“Being a great place to work is the difference between being a good company and a great company.”

  –Brian Kristofek, President and CEO, Upshot

A toxic workplace is often given as the reason companies make the news for unethical business practices, poor customer service, or scandals. The leader is always blamed. Where abuses are common, you can bet that the company culture itself has been ignored, or behaviors were rewarded, that let the issues fester.

Most leaders want to know when their workplaces are becoming toxic in time to do something about it before an unfortunate event happens and it becomes public knowledge. There are signs that help identify a toxic workplace early, so you can do something about it.

1.  The leadership team doesn’t work well together

Your leadership team is the best indicator of how your employees are doing. A dysfunctional leadership team will cause your entire culture to suffer. A poor team is easy to spot: lack of collaboration, lots of complaining, missed meetings, and generally a bad attitude. Employees often take their attitude from their leader. A healthy workplace culture begins with the leadership.

What you can do: If these leaders work for you, know that it won’t get better by itself. Set clear expectations on attitude and behavior, and take steps to remeasure it within a short period of time. Before you replace a leader, you may want to try coaching, or probation. That person will likely get better or move on.

2.  Employee competition is all internal

In the movie, The Paper Chase, a famous line was “Look to your left, look to your right: one of you won’t be here next year,” which was the greeting for incoming students at Harvard Law School. Healthy competition is good, but when leaders set up internal competition that keeps them from pulling together, it will do more damage than good and discourage a strong team. This kind of competition is sure to lead to a toxic workplace.

What you can do: Reframe the competition to your real competitors external to the organization. Ensure the team knows their  common purpose, are clear on what you want to achieve, and what the external forces are working against your goal (other companies, developing technology, etc.).  Talk in “we/us” terms and redirect their energy to unify around the common goal.

3. Managers don’t handle bad behavior and performance

One result of a high-pressure environment and too much to do can be ignoring bad behavior (cheating, harassment, stealing, etc.) or poor performance (missed deadlines, poor work, rudeness to customers, etc.). When employees think it’s an acceptable part of the work culture, the behavior spreads. This is how organizations end up in the news alleging unethical business practices and loss of customers.

What you can do: As the leader, realize that bad behavior won’t get better, but it will poison the reputation of the entire team. Set expectations on integrity and ethics, and communicate them clearly. No matter how busy you are, conduct regular meetings with your team to keep up with their challenges, and model integrity openly. When employees know your expectations, they will try to meet them.

4. Managers don’t promote based on merit

It is a normal human trait to promote people you like to be around, and difficult not to have your favorite employees. When managers only promote those employees they like, and good performers are ignored, however, you eventually lose your best employees. What remains are those loyal only to that manager–and a toxic workplace.

What you can do: As the leader, ensure you and your managers communicate to employees how to work their way up the ranks.  An objective system should be in place to measure an employee’s performance against standards that are clear to all employees. Managers should be able to justify promotions on that objective system.

5. People are excluded from input on decisions

People want to come to work and contribute in an open and trusting environment where they are asked for ideas. employees In organizations where some employees are included and others are not, resentment and bitterness will develop, and lead to a toxic workplace. Excluded employees disengage from providing the best ideas for the good of the company, and waste valuable resources.

What you can do. Are some employees excluded from important decisions, when other employees’ ideas are solicited? Are workers who work remotely given a fair opportunity to be included in team discussions? If not, set up a process to ensure this happens. Not only will your employees be happier and more productive, but you will get better ideas than if only a few employees provided input.

6. A toxic workplace has unhappy customers

Customer service has always been an important part of developing brand loyalty, but in today’s internet and social media environment, disgruntled customers can spread the message much quicker than ever. By the time a company realizes they have a lot of unhappy customers, they can bet their culture is already toxic.

What you can do: As the leader, do you have a process that gives honest feedback on what your customers think about your company? If not, develop one that gives you this valuable feedback, so you can take action. Bad news doesn’t get better with age, so addressing customer issues early will keep them from getting worse.

