harassment, and pressure
  • Lack of empathy or tolerance for the human element
  • Quantity-over-quality content production directives

Let’s break down what each of these warning signs looks like in practice.

Awful company culture #1: the “no work-life balance” culture

We all have friends who are “so busy with work” all the time. Maybe they’re constantly taking on new shifts or their boss is making them work overtime, but either way, they live and breathe their office’s air and rarely, if ever, have time for anything else. That’s a clear-cut sign of awful company culture.

If a business doesn’t give you time to live a personal life, it’s bad. Obviously, if you’re working in a field you love and your work happens to also be your personal passion and hobby, that’s a different story—but if the boss is forcing you to turn your nine-to-five into an eight-to-eight, as well as asking you to show up on weekends, you’re looking at a bad culture.

Awful company culture #2: the “abuse is okay” culture

At some places of work, it’s “okay” for employees to harass each other. Maybe a guy works in a female-dominated office space and is constantly bombarded by unsolicited, snide sexual remarks but has no one to turn to because his boss supports the pack mentality and silently endorses such behavior. This is a sign of awful company culture.

Abuse can take many forms beyond harassment, though. Maybe your work environment is hypercompetitive and employees are incentivized to cut each other’s legs out just for a shot at a promotion. Perhaps “thick skin” is an unspoken but mandatory requirement. All of these things are signs of awful company culture incarnate.

Awful company culture #3: the “results over people” culture

Similar in flavor to the last example of awful company culture, this particular brand of cultural badness comes in the form of a company valuing hard results over the employees who make said results possible.

While all companies do need to keep metrics (revenue, losses, gains, etc.) in mind when making decisions, if a company sees fit to put undue stress on sick employees, pregnant employees, or any employees who are unable to perform job duties for easily understandable, innately human reasons, that’s a sign of awful company culture.

Awful company culture #4: the “mindless content mill” culture

Ever notice the companies that advertise click-bait articles at the bottom of actual articles? The ones who pump out content like “5 celebrities who look nothing like they did ten years ago”? Those are content mills, and they tend to all share a pretty similar, straightforward company culture: turn off your brain, churn out derivative, formula-based content about insubstantial fluff, and clock out when you’ve submitted some arbitrary amount of words or hours. This is an awful culture that takes no pride in its work because there’s little to be proud of.

How to spot signs of awful company culture

Here are a few easy ways to spot signs of awful company culture:

  • Pay is low but work expectations are astronomical
  • Gossip and peer belittling are commonplace
  • All current employees look dead inside on their social media accounts
  • Glassdoor and Indeed reviews

Take a long, hard look at that last bullet. If you want to learn about a company’s awful culture from folks who actively work (or have worked) there and hate it, check out said company’s rating on Glassdoor or Indeed. Ignore the company’s star rating, though, since that’s usually influenced by fake reviews.

How do you spot a fake review? Just look for anything that’s blatantly shilling for the company. “I love the benefits, the pay, the people, etc. but the free office lunches are a little weak.” That’s a fake review. It doesn’t address any common criticisms and is afraid to be specific.

However, real reviewers will cite hard info, statistics, situations, and scenarios to back up their complaints and praises. Typically, the negative reviews are the most honest and extensive, so really look these ones over before accepting an interview with any company that’s loaded with bad reports on Glassdoor and Indeed.

Reasons for awful company culture

Perhaps a company is operating on an unsustainable business model and, in its desperation to stay afloat, pushes its workers to do too much work in too little time on a constant basis. Or maybe the CEO is a complete jerk and lets his bad attitude trickle down to his subordinates and their subordinates, leading to things like employee harassment and humiliation. And in the business world, there’s always a chance that a company has spawned its awful culture solely because it’s run by sociopaths who’ll do anything for more money.

There are infinite reasons for awful company culture—the ones above are just a few of the more common and popular explanations for why these bad environments come to be. Some awful cultures are spawned from good intentions, like companies crunching and overworking employees simply to make the best product possible, but at the end of the day, awful company cultures are just that, and that stain won’t go away regardless of what products are born from the suffering.

The importance of company culture

The importance of company culture and the value in recognizing the signs of awful company culture should be obvious: if you work in a good culture, you’ll be happier and, quite literally, healthier. The American Psychological Association has openly stated that tension and stress (two things found in abundance in awful company cultures) can lead to migraines and musculoskeletal disorders. So don’t take awful culture lightly. Find a company that’s a good fit for you and has a culture that will treat you right.