my coworkers at my toxic former job still vent to me about how bad things are there — and it’s draining

A reader writes:

About a year ago, I left my position in an incredibly dysfunctional unit to join another organization, quite literally fleeing across the country to get away from the most miserable two years of my career. The main reason that I left was because of the managers: Septa Unella, a former peer who had been promoted beyond her skill set and whose management style was based on the principles of condescension and gaslighting, and Cersei, whose interests included spreading gossip and pitting employees against each other. To say the culture was toxic is an understatement.

Despite the fact that I’m now an entire country and several time zones away, former coworkers regularly reach out to me looking for advice about how to deal with the managers and to vent. I’m happy to listen, but it’s incredibly draining to hear about all the problems that are still going on in the office, and honestly, I’m still trying to recover from the blows to my professional confidence that this job dealt me. Just this morning, I got a devastated message from a former colleague asking how I dealt with Septa Unella, as she feels she can’t have a conversation with her without being attacked. It breaks my heart to hear how upset this former coworker is, but I’m not sure what I can tell her, or anyone else who reaches out to me.

I’ve generally been telling them that quitting was the right move for me and my mental health, but our industry is small and I know most people won’t have the ability to pick up and move the way that I did. I’d tell them to go to HR, but I know from experience that HR at my former organization isn’t trustworthy (at one point, I went to HR about an issue with Septa Unella, and they went directly to Cersei with my complaint), so I worry that might backfire. Do I tell them to lawyer up? Cersei has a history of giving inappropriate tasks to employees, including taking photos for her online dating profiles, driving her around to doctors appointments, and generally being verbally abusive.

I’m frustrated and emotionally exhausted. I feel like this awful job will continue to haunt me as long as people that I know still work at the organization. I think that you will encourage me to stay neutral and professional, and to rise above the fray, but I still care about my former colleagues (we became very tight-knit in the face of the insanity), so I feel obligated to try and help, but I have no idea what to do. Any advice would be welcome.

Tell them the truth: “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this! I found that the only thing that worked for me was leaving the organization. If you get to the point that you decide to do that, I’m glad to help however I can!”

But don’t get involved beyond that. You left so that you could get away from all this toxicity, and you deserve to be able to make a clean break, not get tugged back into what sounds like a cesspool of dysfunction. These are no longer your problems. You left so that they wouldn’t have to be.

If that sounds cold, remember that putting up boundaries doesn’t mean that you’ll be denying your coworkers some kind of special help or support that only you can give them. They have all the same information that you had. They know that these managers are awful. There isn’t some insight or guidance you can give that will change that fundamental fact. It’s not like if you talk to them for long enough, you’ll be able to offer them a solution that will fix this. And they know that they have the option to leave.

It’s okay for you to say, “I’m really trying to make a clean break. I am happy to talk to you any time about Fun Topic X or Fun Topic Y, or about a job search if at some point you’re ready to start one, but for my own mental health, I need to stay away from hearing about the office there.”

(And this is more or less moot since hopefully you won’t be getting involved with the goings-on there, but you had asked about telling them to lawyer up. For what it’s worth, none of what you described is illegal. Toxic and bad management, yes, but not illegal.)

{ 142 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Work Wardrobe

    I get that you feel for them, OP. But your life and sanity have to come first.

    Break up with the madness!

    Reply
    1. Specialk9

      Break up with the madness indeed.

      OP, you said “I’m happy to listen” BUT you’re not happy to listen, and you shouldn’t be.

      You’re not happy to have to continue to bear the burden of emotional abuse after you’ve escaped.

      You’re not happy to have your blood pressure spiked.

      You’re not happy to feel helpless and without agency to fix the problems.

      You’re not happy to have your own recovery and renormalization process derailed again and again.

      This is not your problem, and it makes you profoundly unhappy. Your work friends will have to find other sounding boards, and if that means hiring a professional, so be it. Your health will not recover if you keep getting pulled into this stress.

      Reply
      1. RUKiddingMe

        “Your work friends will have to find other sounding boards, and if that means hiring a professional, so be it.”

        +1 To the hiring a professional if for no other reason than to have someonethey can vent to who is not/never has been subject to the toxicity.

        Barring this then perhaps they might think about commiserating with each other at say a Friday night happy hour or something.

        Either way (any way) it is not OP’s problem to deal with anymore. If she could have solved it, one would think she would have already done so.

        Reply
  2. Neosmom

    Provide them a link to Ask a Manager. Seriously. The information here may be just what they need. I really wish I had known about this resource when I accepted a job with a toxic employer (although I resigned and got out gracefully before I had been their three months).

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Specifically I recommend sending them the one called “your boss sucks and isn’t going to change” :P

      Reply
    2. Detective Amy Santiago

      Agreed! I wish I had found this site when I was in the throes of the Most Toxic Workplace.

      Reply
      1. HS Teacher

        Same here.
        I left what had become a toxic industry, not just a toxic workplace, for an entirely different industry. I’m so much happier (though poorer) but I still here from friends who are in my former industry and are miserable. I encourage them to stop chasing the dollar and find something they’ll actually enjoy doing, but they continue to wallow in misery. I tell them to check out this site, which I wish I had “found” before I spent over a decade being unhappy.