7. Turnover rate among employees is high.

Current estimates are that it costs companies about 20 percent of annual salary to replace a mid-level employee. When companies have a high turnover rate, it adversely affects their bottom line. Although many factors contribute to a high employee turnover, poor management and a toxic workplace top the list. According to a study by Gallup, there is a strong correlation between a competent manager and employee engagement.

What you can do: As the leader, know your turnover rate and the reasons why employees are leaving. Are you keeping your best employees? Are they generally happy and productive? Knowing these answers can help you evaluate what changes should be made.

As an employee, if you are working for a company with these signs, consider it a warning. Great companies rarely have great dysfunction. While changing positions is not always an option, decide what you want to gain from this job, learn what you can, and prepare a backup plan. Working in an environment with a dysfunctional environment is a sure way to stunt your professional development.


Susan C. Foster is an Executive Coach, former NASA and Army executive, and a recovering 24/7 workaholic who believes everyone can learn to be a great leader. She is the author of the book, It’s Not Rocket Science: Leading, Inspiring, and Motivating Your Team To Be Their Best. You can reach her at www.susancfoster.com.

One of the biggest mistake recruiters and HR professionals make is failing to consider the weight that company culture has on the value of a candidate. It’s not hard to find someone who possesses the required education and several years of industry experience – the real task comes in finding someone who is all of that and more. Sometimes, finding a cultural fit is more important than finding someone with a wealth of experience. It’s amazing what an impact that can have.

The Benefits of Finding the Perfect Cultural Fit

Hiring for culture comes with some distinct benefits – benefits you may not get when you hire based on other priorities. In the long run, hiring for company culture purposes might be more efficient. Culture is a huge factor for a number of reasons, but a few stand out above all of the rest.

Employees who mesh well with culture are more willing to learn and grow in their environments. Those who don’t may not be patient enough to wait it out and learn to navigate your office.

Cultural Fits Need Less Oversight

If an employee is a cultural fit, it isn’t hard to keep that person on the right track. They understand what they’re working towards and the goals of the company. They embrace their environment, and they’ll get along better with their coworkers. Think of it like a chorus where everyone is in perfect harmony. It’s easier to empower these employees when they feel like they’re a part of your mission.

Cultural Fits Stay Longer

What happens when you hire an employee who doesn’t relate to your company culture? Not much. That employee won’t fit in, and is more likely to gravitate to a different place. Employees who mesh well with culture are more willing to learn and grow in their environments. Those who don’t may not be patient enough to wait it out and learn to navigate your office.

Incorporating Your Company Culture into Your Job Description

Start early. If you don’t know whether or not someone is potentially a cultural fit before you get them in the door, you’ve wasted time and resources drawing in the wrong candidates. Your job description should touch on your company culture, and emphasise its importance.

Use Company Culture to Make Your Description Stronger

A great way to frame your culture is by contrast. Read a few Gumtree posts about similar jobs. What do your competitors say? Are the messages generic? Infusing your job description with key points about your company culture and work environment will help you stand out from your competitors, encouraging potential cultural fits to prefer your opening over similar openings.

Provide Rich Examples

Words are great, but pictures and videos speak a little louder. What’s important to your company? How do people work together? Do you have an unconventional office that offers a unique opportunity? Showcase everything you have to showcase. You want a candidate to feel inspired to apply, rather than obligated. The people who ultimately respond will be people who will be happy to work with you. They’ll envision themselves in those photos and videos interacting with other members of your team. You’re helping them capture the passion before they’ve ever met a member of your company, and you can’t beat the enthusiasm that comes along with that.

Sometimes, you won’t be able to tell who is really a cultural fit until they’ve spent a few weeks in the office. As long as you have a decent grasp of what you’re looking for and how to get it, you’re far more likely to wind up picking the perfect candidate the first time.

Winona Chandler is a blogger based in Sydney, writing for several online magazines and managing a small marketing team at BizDb.co.nz. With a background in IT administration, she likes to cover tech and startup topics. She loves to travel and discover new cuisines.

