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Toxic Tech Culture on the Rise, Encouraging Employee Exodus

Nearly half of employees at tech companies suffer from burnout because of a toxic work environment, and they say leadership is "turning a blind eye" to toxic behaviors, a new study finds.

An increasingly toxic workplace environment is leading tech professionals to consider quitting their jobs, and IT workers believe leadership and senior management are mostly to blame for the noxious atmosphere.

These were among the results of a TalentLMS and Culture Amp survey of 1,000 U.S. employees working in tech companies, which revealed that 45% of employees in the software industry plan to quit their job because of a toxic work environment.

The survey also found 46% of employees suffer from burnout because of a toxic work environment, while 43% of employees working in toxic software companies take PTO or sick days just to get away from the unpleasant environment.

While respondents said the leadership has the greatest responsibility for the toxic culture in their company, the survey results indicated leaders are unaware of the prevailing toxicity.

chart of who is responsible for toxic cultures

"The disconnect is wide and concerning — almost half of surveyed employees in tech companies with toxic culture say that senior executives are unaware of the toxicity and live in a bubble, believing that the company culture is healthy," explained Dimitris Tsingos, president of Epignosis and co-founder of TalentLMS. "What's more, 43% of employees say that the leadership is turning a blind eye to toxic behaviors."

Regardless of whether leaders contribute to toxicity or simply neglect to acknowledge and address it, their actions enable toxicity to spread, he said.

Toxic Work Cultures Crush Morale and Performance

The survey data also unveiled that toxicity at work negatively affects employee performance, focus, and confidence, suggesting employees feel powerless in face of toxicity, which erodes morale and crushes performance.

"Workplace culture is like an underlying connective tissue that holds the organization together," Tsingos said. "In a healthy and positive culture with shared values, people behave with respect and consideration. That enables healthy work relationships that fuel teamwork and performance. Toxicity threatens this subtle balance, and if not acknowledged and dealt with, it can break it."

He added that all the survey findings show how deep the cost of toxic climate runs.

There was broad agreement among survey respondents that the No. 1 one contributor to a toxic culture is expecting employees to work longer hours or weekends without additional pay, followed by lack of transparency and communication from management and leadership.

Lack of consideration and courtesy, backstabbing behavior, and gossip or inappropriate remarks about colleagues rounded out the top five contributors to toxic workplace culture.

When asked whether their company has a policy against toxic behaviors, less than a third (32%) said their company has one and that employees follow it.

At the same time, more than a quarter (26%) said there is such a policy but nobody follows it, while 19% don't know if such a policy exists.

Recognition and Rewards Programs Are Signs of a Healthy Work Culture

Employees ranked recognition and rewards programs at the top of their list of elements of a healthy and balanced work culture.

"Those programs are all about showing appreciation and celebrating success," Tsingos said. "Having a system in place for acknowledging and rewarding hard work can strengthen bonds between employees and the company, and make people feel seen."

Finally, training emerged as one of the most powerful allies in building a healthy culture: 48% of employees agreed that workplace training can help foster a more positive and healthy work environment.

The type of training that is most suited to help is soft skills, or people skills, training.

"Soft skills training is designed for improving work relationships, developing self-awareness, improving communication and people skills," Tsingos said. "It can enable employees to learn how to recognize and address toxicity."

New knowledge can transform viewpoints and reframe perspectives, and what is needed for a personal and collective change, he added.

Some examples of helpful training topics are:

  • bystander intervention training
  • training on empathy
  • recognizing unconscious biases, equity, diversity and inclusion

"Taking these courses can show people how to avoid blaming and antagonizing and engage in a constructive dialogue with a goal of resolving toxic patterns," Tsingos noted. "Crafting and communicating a policy against toxic work culture is a team effort."

Leadership should take an active role in establishing the policy and giving it credibility, he said.

"Instead of ignoring toxicity and looking the other way, as survey data showed it is the case, leaders should know and follow the rules — like they want everyone else in the organization to do," he explained.

About the author

Nathan Eddy headshotNathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITPro Today. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.
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