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125: Toxicity: The culprit of the great resignation with Aoife O’Brien
30th September 2022 • Happier At Work® • Aoife O'Brien
00:00:00 00:13:04

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There is no doubt that workplace toxicity is a crucial component to the matter of unhappiness at work. Toxicity is indeed the culprit driving the great resignation. In this week’s solo episode, Aoife uncovers the damages of a toxic culture and turns her focus to findings from two fascinating articles from the MIT Sloan management review.

Throughout the episode, Aoife discusses the red flags within a toxic working environment and how a workplace can be toxic single-handedly rather than collectively. Aoife also reminds us that payment is not always the leading cause of staff turnover and sheds light on how the future of work is changing. Key points throughout the episode include:

- Aoife’s experience of working in a toxic culture

- The top five predictors of attrition

- The telling signs of a toxic working environment

- The key to retaining and attracting talent

- The benefit of introducing lateral career opportunities in the workplace

- Why organisations should embrace flexible working arrangements

- Harnessing connection and collaboration within an organisation


Do you have any feedback or thoughts on this discussion? If so, please connect with Aoife via the links below and let her know. Aoife would love to hear from you!


MIT Sloan management review

Connect with Happier at Work host Aoife O’Brien:


Aoife O'Brien:

Are you looking to improve employee engagement and retention? Do you struggle with decisions on who to hire or who to promote? I have an amazing opportunity for forward thinking purpose-led people first organisations to work with me on the first pilot Happier at Work program for corporates. The program is entirely science backed and you will have tangible outcomes in relation to employee engagement, retention, performance and productivity. The program is aimed at people leaders with responsibility for hiring and promotion decisions. If this sounds like you, please get in touch at That's A O I F E at You're listening to the Happier at Work podcast. I'm your host Aoife O'Brien. This is the podcast for leaders who put people first, the podcast covers four broad themes, engagement and belonging, performance and productivity, leadership equity, and the future of work. Everything to do with the Happier at Work podcast relates to employee retention, you can find out more at