Between Samsung explosions and Volkswagen recalls, FIFA’s racketeering and Wells Fargo’s fake accounts, some of the most recent corporate scandals have been mainstream events with far-reaching impact.  They’ve not only clouded public perceptions of business in general, but also highlighted the pervasive mistrust underpinning interactions among corporate executives themselves. Individual whistle blowers won’t bring about sweeping cultural change. We need leaders who will help whole organizations become vibrant sources of trust.

But this type of corporate culture isn’t easy to establish. Sure, leaders aspire to create challenging discussions that can move their organisations forward. But does the corporate culture allow them to challenge their teams without descending into personal attacks?  The willingness to challenge is often undermined by an already existing absence of trust marked by politeness and defensive behaviour.

So how can senior managers create teams that feel trusting enough to enable challenge?

There are four steps to developing and maintaining trust:

First, managers must recognise the symptoms of low levels of trust. These are often seen in how communication takes place. When meaningful conversations take place mostly on the side, or outside of the committee room, there’s a big indication something isn’t right.  When teams consistently run out of time for discussion and debate because presentations are taking too long, perhaps it’s because time isn’t being left for them. Are executives simply pretending to listen to or build on each other’s points of view, but actually only pausing long enough to find another opportunity to speak? Are conversations repetitive with executives restating their points of view several times?

Being able to distinguish politeness from respect is the first step in identifying an absence of trust.

A seemingly polite atmosphere created by these behaviours could easily be perceived as respectful. But the absence of trust is covertly driving the discussion. It is common to find an absence of trust at senior levels of an organization because colleagues tend to avoid the real issues by defensively shutting down emotionally, not listening to others, and by creating a wall that prevents the sharing of information. Being able to distinguish politeness from respect is the first step in identifying an absence of trust.

The second step is to initiate uncomfortable dialogue. In teams where excessive politeness is the norm, this will be difficult. People may try to initiate uncomfortable dialogue at the end of a meeting, but dialogue is unlikely to get challenging at that time. No one wants to leave a meeting on bad terms, when there are low levels of trust. Difficult conversations need to be initiated in the middle or even at the beginning of a meeting. They also need a defined space and time. Sometimes moving to another room, and agreeing on a time limit, will facilitate and contain a difficult conversation. Different spaces can break the scripted and polite conversations that often emerge among executives.

Difficult conversations need to be initiated in the middle or even at the beginning of a meeting.

The third step is to encourage transparency. Transparency to most senior executives means allowing others to see information that is otherwise held privately. However, a deeper level of transparency is about actively sharing and revealing thoughts, emotions and beliefs that flow through our mind. Senior executives are usually very good at keeping these things private, and some believe it’s the right thing to do.

But this is not humanly possible. Everyone carries emotions with them that influence their perceptions and judgement. By being open and transparent about irritations, frustrations, competitiveness or anger, executives can understand how they are restraining the dialogue. For example, it may be helpful to say, “I felt no one was listening to me” to shift the conversation. Suppressing emotions is delusional. It can trick us into thinking that we or others are not experiencing any discomfort.

To be sure, building trust requires an active disclosure of selected thoughts and feelings. We cannot disclose everything we think or feel – nothing would get done, and it would lead to chaos.

…the relationships that are most likely to strengthen and build trust are those where disclosure and feedback are reciprocated.

Another form of transparency involves giving feedback. For example, “I felt irritated with you when you said…” or “I felt angry when you were dominating the conversation”. Such feedback is difficult to find in executive ranks, especially on polite teams. On the surface, feedback can be seen as a personal attack, and as such it is often avoided. There can also be a tacit collusion between executives not to criticize each other publicly.

The deeper explanation for the lack of feedback is the fear of rejection. When giving honest and direct feedback both the receiver and the giver may feel rejected, even when the feedback is requested. Yet, the relationships that are most likely to strengthen and build trust are those where disclosure and feedback are reciprocated.

If we actively make our feelings transparent through disclosure and feedback, we stay with one another through our feelings of rejection. If acceptance follows, we feel greater trust in the relationship – building belief that it will sustain in the long term. Achieving this state is the key to maintaining the balance between the intimacy and tension needed for optimal productivity. It needs to be a gradual and reciprocal process. Sharing too much can overwhelm. Sharing too little or much more than others can breed mistrust.

