The toxic 'cut-throat' culture that drives out workers

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Many employees thrive in high-pressure work environments. But ruthless cultures can poison the well, eroding wellbeing and ultimately driving out workers.

When Anthony was called into a meeting room at work, he expected the worst. Following a market downturn, lay-offs at his Hong Kong firm were imminent; the investment banker was aware his job was at risk. “Cuts were coming, but no one was sure if their job was on the line – it was a secret management kept from us.” 

In the company’s cut-throat environment, this kind of secrecy was par for the course. In Anthony’s line of work, firms vied with one another for the highest-paying clients. Rivalry spilled over among internal teams. Employees were made to fight for their futures; every year, the bottom 10% of performers would automatically face the sack. 

Finally, Anthony’s boss delivered the news. “We were told everyone in our meeting room would be staying – everyone else on the floor would be fired. Desks were cleared, people were marched out and then placed on gardening leave. I never saw them again.” 

For Anthony, this kind of workplace culture meant he had to become ruthless if he wanted to keep his job. “Competition permeated the whole firm,” he adds. “You survive long term if you’re political, prepared to put in insane hours and not make enemies of certain people. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. It breeds chest-beating, Spartan-like behaviour: ‘I work longer hours than you’. You either fight and work harder than the next man, or you’re quickly out the door. It can be absolutely brutal.” 

While a degree of healthy competition in a company can be beneficial, a ruthless, cut-throat environment seems to poison workplaces. In fact, an analysis of 1.4 million reviews written by US employees on company-reviews website Glassdoor shows toxic workplace culture was the leading cause of resignations last year. One of the biggest factors in this toxicity was cut-throat culture: hyper-competitive work environments featuring continuous undermining from management and colleagues. 

Competition seems to be in the DNA of certain sectors, companies and even employees. Yet it’s clear companies need to do more to draw the line between rivalry that can be motivating, albeit high-pressured, versus toxic – or risk an exodus of unhappy staff. 

Defining cut-throat culture 

Cut-throat culture has been a fixture of workplaces for decades, particularly in professional services where only certain employees will ever climb to the top of the corporate ladder.

The attitude is to put everyone in the snake pit and see who climbs out – Anthony

Johnny C Taylor Jr, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), based in Washington, DC, says these kinds of workplace cultures breed internal competition between workers from day one. “In law firms, there are a large number of recruits with only a few ever making that coveted partner status. So, by definition, you have to do better than your colleagues if you want to make it.” 

These internal tensions are often further stoked by competition with rival businesses for the highest-paying clients. Taylor says this competitive corporate culture begins at the executive level, and cascades via middle management down to junior-level employees. “Cut-throat is where an organisation over-values competition to the point that their main focus is to beat another company. If you’re in the 100 top law firms, you’re naturally going to fight to remain there when you’re up against tens of thousands competing against you.” 

Cut-throat culture is often synonymous with toxic workplaces. The recent analysis of Glassdoor reviews by human capital insights firm CultureX, seen by BBC Worklife, shows mentions of “cut-throat” are often listed alongside problems like being unable to raise issues, speak freely or promote racial equity at work; abusive leadership, favouritism and negative feedback are also frequently cited. Phrases like “Darwinian”, “back-stabbing” and “two-faced” are used to describe cut-throat environments. 

According to the research, although mentions of “cut-throat” appeared in just 1% of 1.4 million reviews across 40 industries, use of the term had one of the biggest impacts on a company’s rating. “The most frequent criticism of an organisation will be compensation – but it has a mild effect on an employee’s overall review,” explains Charlie Sull, co-founder of CultureX, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. “Toxic culture, however, significantly tanks a Glassdoor rating. And ‘cut-throat’ is one of its biggest factors: it’s on the same level as unethical and exclusionary behaviour. It’s a very powerful driver of employee dissatisfaction.” 

