I’m leaving a toxic job but feel guilty about leaving my team behind

This was originally published on September 26, 2010.

A reader writes:

I’ve been in a fairly toxic workplace for two years, and in one week I’m finally done with my contract and am moving on to greener, and saner pastures. This is all well and good, except I’m leaving behind a small team of people who I’ve grown very close to while I’ve managed them. And I know things are about to get much, much worse for them at work.

The company is in trouble financially, which we all know: it was used as an excuse to downsize, move us to tiny offices, increase unpaid overtime, not give raises, bonuses or paid leave, etc. We’ve all pulled together to make that work because we loved what we do. We used to have a really incredibly bad owner, who recently sold the company to her partner and fled: we’re still uncovering the mess she made of things. I’m the manager, and as such even though I’m leaving, I’m still being called into meetings about the future of the company. This makes me nervous on a couple of levels as I never want to be accused of taking company secrets to my new employer, and I’d really rather prefer if they DIDN’T have the money talks in front of me, but I’m not quite sure how to make that stop- I’m still here, doing my job, for one more week (I gave 3 months notice), and part of my job is planning for the future. It also means I’m privy to things my team is not- like further plans to downsize, or that they’re planning on moving another company also owned by our new owner into our small workspace.

Our direct manager as well is feeling the pressure, and with the prospect of me leaving, has started to make some changes to the workplace that I feel will be detrimental, to the work, the culture, and the team I’m leaving behind. Add to that that I found and hired my replacement, who I’m now worried is going to get burned by all this, and I’m feeling incredibly guilty and confused.

My question: what can I do for them? Do I have a responsibility to stick my nose in all this mess that is going to come raining down as of Monday (my last day is Friday) or does my leaving mean I can’t have anything to do with it? Is there some trick to just washing your hands and moving on?

Okay, some principles to keep in mind about all this:

1. It is normal in a situation like this to feel guilty that you’re jumping off a (possibly) sinking ship and leaving people behind you. But these are adults who are getting plenty of signals themselves about what’s going on. The downsizing, the smaller offices, the halting of paid leave (!), the fleeing owner — your coworkers may not have all the same information you do, but they have enough to understand that the situation isn’t secure or stable. Anyone who is shocked by further downsizing in that context and didn’t see it coming was almost willfully not paying attention. So you don’t need to struggle with whether you need to sound an alarm for them — the situation is already warning them. They may not know the specifics that you know, but they know the situation isn’t good, and they’re making their own calculations accordingly.

2. And that’s good, because you really can’t share confidential information that your job makes you privy to. This is the nature of some jobs; you signed up for a job that would expose you to internal decision-making and you agreed to keep it confidential. That stuff is not always easy, especially when you’re learning about things that will affect your coworkers, but there’s no exception in the confidentiality provision for “when it becomes hard.”

3. What you can do is talk to people in ways that don’t violate your confidentiality obligations, particularly since your own departure provides an obvious context. So if a coworker expresses uncertainty to you about whether they should be job-searching themselves, you can point out that in an unstable situation like your company is currently in, it’s always smart to line up options. And particularly for the people you manage, I could even argue that part of the job means having a final talk with them about their career plans before you head out. Ask questions, listen, and give advice. Just don’t violate your confidentiality obligations.

4. You can also strongly advise your manager to be as transparent as possible with the staff about what’s going on. You can direct her to information about managing downsizing well; there’s a lot out there that argues that being open and transparent is the key to recovering from periods like this. She should read it, and you should push her to. (Whether she does or not is ultimately up to her, but you can strongly advise it.)

5. Similarly, regarding your manager making changes that you see as detrimental, all you can do is give the best counsel you can. Make your case for why these changes would be harmful and offer alternatives. Tell her you feel strongly, if you do. But from there, it’s up to her. You’ve done all you can do, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to somehow stop her.

6. Regarding your concern that they’re continuing to involve you in meetings and you’re worried about being accused of taking company secrets to your new employer — they know you’re leaving. They’re freely sharing information with you (probably because part of your job is to be involved in this sort of planning and they still want your expertise). I don’t think you need to worry about later accusations.

I know a lot of people’s response to all this would be, “It’s no longer your problem.” And to some extent that’s true, and you’re probably going to feel like that in a month or two. But this in-between period — when you’re on way out but not quite out yet — is really hard.

Update: After I wrote this response, I received this P.S. from the letter-writer:

I should also mention that my direct manager hasn’t been handling this too well either. I’ve attempted to make a few suggestions/comments about her proposed changes I think aren’t a good idea, and the general response has been something like we need to do these things in order to stay solvent (not necessarily true) and that if I want my end-of-service benefits, vacation payout, and all the other end of contract payout stuff that I’m entitled to, we have to do x, y, or z. So basically, all of the really brutal stuff that’s about to happen is happening because I wanted what was contractually promised to me so I can leave. There’s a lot of guilt going on right now. 

No, it’s not happening because you want what was contractually promised to you. It’s happening because the owner of the company mismanaged things. And I don’t buy that fulfilling their obligations to you — which sound pretty standard and not extravagant — will be what triggers brutal cuts elsewhere. I think that’s BS, unless your end-of-service benefits are equivalent to an entire salary or two, which I strongly doubt. Your manager is telling you that out of frustration or in an outright attempt to guilt you into giving some of them up. This is a contractual obligation, the company is obligated to fulfill it, and their mismanagement is on their hands, not yours.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Artemesia

    WOW. The comments that our vicious treatment of everyone is because YOU are taking your vacation buy out would totally absolve me of guilt if I were you. This is one of those occasions when someone is so ridiculously outrageous that your best move is to laugh in their face (perhaps only inwardly). This is your get out of guilt card; it ain’t you. Clearly it ain’t you.