        Reply
    3. RVA Cat

      The OP may want to head on over to CaptainAwkward.com as well. This dynamic sounds similar to a lot of toxic family and friend-group situations addressed there.

      Reply
  3. Wannabe Disney Princess

    Toxicity is like drowning. The victims are so desperate to get out, that they’ll climb on top taking you down too. So don’t feel cold asseting boundaries, LW. It is for your own mental health. You can not help them with job search advice, should they need it in the future, if you are pulled down into the muck.

    Reply
  4. RabbitRabbit

    I can sympathize. I kept getting dragged back in to help when I transitioned to a different (but still related) job at the same institution, so it was even more direct of an issue. I had to set firm boundaries in not being able to assist further. Unfortunately things only got worse after my ‘final’ departure, but the saying “not my circus, not my monkeys” kept coming to mind and helping me. I also had to do reduced commiserating, which became basically “yes that sucks, that’s why I left.”

    I’ve frequently heard advice given to people suffering under those venting about relationship or other problems, boiling down to saying “that sounds awful, what are you going to do about it?” That and the “I’ll help if you’re working on getting out!” advice sounds like your best bet.

    Reply
    1. Irene Adler

      I wonder if they have an EAP program at Toxic Oldjob. I have one where I work. Maybe the OP can refer folks to this resource. I contacted EAP for help with being bullied in my work place. Their advice: find another job.

      Point being: maybe it takes more than one source telling them to find a new job for these people to muster up the energy to embark on a job hunt.

      Reply
  5. Lil Fidget

    I think the crux of Alison’s point – you can’t even help these people anyway, even if you wanted to, is important for you to keep in mind, OP. There’s no secret insights you’re hiding from anyone who works there, and you don’t have any special advice that’s going to fix their problem. They don’t need to vent to an old ex colleague, they likely have friends/family/each other for that. This is literally not your circus, not your monkeys. I find there’s a short extinction burst before people adjust to a change, and then they will probably stop reaching out to you.

    Reply
    1. a1

      There’s no secret insights you’re hiding from anyone who works there, and you don’t have any special advice that’s going to fix their problem.

      Exactly! The only advise is to leave, like you did, even if it’s very difficult to do; and accept that this is how their bosses are and they are never going to change no matter how you approach them or word things or do things. There is no magic bullet. Not that you need to take the time to tell them all this. Just do as Alison suggests and shut down the conversation.

      Reply
      1. OP

        Intellectually, I think I’ve known this for a while, but emotionally, it’s difficult to put into practice. In many ways, it feels like we were all the spouses of a shared abusive partner, but I’m only one of a few who managed to get out. It’d go against my nature to really shut down any further conversations with these old colleagues, but I think directing the conversation towards proactive solutions (i.e. “Yep, that sounds par for the course. Did you see the recent posting at X organization?”) the way that others have suggested in the comments might be a good way to keep me from being emotionally worn down without feeling like I’ve abandoned these people (that I really do care about!) on a sinking ship.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          It’s understandable why you’re framing these relationships and this situation in these intensely personal and relational terms, but…..please remember: they were your coworkers. Cersei was your boss. It was an unhealthy situation, so thinking about it in unhealthy terms is natural, but this was a transactional employment relationship in which you were compensated for labor, not a family.

          Reply
            1. Snark

              Be that as it may, it’s a fundamentally different situation than a family, and abandonment is not a concept that rightly applies.

              Reply
                1. Snark

                  To the extent I really want to engage with a parody account, as noted below, codependent bonding in a bonkers work environment is not really the stuff of which durable friendships are made.

          1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster

            It’s funny, I have had extremely close relationships with coworkers — the more toxic the environment, the closer we were. But very few of those sort of relationships have lasted beyond our shared employment. It seems like the dysfunction was what we had in common, and after we moved on to new jobs we all became distant facebook friends, and that was it. I only really have a handful of friends from old jobs that I stayed “real” friends with, and with those folks we all had interests in common outside of work (and drinking together after work!) from the get go.

            Reply
            1. Snark

              This has been my experience, as well. There’s overlap, in the Venn Diagram, between the “Friend” circle and the “Work Friend” circle, but it’s not a gigantic one.

              Reply
              1. Antilles

                I’ve found the same, even in non-toxic jobs. Once that shared connection of “being at the same company” dissipates, it often happens that you realize that no, we didn’t actually have as much in common without that shared experience.
                In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if OP finds that once she decides (for the sake of her sanity) to put her foot down on the “isn’t this awful” gossip, a significant number of these friendships will slowly wither once there’s no longer that shared point of discussion.

                Reply
            2. Important Moi

              “But very few of those sort of relationships have lasted beyond our shared employment.” This cannot be overstated.

              I’ve been that person who wanted to be “friends” with someone who moved on to something new and better. You often learn you have nothing in common beyond employment misery.

