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Escaping a Toxic Work Culture: Why Some Employees are Making the Decision to Leave

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Turnover is a well-known problem. Half of HR professionals say retention is their greatest concern (SHRM). Despite a common belief among leadership that wages are the most significant determiner of employee satisfaction, research suggests pay to be only one of many factors that determine retention, and ranks far below engagement and meaning.

So what exactly is making individuals leave? Most of us have had at least one work experience where we've acknowledged an unhealthy power dynamic, felt out of sync with the team, or personally targeted by a colleague or supervisor. Some employees from marginalized backgrounds even resort to code-switching to stop being out of sync and targeted by other employees. When these experiences become part of the norm of how staff communicate with one another it becomes part of the culture itself. Work culture consists of the values, traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes of your employees. And it is this climate that ultimately determines how employees feel about the organization.

Read more articles on our publication Transformative Readership

It's important to recognize that turnover is not consistent among different demographics. Those leaving are disproportionately younger; 21% of millennials say they've changed jobs within the past year, more than 3x the number of non-millennials (Gallup) and more than half are looking to leave their current jobs within the next 2 years (forbes).

In addition to age, A 2017 report from Race to Lead found that people of color (POC) and those with disabilities also experienced higher levels of turnover and were in fewer leadership positions. The report found that minorities were significantly more frustrated by the stress of being called upon to represent a community and additionally challenged by microagressions, fewer role models, and lack of social capital/networks.

In this scramble to account for turnover and transition, many organizations jump to structural solutions: tactical changes in policy or practice that can be mandated from the top down in order to change behavior. However, these need to be accompanied by process solutions in order to be truly impactful. Process solutions deal with how we think about, interact with, and acknowledge others. These initiatives directly address work culture.


Finding Solutions

Behavior change is possible. By following these three steps you can cultivate healthier work environments and increase employee engagement and retainment.

1. Build Awareness.

The first step is better understanding what the problem is. This means all employees, but particularly managers should look at their own biases and behaviors, and observe how their behaviors are impacting fellow employees. But it also requires becoming aware of systemic challenges, interpersonal power dynamics, and recognizing when there are areas of opportunity (hint: there are ALWAYS areas we can improve in).

Build your awareness of inequities through critical consciousness

2. Create Psychological Safety.

The next step is to work on building a space where all colleagues can bring up issues without fearing explicit reprimand or more subtle alienation, retaliation, or exclusion. Cultivating a growth mindset may be easy to conceptualize, but it is truly hard to maintain in practice. It requires embracing failures and obstacles as opportunties (there's that word again) to improve and not personal attacks or judgements about our abilities or innate qualities.

3. Learn New Communication Strategies.

Finally we can actually get better at these process skills. Believe it or not, there actually are ways we can change how we deal with conflict, how we make decisions, and how we provide feedback. Though it takes practice, these communication strategies eventually become habit, and that's when it truly begins to impact the culture itself.

This is a long process but the end results are worth it. You can learn about our unique, effective assessments that can pinpoint any problems in your work culture, and you can learn more about our philosophy and frameworks by reading our brochure.


As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.

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