The fourth and final step is to keep difficult conversations ongoing and continuous. Difficult conversations are often replayed in our own minds for many hours after they are over. “I should have said…” While executives will need to move on and get back to the task, if one person or if a relationship is left “bruised” or “raw” it is better to acknowledge this and then move on rather than pretend nothing has happened. It is also wise to come back to the conversation a day or a week later. As time passes, if expressed, most difficult feelings pass. By coming back to the issue, you are signalling that you are still ‘with’ the person, and not avoiding or dismissing them. You are showing them that they can trust you with the difficult issues, not just the polite ones.

With corporate failures often dominating the headlines, one has to ask how many could have been avoided if more trust had been achieved across management. Because of the responsibility and power embedded in senior executive roles, there is much going on below the surface that is difficult to discuss. Instead, corporate leaders often fall back on being polite or ‘civilized’ with colleagues. How many Wells Fargo employees knew they were engaging in wrongful behaviour, but didn’t have an environment to speak up?  In many cases being polite creates the delusion of respect, but an absence of trust. By making themselves vulnerable with one another, by exposing some of their thoughts and feelings that they do not usually share, managers will be able to build trust, and with it, genuine respect and a better corporate world.

Professor Ben Bryant is Director of the CEO Learning Center at IMD business school.

Gemma and Valeria are co-founders of Diverse City Careers, a jobs board that advertises positions from Australia’s top companies which provide ideal workplaces for women. Since my first coffee with Gemma and Valeria last year, I’ve seen these ladies go from strength to strength. We’ve been lucky enough to get some time with them to answer some questions about their startup, diversity, enacting change and community, plus a throwback to the school days.


Do you recall the moment when the lightbulb illuminated with the Diverse City Careers (DCC) idea, and why you became so passionate about starting the business?

Gemma: The idea behind DCC came to me after spending 8 years in IT&T and experienced the challenges faced by many women in male dominated industries. Both Valeria and I were also on the board of Females in Technology and Telecommunications (FITT). FITT is a NFP network with over 4,000 members. Through volunteering with FITT, we realised there were so many other women experiencing the same challenges as us. Through the FITT corporate sponsors, we were exposed to companies doing amazing things to support women- such as internal leadership programs, a focus on equal pay and great parental policies. That’s when I thought- why can’t all companies be like this? Essentially that’s where the concept for DCC was born- to only promote the companies doing the right thing. Initially I reached out to Valeria to see if she’d be interested in helping me with some marketing activities but she fell in love with the idea too and the rest is history!

Valeria: My passion for DCC stems from the desire to see more companies focus on outcomes rather than “time spent in office” to enable more inclusive and happy workplaces. Flexibility is one of several key aspects to drive productivity and while not every role can be flex, there are lots of room for improvement in this area across Australian businesses.

I also found myself and other women frustrated with the lack of options to easily find the most supportive employers. Most job boards were either flooded with anonymous, or even worse, fake recruiters’ jobs and others only catered to working mothers.

DCC’s motto is: “We believe in a better way of working”. With that in mind, can you give examples of ideal environments for businesses to work toward?

An ideal working environment consists of a few different things:

  • A place where everyone believes in the company’s mission and working towards a common goal
  • A place where everyone can be 100% themselves and feel included
  • Where there are opportunities to learn and grow, to reach your full potential
  • Where you feel empowered to make decisions within your area of expertise, an agile environment that can respond to the market quickly without bureaucracy and politics.

Your start-up is still young, but you’re smashing it from all angles! Can you share three things which have been contributing factors to this rapid rise?

  1. We are genuinely passionate about what we’re doing and we’ve struck a chord with many others who believe in what we’re achieving
  2. We’ve developed key industry partnerships to help expand our community through the collective networks of different groups such as Tech Girls Movement and Women in Energy
  3. For the last 12 months we’ve lived and breathed everything DCC, we’ve worked really hard to achieve this growth- we have sacrificed a lot personally as would most startup founders.