  2. Zahra

    For anyone in the same situation, I’d add one more: offer to be a reference and connect on LinkedIn. Leaving would be a pretty standard reason to do this: after you leave, it will be much harder to get in contact with you directly. Might as well get the connection now, while you can.

    1. CTO

      I was thinking the same thing. Make sure your employees have your new contact information and let them know that you’re happy to be a reference. That’s nice in any situation, but it can also be a subtle way of hinting that they should be making an exit plan.

      1. some1

        Exactly what I was thinking.

        I’m that person who stays at jobs that have clearly worn out their welcome, and I’ve paid the price. But I think even I would have seen the writing on the wall if my boss was resigning and made a point to offer to be my reference. I’d think, “She must think I’ll need one soon.”

        1. CTO

          And if this is the kind of workplace that really destroys hope, confidence, etc. the OP could even make a point of letting her employees know what their skills are and what kinds of roles she could seem in elsewhere. If they do disclose that they’re, she could also be a helpful networking contact.

          1. Jazzy Red

            When I was much younger, I was in that type of workplace. I remember my boss telling me I would never be able to get a job anywhere else (inferring that I wasn’t good enough, even though I was the best worker in our department). It would help someone like long-ago-me to know that they DO have skills and abilities, and that these are marketable.

  3. SallyForth

    The toxic workplace I left last November has, other than the manager, had an almost 100% turnover since I left. In fact, the person who replaced me is now #2 on the seniority list. I am glad my friends got out. When I left, it was suggested that now that I was gone, things would improve, and for about a week it did.

  4. Jill of all trades

    That was a terrible situation to be in. I wonder how the OP feels now that 4 years have passed?

  5. Adam

    Obviously there’s going to be some uncomfortable feelings involved when this sort of turbulence happens but Alison is right that all of the the original LW’s reports were adults who, even if they weren’t seeing the entire picture, were still getting plenty of signals that they should have been prepared for the possibility of things turning sour.

    This manager definitely cared for her reports and wanted to help them thrive which is fantastic of course, but I wonder if she got to the point where she actually felt directly responsible for them as far as this company and its actions went? I’ve never been a manager but that seems like a perspective guaranteed to bite you back since so many things are not in your control, particularly in this circumstance where there IS someone you can point directly to as a culprit for why things went off the rails (the boss who sold the company).

    So providing her reports with as much information and guidance as her role’s constraints would allow definitely is a good move, and you can certainly feel bad for anyone who was laid off and be a part of their job hunt network, but it’s not something you should carry on your shoulders.

  6. Erik

    Never feel guilty about leaving a toxic environment!

    I left an extremely toxic work environment 2 years ago, and never regretted it for one second. Thankfully my immediate group was a joy to work with, but we were stuck under the thumb of other toxic people and didn’t have any control over our work.

    When I left, I did everything possible for my immediate manager to get them going. I simply asked him to prioritize what he needs and I would take it from there. We created a list with priorities for each item, and I went above and beyond the call for them. Everyone in the team knew I was leaving and I helped them and others with anything they needed. True, it wasn’t my problem but I knew it was time to go on – nothing personal.

    Some people in senior management took it personally and were enraged by me leaving, and I didn’t give a @%#$ about them. I never felt guilty about leaving, although I was sad about leaving some very good people behind whom I really enjoyed working with, even though the company itself was a hellhole. That’s different from guilt.

  7. Gem H

    This is not far of the situation I left at the end of June. I’ve still nto been paid for June’s work. The company is still solvent, but I’m not sure if wages are getting paid. I had some guilt, but 4 people left in an many months before me, and the other people knew what I knew and were trying to get out.

    Its hard not to feel guilty, but there’s very little you can do in these situations, the owner/manager is in control and mis managing things, and all you can do is the best for you.

    1. Artemesia

      I hope you have filed a complaint with your state’s labor board that enforces things like this — sooner the better.

      1. Gem H

        Not in the states, so that’s not an option. I could take him to court but the amount it would cost could be up to the equivalent of what they owe me, plus they have no money, so I’m not sure how that would work. Its not malicious, they genuinely have no money (they recently moved to teleworking as they couldn’t afford rent).

        I’m not giving up on the money, but at the moment my hands are tied in regards to legal action :(

  8. Chloe

    This is such a well timed post, thanks Alison! I’m about to get an offer which I will grab with both hands – my job environment is so toxic management have actually openly described it as toxic, and yet nothing changes. They don’t seem to realise their role in creating that toxicity.

    In leaving right now, I am seriously going to be leaving them in the lurch, it’s going to create a huge problem. I feel really bad about that, mostly for our customers, who are likely to be adversely impacted.

    But I can’t miss this opportunity, which basically landed in my lap with no effort from me and is truly a wonderful job for me. I think the professional in me is just going to feel bad for the overall situation, but I still have to look after my own career.

  9. Anon55

    Survivor’s Guilt/Syndrome. It’s normal to go through after leaving a toxic or even abusive workplace. You’ve been so downtrodden that you’re having a hard time figuring out which way is up right now. It’s not on you to save other adults when in doing so you may jeopardize yourself.

    I left a bad workplace for an even worse one five years back. I’m now out of that second job and simply enjoying summer. I’m financially OK for at least the next year so I have time to get my head straight and look for a job that doesn’t have yellow and red flags during the interview. Time heals all wounds but racking up that time is one of the hardest things to do as there is nothing you can do to influence how quickly time moves (except jump on the treadmill and that’s not the speed you want you time to run at).

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