I have had the unfortunate experience of working in toxic work environments. InHerSight had a fantastic blog on the subject where they define a toxic work environment, which they called a toxic workplace, as “one that negatively affects your well-being, causing you stress, anxiety, worry.” The blog also gives some amazing statistics and points on how to identify if your workplace is toxic, so I definitely recommend it if you would like to read more on the subject.
As to my own experiences, I cannot say that I have worked at many positive spaces. My first job ever was a serving job at a Denny’s where the manager most likely only hired me because of a friend to recommended me and the fact that I am Dominican and Puerto Rican. The manager had a bit of a “Latin fetish” according to the friend who got me the job. Unfortunately, the manager didn’t have much of a note taking fetish because they wrote down that I was free on Fridays while I was still taking morning classes. So me calling out every Friday for 3 months straight was a serious problem and I got a lovely call from my friend to come pick up my last check because I was fired. It was an educational experience and if nothing else, I certainly became a bit more assertive in terms of my availability in the jobs I had after the fact. I do not think I have to explain too much about how uncomfortable it is to be fetishized for your culture or language. Beyond that, the service industry is notorious for its toxicity, although I commend the servers who were my coworkers for that very short stint for their optimism, forced or not, and ambition. I am ashamed at the fact that it took those 3 months to open my eyes to the abuse that goes on whether people want to label it as such or not.
On a positive note, my second and briefer position as an Office Assistant for a janitorial service at my university was possibly the happiest and most interesting job simply because of what I learned to do in such a short period of time and the level of respect and support I experienced on the job. That soured when I spoke to many coworkers after the fact and learned of their experiences, but it was a good reminder that one person’s heaven can be another person’s hell.
Job number 3 was a volunteer position at one of the oldest Native American organizations and here is honestly where it gets interesting. For being “Native-led”, the executive director was a white man with very obvious elitism, racism, and sexism that poured from him like an aura. He frequently interrupted women when they were explaining something, lorded over the fact that he was educated in law and worked with many Native people and organizations, on the rare occasion demean community colleges for not being 4-year institutions (usually during reviews of the scholarship applications the organization provided to Native students), and generally acted as the typical “white savior” who could do no wrong because his intentions were always good. Never mind that through him the organization was steadily bleeding money, the majority of the organization’s leadership turned a blind eye for a good while until about my second year volunteering. He, of course, saw the writing on the wall and found a better paying job working with another non-profit, and I send prayers to any youth or person of color who happens to be under his purview.
With his departure, in came another lawyer, this time a Native woman who gave me some semblance of hope for about 6 months before showing her true colors. I have never experienced the level of emotional and mental manipulation as I did while working for her and I regret every day that I did not leave sooner. I understand that people in leadership do so in different ways, I embrace the idea that different personalities bring about different leaders. What I did not expect was the amount of gaslighting, attack on my confidence and self-worth, public humiliation, and, strangely enough, ageism that I would endure. “I was young, I did not know the world, I was naive, I would understand better when I got to her age” were all regular comments that perhaps would not affect a normal individual, but I was still in my early 20s, still finding ways to cope with my depressive disorder and anxiety, and hearing that on a consistent basis wears on the soul, I promise you. It all came to a head during an annual meeting when I could not personally afford to pay the $275 credit charge for my hotel room since I mistakenly budgeted $250, and she thought it to be good form to berate me in front of my coworker and the hotel staff. The fact that I was being paid around $20,000 a year, still helping my mother pay bills to her house, while also living in a separate apartment? Yes, it actually is quite difficult to pull off that extra $25. My insomnia at that point was more severe than it had ever been, I was seeing my therapist on a weekly basis, and I had frequent panic attacks whenever I thought about spending money. So, after 4 years total of 2 very different, but equally terrible bosses, I called it quits and found a new job.
The year was 2016 and summer was finally cooling down, and I was a new woman. I found job with an encouraging and diverse staff. My supervisor, who could immediately tell he hired a very timid and abused individual, very early on told me that as long as I put in my 7.5 hours a day and kept a mostly normal timetable compared to his so there would always be support staff available, he did not care what I did with my day. I did not have to tell him when and where I was going to lunch, or when I would be coming back. I could prioritize my work as I saw fit because he trusted my judgement. His only expectation was communication, dedication, and honesty. I had it in spades. I flourished for a good year before everything went downhill.
A new CEO brought in terrible communication, almost a complete lack of transparency not only to staff, but also to members, the layoffs after a promise of job security were all bad enough. The sudden racist microaggressions, limiting of speech due to opportunistic coworkers playing at favorites, physical reorganization of staff that put me in an almost literal hole even after I disclosed my mental illness and the possibility of my work and health declining because of it, the hiring of more leadership that also loved to pour out racist microaggressions, including an interesting one about Latino people having families so big we don’t know everyone in them (really, this is a joke I do like to sometimes make but it’s never funny when your boss’s white boss decides say it), the list honestly goes on. I had been planning my termination when my supervisor informed me that he already put in his 2 weeks notice because he was tired of working for a racist organization that had apparently been trying to get me fired for quite some time. It better explains the purpose of putting me in the hole, and I appreciate that I had him as an ally because he had been defending me for over a month. By the time I left, along with another coworker, over half the staff had either been terminated without being told why, quit because they could not stand the toxicity, or quit in solidarity. Your work folks shouldn’t be a work family, some say. I say, they must not have worked with the right people.
I wish I could say that I left that job for one that finally fit the bill. But I went into this newest Native organization knowing that the leadership was most likely racist and oppressive just from the interview (I later found out the leadership is not only anti-Black, but also homophobic. Yay!). The perks were that it was a work from home job and I wouldn’t be working closely with him. That does not mean I am immune to the toxicity. But I hope that my experiences can help me listen to the staff that do have to work in proximity with him, and that I can offer the right advice to them. I cannot say I do not feel a little cursed when it comes to toxic work environments. Good workplaces seem to be few and far in between. The InHerSight blog stated that “about one-fifth of American workers consider their work environment toxic,” so I know I am not alone in my job misadventures. I would just rather not make a career out of running from toxic people. My calves would thank me for it, but my mental health would hate me forever.
All this to say, if you are currently experiencing a toxic work environment, and you need to vent? I am here. I would love to hear from you if you are able to talk about it. My therapist was always saying it was important to share with others, and I was not alone in my pain. I want to let you know the same thing: you are not alone in your suffering, and you do not have to be. I gotchu.