Both of you have a background in tech. What advice do you have for women wanting to get into the tech space, and/or manifest change in their chosen STEM career?

Gemma: There are so many awesome career paths you can take in tech and it’s an incredible field to be in! Many great organisations are hiring for potential rather than experience, so don’t be afraid to go for roles you may not have 100% experience in. With less than 30% of the ICT workforce female, forward thinking organisations are providing great training and professional development opportunities to be able to create a more diverse workforce.

Valeria: Tech has the capability to provide the most flexibility- you can literally do you job anywhere and I’m a prime example of this- prior to DCC, I’ve worked with four different tech companies in a marketing capacity, where I managed activities nationally from Melbourne. Over the years I’ve met brilliant people working in IT, many of whom are not strictly ‘technical’- which breaks the common perception of this industry.

Some people may say that your business is not about diversity; rather, it backs the effort to increase women’s rights in the workplace. What is your response to that?

Gemma: The two go hand in hand- we need to increase women’s rights to ensure there are more diverse, inclusive and equal workforces. Within ICT specifically in the top 3 tiers in management, only 1 in 5 leaders are female. We need to support and increase women into those roles, part of that is enforcing women’s rights such as equal pay, better parental leave policies and mentor programs.

Valeria: The policy changes we are influencing are all about inclusivity. Let’s take one aspect for example; parental leave policies. Our vision is to see companies abandon the ‘maternity leave’ policies in favour of parental leave where males and females can have access to the same entitlements. Our clients do not just focus on ‘women’s rights’ but creating an overall inclusive culture. However there is lots of work to be done to change the image of some companies being strictly a ‘boys’ club’ which is where using images of women at work in job ads and sharing their stories comes in.

I would imagine the community aspect plays a big role when engaging with a business. How much of what you do is about advocating change, and does community play a role in that?

It’s a huge part of our business and why we do what we do- with only 10% of computer science graduates in Australia female, we need to make sure we’re building the pipeline of women coming through. A good example of this is our partnership with Tech Girls are Superheroes and our “Superhero Daughter Day”. Held at the Microsoft Innovation Centre in Brisbane during International Women’s Day week, we had 120 girls as young as four years old through to 13 attend with their parents to celebrate technology and even have a go at coding!

We are very focused on sharing the positive changes in the industry as well- whether this be through a digital campaigns such as the IWD Pledge for Parity or events with our corporate clients and partners. These include facilitating panel discussions around how companies are getting creative in solving barriers to gender equality along with donating our time to speak at external events. The media has also been very supportive through sharing the news of our initiatives.

Do you have any tips for community managers to consider when pitching to management about adding or updating policies about balanced diversities?

There are countless studies that demonstrate how more diverse organisations are more profitable, productive and have a lower turnover of staff. I’d definitely be using these! Plus demonstrate industry leading practices at other organisations. On the DCC website, we profile organisations under the Companies we Endorse page to showcase some of the great things companies do to support women.

In 25 words or less, why would you love to check out Silicon Valley?

Because it’s the worlds hub for tech start-ups. It’s filled with highly successful entrepreneurs, investors and home to the most successful companies like Apple and Google- you would meet some truly inspiring people and learn a lot!

Windows or MacOS?

Gemma: Windows desktop, but iOS phone

Valeria: Windows desktop and Android phone

Here’s a throw-back to primary school! What was your best school project and why?

Gemma: I don’t remember much from primary school so had to call my mum for this one! She said my favourite project was when we went to Egypt and Israel on holiday. At school I created a big collage of my trip and the history of those countries, like the pyramids. I was creative during primary school which is why I enjoyed this project.

For high school, in year 12 I was part of “Business Week”. In groups, we had to design, market and simulate the growth of a hotel which then competed against other groups in our year. I’ve always had an urge to run my own business so I loved this project!

