Tech workers say leadership is mostly responsible for toxic work cultures

A recent survey of US tech workers in toxic environments found they were least likely to blame HR for the culture. Few, however, reported turning to HR for help.
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Hannah Minn

· 3 min read

US tech workers working in companies with toxic cultures are most likely to point to leadership and senior management as the driving force behind toxicity in the workplace, according to recent research.

Talent training company TalentLMS and CultureAmp, an employee experience platform, conducted a survey of 1,000 US full-time tech industry employees who reported working at companies with toxic work cultures. The organizations determined if respondents were working for companies with toxic cultures by asking a set of screening questions, according to Ana Casic, media relations manager with Epignosis, parent company for TalentLMS, via email. Those who responded that employees at their companies were “treated with disrespect, discrimination, and hostility at most times” were included in the survey.

Leadership sets the tone. Twenty percent of respondents said leadership and senior management was “mostly responsible” for creating a toxic culture at their company. The tech workers surveyed were least likely to blame HR for their toxic work culture, with just 14% pointing to this department, preceded by colleagues on their team (15%) and those on other teams (16%).

“There is a common belief that ‘people leave managers, not companies,’” said Joel Davies, a senior people scientist at Culture Amp, in a statement included in the report. He added his organization had “found perceptions of senior leadership tend to be more important for employee engagement and commitment than perceptions of one’s direct manager.”

Few report to HR. Even though HR is considered the least likely culprit for causing a toxic culture, according to this survey, few workers reported turning to HR for help.

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When asked how they respond to toxic behaviors or situations at work, 29% of respondents said they don’t do or say anything, because they don’t believe it will make a difference. Only 18% of workers said they respond by talking to HR.

A second piece of recent research points to challenges HR itself faces in trusting company leadership. Sixty-eight percent of HR professionals view their CEO as empathetic, according to a February survey of more than 1,000 employees conducted by benefits technology firm Businessolver. That’s down 16 percentage points from 2022. A majority of HR professionals surveyed (61%) also said they’d experienced a mental health issue in the past year.

Together, the studies suggest HR can play a bigger role in facilitating discussions with employees who are struggling in a toxic workplace—but these professionals may also be having a hard time themselves.

Layoffs aren’t helping. Forty-five percent of employees agreed that recent layoffs in the tech industry “have intensified a climate of toxicity in tech companies,” according to the TalentLMS report.

The tech industry has been hit particularly hard by layoffs, with more than 300,000 workers losing their jobs during 2022 and 2023 so far, according to tracking by Though tech workers enjoyed a considerable degree of flexibility in their jobs during the first years of the pandemic, executives have more recently started to call workers back into the office, as well as to emphasize productivity and efficiency.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

News built to help HR pros grow their impact & improve the future of work.