Signs that you’re in a toxic work environment and how to deal with it

Just over one year after my mental breakdown, I resigned from my toxic work environment. It was August 2020 and even though I was fearing that I would not be able to sustain myself, I just couldn’t stay in a place where I was verbally abused, had to be on standby 24/7, bullied and manipulated. In recent conversations, we find bosses bullying their staff and using KPIs as a reason not to pay bonuses/increases.

In recent years, toxic work environments have become the norm, rather than the exception.

People who know me, know that I have become more stoic in my approach – If I cannot do anything about a subject matter, I don’t expose myself to it. For example, I don’t have any control over macroeconomic factors. I, therefore, don’t focus on it. This keeps me positive and afloat in my times of depression, anxiety and stress.

In this article, I want to help people identify and deal with toxic work environments by sharing lessons I’ve learned from my experiences – and from the professional help I have received.

Before we dig in, I want to say that it often happens you are just not a good fit for an environment. It might not be toxic for other people, but for you, it could be like being exposed to Chornobyl’s radioactive elephant foot. Therefore, be careful when labelling people as narcissists and psychopaths – it might just not be where you need to be!

What are the signs during the interview phase of a toxic environment?

During my initial interview, I was amazed at the technology, and proactive approach to their day-to-day business. Though difficult to identify, there were a few red flags that seeped into the interview that I missed. Here are some of my favourite red flags that I’ve come across:

  • Interviewers bad-mouth the person that you will be replacing
  • The hiring manager avoids or doesn’t answer your questions fully
  • Access to other staff members is blocked during the interview process
  • The interviewers don’t admit that the company has shortcomings or issues. To them, it’s one happy family
  • Conversations around success are cut-throat and dog-eats-dog
  • The clauses of your employment contract are not presented upfront. This can include a notice period of 3 months, 24/7 standby time and responsibilities
  • If the interviewer is not willing to listen to you when you answer questions
  • If you’re asked to do a large amount of free work/tests during the interview process without getting compensated for your time. This is especially true in IT and software development

The bait that interviewers use to entice you

During my interview, I told the CIO that taking on a new job is like getting married – you don’t just want to get into bed with anyone! For this reason, it is in the interest of everyone to put their best foot forward. My favourite carrot used in my interview 5 years ago was “We’ve never missed a deadline. We’ve found ways to make it work every time.”

When a potential employer tells you the following, it is worth asking a few more questions:

  • We’ve never missed a deadline
  • We’re like one happy family here
  • If too many buzz words and technical terms are used
  • Profit share for a lower salary is offered from the first interview

What are examples of toxic behaviour in the workplace?

.If you’re human and working, you probably had someone lose their temper while at work. The person lost it because something illegal was done, procedures weren’t followed or made a calculation blunder that cost the company dearly. Humans have emotions, and it is difficult to split our personal and work lives. As a business owner I know that if a contractor writes bad code, I will be held responsible.

This doesn’t justify bad behaviour but makes it understandable if someone is in a bad mood or needs to explain a difficult situation to superiors. It changes, however, when it is the norm to bully people and manipulate employees or colleagues to get what they want. A toxic culture might move the company forward in the short term, but in the long run, will fall apart.

Verbal abuse

I remember the day like yesterday. I received a support query. It went something like this:

“I have an issue. I don’t really know what it is, but I know there’s an issue”

After asking for more details, the product owner arrived at my desk and started screaming louder than a speaker at a death metal concert. As would be expected, I escalated this to the CIO. Oh, the irony when I was called into the CIO’s office after this, as I didn’t resolve her support query.

It is never okay for people to scream at you or verbally abuse you. Thinking back now, I should’ve CC’ed in the world (CIO, HR, CEO and my lawyer). Sadly, when you’re in the situation, it is often not possible either because no one would’ve taken you seriously or your selfconfidence has been destroyed by bullying and manipulation.

