How A Toxic Culture Can Kill Your Company

A toxin is a form of poison created by, amongst other things, human beings. Toxic can describe the culture of a company too. I once worked at a company whose culture was so bad that……sounds like a I am putting a Henny Youngman one-liner on a tee, doesn’t it?

We hear about it all the time. Abusive bosses like Roger Ailes at Fox News created an old boys culture at his company. A culture of deceit at Wells Fargo ended with fraud. Cheating at Volkswagen is crushing a famous brand and ruining its legacy.


But, we know some company cultures revolve around innovation, like Nike. Diversity and inclusion differentiate Starbucks in corporate America. Harley Davidson’s culture rests on its passionate customers.

Too bad all companies didn’t follow the latter examples. Unfortunately, good and bad cultures are prevalent in small and large businesses alike. It is surprising we don’t have a consistent measure for a company culture. Like a toxicity test. We verify the water for potability, the air we breathe for pollution and food for bacteria. We query our intelligence to determine where we can go to school. Then we test people (interview) to see if they can join our corporate culture. Imagine working at Wells, in the branch system, a few years ago. Welcome to the culture of sales via fraud at all costs. Congrats, you’re one of us whether you know it yet or not. Be sure to spend all the commissions before they close the cell door.

I have been around for decades and have worked in all kinds of company cultures. One was fun, open in every way and had employees who obsessed about the product. I didn’t fit in well and moved on but am a happy ex-employee. I would consider it a good culture but not for me. Because you move on doesn’t mean the culture is weak. The culture worked for them, and they became successful.

At another company. The mantra was sales at all costs. The guy who ran the business in North America would jump up on the conference table and yell at the top of his lungs. It was bad behavior and permeated the whole office. Fear and intimidation became the culture. A culture of fear is a culture, but not a healthy one. The culture of fear caused high turnover and clients became frustrated. There was no consistency or secure vision for the future. The strategy changed daily as new people showed and then quit. I moved on, and the company sold in a fire sale.

I also worked in a company where the CEO wanted to change the company. After twenty years of doing things in a consistent though not optimal way, he had come to this conclusion. The culture was ok. The people were friendly and smart. After I was tarred and feathered in my first year, they accepted me for what I was. While so many said they wanted to see culture change, when it came to doing it, they resisted. It was more the “devil you know versus the devil you don’t know.” It was a challenge because this company had merged into a much bigger company. They were at odds with the parent. The cultures were different. The parent was conservative and staid. There was inherent tension. The smaller company continued to be successful regardless of the strife. Why? Because their core product is an industry leader and flat out works. There was a cost to the business. The fear of a new and different culture stymied development. Handcuffed employees put a lid on creativity. It resulted in a one product business serving one market. The result was nominal growth.

It is important to know that a toxic culture can destroy your employees, clients and personal relationships. I went through one of these in my career. Great relationships became strained and friends lost. Collateral damage from a listless work environment. The company limps along hoping something good will happen to it. Hope is not a strategy or a culture.

poison I recently had lunch with a friend who decided to move on from a culture of “saying one thing and doing another.” Self-preservation ruled the day. It had been prevalent across the firm. She became confused as a senior manager. Those who reported to her became lost in the dark atmosphere. She said, Chris how can they perform, if I can’t?”

I was a part of a great culture at one time. I was one of the early team who helped create it. I credit this as one of my biggest achievements in business. We didn’t have a plan at first. What we did have was a group of people with disparate backgrounds. I would argue this was one of the key elements of our success. There was a couple of consultants, engineers, a technology guy, three Wall Street folks, and an HR guy. We didn’t have consistent pedigree. We struggled at first and almost failed but got our house in order. It’s funny how staring at failure can motivate you. Desperation can do that. Almost failing forced us to focus, and reminded us of what hard work was. We also combined fun with hard work. This created more work and more fun. What a great cycle for a company. This made it easier once we had a functioning blue water product. The cycle continued. The results piled up, and the cycle continued. We rewarded the company, and the cycle continued. A culture of achievement and rewards works.

Lightening had struck

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We should develop a rating score for assessing a company’s culture. Employee and ex-employee reviews are not enough. Until we get there, my advice is to join a culture of integrity at all costs. A company that performs meaningful work. One that makes a difference for employees, customers, and the community. Find that, and you will have the foundation for a meaningful company culture.

My best, Chris

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About the author: Christian J. Farber and wife Susan live in Tinton Falls, NJ. Their home is near the shore where they spend a lot of time at the beach with their three boys. Chris is a featured and contributing author on many social media platforms. These include Thrive Global, Huffington Post, Good Men Project and LinkedIn. Chris has had a long career in Marketing and Sales. He is a visionary thinker on business development. Chris has a reputation for building high-performing marketing and sales teams. His unique management style focuses on allowing people to perform without pressure or interference. Chris led many successful teams and performed transformation work at State Street Bank. Further, he has had success at start-up companies like Albridge Solutions. At Albridge, Chris was an early employee and helped lead the company’s dramatic growth. Albridge, acquired by PNC Bank in 2008 for more than $300 million, is now a unit of The Bank of New York.

7 thoughts on “How A Toxic Culture Can Kill Your Company

  1. In the 1980s, the company I worked for was computerizing the operations of a major office supply company. We learned that the salesmen would create fictitious orders. The products would ship to someone who never ordered it, and be returned to the shipper, and go back into inventory. But by then, the salesmen would have received their commissions, which they didn’t return to the company. What a lovely culture that must have been.

    In the 1990s, I worked for a company where the owner’s family were treated much better than the rest of us. I recently got a fine novel out of that.

    Those are the two most toxic examples I can think of. Probably because I’ve got a knack for flushing those poisons out of my system. It’s a survival skill.

  2. Great writing. I’ve always been fortunate (or deliberate) in working for “do the right thing” corporate mentalities- there is no satisfaction or sleep otherwise. It also fosters the ability to make an occasional mistake, but if the intent was or is noble, it’s fixable and forgiven. More freedom of thought and action at work when the baseline is good intention.

  3. Christian,

    Great post. I completely agree that we should have some sort of measure for the health and/or toxicity level of a company.

    A culture of fear is certainly one that many companies adopt, but, in my experience, is effective for the immediate, but not for the long term. There is a sense of decomposition that comes with this kind of leadership style.

    Loved, “Hope is not a strategy or a culture.” I don’t think this topic gets enough attention, but it’s important.

    I’ve been seeing more and more as of late that it matters much less what you do or what product/service you represent, than who you are doing it for, with, and why you are doing it.

    Thanks for the read.


  4. Chris, great ideas! This is something that I unfortunately have not had great experiences with. In my last three jobs the culture was toxic, there was no leadership, no structure, no comradery, and this lead to a revolving door with employees. Thankfully my current position is the complete opposite and the average employee has been here for 10+ years! Much more enjoyable for all involved. Check out this post on Company Culture that I put together not too long ago. Hopefully you can appreciate some of the ideas. Thanks!

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