              Reply
            3. ArtsNerd

              It’s funny, I have had extremely close relationships with coworkers — the more toxic the environment, the closer we were. But very few of those sort of relationships have lasted beyond our shared employment.

              Yup, this is my experience too!

              I’ve gotten together with an old work friend for lunch and the entire conversation was basically her updating me on the latest trainwreck gossip and then me saying: “So why do you still work there?” At least in that case, I enjoyed hearing the latest trainwreck gossip because I am a petty person. But I am also still baffled as to why she hasn’t resigned yet.

              In terms of being ‘real friends’, I invited her to tons of stuff and she was never able to accept because the toxic work vortex limited her availability to working in said vortex and complaining about said vortex. (Which was exactly what I was doing, too, when I worked there.)

              Reply
              1. Elizabeth West

                I’ve had friend coworkers with whom I worked in a non-toxic environment and once one or both of us left, we STILL didn’t remain friends. Mostly because all we had in common was work. But while we were working, we were friends. I have yet to meet someone who could be a Paula to my Rebecca Bunch.

                Reply
          2. RUKiddingMe

            This, so much. No matter how close anyone gets with coworkers, they are/were coworkers, not family and not going to be part of our lives (normally) for the long term.

            Reply
        2. Detective Amy Santiago

          The best thing you can do is tell them that you’re willing to provide a reference (if you are). That’s a concrete action you can take to help them get out of there. The rest is really on them.

          Reply
        3. Akcipitrokulo

          Yeah, that’s understandable. You don’t need to cut them out though… just say “yes, that’s why I left. How to deal with her? I didn’t. I left.” is ok. And helpful. No, there isn’t a magic way to make it work. “She sucks and isn’t going to change. Get out.” is helping them.

          Reply
          1. LBK

            Amen. Be direct and repetitive. I honestly don’t even think you should be that empathetic about it, because it’s basically emotionally enabling them. They’ll feel a little better for a little while after getting everything off their chests and maybe convince themselves that they can suffer through it. Anything that makes it easier for them to stay any longer is just making it worse – they need to be convinced that their only option is to leave, period.

            Reply
            1. Elizabeth West

              This. I had a non-work friend who was the same way—I listened, gave her advice, and did a LOT of emotional labor for her. But nothing I could say would convince her to get out of the situation. She had to decide that for herself.

              Sadly, when her situation improved, she abandoned me. :P

              Reply
        4. CrystalMama

          You are being a great friend to them OP and they are Lucky! Boundaries are also part of a good friendship. Things to consider. Sending u calming thoughts and love!

          Reply
          1. Specialk9

            OP, btw, this is a parody account (though a rather bewildering one) so please disregard their advice.

            Reply
        5. Jaydee

          I would say something like, “If I knew the secret for coping with those two, I would share it with you in a heartbeat! But I doubt that secret exists, and my only remaining way of coping was to leave.”

          Reply
        6. Anonanonanon

          If the answer to “How did you deal with (insert problem here)?” is always “I left.” then eventually they will stop asking and either do the same or turn to someone else for advice. Either outcome is a good one.

          Reply
      2. Antilles

        Bingo. For all intents and purposes, their choices are exactly the same as OP’s options were: (a) find a way to cope with the toxicity, (b) let the mess destroy their sanity, or (c) find a new job.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          And, given that, it’s not “abandonment” to decline, compassionately, to be their long-distance therapist as they choose a) or more likely b).

          Reply
          1. Specialk9

            Their free therapist.

            A therapist too personally entangled to be allowed to take them as clients even if she were a therapist.

            Reply
    2. Ainomiaka

      Yes! It’s not like the o could walk them step by step through how to fix the problem. OP left. Everyone knows that is how they dealt with it. The advice is out.

      Reply
    3. Natalie

      If it helps you feel better, OP, I’ve heard that excessive venting that be very self-limiting because it feels like problem solving even though it isn’t. So setting some limits is good for you, and it might even help them. [DO NOT say this to your former co-workers, this is just for you to tell yourself to alleviate any misplaced guilt.]

      Reply
      1. Casuan

        …excessive venting that be very self-limiting because it feels like problem solving even though it isn’t.

        Wo. This is one of those things that one doesn’t realise how true it really is until one reads [or hears] the words.
        Thanks for that, Natalie.

        OP, I agree with the masses that this isn’t your circus nor your monkeys any longer, that you won’t magically have some words or suggestions to make things better, that you are not being rude or otherwise unkind to convey that you don’t want to hear about your ex-company or its tocicity, & most of all that You have the right to get on with your life.

        What you can offer your ex-colleagues is the gift of not listening to their vents &, if you so desire, that there is hope if they’re willing to do something about their situation other than venting.

        Reply
    4. Oxford Coma

      There’s no secret insights you’re hiding from anyone who works there, and you don’t have any special advice that’s going to fix their problem.

      It’s a lot like weight loss! Nobody wants to hear that you changed your eating habits and increased your physical activity. They’re hoping you found a magic bullet.