Bullying, manipulation and victimisation

“Snakes in Suits” by Robert D. Hare explains how it is prized to find a leader who can make hard decisions and get people to do what you need them to do. The issue is when this turns into bullying and manipulation. As an example of victimisation – I received my first key performance indicator sheet (KPIs) a week before my annual performance review. Some of my colleagues did not even have KPIs.

It is generally recommended to use the processes available in the company to deal with the above. If your boss doesn’t do anything escalate the issue to HR. In scenarios where nothing is done, it might be wiser to leave silently. This is what I did. In other cases, the legal route might be a good option.

Gaslighting

During my KPIs, I was told that I am not as senior as my salary indicates. Halfway through my KPI, my boss got up and said: “I have another meeting. The fact is I cannot trust you.”

He left with those last words.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where your skills, reality and (often true) perceptions are put into question. This includes being told in a meeting that “surely you saw that email…?” only to check afterwards that the email was never sent.

In my experience, the best way to deal with a person that gaslights other people is to disengage. This type of person will find ways around confrontations such as deflecting, minimising, or denying their behaviour.

The expectation of working after hours

In another scenario, I was put on a guilt trip for not taking my laptop with me on my holiday. I was contacted 15 times during my 2 week holiday and it was made clear that it was expected to be on standby for them 24/7. This is in fact illegal in terms of Article 20 (9) of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 1999.

In retrospect, I realise that unless we put boundaries in place in our own lives, we are to blame when people take advantage. Though this is easier said than done, it’s important that everyone knows where your boundaries are – and that there will be consequences when people overstep those boundaries.

Identifying toxic people

This is much easier said than done. We know that people with psychopathic tendencies have the ability to win you over and manipulate/bully you into getting what they want. Due to the manipulation involved, they are able to make it sound like they are the victim.

WebMD did a good summary of how to identify a toxic person:

  • You feel like you’re being manipulated into something you don’t want to do.
  • You’re constantly confused by the person’s behaviour. 
  • You feel like you deserve an apology that never comes.
  • You always have to defend yourself against this person.
  • You never feel fully comfortable around them.
  • You continually feel bad about yourself in their presence.

Working with toxic people

A toxic person could be a colleague, boss or subordinate. As this person could manipulate, gaslight, bully or verbally abuse you, it’s important to keep track of everything. I kept a journal of what I did every day. This included support calls, tasks assigned meetings attended and other important events. This helped me a few times when my time allocation was queried or I was asked about decisions that were taken, as I could relay my notes to the corresponding emails.

It will be to your benefit to work from home or keep all communication to email and other online media. By minimising the human interaction with the individual, the impact of their manipulation and bullying can be minimised.

A good strategy is to turn all conversations back to themselves. Let them talk about themselves, as this will take the pressure off and allow the conversation to become more positive.

Exiting the toxic environment

Being a software developer, I was able to find a job within a week of leaving – and I should’ve. I opted to plan my exit for a year. I set down a hard deadline for myself which was 2 June 2020. I missed this deadline by two months due to the pandemic, but still – I left!

It is rarely the case in most careers to just pack up and leave. It is therefore recommended to start with an exit strategy. For most industries, this would mean putting your CV out there or contacting a recruiter. Though this might work for some, I found that it might be more beneficial to first upskill yourself by doing courses (online or through a university) or writing online content.

For me, FrugalLocal and localmoney.co.za was my saving grace. During that year, I started building an online community in the personal finance and small business space. With corporate brands coming on board, I was able to leave my employer – and even if I did not do great in my software development freelance business, I would still have my emergency fund to fall back on.

Conclusion

Please don’t tell your boss he’s a psychopath. Also be careful when labeling someone toxic. In my experience, it’s best to keep this as an internal dialogue while planning your exit.

It is not healthy to stay in a toxic workplace very long. There are ways to cope such as self-care and small wins. You might also need time to plan your exit which might include upskilling, finding new clients or finding a new job.

Happy investing!

Sources consulted

  • Yahoo Finance – 6 Signs Of A Toxic Job You Can Spot During Your Interview

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