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How to Recognize — and Survive — a Toxic Workplace

May 31, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

Regardless of where you are in your career, you can find yourself stranded in a toxic workplace. Luckily, there’s a way out (or at the very least, through). We talked to professional women who were eager to share what they’ve learned to save you from the same suffering. We also talked to experts to help you know what to look for, how to proceed with caution and, if necessary, how to go about moving on with grace.

In my mid-20s, a psychic confirmed what I already knew about the office environment where I’d been toiling for six hellish months. “You’ve got to get out of there,” she warned. To be clear, it was my boss who had insisted I make an appointment with the psychic in the first place. The workplace culture where I worked was seriously twisted. Each night, we were handed takeout menus with the underlying message: Honey, your workday is just getting started! Brainwashed that it was blasphemous to have a life outside of work, I canceled my newlywed beach vacation. And did I mention the colleague who was hired as a peer but wormed her way into a position overseeing me? She and my boss liked to whisper together like conniving seventh-grade girls in the school cafeteria, a conspiracy the psychic picked up on right away. You can’t make this stuff up.

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“Toxicity in the workplace comes in all shapes and sizes,” says Pete Havel, author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing your Life against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures. Anyone can have a bad day at work, or even a string of them, but when those bad days are the norm and the behavior is over the top or intentionally ugly, that’s when you know it’s toxic.

Toxic Red Flag #1: Something feels off in the interview.

Looking back, Roxanne, 34, could have prevented the hands-down worst experience of her life. “I should have listened to my gut during the interview and never taken the job,” she says. The owner of the IT company where she was applying as an executive assistant was going through a divorce. During the interview, he bad-mouthed his ex-wife in technicolor detail. “It was awful,” she says. Within weeks of starting the job, the ex-bashing got worse, and a new stomach-churning pattern emerged. Each week, she heard screaming coming from her boss’s office as he chewed out yet another coworker. Then he’d summon the remaining employees for a smoke break and proceed to trash — and threaten to — fire whichever colleague he’d just reamed. “I knew it was going to be me next,” says Roxanne, who vacillated between screaming and crying during her drive home. Four months in, she went on antidepressants. Then came the ultimate public humiliation: her boss smiled as he read aloud to her coworkers her annual review, 1s on a scale of 5. “I had never received a bad review in my life, so it was a huge gut punch,” she says. A few weeks later, to his shock, she handed him her resignation.

What you can do: Do your due diligence.

Even if toxicity doesn’t blatantly barge into your interview, sniff out if something is up. “Just as much as they’re interviewing you, you should be interviewing them,” says Froswa Booker-Drew, Ph.D., author of Rules of Engagement. Ask how many people have been in the position you’re interviewing for, how long they’ve stayed, and why they left. Write down the questions they’re asking you so you can get clues into the culture. Do they harp on whether you work well with difficult people or use cryptic language, like the “special challenges” they say you will face on the job, without providing details? Follow the company on social media, Google it along with keywords like “lawsuit,” “culture,” and “harassment,” read reviews on Glassdoor (keeping in mind that some may be made up — Roxanne’s evil boss forced the employees to craft 5-star reviews), and connect with current employees on LinkedIn to get a window into what it’s like to actually work there.

If concerns creep in, don’t brush them off. “People should be optimistic, but they also should be realistic,” says Havel. “If there are red flags popping up, the last thing you should do is walk into a toxic job.” Take my own experience. My future boss requested that I complete a sample project over a holiday weekend so she could evaluate my work, camouflaging it with a sugary-sweet apology. I should have looked at the facts: If she expected me to work long hours over a holiday weekend as an applicant, what would she want from me once I was on her payroll?  

Toxic Red Flag #2: Your boundaries are being crossed.

Alexandra, 25, was a new hire as content manager for a startup app when her boss started asking personal questions about who she was dating and if she could see photographs. Alexandra felt uncomfortable but went along with the chummy conversation. But her boss grew increasingly bold. First, she chided Alexandra for not sleeping around. Then, at a work function, she pointed out a “hot guy” and said, “Alexandra, you have to fuck him.” Eventually, the boss told Alexandra that the boss’s husband was attracted to her. “I felt grossed out and harassed,” says Alexandra. “All I wanted to do was work, but inappropriate conversation was being forced into the workplace.” Boundaries are a slippery slope, as Alexandra discovered. Once her boss felt entitled to insert herself into Alexandra’s love life, she assumed free reign over Alexandra’s personal life, too. When she was on the way home from a weekend trip to visit friends, her boss called her, upset that Alexandra hadn’t submitted an assignment over the weekend. So, Alexandra pulled over on the side of the road and, using data on her cell, completed the task. “I was at her beck and call,” she says. “If I could do it over again, I would have had stricter boundaries from the get go to make sure my work life was separate from my personal life.”

What you can do: Set up your house rules.

“When you’re unclear on your non-negotiables, it’s easy to get into confusing situations and allow others to push your limits,” says Booker-Drew. What kind of dialogue, work hours and projects are off limits? If you’re solid in what you won’t tolerate, then if a boundary is crossed, you’ll have the confidence right away to address the situation. “Start with a conversation and follow up with an email to reiterate the points you covered in the conversation,” says Brooker-Drew. Maintain a paper trail so you can keep track of what’s going on. “Document everything, because if the situation escalates and either HR or legal action needs to be taken, you will be thankful that you have notes,” says Jennifer Brick, founder of Capdeca Solutions, a career coaching company. One mistake to avoid: explaining away a transgression as unintentional or harmless. Once you allow a boundary to be crossed without consequence, you give a green light to coworkers to push your boundaries further and further out.

