12 Most Lethal Ways to Kill Employee Morale

12 Most Lethal Ways to Kill Employee Morale

Recent research in organizational behavior suggests that there is a point at which salary stops mattering so much to workers and more intrinsic things like workplace culture begin to matter more. Even in minimum wage jobs, though, high turnover is rarely due to dissatisfaction in pay. Most people leaving minimum wage jobs are people seeking different minimum wage jobs. Why do they do this? Because the work environment is unbearable.

It doesn’t matter what kind of workforce you are trying to manage — whether it is a Fortune 500 sales force or a team of fry cooks at a local diner, the atmosphere you create for your team will likely determine whether they are a healthy, productive family or a bitterly resentful bunch just biding their time while concocting an exit strategy.

Leaders and managers of businesses large and small do so many things without realizing it that may adversely impact their workplace culture. Here are some things to avoid…

1. Offering poor training

No one really knows what they’re doing. You hire people and then expect them to jump right in. Then, when they inevitably make mistakes, you yell at them for doing it wrong.

2. Having unclear expectations

No one knows what they are expected to do. Therefore, the less ambitious appear lazy and the more ambitious rush into things and mess them up. And, even though they were never properly expressed, you criticize your team for not meeting your expectations.

3. Ignoring office politics

So what if Joe has a crush on Janice and George is jealous? That’s not your problem. Well, actually, it is. The resentment beneath the surface of your employees will come out in their work. Be involved in the social politics of your employees to an extent that you will recognize problems before they get out of hand.

4. Tolerating bad attitudes

Some of your employees are complaining about a certain person’s attitude, but you say you can’t do anything because that person hasn’t technically done anything wrong. Actually, yes, that person has done something wrong. She has upset her colleagues. And, if you don’t address the issue, everyone with a good attitude is going to leave.

5. Turning meetings into complaint sessions

Why do you have employee meetings? Do you spend all your time yelling at them and listening to them complain about how unfair their work is? Is it all just a big gripe session? Try making your meetings more about recognizing people for the good work they’ve done and discussing strategy going forward. Keep meetings constructive. If problems need addressing, address the individuals that have the problems.

6. Making extra-curricular work mandatory

If you force your employees to volunteer at a bake sale, put together an educational group presentation, or join a book club, they will see it as a chore. It won’t be fun. It won’t build camaraderie. It will just make workers more stressed and cranky. Make any extra-curricular activity you offer completely voluntary and, not only will people participate, but they will actually enjoy it.

7. Having no tangible ties to the company’s mission

If you want your people to actually believe your mission statement, bake it into their everyday tasks. For most companies, a mission statement is some abstract concept that never translates to reality with employees. When you establish rules with your employees, explain how they help fulfill your mission. That will make them feel like they’re working for a better reason than the fact that “the boss said so.”

8. Using threats to alter behavior

“If ____________ doesn’t change, you’re fired!” “The next person that does __________ is getting written up! No exceptions!” You know what your employees think when they hear you say stuff like this? You believe they are thinking, “Wow, I guess I had better straighten up.” In reality, they are thinking, “Well, I guess it’s time to look for a new job.” Your employees aren’t your slaves. They can leave at any time. If you want them to stay, offer incentives to alter their undesirable behavior instead of threats.

9. Having a confusing managerial structure

Do your employees know who their bosses are? Do they know who they’re supposed to report to? In some companies, employees don’t really know who has authority and who doesn’t. It can be confusing not knowing whether or not someone is a colleague, a boss, or even an underling. Make sure your employees know who leads them. Otherwise, there won’t be any leadership at all.

10. Incentivizing rivalry

While there are exceptions, most contests that pit individuals against other individuals are divisive. Either they don’t take it seriously and it doesn’t work or they take it too seriously and it causes resentment among members of the staff. Instead of giving out individual incentives, try giving out group incentives. That way, whether they reach their goal or not, they do it together.

11. Putting customers above employees

Obviously, there will be times when an employee says or does something to a customer that is out of line. But you shouldn’t be defending the customer all of the time. The customer isn’t always right. In fact, your employees should be your number one customers. Take care of your employees and your employees will take care of your customers. Never yell at an employee just to make a nasty customer feel better.

12. Building a culture of blame

Never focus on blame; focus on contribution. When there’s a problem, don’t put employees on the defensive. That only backs them into a corner and forces them to start blaming others on the staff. Chances are, there are always multiple people that have contributed to a problem. Focus on solving the problem together instead of finding out where to point the fingers.

As a manager or leader of a team, perhaps the easiest question to ask yourself is, “Would I want to work here?” If you would be among the first to leave, don’t be surprised by the revolving door in your hiring process. If you want good people to stay, create an environment in which they can function and thrive. Don’t kill their morale; feed it.

Featured image courtesy of schipulites licensed via Creative Commons.

Photo illustration work: Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN

Doug Rice


Douglas E. Rice is a marketer, writer, and researcher who blogs regularly. He is the author of The Curiosity Manifesto, a provocative guide to learning new things and keeping an open mind.

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Great list. My company is guilty of at least 8 of these. I would add tot he list: Gloating publicly about your own success and pointing out ways in which employees can change in order to be more like you. 


#13. Bring your Narcissistic Personality Disorder to work and subject your team of software salespeople to it.

#14. State that the reason you as a sales manager can fire your most productive, loyal and well behaved member of the team is because it's within your "manager's rights" and shouldn't be questioned.

As an individual-contributor, software salesperson, I witnessed this sociopathic behavior and took great pleasure in helping get that psycho fired. When the rest of us eventually left the company, we teamed up to prevent that jerk from getting back in.


Ahh mandatory fun...I just wrote a post about that myself. Mandatory fun is the most dreadful kinds of fun there is. It's an excellent way to build resentment though. I think the higher ups should stay out of the merry-making. Just give employees the freedom to create fun events. They will, they'll enjoy it and it will be actually fun.