Valeria: In primary school, my obsession with the NBA and in particular Michael Jordan meant that each and every project had to be directly related to basketball. This included a maths game which was based around players’ jersey numbers, a felt collage for art consisting of the 1992 Dream Team and when it came to picking a country for a geography project, I had no hesitation in choosing Jordan. All projects drove my teachers mad but I was extremely proud of my commitment to basketball and my ‘unique’ creations.


Feel free to connect with Gemma or Valeria via LinkedIn. You can also check out DCC online via webTwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram.

Innovation is something all businesses want to do, and do better.

Whether it’s incremental advancements or fresh, disruptive innovation, all businesses are searching for the ideas that will help deliver great services and products to customers, and of course, greater returns over time.

In my experience, innovation in the business world works best when it is nurtured and embedded within a company and the way it works. This means that – whether you’re a leader or part of the team – you need to have the ability and freedom to experiment and create.

The benefits of making innovation part of your business are wide-ranging but a few of the most compelling are:

  1. Improved decision making processes with experimentation allowing choice of direction based on results, not theory
  2. Increased staff engagement by involving team members on all levels to trial key ideas
  3. Surprising insights which will come as a result of increasing market testing

We have a ‘start-up’ mentality and the tools we use are applicable across different business types and sectors.

So here are my top five tips for fostering a culture of experimentation and innovation in your business, no matter what size you are.

1. Embed innovation in the organisation

Take the time to define where experimentation fits within your company’s culture and work to incorporate this vision into every aspect of the business – embed it within your organisation.

2. Think like a newbie

It doesn’t matter how big you are or how long you’ve been in business, you can still think like a start-up. Challenge not just your team, but yourself, to generate new ideas and solutions related to a range of challenges, like sales strategy and product development.

At Intuit, we have 8000 employees, yet we put key product decisions in the hands of small teams. This allows us to be fast and nimble so that we can consistently generate new ideas – try using small groups and experiment with putting people from different functions together as part of the process.

3. Design for success

One innovation process which guides our work at Intuit we call Design for Delight. This philosophy involves truly understanding how a customer does their job to see how you can improve their experience.

Here you need to talk to and observe your customers and the way they work in the real world. Then try to uncover those insights that will help you exceed their expectations in the product or service you deliver.

Test your ideas with them and ask for feedback – you’ll soon find out works and what doesn’t, then you just need to adapt your approach until you nail it.

Some recent research we conducted with Australian small businesses has confirmed how effective our Design for Delight philosophy has been for ensuring our product delivers a great experience.

4. Experiment, measure & showcase success

I love experiments but to be sustainable as an everyday business practice, they can’t always be huge or to take weeks to develop. Using quick, easy to implement experiments is often a better use of resources because they allow you to test your ideas and get feedback (valuable data!) before investing huge amounts of time and energy on a project.

Here, making sure you get insights from experiments is crucial because it is this that will help you improve your service, product or experience next time. Your initial hypotheses may prove to be wrong – and this is a good thing. The trick is to savour the surprises and use that data to improve your offering.

5. Make everyone an entrepreneur!

Hierarchy shouldn’t determine who has the opportunity to pursue new discoveries or ideas. Decisions should be made by those with the most creative insights or those who are closest to the customers. You need to create- or rally for- opportunities for every employee to ask questions and have their ideas heard for experimentation.

So there you have it – five ideas on how to engage your employees, develop your offerings, delight your customers with innovations and grow your business.

Have other ideas on how to embed innovation within the workplace or daily life? Share them in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @ngmaury and @QuickBooksAU.

Image via Flickr

Nicolette Maury - Intuit AustraliaNicolette Maury is managing director of Intuit Australia, the company behind the world’s number one cloud-based accounting software for small businesses, accountants and bookkeepers, QuickBooks Online. Responsible for leading Intuit’s rapidly expanding Australian presence, Nicolette heads a fast-growing team to deliver dynamic business management solutions and world class customer support. Nicolette brings more than 11 years’ experience in ICT to Intuit and prior to this role, she spent eight years at eBay in a number of key positions.In 2013 Nicolette won the AFR Boss Young Executive of the Year Award and in 2014, was recognised by the CPA as a Young Business Leader of the Year.