5 Warning Signs of a Deteriorating Workplace

How to tell if your workplace is going downhill fast

Posted Sep 08, 2010

Since I recently wrote about the great places to work, friends and colleagues have been sharing examples of workplace situations that lead to poor working environments. I've assembled these (and some others) into the 5 signs that a workplace is deteriorating in quality, and thoughts on how to make things better.

1. "All Sticks and No Carrots." When management begins to focus solely on what employees are doing wrong (i.e., correcting "problems"), and never or rarely rewarding them for what they are doing right (rewards, recognition), it is simply bad psychology and bad leadership in action. A friend told me that if he or members of his department hear from the boss, they know it means they have done something wrong. "It didn't used to be that way around here," he said. "We used to get a balance of good and bad from our former boss."

Good leadership practices involve encouraging and rewarding employees for the things they have done right. This increases worker motivation and morale. A punitive work environment stifles initiative and has everyone walking on eggshells wondering when and where the hammer will fall next.

2. "The Creeping Bureaucracy." A while back, an academic colleague submitted her research proposal to her university's Institutional Review Board to get permission to conduct her research using students. It took over 8 months to get approval! When she asked about the delay, she was told, "we have complicated procedures that must be followed and a backlog of work."

While following standard policies and procedures is important, too much bureaucratic "red tape" is never a good thing. All too often, as in the example above, employees will use the bureaucracy as an excuse for not getting work done. And, if bureaucratic procedures are bringing operations to a halt, then it is time to find a faster, better way of doing things.

3. "The Gigantic Bottom Line." In our current poor economic environment, examples of this abound. Organizations that have a singular focus on money - profits, cost-cutting, etc., without considering the other "bottom lines" (the shorthand for the triple bottom line is "profits, people, planet") is on a downward slide.

Even under the worst economic times, it is important for leadership to pay attention to its workers and the work environment. If the company is going to turn around, it is going to take the motivation, dedication, and talent of the workforce to do it.

4. "When Bullies Rule the Roost." I've written extensively about workplace bullies, so there are many examples of bullying in earlier posts and discussion from readers. Nothing can make a workplace more toxic than the presence of bullies - and leaders, who are either bullies themselves, or allow the bullies to thrive and attack victims unchecked.

High levels of dysfunctional workplace politics -- and the terrible trio of bullying, cronyism, and nepotism - is always a sign of a deteriorated work environment. Leaders: Put a stop to this! There needs to be a zero tolerance policy to stop bullying and bad politicking.

5. "Losing the Human Touch." "It doesn't feel the same around here." "They treat us as if we were interchangeable parts." "When I went to HR to complain about mistreatment, they told me that maybe I'd be happier at another company." These are all comments that I've heard about deteriorating workplaces.

The very best companies are those that genuinely care about their workers and their welfare. The emphasis needs to be on the "human" in the terms "human capital" and "human resources." Leaders need to continually ask the question of how policies and practices impact workers. There needs to be genuine concern and caring for people to make an organization a great place to work.