      Reply
  6. Snark

    “It’s okay for you to say, “I’m really trying to make a clean break. I am happy to talk to you any time about Fun Topic X or Fun Topic Y, or about a job search if at some point you’re ready to start one, but for my own mental health, I need to stay away from hearing too much about the office there.”

    This, one thousand times. OP….your sense of compassion for your former colleagues does not obligate you to be the entire office’s emotional support now that you’ve moved on. Move on. There is no obligation here. And, despite what they and maybe you too think, you posess no special knowledge or experience they need to cope with this, so there’s no reason to involve you or for you to get involved. They know as well as you do that getting the hell out is the only option. They are reaching out to you, I suspect, largely because they want you to talk them into it. And they’re out of line for doing so, so please get comfortable with drawing a totally reasonable boundary and recusing yourself from further advisory services to your former colleagues.

    Reply
    1. Snark

      And, I should also add, notice how both of Alison’s suggested scripts terminate the conversation? There’s a reason for that.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Also! I just re-read my answer and removed “too much” from the language you quoted. So now it says “I need to stay away from hearing too much about the office there.” I figure let’s not open the door to any, or leave it to the former coworkers to decide how much is okay.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          Oye! Yes, absolutely. That door is, kindly and politely with with compassion – but well and truly – closed.

          Reply
    2. pope suburban

      Perfect. Yes, this. I think it is very appealing to think that there is some secret combination of words to use, or a clandestine job board, or some little trick to either make Cersei and Septa Unella behave, or to get hired away from this place. I know I spent a certain portion of my bandwidth Grail-hunting when I was in a workplace like this; I think it’s almost inescapable to start wishing for an at least semi-mystical way out when all the normal things haven’t worked. But the truth in the ends is that what it took to get out was persistence in applying for jobs, which I’m sure was helped by reading AAM and being willing to create/tweak a dozen different drafts of my resume. The same stuff anyone has to do to get a job is the stuff you have to do to escape toxic workplaces, it just feels different because you’re under all that extra stress.

      Reply
  7. MommyMD

    It’s ok not to want to be other people’s psychiatrist. In fact it is vital for your mental health. It’s draining you. You left to escape this toxic place.

    I would be more up front and say you’re sorry they are having so many problems but you left to remove yourself from the situation and talking about it stresses you out but you hope they work it out.

    It’s healthy to put up a polite boundary letting them know you cannot be their sounding board. Don’t let this former job and all its negativity follow you.

    Reply
    1. RUKiddingMe

      Exactly. OP quit and moved to get away from that place and its problems. Continuing to be free therapy for former coworkers, not family but coworkers, isn’t really allowing her to do anything other than take it with her all the way to a different country. OP you need to use Alison’s script and tell them that you are not able/willing to talk about stuff in that office since that’s the reason you left in the first place.

      Reply
  8. CrystalMama

    OP, you have my sympathies. Carrying peoples troubles and Uplifting those who need it sometimes takes more than we have to give.
    Maybe it will help u to hear some stories of people who have found their footing in hard spots. My partners Sister was in a position similar to your coworkers. She ended up just pulling the plug and devoting herself to writing the story of her life on a blog which became very successful (they say that success finds intention!) and selling products which uplift other women struggling with toxic environments (including chemically toxic). Before she changed her path we were her cheerleaders even when the fling was tough. Now she cheers for us! Your coworkers may one day remember your good spirit and help YOU!

    Reply
  9. MuseumChick

    I think its more than ok to basically give the same response every time:

    “Yup, that’s exactly why I got out!”

    “Really all I can tell you is to start job hunting!”

    “Classic Cersei. Any leads for new jobs?”

    Then direct the conversation to some other topic.

    Reply
    1. Hey Karma, Over here.

      All your comments are good. This one is the best:
      “Classic Cersei. Any leads for new jobs?”
      Set a boundary by setting a goal/guideline.
      “Yes, you can’t change the company. So what are you going to do to change your situation?”

      Reply
      1. Naptime Enthusiast

        Yes! I used this exact method for a friend working with a really toxic client. “He’s not going anywhere and he’s not going to change, you either learn to live with it or you move on to another project”. The friend still works for toxic client but no longer complains to me daily.

        Reply
      2. TardyTardis

        I have a friend who kept complaining about how poor he was. So I gave him a couple of easy ideas for him to do, and some positions suited to him, and he didn’t follow up on any of them. So I no longer hear his complaints (and to his credit, he doesn’t complain that much to *me* any more about his finances).

        Reply
    2. OP

      Thank you – I’m going to use all of these!!! I think part of my big struggle, and why I reached out to Alison, is because I want these people to get out the way that I did, but I know that I can’t apply to new positions for them. Redirecting the conversation in a positive, proactive direction will allow me to avoid feeling like I’ve abandoned these people without getting dragged back into the emotional headspace that I was in while working there.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        This is going to be a bit provocative, but…..if you feel like you’re abandoning former coworkers by not being on call for them to vent at you about a workplace you moved across the country to escape, are you sure you’re not already there?

        Reply
      2. MuseumChick

        I completely understand. It can be touch seeing people you like in a bad situation. But you have to sent emotional boundaries here for your own sake.

