Workplace culture: From HR headache to PR nightmare

At Ento HQ, as you may have noticed, we’ve taken a particular interest in company culture this year. And one thing we’ve noticed is that it’s not just us – in 2016, company culture, and the management thereof, seems to be a hot topic.

The Google Trends data for the phrase ‘company culture’ confirms this theory. In fact, April this year saw the biggest interest in the term in over 10 years.


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Google Trends data for the phrase ‘company culture’ from 2004 to now. Source:


On one hand, this is good news. We firmly believe that proactively building a positive, supportive culture is crucial to business success, and increased interest around the topic on Google suggests that, perhaps, businesses are finally taking that on board, en masse.

On the other hand, it seems like a significant part of that interest is based in schadenfreude, given the sheer volume of culture-related scandals that have gone viral this year.

Look at Zenefits. Or Colliers. Nest. Geelong City Council. San Francisco PD.

All it takes is for a story to go viral for a HR headache to turn into a PR nightmare.

That’s exactly what happened to leading recruitment agency Michael Page Australia just last week.

A Facebook post, written by an employee of a Mt Buller ski lodge, detailed troubling behaviour by Michael Page employees on a weekend ski trip. The post, which has now been shared upwards of 4000 times, contains a lot of the elements people love in a scandal – binge drinking, violence, verbal abuse. (You can read the full post here.)

The post went viral on Facebook quickly, with people outraged by the story taking to the Michael Page Australia Facebook page to register their disgust. A number of mainstream news outlets picked up the story by Monday. Michael Page made an official statement the same day, but by then, the damage had been done.

It’s an unenviable position to be in – the story comes up multiple times on the first page of Google when you search for ‘Michael Page’, and their Facebook page is still littered with negative comments from the public. Ultimately, by letting a toxic workplace culture breed, the company has done lasting damage to their brand.

While each ‘toxic culture’ scandal that has gone viral this year is unique in its own way, there are a few common themes that seem to crop up more than others. After all, people love a good scandal, and what’s more scandalous than substance abuse, bullying and rampant sexism?

When a workplace finds itself with such a pervasive substance abuse, bullying or sexism problem that the internet collectively loses it, the chances are pretty high that a toxic culture is truly ingrained within that organisation, and things have been building to that point for some time.

Unfortunately, like so many things, a toxic culture can build so slowly and gradually that you may not realise the full magnitude of the problem until something drastic and damaging happens. However, there are attitudes and patterns that can act as a warning sign of future, truly problematics behaviours.

Dysfunctional relationships

When we talk about dysfunctional relationships in the workplace, we’re talking about a wide array of behaviours, any one of which may be in play in your own workplace. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Cliquishness and exclusionary behaviour
  • Favouritism
  • Holding of grudges
  • Sabotage attempts
  • Backstabbing
  • Pitting coworkers against each other

If it’s behaviour more befitting school kids than adults in a professional setting, then it can probably safely be deemed as dysfunctional. This kind of behaviour sets the stage for bullying, harassment and abuse in the future.

Consistently high stress levels

Periods of high stress are pretty standard in any job, but when it’s constant and unyielding, it becomes a problem.

A workplace that blindly accepts unrelenting high stress levels is a workplace that is tacitly stating that the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees is not a priority. That kind of disregard for employees can lead to low morale, physical and mental illness, and deteriorating relationships between staff.

High turnover

This one’s a no-brainer – when people feel uncomfortable, threatened or harassed at work, and don’t feel they have appropriate recourse available to them, they’re likely to jump ship.

Unless you have solid offboarding procedures in place, and a way to find out why your employees are leaving in droves, you’re unlikely to be able to do anything to remedy the situation. As the cycle continues, you risk being left with only the people who are openly and actively contributing to your culture problems.

No one wants to be at the centre of the next viral story about toxic workplace culture. However, given the immediacy and reach of social media, it’s all too easy for someone to air their grievances online, and for a business to take a hit to their reputation because of that.

And ultimately, that’s what we can learn from Michael Page and their ilk – it’s a lot easier to stop a toxic culture from taking hold than it is to repair the damage it can do to your reputation. If you’re starting to see any of the above warning signs of a toxic culture in your own business, it’s time to act.

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