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Big problem - why half of tech workers are planning to quit their job due to toxic workplace culture

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett May 18, 2023
Toxicity in tech is being exacerbated by rising job losses.

Christiana Gialleli
Christiana Gialleli

Since the start of 2022, more than 1,700 tech companies have laid off staff, leading to over 350,000 people losing their jobs. As well as the impact on the individuals being let go, this current trend is intensifying a climate of toxicity in technology companies.

That’s according to research from TalentLMS and Culture Amp, which found that 45% of employees working in tech firms with a toxic culture said the layoffs have resulted in a worse atmosphere at work. Of the 1,000 tech workers surveyed, 45% are planning to quit their job because of this toxicity.

According to Christina Gialleli, Director of People Operations at TalentLMS parent company Epignosis, as tech job losses increase, so does the pressure:

We're going through difficult times here. I don’t think most companies have completed their layoffs. We're still in turmoil, and we get to see the outcome of this in this pressure.

When it comes to who is responsible for creating a toxic culture at their workplace, 55% said leadership and managers, while 31% said colleagues. The top three contributing factors are expecting employees to work longer hours or weekends without additional pay; a lack of transparency and communication from management and leadership; and a lack of consideration and courtesy.

The combination of pressure from leadership and senior management, companies not wanting to hinder productivity, and people not speaking up because they're afraid of the consequences are all leading to this worsening atmosphere at tech companies. Gialleli says:

If the employees are being pitted against each other, if the companies are promoting unhealthy competition, if toxicity is tolerated rather than sacrificing the high performer who’s toxic, that's going to spread to the team. And a toxic team is going to be toxic to other teams and it will cascade down and escalate, and then your people end up leaving.

This latter point is borne out by the almost half of staff planning to quit their current job, a situation that could cause difficulties among tech companies being complacent about employee retention during a period of industry job losses.

Attitude problem

There’s a danger companies are taking the view that with so many tech workers available, it doesn't matter how they treat staff because they can just be replaced if they leave. However, the tech sector is still in the midst of talent shortages, meaning companies need to take measures now to address the toxicity and retain their best people. Gialleli says:

The tech sector was struggling [with skills shortages] for so many years and now it’s seeing talent becoming available again, but this is going to be short term. You have to have a zero tolerance policy. You need to make your leadership team accountable for addressing it.

Workplace training in areas like DEI, empathy and discrimination can help in fostering a positive and healthy work environment. Firms need to ensure employees understand how to behave and work within their teams, and how to address issues when they arise, whether it’s regarding a colleague, their manager or manager's manager. Gialleli adds:

You need to create a transparent environment where people are not afraid to speak up, know what to expect, how to behave, how to address situations, and know that the company is going to do something about it.

This isn’t the case presently. Half of employees don't do or say anything when they experience toxic behaviours at work - 29% because they don't believe it will make a difference and 20% because they’re too nervous about the consequences. Meanwhile, 45% of employees say that leadership at their organization lives in a bubble that company culture is healthy. 

According to Gialleli, buy-in from the CEO is vital to deal with these issues, although HR has a role to play too:

The HR teams are facilitators, they can roll out surveys to figure out and pinpoint the issues, and then they can address and create in collaboration with managers and the leadership team the appropriate training that will help rectify the problems. But this is all top down.

Almost half of workers currently believe their companies will remain toxic in the future, which brings risks for their employers:

People are affected by working at a toxic environment. It affects their productivity, it affects their mental health, and ultimately people that are unhappy are going to leave. The bottom line is retention and productivity and being able to have performing teams. That's what you're going to have if you address it and you have everything to lose if you don't.

Good people are not going to stay in a toxic environment. Companies may be able to fill their hiring quota, but it costs to replace people, it costs to train them and to find good people. Maybe it's easier than it was a year ago, but you still need to lay the foundations and make sure your people are happy and productive.”

My take
The findings of TalentLMS’ research seem at odds with the increasing focus on diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) at so many tech companies. According to the 2022 KPMG DEI Progress Survey, 71% of firms reported having taken many DEI-related actions since 2020. Surely a core element of any DEI efforts would be creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all – the opposite of a toxic culture.

While the tech sector is clearly focused on surviving the current hard times - hence the huge raft of job losses and more pressured environment for staff - this short-termism will backfire when the economy picks up again. Those 55% of tech staff working in a toxic culture but not planning to quit their job are much less likely to hang around once stability returns and vacancies rise.  


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