        Reply
        1. OP

          Survivor’s guilt is a great way to put it, and spot on. It feels like I barely got out with my sanity intact, and it feels terrible knowing there are still people going through mental abuse that I wouldn’t wish on Ramsey Bolton.

          Reply
          1. LizB

            I totally understand the survivor’s guilt, but to push back on those thought patterns: you didn’t force any of these people to take this job. You’re not the one inflicting the mental abuse on them. You’re not encouraging them to stay. They are adults who can make their own choices about where to work and when to leave a job (based on their life circumstances, of course, but you also don’t control those). Just because you were one of the first ones to escape the toxicity doesn’t give you a moral obligation to continue enduring it from a distance until everyone you care about is out. Honestly, your old coworkers’ constant venting probably isn’t even making things better for them in a significant way, so you listening to them is hurting you and not helping them. The only thing that will really help is if they leave, and you can’t force them to do that. It is absolutely not your duty to fix this.

            Reply
      3. MommyMD

        Moving on from a job is not abandoning people. In fact, it’s your right to not have any relationship with former coworkers at all if it drains you.

        Reply
      4. RUKiddingMe

        OP something to keep in mind, for this situation and pretty much every other thing you will ever encounter in life: You can not fix other peoples’ lives for them.

        That’s it, full stop. It’s like AA…they have to admit the problem, want to fix it, and take steps to make it happen. No one can do it for them.

        Reply
  10. Jules the Third

    Alison’s advice is the best advice, for your own health and career, and for theirs. The mantra is: These bosses suck and aren’t going to change.

    The second best advice, if you just don’t feel you can set those boundaries, is to tell your ex-coworkers to Document, Document, Document, and either
    1) Use that documentation to make sure that Septa / Cersei’s expectations are clear and unambiguous or
    2) Take it to the level of mgmt at least one and maybe two levels above Septa Unella and Cersei.

    The reason these are second best:
    1) These bosses suck and aren’t going to change.
    2) Dysfunction starts from the top. It’s a job-risking move for sure, and in a small industry, maybe a career-risking move, especially because Septa/Cersei aren’t asking for illegal things, so it isn’t going to be as cut-and-dried as blowing the whistle on illegal things.

    Be clear with them about the risks. Having an exit strategy in place before taking this to upper management is important for them, with this option.

    Reply
    1. Seal

      Another benefit of documenting is that it can help the person stuck in the toxic environment see patterns of bad behavior. Even though they know things are terrible, seeing it in writing may give them more clarity or even spur them into action. Plus it has the added benefit of helping them cover their own backsides. Having spent far too much of my career in toxic environments, I can safely say that someone is always trying to gaslight you; there is nothing more satisfying than shutting a toxic coworker down with detailed documentation.

      Reply
    2. TardyTardis

      And it’s a very good idea to have a copy of all these things at home as well as at work, because sometimes computers Accidentally Fail (and sometimes they just fail, like the time IT decided to put Office 365 on a computer running Windows XP and I lost a ton of personal stuff).

      Reply
  11. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    OP, I used to work at a toxic organization like yours—not the same, because all toxic orgs are toxic in their own special ways, but similar principles apply. I, too, used to get phone calls from distressed former coworkers, and I also started getting phone calls from employees hired after I left (!).

    The only way to preserve your sanity is going to be drawing a boundary. Use Alison’s scripts. Tell them you found the only thing that worked for you is quitting and that you’re happy to discuss if they’re at that point. It’s ok to validate their feelings of being gaslit, but don’t become their therapist or help them troubleshoot in a situation where there really aren’t workable solutions (other than quitting).

    It is really hard to move on from a toxic job if you’re getting sucked back into the drama. You can even tell them you’re happy to talk about anything except work. But definitely take the space you need to recover and move on.

    Reply
  12. Anon Accountant

    You could also add “some find counseling to be very helpful when in similar positions but this is a personal decision only you can make”.

    Congrats on getting out.

    Reply
  13. Bea

    I’ve stayed close with my former co-workers and as soon as I was out of there the floodgates flew open. Thankfully we had a couple good talks and they don’t repeatedly think I can somehow pull them to safety.

    The best thing is to be sympathetic. Give them tips or point them here, any guidance to get them into a new job. I act as a reference for them in my case but I was a manager so that’s an acceptable option.

    Reply
  14. TotesMaGoats

    I feel for you OP. I know many of my former employees two jobs ago are still there and absolutely miserable. Overworked, watched like a hawk, not appreciated or appropriately compensated and the list goes on. I hate it that people I hired and trained and a unit that I got to both peak efficiency and a solid team rapport has been flushed down the drain. It’s worse now because I’m in such a good place.

    I second Alison’s advice. I post jobs that I know my friends are qualified for and/or interesting or good links to articles here. It’s the only way I think I can help and stay separated from the insanity.

