In a recently published blog, I discussed why internal auditors need to use more than their senses of sight and sound when auditing culture. I quoted a respected corporate director from India who has observed that we must also use our sense of “smell.” Following publication of the blog, a former colleague reached out to me and asked: “Isn’t a clear indication of ‘toxic culture’ the fact that employee turnover is high? Don’t people just leave if the culture gets too bad?”
It was a good question, but it was also a topic I wrote about in 2018. The fact is that many people do leave toxic cultures. I have fled a couple myself. But many people choose to stay in an unhealthy environment, and their reasons are often very personal.
For several years, I have been writing about toxic cultures and internal audit’s role in identifying how they can impact organizations’ performance. Over the past decade, examples have abounded of corporate scandals caused or enabled by toxic or misaligned cultures, including Equifax, Uber, and Wells Fargo. Fortunately many of the companies have made important strides in reforming their cultures after highly publicized debacles and scandals.
As I pointed out in my recent blog, it’s not hard to spot signs of toxic cultures. You’ll often find that the ends justify the means and there are different standards for different people in such organizations. They generally have poor communications, as well as distracted and unproductive employees, and there tends to be a lot of finger-pointing and blame games when things go wrong.
It is hard to believe how often these cultures continue to exist. It can seem equally astonishing how such cultures can seduce and hold hostage employees who recognize just how broken the system is but somehow choose to remain. Speaking from experience, based on a couple of occasions in my career, it can happen to well-intentioned, hard-working people.
There are many reasons why people stay in toxic cultures, but let’s examine five that I’ve seen or experienced in my own 45-plus-year career in internal auditing.
People believe they are doing good work despite the culture. In many cases, the work being performed is worthy and necessary. These individuals tend to ignore the culture around them, and seek to differentiate themselves from those fostering the culture. Some workers become tethered to a job they believe can’t be done without them. That, of course, is generally not the case. The job will indeed continue without them, but it is difficult to make the break.
People feel it would be disloyal to leave those who are suffering along with them. I found myself in such a situation. As a top member of management, I was trying to be the good guy in a truly toxic environment. Walking away was difficult, because I felt like I would be abandoning those who I was trying to shield from harsh and spiteful leaders. Frankly, that kept me in the job much longer than I should have.
People feel trapped by their circumstances. Not unlike those who remain in bad relationships or marriages, some workers feel they have no alternative. Fear of losing income or benefits can make jumping to another job — much less walking away from the toxic job — difficult. Some may believe they don’t have the skills to do anything else. Toxic leaders leverage such insecurities to convince people they can’t survive outside the organization.
Not all reasons for staying are noble or forgivable: Some workers are attracted to a toxic culture because it provides protection and advancement for all the wrong reasons.
Some people don’t want to be held accountable. Toxic cultures can provide a shield to those who don’t want to be held accountable for their performance. Such cultures often rely heavily on unnecessary processes that allow a checkbox mentality to prevail. Poor employees can find comfort and protection in red tape and process.
People become infected by the culture. A toxic culture driven by poor tone at the top can create a go-along-to-get-along mentality. Employees learn to look the other way and not ask questions. In some ways, employees clock out their ethics when they clock in at work.
I don’t want to leave the impression that anyone who stays in a toxic culture is somehow flawed as a worker or individual. In fact, a 2018 article posted by Fastcompany.com, shared “5 Very Rare Instances It’s Worth Staying in a Toxic Workplace.” These include:
While I may not agree with all of these points, I do believe that working in and surviving a toxic culture can be a great learning experience, even if it only teaches life lessons on what NOT to do.
It also is important to understand that toxic cultures aren’t black and white. Culture operates on a continuum that ranges from healthy, innovative, and empowering to unhealthy, stagnant, and demoralizing. That means (as the Fastcompany article suggests) good people doing good work can rehabilitate bad cultures. The right person or people with unwavering moral character can become the force of good in a land of evil. That aspiration itself is often be why people remain.
As always, I look forward to your comments.