Toxic Red Flag #3: You feel like you’re on the losing side.

When Tina, 23, started in her retail job, she and her coworkers would go out for beers after closing shop or ride public transportation home together. Tina relished the camaraderie. But after a few months, a weird vibe took over the office when one of her coworkers, who had always been flirtatious with the male managers, started gaining preferential treatment. “At first, it was just annoying,” says Tina. “Then it became a real problem.” The employee straight-up refused to do work that she didn’t want to do, forcing everyone else to pick up the slack, and she faced zero repercussions. Being on the opposite side of favoritism made Tina question herself. “I felt inadequate every day,” she says, “like I was an imposter.” It wasn’t until Tina stopped stewing in silence and started talking to other coworkers about the issue that she realized everyone felt the same way. They pieced together clues and uncovered the fact that the flirty colleague had actually begun to date one of the managers. Once Tina and her colleagues tipped off the other managers, the social-climbing coworker and shady manager were fired, and the workplace dynamic did a complete 180.

What you can do: Reach out to allies.

When you’re dealing with a toxic environment, your knee-jerk reaction might be to hide under a rock just to survive each day. But the best thing you can do is set up a support system you can trust. It’s smart to carefully reach out to colleagues, like Tina did, for perspective, reassurance, and problem-solving. And in the most toxic environments, you’ll need to align with others, Survivor-style, to safeguard yourself from sabotage. “If you are being targeted by someone else, you want to have other people on your side,” says Havel. In addition to self-preservation, networking beyond your toxic coworker can open doors to transfer to another division within the company or snag another job outside the company in the future. “Just because you all happen to work at the same place don’t forget everyone came from somewhere [else] and everyone is probably going somewhere [else],” says Jenny Maenpaa, founder of the therapy and coaching company Forward in Heels. Join an affinity group, participate in company community service days, invite someone from a different department out for coffee, or sign up for a sponsor or mentor. Extend your networking efforts outside of company walls, too. Connecting on LinkedIn or attending an industry event will empower you by showing you have options.

Toxic Red Flag #4: You dread seeing a certain someone.

Things got so heated at her job as a freelance creative director that Robin Gelfenbien, 47, was secretly flipping off her coworker under the conference room table during meetings. She boiled with anger because her colleague, whom she was supposed to be collaborating with, ignored her when she spoke, refused to reply to her emails, and acknowledged only her creative partner’s ideas in meetings. “He treated me as if I were invisible,” says Robin. When they traveled together to a client presentation, he left out the changes she had suggested, and then on the drive home, ignored her request to be dropped off first, making her miss her Passover Seder. That was Robin’s breaking point, when she decided to stoop to his level and return his silent treatment with her own. “I felt absolute hatred any time I crossed paths with him,” she says. “I was angry all the time and hated who I turned into.”

What you can do: Reframe your outlook.

“When they’re growing up, women are taught that we have to get along with everybody, be friends with everyone in your class,” says Brick. “Knowing that not everyone is going to like you and that’s okay will save you effort and hurt long term.” Even if you have always prided yourself on getting along with anyone, you have to let go of that expectation when you’re dealing with a toxic coworker. “Remember, so much of what someone does around you and how they interact with you actually has nothing to do with you,” says Maenpaa. So, focus on what you can control, like doing your best work, maintaining your integrity, and taking care of yourself. “You have to protect yourself mentally,” says Christine Scott-Hudson, a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, California. “No job is worth your health.” Show up to your exercise class, immerse yourself in an after-hours hobby or side hustle, keep up with your book club, and make social plans with non-work friends so you have an identity outside of what you do for a living.

Toxic Red Flag #5: You dream of escaping.

Felicia Enuha, 41, felt crushed in her job as a retail analyst each time her passive-aggressive boss made belittling comments like, “I told them when you interviewed I didn’t think you were right in this role” and “Maybe this job is too hard for you.” While Felicia worked her tail off to prove her competence, her boss continually raised the bar, setting her up to fail. “She would ask me to do one thing and then when I did it the way she asked, she would question why I didn’t do it another way,” she says. “I constantly felt like I was messing up.” Every day, Felicia called her best friend on the way to and from work for counsel and cried about the bullying. The only thing that got her through was knowing she had an escape plan. “I had already applied to business school and had a start date, and I knew I needed the money,” says Felicia, who now has a podcast to help black women survive corporate America.

What you can do: Carve out a solid plan B.

When you find yourself dwelling on what life would be like to not be in your current predicament, make a checklist of the things you are gaining by being in this job. Valuable experience? A key relationship? A lesson of what you don’t want in your next job? Actively follow job postings and figure out what skills you need to boost your resume for your next job, whether a leadership program or a public speaking gig, and then take those steps. As the cliché goes, the best time to look for a job is when you already have one, says Maenpaa. If you keep taking baby steps along the way, like making sure your resume and LinkedIn profile are up to date, then when the right job comes along, you’ll experience the thrill of dumping your toxic workplace.

*And now for the happily ever after: Thanks to what they learned the hard way, all of the women we spoke with are working in jobs they love.

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A freelance journalist for 23 years, Dana has published upwards of 500 articles in more than 40 national magazines, newspapers and websites including Redbook, Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, MORE, Marie Claire, O Magazine, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Prevention, Real Simple, Seventeen and The Wall Street Journal. Read more of Dana's posts.

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