    Reply
  15. Cruciatus

    It’s not quite the same situation, but I left a toxic department a year ago and my coworker followed a month after me. We’re both still at the same place but different departments. Thank God the toxicity wasn’t widespread! A few weeks ago X, the person who replaced me, told me how miserable she is and all the same shit is happening (letters about what you’re doing wrong, micromanaged to the nth degree (I once got yelled at for looking out a window at cars sliding down a hill in winter. It was approximately 20 seconds), and so on. Last week Y, who replaced my coworker, stopped me on the sidewalk and quietly asked me why I really left that department. I already knew she was just looking for confirmation (and I told her the truth. Maybe I shouldn’t be open about it but I think she really needed validation that it’s not her because they (the department heads) are constantly telling her she did this wrong or that wrong and it can start to mess with your head). I feel bad for both of them and told them I’d keep an ear out for any other jobs that might be coming up in other departments but I’m so happy to NOT think about that place anymore that I hope I don’t hear too much about it from them even though I completely, absolutely, sympathize. (Though you know how the further with time you get away from something you wonder if maybe it wasn’t that bad at all? At least by talking with them I reaffirmed that I absolutely made the right decision and YES! it was that bad and I continue to be thankful I got out!)

    Reply
  16. Mephyle

    You wrote, “I’m happy to listen to them, but you’re not, really. That’s literally why you wrote to Alison; it was because you’re not happy to listen to them – it’s draining you. Keep that in the forefront of your mind as you incorporate the suggestions that involve not listening to them any more.

    Reply
    1. Snark

      I read that as, “I am unhappy to listen to them but have been conditioned to shout that feeling down whenenver it presents itself.”

      Reply
    2. Naptime Enthusiast

      I picked up on that too. OP, you’re happy to be a good friend to your former coworkers, that is very different from being happy to listen to the same complaints and issues every time they call. And that’s okay, the distinction is necessary for your well-being.

      Reply
    3. Tardigrade

      And I very much doubt they are making themselves happy by complaining. OP doesn’t owe them this advice, but I’ve told my own coworkers, “the best way I’ve dealt with it was to stop giving and receiving complaints.”

      Reply
    4. MissDisplaced

      I think also maybe OP was just a teeny-tiny bit interested in the rumor mill (hey, we’re human!) at ExJob and thus you do tend to get a bit of vicarious (entertainment? justification?) that the place is still a hot mess of a trainwreck, as well as caring about some of the former coworkers. And I can totally understand this the first couple of months.
      But it sounds like it’s now become too much of a distraction now and time to disengage a bit more with these people. A year is really a long time! Let it go. Or let them go. Especially if they can’t turn to more social topics.

      Reply
      1. Fiennes

        There are other reasons listening at first may actually have been good for OP: after leaving a toxic situation, it’s easy to second-guess yourself, to believe it couldn’t really have been as bad as you remembered, and to wonder whether you’d just lost perspective. Getting these updates no doubt reaffirmed OP’s decision and bolstered her confidence at a point where many struggle.

        However, it sounds like the cons of listening have been outweighing the pros for a while now.

        Reply
      2. Detective Amy Santiago

        Yeah, I’ll admit, I enjoyed hearing about how shit fell apart and they had to replace me and my coworker with 4 people because they had been overworking us so much and no one knew half of what I did, but it did wonders for my mental health when I stopped hearing it.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          There was just some news item this weekend about research that showed stress hormones dropping in people after five days of quitting Facebook. Hearing stuff really is hard on us.

          Reply
      3. OP

        “I think also maybe OP was just a teeny-tiny bit interested in the rumor mill (hey, we’re human!) at ExJob and thus you do tend to get a bit of vicarious (entertainment? justification?) that the place is still a hot mess of a trainwreck, as well as caring about some of the former coworkers. And I can totally understand this the first couple of months.”

        This is on. the. nose. My departure was very quick (I did not give 2 weeks, and I can’t say I regret it at all), and I can’t deny that I felt petty enjoyment hearing about how they scrambled to cover the work that was over-assigned to me, as well as to hear how the clients that I worked with expressed their dismay at my departure. But having given into that impluse seems to have eroded the professional boundaries that would normally be in place after one colleague leaves an org, and I definitely haven’t helped the situation with my willingness to serve as a sounding board for any and all complaints. Healthy boundaries are definitely in order, and will probably help my good friendships STAY friendships.

        Reply
        1. MissDisplaced

          It is so totally normal to feel that way OP!
          I guess I can relate and I sensed that. I left a job 6 months ago fairly quickly and under some acrimonious circumstances (though not as bad as yours). For the first month or two, I kept getting emails from people about all the crap going on, who was getting laid off/quitting, etc.. I did derive some petty enjoyment from hearing about all the chaos, but it also reinforced my decision to leave work I enjoyed.
          The emails dissipated, but I still stay in touch pretty closely with one person who likes to vent. I’m ok with that, but some things she tells me still get me angry… but only for a few moments. Mostly I laugh.
          So, so don’t beat yourself up too much! We’re all human. But you’ve realized it’s now time to politely disengage. Use any and all of the suggestion given here on AAM to nip it down to what you’re willing to deal with.

