Signs of a problem workplace

I have written frequently about problem workplaces, but have not discussed the important fact that most of these started out as desirable places to work. In fact, almost all of the companies I worked for were, or had been at one time, a fantastic place to build a career.

From what I observed, some of the problem workplaces I encountered actually provided stimulating and rewarding work environments before their decline occurred and there were common patterns in almost every decline.

Even the best working environments can become unhealthy if the corporate culture sickens and dies after repeated attacks from within. If management does not realize what a treasure they have in their corporate culture, they may stand idly by while new executives uproot and destroy it.  Some executives may not even recognize the power of the
corporate culture, perhaps because they had little part in creating it.

The corporate culture is the informal agreement on how the company is being run.

Ask any sociologist what happens when you mess with the mores and folkways of a group. (cue the disaster music…)

The corporate culture is created by the combined actions of the
employees and executives during the early life of the company.    The
rituals and values that are created through the struggles of early
company life are a powerful bond that ensures cooperation and mutual
support. They facilitate communication of necessary information upwards
and downwards throughout the organization.

The fast growth of some companies brings new managers on
board who know little of these rituals and their importance. When these
values are unknown or ignored by these second generation managers, the
workforce is given notice that they no longer have a voice in company

These new, second generation, management people are often drawn from
large corporations with feudal corporate cultures. They bring their
"efficiency-based" culture with them and make little attempt to
understand or make use of the culture which has made the company

They are often better at playing politics than the original staff,
so they rise to positions where they can do real damage to the
corporation they were brought in to assist.

They may be sincere and dedicated, but the harder they work to
organize and staticise things, and reduce every activity to numbers,
the closer they come to killing off the original company culture.

Eventually they transform the company into a soulless industrial machine and everything is perfect!

At this point, the most capable employees have long since been seeking positions elsewhere.

If the original management does not recover its senses and take
steps to restore some of the early corporate culture, the company
becomes one of the problem workplaces I have described elsewhere.

If you have worked for a company that went through this transformation, I’d be interested in your comments.

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0 Responses to Signs of a problem workplace

  1. Linda says:

    I’m working hard to get away from a company undergoing the nightmare transformation you describe: Carly Fiorina began a cultural transformation when she took the position of CEO for Hewlett Packard in late 1999/early 2000, but really kicked it into overdrive after company co-founder Bill Hewlett died in January, 2001. In the case of HP, there is no one left, really, from the original corporate structure, who can reign her megalomania in.

    It’s a pity, really. The brain drain HP is experiencing, and will continue to experience, is considerable.

  2. fletch says:

    I don’t want to name the company, but what you’ve described is exactly what has happened in my early work experience. Although a NYSE major corporation, it was still basically owned by one family who set the corporate culture. The older generation died off, and the younger generation, enormously rich by inheritance, didn’t want to deal with things like corporate culture and day to day business. Go getter executives were brought in, who at first made the company look good on paper and the stock shot up. But after time, the company began to be targets of criminal investigations, and even 60 Minutes did a segment on the horror stories. The company is a shadow of its former self, with minimal stock value, and more importantly, thousands of lives affected negatively, both the customers and employees. The new management was eventually forced out, having looted the company of millions in executive compensation. It’s interesting that so many Fortune 100 companies have had strong families lead them to that top bracket, only to disintegrate when the family has no heirs or lose interest.

  3. CedarFever says:


    In my previous job, I worked for an innovative subsidiary which had a respected brand name within the industry. Its parent company at one time had a good reputation as well and its success brought about rapid expansion. When poor management by the parent caused an avalanche of serious mistakes (major gaffes like missing entire design cycles), it was our profitable little subsidiary that in large part kept the company afloat. As layoff upon layoff began rolling through the corporation and other subsidiaries were sold off, members of the parent company’s management team on the West Coast soon began a campaign of staking out territory in the subsidiary I worked for, marginalizing the local managers by pushing them into dead-end positions or seeing to it that they were let go. My manager, a very talented man who knew how to lead, was one of those affected by this purge and he eventually left in disgust. Dealing with members of the newly arrived team, it was easy to see why the the parent company had faultered. The influx of new management brought with it a culture far different than what it replaced. I could see what was in my future there and decided to get out while the getting was good. Many of the creative people who left during the purge and subsequent brain-drain started new companies with their expertise – some of these companies are wildly successful today. Meanwhile, the parent company is a mere shadow of its former self.

  4. SirElric says:

    I have experienced this cycle myself at three seperate companies. One of the foundational components that was a part of the 3 cultures when they were healthy was the unwrittin agreement that as long as you did a good to great job you would be employed. Most of the current crop of executives that come in and take over destroy this pillar very quickly. It is not changing the agreement that is the problem, it is the speed and method used. A culture can be changed and moved in a new direction but not as quickly as Boards and CEO’s want.

    Companies that once desired to be successful are now run by people that define success strictly in $ terms and unbridled greed has taken over the top rungs of to many companies.

  5. AProgrammer says:

    I’m currently working at a company that seems to fit the general model described here. Specifics will vary between companies, but the generality of a decline brought about by the problem workplace is still valid.

    I believe that there are several different causes that can bring about the effect of a problem workplace. Perhaps, the combination of two or more of these causes is required. Varioius previous posters have mentioned some of the causes:

    1 Corporate Greed
    2 Extreme management myopia
    3 Radical change to corporate culture
    4 Offshoring
    5 Accelerated pace of change

    At my place of employment, I can see (2) and (3) in action.

    The extreme management myopia comes about because the upper managers are given assignments that last a max. of two years. During that two year period, the managers have to bring about the inevitable re-org (and layoffs), accomplish their goals, and plan for moving on to their next assignment.

    The result is continuous uncertainty and confusion over what the ordinary employee is to be actually doing, as well as extreme career manipulation by the mid-level managers: they want to be in the best position when the next re-org happens.

  6. Susan says:


    Can anyone comment or give me some tips on the workplace culture at NYSE?

    I just received an IT PM offer from them and would love to hear something about their culture. I couldnt find any info. anywhere else on the internet.

    Thanks in advance

  7. Susan.

    Google is a great place to start. Employees are blogging about unsatisfactory work conditions, just as consumers are blogging about customer service problems.

    Try Googling “workplace culture NYSE”.

    I did and got several responses including this fascinating report at on the workplace culture at Goldman Sachs. You can become a Vault Gold member and get extended reports which have three times the information in the snapshot report.
    TITLE: Happiness
    BLOG NAME: My kids’ Dad
    DATE: 02/10/2005 01:23:52 AM
    Carly Fiorina is gone and Linda is relieved.
    TITLE: You aren’t standing still (you’re going backwards)
    BLOG NAME: writelife
    DATE: 01/19/2005 01:41:05 PM
    I was reading David’s post Signs of a problem workplace on his Ripples blog and it got me thinking about companies and how they work. (Or, in some cases, don’t work.) We seem to have an ironic quality built into

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