I'm talking today about toxic culture, something I have a direct experience of. And a lot of what I talk about today is based on two articles from the MIT Sloan review, which I found hugely interesting in relation to toxic culture. But I suppose first of all, I wanted to call out my own experience. And what I found is I've worked in a toxic culture that was, I think, by the very definition of what toxic is, and it had a high level of attrition. And you know, I think for anyone who came, there was I won't say general sense of agreement, because I do know people who still work in that environment. And apparently things have changed for the better, which is really, really great to hear. But I've worked in other environments where I just didn't really fit in. And that is to say, like, it's not that it's a toxic environment for everyone. But I found it a toxic environment for me, because I wasn't, I didn't feel like I fit in in that environment, it wasn't the right environment for me, and therefore, it wasn't necessarily generically toxic. So I wanted to make that distinction. And I'm sure in your career history, you've had experiences of at least one of those, if not both of those, like myself. So back to this topic of toxic culture. And the title of one of the first articles that I want to reference is to do with the top five predictors of attrition. So this company looked at hundreds and hundreds of companies, it's US based, but I'm sure it's applicable in other areas as well. And they found that toxic culture is 10 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation. And I know oftentimes, when it comes to retaining staff, and when it comes to hiring staff, we focus we put a huge amount of the focus on the pay and the compensation that someone is going to get. But this shows that actually, pay is not necessarily a contributing factor to people leaving the organisation. And in fact, it's, it's 10 times more likely to be a toxic culture that drives people to leave. Now, the other in those top five, number two was job insecurity and reorganisation. Number three was high levels of innovation. Number four was failure to recognise performance. And that's something I see an awful lot and I see people talking about quite a lot as well is that they feel undervalued. And they feel like they, they, they're not really sure of the contribution that they're making. And they feel like they deserve more essentially. And then number five was the poor response to COVID-19. And I definitely have seen that out there as well, where organisations handled quite badly that they there was no communication or the communication was a bit too upbeat. They were trying to keep things really positive when things weren't necessarily positive. When it comes to toxic culture then, what this research found were some of the things that were key signs of what a toxic culture actually is. And so the number one was feeling disrespected or being disrespected at work. And I liked some of the words that were used to describe these scenario. So one of the words I picked out in relation to feeling disrespected, was soul crushing. So when you go into work, and you just feel like your soul is being crushed, and the whole experience of going into work or going into work now not necessarily in an office anymore, but that the experience feels soul crushing. The second one then is failure to promote D, E and I and so that was the kind of didn't necessarily have the biggest impact. But actually, it had the highest number of incidences, because just the sheer number and I'll run through the list of the different types of non inclusive toxic environment is LGBTQ inequity, disability inequity, racial inequity, age, inequity, gender inequity, cronyism and nepotism and general non inclusive culture and I can definitely relate to one or two of those myself. So gender inequity where you feel like, you know, for me as a woman, that I wasn't getting the same opportunities as men were getting, for example, cronyism and nepotism, where there's some sort of a favoritism, or, you know, too, you know, rather than watching oh, and then the general non occlusive culture, I've definitely been in that where there's kind of almost what I've seen anyways, and, and often them, so it's, it creates some sort of loss, and then there's the in crowd versus the out crowd. And whether that's, you know, that can be at different levels as well. So I know certainly for me, I've noticed it in organisations where you become a manager and you become the in crowd then and the employees center kind of the aircraft and the creators wheel or send them culture, I've seen it multiple times, personally, myself. And it has a huge impact on whether or not you perceive the organisation as being inclusive and or whether or not you perceive it as having a toxic environment as well. The third aspect, then, of the contributing factor, I suppose to toxic work culture is unethical behavior. So that's described as just general unethical behavior of dishonesty, or a lack of regulatory compliance. So that can be in an organisation where regulatory compliances is required. So it could be legal, or it could be something to do with banking, or the finance industry, something like that. And again, I loved one of the words that was used to describe unethical behavior. And it's just the simple word shady, but really, really describes it like when people behave in a shady way. It kind of captures everything about somewhere being unethical, and you can really understand how that contributes to it being a toxic environment. The fourth element then is being cutthroat. So that's backstabbing behavior and ruthless competition. So, again, for me, I have definitely witnessed this firsthand in organisations that I've worked in. And I'm a big believer, and again, you know, open for discussion on this. And I'd love to hear your thoughts, that they the way that we do performance management at the moment, it drives that sense of competition. So when people are forced into a distribution curve, based on the numbers that need to be in a certain box, rather than based on their performance, that we're forced into this distribution of performance, that drives this sense of competition, that people are more willing to stab each other in the back that they don't necessarily lend support to each other. So this creates a toxic culture, you know, so driving this sense of competition between employees so that they don't necessarily help each other, that you don't know who you can trust, that you you don't know, if you if someone else has your back, for example. And I think that I've definitely been in that situation as well. So and that's another contributing factor to this sense of a toxic culture. And number five then is abusive. So that's bullying, harassment and hostility in the workplace. And again, I have experienced that firsthand. And bullying as a topic that I would love to cover on the podcast in a future episode. If there's anything in particular you'd like to share in advance, if there's anything that you would like to cover, or for me to cover on the podcast, then do definitely reach out. And let me know about that. The other thing worth bearing in mind, when it comes to this issue of being able to retain talent is if you have a toxic culture, it's less likely that you're able to attract talent as well. So it's not just about retaining talent, it's being able to attract talent, and especially if you want to attract the right talent to your business, if you want to get the best talent out there. You need to create a culture that that is very welcoming and inclusive to people. The authors of this study also put forward some suggestions as a way to mitigate the impact of a toxic culture or to create a more welcoming environment and a less toxic culture. And so one of those suggestions was to create lateral opportunities for people. So oftentimes, we become very fixated with moving up the ladder. And you know, that it's, that's kind of what we want, we only want to move up. But I've seen this more and more happening in organisations where lateral opportunities become available. So it gives the opportunity to stretch you as an individual to gain additional skills that maybe you didn't have to look at other areas of a business and to become more familiar with it. And so if your ultimate goal is to progress up through the organisation, it's a really great way to familiarise yourself with the different aspects and the different departments in that organisation. So you know, if you're, if you're a leader and you have the option to provide those opportunities, that's definitely something worth considering. If you are, you know, if someone who is looking to move up the ladder, but the opportunities aren't there, definitely consider a lateral job opportunity if it becomes available for you. The second way to do that is providing remote working opportunities. And I spoke in a previous podcast episode about the difference between remote and hybrid. So I'm not sure do they explicitly mean remote working opportunities where people can basically work from anywhere? Or is it just that they want a more flexible approach to work, which I think, is a huge driver in attracting and retaining talent in this day and age. So the second one they put forward, like I say, was remote working opportunities. So to me, you know, is it explicitly that or is it not? The third aspect then is their social events, so bringing people together for big social events that are paid for by the company as well. And, you know, I think it's really great. And I think the future of work is that we'd be working fairly separately unless we need to be together in the same room. And that will be working asynchronously that we won't be necessarily working at the same time. But the only reason that we really need to come together is to foster this sense of teamwork and collaboration to get to know each other as humans, so that when it does come to work, that we have a kind of a face to the name that we have someone who we can relate to on a human level. And it's not just someone behind a screen, either. Those are the three suggestions put forward, I probably would have a few others myself in, you know, in relation to addressing the specific issues that were identified in relation to things like being disrespected. So, you know, from a leadership perspective at stamping out that type of behavior, essentially. So you know, are there are there ways to report who do you report it to and how do you go about reporting it? So any of those behaviors the abusive the cutthroat, the unethical behavior of feeling disrespected? And this, you know, trying to foster a better sense of inclusion and belonging at work as well. So collectively, how do we go about doing that?

I'd love to continue the conversation with you It definitely, when I'm recording these solo episodes, it very much feels like I'm speaking into the ether. So I would love to continue the conversation. If you've listened to today's podcast episode do get involved in the conversation across on social media. And best way to do that is connect with me either through Instagram or LinkedIn, you will find all of my social channels on the happier at work website, which is Feel free to connect with me on Instagram, which is also at or on LinkedIn where I am Aoife O'Brien and I really look forward to continuing the conversation with you there. That was another episode of the Happier at Work podcast. I'm so glad you tuned in today. If you enjoyed today's podcast, I would love to get your thoughts, head on over to social media to get involved in the conversation. If you enjoy the podcast, I would love if you could rate, review it or share it with a friend. If you want to know more about what I do or how I could help your business head on over to