          Reply
          1. MissDisplaced

            Oh and best of luck at the new job and new city/country!
            THAT sounds like a separate story in and of itself! I don’t know of too many people who leave a whole country!

            Reply
  17. MissDisplaced

    “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this, but I’m afraid I can’t offer much insight as I’ve been gone for a year.”
    Lather, rinse, repeat any variations.

    I have a good friend and former coworker who also texts me with the latest in the rumor mill at ExJob. While I find it entertaining, I’m now sufficiently disengaged enough to just have a laugh. I feel for her, and support her in her job search efforts, but that’s all I can do anymore. If it’s truly distracting you though, you may have to cut off some of these people a bit more (and kindly).

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Yeah, about six months after I left my first job I had to get reeeeeaaaall forgetful. They were being lazy and still coming to me with questions for things they should have been able to find in the documentation. But why would they, if I was still around to ask? So suddenly I couldn’t remember much from that time – so caught up in my current stuff – it’s all such a hazy blur these days … :P I realize OP isn’t answering specific questions but the technique may still help.

      Reply
  18. Genny

    OP, one of the things you said caught my eye, that the industry is small and not everyone will be able to change jobs like you did. Small industries exist, no disputing that, but nothing is keeping your former co-workers at toxic job. They have options. The options may not be what they hoped (perfect job in the perfect place with the perfect salary); they may entail salary cuts, moving to less desirable locations, or leaving the industry, but they do exist.

    It sounds like you’re putting extra guilt on yourself because you got one of those coveted few jobs in the industry, but the reality is your former coworkers are, for whatever reason, choosing to stay in a toxic workplace. That’s on them, not you. You have nothing to feel guilty about.

    Reply
    1. Snark

      “OP, one of the things you said caught my eye, that the industry is small and not everyone will be able to change jobs like you did. Small industries exist, no disputing that, but nothing is keeping your former co-workers at toxic job. They have options.”

      Exactly. In fact, I think this is how a lot of workplaces get this awful – bad bosses carve out ever-widening spaces for their bad behavior because their employees are convinced there are no prospects for an escape.

      Reply
    2. Seal

      I don’t disagree with this, but sometimes the fear of the unknown is so strong that it renders people immobile; they stay in a toxic environment because they’re terrified that the next job might be worse. If nothing else, the OP’s success in getting out might give their colleagues hope that they could get out too.

      Reply
      1. Detective Amy Santiago

        Not to mention that job searching requires a lot of energy and focus that people often struggle with when they are in the midst of a toxic situation.

        Reply
      2. Bea

        Exactly. They feel trapped and are being abused so that makes you question your ability to survive if you make the decision to change career paths. I’ve learned from being on this blog that so many stay in bad situations out of fear of the unknown. You start rolling your thought into “at least I’m supporting my family…” or what have you.

        It also depends on their skillset and how they transfer elsewhere and how you convince someone to let you try. I’ve seen people rejected from basic admin jobs for over qualification for a decade now. So starting over is a struggle and relocating isn’t always a choice when you have roots.

        Reply
        1. Seal

          That’s exactly what happened to me at my first job. Between the constant bullying and being told by my wildly out of touch parents of the dire consequences of leaving a “good job with benefits” I felt trapped. Once I finally mustered up the courage to put together a plan to quit it took me almost a year to actually do so. While it was the best thing I had ever done for myself, stepping into the unknown was a very, VERY hard thing to do.

          Reply
      3. TardyTardis

        Though if you live in a small town where the toxic environment is a major employer, the options can be more limited than most people think, especially if you have a situation where you can’t move.

        Reply
      4. Genny

        I agree that there are a lot of reasons why people choose the status quo over trying something different. You and some of the other commenters have pointed out several of the most common reasons, and I’ve experienced some of them myself. But none of those reasons remove the individual’s agency to choose something different. Again, it may not be easy or it may not be the most desirable option (heck, it could be a slightly-less-crappy-than-what-they-currently-have option), but they do have the ability to choose something other than what they’re choosing right now. It’s not on the OP to try to fix that for them (because she can’t), so she shouldn’t feel guilty about (leaving a toxic situation, not having the mental energy to assist them now that she’s out, “abandoning” them, etc.)

        Reply
  19. KayEss

    Strongly advise that you nip this in the bud ASAP, especially if you value these relationships. Set the boundary now, while you’re still able to do so with compassion–the more you try to endure, the more likely it becomes that you’ll snap and react in a way that poisons the relationship. Establishing boundaries and defending them gently but firmly is kinder and healthier for everyone than allowing yourself to be emotionally trampled until you explode.

    Reply
  20. Indie

    Sometimes the solution is to realise there is no solution. Toxic managers gaslight people into believing you should be managing their trigger happy feelings and emotions.

    Gaslighted people often feel they are not handling a tricky person well enough. They are so exhausted by the impossible rubix cube of toxicity, that they don’t move on to the obvious solution:
    Giving up and getting out, by hook or by crook.

    There is no way to manage the Cerseis of the world. They are a nuclear sum zero game. They just make you think there is a way to win. By not engaging in this fantasy problem solving of other people’s brains, you’re helping.

