Relay Payments’ Chief People Officer Talks Toxic Work Cultures

Gold man in toxic work culture

MP recently caught up with Amy Zimmerman, Chief People Officer at Relay Payments, a venture-backed fintech company focused on building an electronic payment network in the transportation, logistics, and supply chain industries.

MP: What are some of the things that define a work culture?

AZ: A work culture is defined by its values, language, and behaviors. That’s why intentionality, transparency, and consistency are so critical. And, of course, it’s PEOPLE. You’ve got to hire people that share your values, or they’ll derail your culture. Your culture is the catalyst for how work gets done, so you must hire people that align.

What is toxic work culture, and why does it matter?

Toxic work culture is one riddled with politics and infighting; it matters because this ultimately creates unhappy team members and affects their productivity and overall well-being.

What are the five most common manifestations of cultural toxicity in startups?

  1. Low morale
  2. Turnover
  3. Fear
  4. Favoritism / politics / inequities
  5. Policy over people

How can entrepreneurs determine whether the work culture they’ve created is toxic? 

If your culture is toxic, it’s probably obvious to most. Morale will be low, turnover will be high, and there will be a whole lot of finger-pointing and blame. To identify the root cause – you must do some serious thinking. You should talk to different team members to learn various perspectives, and you must commit to being vulnerable. If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to be honest with you. Partner with your people leader if you have one on the best approach for your company and the issues you’re trying to address and eliminate. If creating a healthy work culture is a priority, it’s got to be done intentionally. You’ve got to acknowledge what’s broken and commit to fixing it. If people aren’t entirely comfortable sharing feedback, conduct an anonymous engagement survey. I’ve found that people are brutally honest when their name isn’t attached to their feedback. But if you aren’t willing to address the feedback, don’t waste your time or theirs.

What should entrepreneurs do if they discover that the work culture in their startup is toxic? 

Investigate the root cause. If you don’t know how to do that, bring someone in who can help. Toxic cultures can be a company killer! Root it out like the business depends on it. Once identified and addressed, go back to basics. Do you have strong values identified that you live by? If not, start there. If so, your next step is to evaluate your hiring process. Hiring the wrong people can indeed create toxicity. Create a scorecard where your values and success criteria are non-negotiable. What about your other people’s programs – recognition, performance, career pathing, promotion, etc. Are they defined and consistent? Are they tied to your values? If your values are a shared language, they should show up everywhere and foundationally drive all these programs. 

How can entrepreneurs change the toxic culture in their startups without conflict?

They must start with identifying and then eliminating it. But to expect a significant change without creating some conflict may be naive and unreasonable. On the other hand, if you’re clear and transparent about your intentions, the conflict likely won’t spook anyone. On the contrary, they’ll appreciate it because no one enjoys a toxic culture except the troublemakers who created it.

What’s the relationship between different leadership styles and cultural toxicity in a startup?

Your values should determine leadership style. As they are the shared language, leaders should be hired only when their style aligns with your company’s values. When there’s a disconnect, that’s when toxicity can creep in and take hold. Invest in your foundation and guard it like you would anything else that was important to you. Allowing the wrong leadership style can be a culture killer.