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Toxic Work Culture – Ellen Degeneres Case Study

Why does work culture matter to you?

It’s so easy to get caught in the trap of the familiar.  Even in the pursuit of excellence things can slip.  We see it all the time with sexual harassment suits, micro-agressions, and off-hand comments from management that affect those they are responsible for.  Day after day the interactions between people and what is tolerated in the workplace builds something that can either take a business to the next level or tear it to the ground.  That “thing” is work culture.    

What is work culture?

Work culture is no different than any other culture…it’s the beliefs, ethics, and environment that a particular group of people create.  It’s the invisible force that affects all who enter it, for good or evil.  That culture expands and evolves as new people are brought in and are shaped by it.  

The tough part about culture, much like the wind, we can’t see it but we do experience it’s effects.  For business owners the effects can be stress levels, productivity, employee satisfaction, retention, and revenue fluctuations.  

Ellen Degeneres, unfortunately, gets to be the butt of this article.  While it’s a great life lesson in not putting people on a pedestal it’s also a great lesson in what NOT to do for your company culture.  Create a toxic culture and all the positive things you do will come crumbling down eventually.  This is assuming you actually are doing positive things instead of brown nosing celebrities and being an asshole to your lowly, unimportant, not good enough to look at you employees.  But I digress…

While we won’t be covering all of these in detail let’s jump into one of the most important things for a business owner, bottom line revenue. 

How Work Culture Affects Bottom Line Revenue?

If you have heard of Gary Vaynerchuck you’ve almost undoubtedly heard his quote…

“Cash is oxygen” – Gary Vee

While he is referring mostly to top-line revenue we can all agree running a profit positive balance sheet at the end of the year is kinda nice.  How does company culture affect that bottom line revenue?  Glad you asked…

25 percent of employees said that avoiding conflict led to sickness or absence from work, and nearly 10 percent reported that workplace conflict led to project failure. – CPP Inc (

Most businesses only make money when a product is delivered or a service is rendered.  Tough to do if an employee isn’t at work!  As you can see from the above stat conflict is a HUGE factor in the literal physical health of your employees (not to mention emotional health).  Now you can’t MAKE people get along and you can’t MAKE people feel safe but you CAN provide the space and environment where bringing up the inevitable interpersonal clash is welcomed and handled with care.  

Happy employees take fewer sick days. This lower employee absenteeism translates to increased output for the company.  (

I can only speak for myself when I say that employee absenteeism is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to company output.  How motivated they are to work while they are there is also incredibly important.  A happiness culture matters.  

“Corporate culture is, above all, the most important factor in driving innovation,”-

 Rajesh Chandy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and a charter member of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Advisory Committee (

Innovation is what took us from having candles to lightbulbs, horses to Model T’s, and Model T’s to airplanes.  Nothing quite like innovation launches companies into a positive future and nothing quite like a great company culture enables innovation.  If your a business owner concerned about the future of your company your culture TODAY matters.  What is allowed to fester TODAY matters.  What is encouraged TODAY matters.  

What Does A Healthy Work Culture Look Like?

Here is a non-exhaustive list of indicators that you have a good company culture:

  • Leaders are visible and accessible

  • “People rarely succeed unless they are having fun in what they are doing.”– Dale Carnegie

  • Sense of job security (

What Does An Unhealthy Work Culture Look Like?


  • The 2019 Monster survey reported 51% of the respondents were bullied by a boss and 39% by co-workers.

  • Ellen’s employees said they were instructed by their direct managers to not speak to DeGeneres if they saw her around the office.

  • “I never felt like it was safe to go to my manager when I had issues — because this was the same person who would wait for me to go to the bathroom and then message me, asking me where I was and why I wasn’t at my desk,” one employee said.

How To Turn Your Work Culture Around

Maybe you just read through these two lists and finished with a hearty pat on your back.  Seriously, so happy for you and your employees.  Maybe you read through this list and realized you’re missing an element or two from the “healthy” list.  Don’t fret.  I really do believe people do the best they can.  Armed with this knowledge you can begin to turn things around and have a new “best”.  

You CAN have a great company culture.  

You CAN have happy employees.  

You CAN have high productivity and employee engagement.  

You CAN have a place where employees feel free to innovate.  

You CAN have a business where people feel comfortable, heard, and cared for. 

Here is how you can turn things around:

  • Communicate transparently

  • Treat all employees by the same rules

  • Share a plan on how the culture will change and show tangible results

  • Accept responsibility (

In conclusion

They say that it will get worse before it gets better (I don’t know who “they” are but their right) .  You might have to air out some dirty laundry to reset your workplace culture.  Conflicts that have been long swept under the rug will come out.  People may have to get fired.  Maybe you have purposely or naturally built a terrific workplace culture and this was a great brush up.  Either way it’s important to look at work culture as a long term strategy, built day by day, that can create a place of innovation, safety, and quality output.

Start now.

-Steven Burkhart