Cut-throat environments put pressure on workers to outperform their colleagues - through long hours, constant networking and more (Credit: Getty)

Cut-throat environments put pressure on workers to outperform their colleagues - through long hours, constant networking and more (Credit: Getty)

Glassdoor data shows cut-throat culture appears across a wide variety of sectors, from Big Tech to aerospace and construction. There is also a higher prevalence in media and entertainment, as well industries that have more frontline employees, such as in retail and health. “Cut-throat culture can even exist in non-profits,” says Taylor. “It’s ultimately people-led: if management believes in winning by all means, then it becomes the corporate culture.”  

Age, gender and seniority play their part in determining cut-throat work environments. Taylor says firms with this kind of culture often have leadership that skews towards older white men, those who “understand the rules of the game”. Cut-throat firms can also have a lack of diversity at employee-level. Anthony describes his industry dominated by alpha males. “The attitude is to put everyone in the snake pit and see who climbs out,” he adds. “It’s a very aggressive, macho, male-dominated work environment.” 

For some, this competitive workplace culture can be an immediate turn-off. Angela says she quit her job at a major consulting firm in New York City after realising climbing the corporate ladder meant playing – and winning – at internal politics. “Everyone was gunning for promotion: it wasn’t the work you were doing, but who you knew that could vouch for you,” she explains. “I didn’t necessarily have those mentors and people vouching for me. As a recent graduate, I’d had a notion of meritocracy in the workplace – it was a big shock to me.” 

Can competitive companies change? 

While cut-throat culture seems to be a huge indicator of employee dissatisfaction, references to it seem to be declining, according to Glassdoor figures. Sull believes this is due to the rise of remote working; fewer face-to-face interactions have somewhat muted toxicity issues. 

“It’s one thing if your boss is mean to you on a virtual call, another if it’s done to your face,” he adds. “Our hypothesis is that cut-throat culture has been hibernating during Covid and hybrid work – it’s become less immediate.”

Competitive cultures can be deeply entrenched in companies - making change slow and hard (Credit: Getty)

Competitive cultures can be deeply entrenched in companies - making change slow and hard (Credit: Getty)

Yet it seems unlikely it’s going away. In a recent survey of more than 16,000 business leaders, across 650 global organisations, seen by BBC Worklife, CultureX found political connections influenced promotions more than collaboration. Respondents were also nearly as likely to say there were factions among their top teams as there was cohesion. It implies that cut-throat culture remains widespread. 

“Culture and toxicity are very obdurate forces,” says Sull. “They don’t change much unless they’re pushed very hard, or there’s a sudden shock like a major CEO-led culture change initiative. Even if the company wants to change, and knows how to, it’s a generally slow process that can take years in large organisations.” 

Across traditionally high-pressure and competitive industries, such as finance and law, however, there may be little appetite to overhaul the cut-throat environments that turn over huge profits, despite trends in other sectors towards building kinder workplaces. Many of the biggest firms are multinational institutions with decades-old working practices that have become baked in over time. Change, therefore, may be hard to come by. 

In these industries, Taylor suggests firms should implement “guardrails” to keep cut-throat culture in check, creating healthier competition. “There should be an agreement that no individual can win at the cost to their colleagues or organisation,” he says. “Management should establish what constitutes ethical or unethical behaviour – guiding principles that articulate a good work culture.” 

Without such measures in place, a win-at-all-costs mentality creates the kind of toxic environment that, ultimately, forces employees to quit. Although Anthony still works in finance, he says his cut-throat days are, thankfully, behind him.  

“It was always, ‘We’re the best bank because we do the best work, have the best price performance and raise the most money’,” he explains. “I became so wrapped up in the money and lifestyle of it all until I eventually hit a wall. I was a mess, snatching a bit of sleep at my desk at night, pulling all-nighters. I knew I couldn’t do it anymore: I quit.” 

Angela’s surname is being withheld for future career considerations; Anthony is using his middle name for job-security reasons