We All Deserve a Healthy Work Culture

healthy work culture

By Yvonne Milosevic

Whether you already have a job or are looking for a new one, a healthy work culture should top your list of non-negotiables. Otherwise, you may find yourself trapped in an employment environment that crushes your soul, where things like low morale or no work-life balance might drive you to join the newly coined “quiet quitting” movement.

On his podcast WorkLife, the Wharton School’s Adam Grant recently explored the most common culprits that sabotage a healthy work culture. Today, we’re focusing on the most pernicious of them all: toxicity. Look out for the following culture clues if you’re on the job hunt right now. And if your current workplace is giving off some bad energy vibes, you might be able to do something about it. Maybe.

The Opposite of a Healthy Work Culture

According to new research on the Great Resignation appearing in MIT Sloan Management Review, a toxic corporate culture is ten times more important than compensation in predicting turnover. But what characterizes a workplace as toxic and not merely annoying? It’s a place where employees feel disrespected or excluded. Or where unethical, cutthroat, and abusive behavior is tolerated and even rewarded.

“If people don’t get fired for those behaviors– or worse yet, still get promoted–Houston, we have a problem,” Grant says.

Identify Potential Toxicity Before You Get Hired

Fast Company has some excellent advice on identifying a toxic culture before accepting a job offer. They recommend the following:

  • If you interview on-site, pay close attention to how employees interact. These could be your future colleagues, so note whether they seem stressed out, nervous, or worse, catatonic in a corner.
  • It may sound funny, but do you smell food as you walk around the office? That’s a red flag suggesting people feel they must eat at their desks and don’t take a proper lunch break. Poor work-life balance alert!
  • Does the recruiting process seem to be moving forward at lightning speed? That could indicate that the company sees you merely as a warm body needed to fill a spot quickly.

Also, Grant advises asking your interviewer to tell you about something that happens at their company that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. “It’s not about the slogans on the wall or the values on the website,” he says. “Culture is revealed in the stories people tell.

So, what’s the solution?

In most cases, fixing cultural flaws is a top-down assignment. “The first person who shapes the culture of an organization is the founder,” Grant notes. When management walks the walk, they set the values and norms that everyone follows. Ensure workers understand the core mission and feel invested in making it happen. Next, reward and promote team members who embody those values.  

It turns out that people are actually more adaptable than we give them credit for. –Jenny Chatman, Berkeley Haas Professor of Organizational Behavior

You can teach skills to anyone, but as Grant’s podcast guest Chatman asserts, socialization beats selection when building a healthy work culture.

Sure, raises are lovely—especially in this era of hyperinflation. But Chatman thinks we shouldn’t underestimate the power of informal rewards. Things such as a gift certificate for lunch. Or, she adds, a celebratory cake when someone has had a win consistent with the desired new culture.

“These are ways of really capturing people’s attention,” she explains. 

If communication is lacking, managers can draw out honest feedback from employees through anonymous surveys. Workers who feel burned out, discriminated against, or bullied should feel safe sharing their situation with a supervisor.

Even with these efforts, the company culture may still not reach healthy status. Then it’s up to you to decide whether the position/salary/potential opportunities are worth putting up with the toxicity. If the answer is no, then it’s time to start looking for the exit ramp.