When it comes to voluntary employee attrition, the single biggest contributing factor is a toxic corporate culture. That's the conclusion of a recent data analysis conducted by CultureX and Revelio Labs, which used more than 34 million employee profiles and 1.4 million employee reviews to examine what drove resignations from April through September 2021.
A toxic culture is so detrimental, in fact, that it is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to employee attrition than unsatisfying compensation. Other big contributors included job insecurity and reorganization, high levels of innovation and failure to recognize employee performance.
"We looked for the topics that were super powerful drivers of a very low Glassdoor rating," Charlie Sull, a co-founder of CultureX and one of the project's data analysts, told HR Dive. "These topics … don't necessarily happen very often, which is a good thing. Disrespectful behavior only occurs … anywhere from 1% to 4% of the time in large organizations. But every time that is mentioned, it has a very powerful effect on driving a very negative Glassdoor rating."
To conduct their analysis, the researchers developed an analytics platform seeded with hundreds of thousands of terms. "So for instance … our process for measuring respect would be surveying the literature about respect, talking to leading industry experts who've written about this subject extensively, and from there … coming up with a seed dictionary … And then over the course of years, you refine on that dictionary and build on it and use machine learning techniques to make it … more accurate," Sull described.
Some leading elements the researchers found associated with a toxic culture included failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion; employees feeling disrespected; and "unethical behavior."
Sull noted that issues with workplace toxicity are not necessarily companywide. "I think it's most helpful to think of it in terms of toxic microcultures," he said. "So, even if you have a relatively toxic organization, which you can see on Glassdoor reviews, chances are that toxicity isn't going to be pervasive everywhere."
In other words, while the accounting department could be mired in employee misery and dysfunction, the marketing and communications departments could be humming along fine, potentially unaware.
How to know if a workplace is growing toxic microcultures? Keeping a close eye on feedback, both internal and external, is key, Sull said. Employee reviews on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed can be an instrumental canary in the coal mine for HR, with employees opening up on these sites in ways they may not through internal feedback systems. Engagement and pulse surveys can also be useful if employees are primed to open up through a foundation of trust and reassurance that their honesty is valued. "Robust listening" is essential, Sull said.
Once HR has a strong sense of where the toxicity is emanating from, it can zero in on the "pain points" within a given section of the organization. This may come through data already collected through surveys and reviews or through more robust conversations that happen later.
Often, toxicity comes down to individuals; even one person, particularly if he or she is in a leadership role, can poison morale for an entire department. "It's not really about the department, structure, geography or anything like that," Sull said. "It's really mostly about leaders who are in charge of these microcultures … they're going to have a really disproportionate effect on whether or not the microculture is toxic."
The good news is that usually, even when an organization has been infiltrated with toxicity, it still has a fighting chance at turning things around. "I wouldn't think of a toxic corporate culture as completely inoperable," Sull told HR Dive.
Organizations can often address poor management styles that translate into toxicity through coaching, learning and development, Sull said.
Sull's advice aligns with previous research. Last summer, a study from Forrester found that when those in leadership positions lack the tools to lead properly, they default to inefficient strategies that often frustrate employees, like micromanagement, focusing on employee weaknesses and providing little or no feedback. Like Sull, the report recommended coaching leaders to success.
Sometimes, the problem is more serious — for example, in cases in which leaders are demonstrating abusive, harassing or other behavior. "Often, for more pronounced cases, it's necessary to make difficult personnel decisions," Sull said. "But it is addressable behavior."
Sull and the rest of the team plan to write a follow-up article soon that delves deeper into their findings on toxic culture, how to identify it within an organization and how to address it. Until then, Sull ended on one "note of hope."
"A lot of people think, ‘Oh, toxic culture, it's … this kiss of death. There's no coming back from it,'" Sull said. "[But] there are certain super actionable, super quick and super cheap things you can do to address perhaps not all of the toxic behavior in the organization, but a really disproportionate amount of it. And [you can] make a huge difference … in the matter of just a couple of months."