Red Flags: How To Recognise A Toxic Workplace Culture


It’s one thing to have a toxic boss at work. It’s another thing entirely to work at a place where the culture itself is toxic. In such situations, no one wins. Employee engagement and well-being suffers, turnover skyrockets, collaboration disintegrates, and innovation slows to a snail’s pace, if at all.

The natural predators in the organisational food chain may enjoy temporary gains, but none of it is sustainable, nor can it be considered real growth; a lot of the time, such benefits accrue only to specific individuals and groups rather than on a company-wide level.


That said, lacking certain elements of good corporate culture in and of itself an indication of toxicity. For example, working environments that foster psychological safety are crucial to performance and effective collaboration, but a company that lacks them isn’t necessarily automatically a toxic place to work in. So at what point does company culture cross from lacking and unsatisfactory to plain toxic?

P.S. Take back control of workplace culture and redirect it in growth-conducive ways: sign up for SSA Academy’s WSQ course on applying emotional competence manage self and others in a business context!



1. Workplace bullying & malicious gossip

In Singapore’s context, workplace bullying is perhaps the most serious issue plaguing toxic corporate culture. According to the inaugural Kantar Inclusion Index (KII), 24% of Singaporean workers said they’d been bullied at work in the past year, making Singapore the highest-ranking country among the 14 nations surveyed when it comes to office bullying.


Corporate cultures that enable rampant bullying are unacceptable under any circumstances. To quote Netflix’s famous phrase, “brilliant jerks” should never be tolerated.

MORE: 5 Ways To Create Bully-Free Work Environments



2. “Every man for himself”

The “save face” imperative is strong enough in Singapore that it isn’t uncommon to find cultures that reinforce the tired adage of “every man for himself.” A team that easily dissolves into cliques, factions and all manner of silos at the slightest indication of difficulty isn’t really a team at all; it’s just a group of people who are forced to work together.


To draw an analogy in sports, Olympic rowing has a reputation for being one of the most team-centric pursuits; for the boat to move forward, all rowers must know what they each need to do, be in perfect synchronisation, and to help support each other in the process. Without this, the boat comes to a literal standstill.

Granted, some amount of competition between employees is healthy and beneficial for growth. However, when people are willing to sacrifice the greater good (from the company’s perspective) for the sake of personal gain, such competition backfires heavily.



3. “Tit for tat” norms

You reap what you sow. One of the most dire consequences of toxic corporate cultures is the inculcation of negative “tit for tat” social norms. According to the Harvard Business Review, employees of toxic bosses tend to engage more in counterproductive behaviours in retaliation to similar behaviours from their co-workers and superiors.


In such environments, sizeable amounts of mental, emotional, and even financial energy are siphoned away from productive pursuits, towards the end of “getting even.” People are less interested in growing together, and much more interested in seeing each other’s downfall.



4. People don’t trust their leaders

Effective leadership makes all the difference, but so does toxic leadership. Companies suffer greatly where such destructive leadership styles are the norms. If no one trusts the captain of the ship, it’s because he’s made it clear time and time again that he is his own top priority, above the needs of his people.


These are the kind of leaders who don’t practice what they preach, steal credit in return for the least possible returns (if at all), and who consider themselves entirely infallible. Indeed, what brought the infamous Enron down at its peak was a calcified network of multiple toxic, self-serving leaders. In such situations, there’s very little stopping employees from abandoning ship at the first possible chance to.


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