    Reply
    1. RUKiddingMe

      Exactly. There was that time when I a middle aged mother with a teenager, recently widowed, bills, house payments, car payments, etc., etc., etc., quit by text message in the middle of the day…and the world did not in fact end. It ended up being nothing more than a minor blip in my life (ex-boss has a less than stellar reputation anyway). I do live in a major metro area and have/had options —which I know isn’t the same for everyone, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

      Reply
  21. FYI

    This isn’t really a work question so much as a (sorry) codependency question. You say over and over that you’re abandoning them by not giving them something ***that you don’t have.**** That’s not abandonment. You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm. You just don’t. The best thing you can do for them is be happy.

    Reply
    1. Also

      You didn’t have any solutions to your problems when you were there, so you left. (Good move, BTW.)

      Your current issue is that your former coworkers seem to think you *did* have solutions while you were there, and they’re hoping you’ll pass on that lifeline. But you didn’t, did you? Can’t give what you don’t have.

      What you need to tell them, when they ask, “How do I deal with Cersei?” is that you couldn’t. Tell them you didn’t have any solutions, so you left. Repeat until they realise you didn’t have a solution, or they apply the one and only solution you had, which was to leave.

      Reply
  22. LBK

    At this point I’d just stick to repeating “Yup, that’s why I left.” These people are forcing emotional labor on you – they know there’s no solution other than quitting, so as someone who got out, they’re looking to you for comfort that some day it will all be okay. You don’t owe it to them to provide that kind of support; at some point they have to solve their own problems.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I think this is more like the OP started feeding them so they keep coming back to the feeder. However, since they’re not birds in winter, she’s under no obligation to keep the feeder full; time to quit buying birdseed.

      Reply
  23. Interviewer

    Slow down your response time to emails or texts or voicemails – make it significantly noticeable. If you respond the same day, or next day – wait a week. Every response, make it a brief one liner – I really like, “Classic Cersei!” Literally, nothing else. Next time they reach out to you, wait two weeks, something like, “Nothing ever changes!” Hopefully their urges to vent to you will dry up, because they’re not getting a quick response or a lengthy email full of advice.

    If you really want to, you can block emails, texts and calls so you can’t see them right away, and can view them on your own time.

    I’ve recovered from a toxic job, and I understand the need to hear it’s all going downhill, along with the strong desire to move on and never hear from anyone there again. It’s really bizarre how it pulls at you from both sides. Good luck to you!

    Reply
  24. CurrentlyLooking

    I have a similar issue with my former co-workers from old Toxic Job – however as I am married to one of them, I do have to offer some moral support. For my own sanity, I limit the amount of work complaining I listen to and he understands when I tell him that we need to change the topic.

    Reply
  25. LouiseM

    OP, this situation really resonates with me. I have a close relationship with several former coworkers and they are CONSTANTLY complaining about things at our old job. Only in their case, the complaints are incredibly trivial. Recent texts I’ve gotten include: “OMG, OldBoss won’t stop emailing me about work late at night” (even though there is no expectation we respond outside of work hours) or “UGH, OldCoworker just took his third smoke break of the day!” (even though it doesn’t negatively affect their life whatsoever).

    Now, in my case and in our relationship, I happily listen to them and take what they say seriously, no matter how trivial it seems to me, because they are my friends and so I care about their lives. Even when it occasionally drives me crazy, that’s the bargain for getting them to listen to all my BS too! But if you don’t have such a close relationship with these people you may not feel that same obligations.

    Reply
    1. Mad Baggins

      “But if you don’t have such a close relationship with these people you may not feel that same obligations.”

      It sounds like that is exactly what OP was talking about–feeling so close to someone that you think you can’t ignore their problems and also be a good friend. But being friends with someone does not mean you need to listen to every negative thing about their life, and no one wants to listen to someone complain all the time. Perhaps you should take some of the advice on this thread for your situation as well.

      Reply
  26. Tuxedo Cat

    OP, you have my sympathies. I’m in a similar boat- I work in academia in a small field so few jobs are available. A previous group was toxic and also top of the field so I still have to interact with some folks, albeit not that much. A friend of mine is still in the group, and not only is she my friend but she’s also a member of the population we’re supposed to be serving; I don’t know if that makes sense but it feels somehow even more egregious what’s happening. I’m reasonably certain she’s discriminated against based on that identity, even if it’s not overt.

    My friend still calls me to vent and/or seek advice. There’s nothing I can do for that situation, and it’s hard to realize that. If you’re willing to, you could do what I’ve been doing. I’m trying to help my friend get out by meeting new people, looking at jobs in adjacent industries where I have contacts, etc. You don’t have to do that and you’re certainly not obligated to do so but for me, it feels constructive and achieves some of the same goal of helping your former coworkers.

    At the end of the day, though, they have to want to help themselves.

    Reply
  27. BananaRama

    OP, you said that you’re happy to listen to their vents, but your obviously not because it is affecting your mental health. It seems like you said you’re happy to listen to them just because it’s polite or expected. Being polite for just courtesy’s sake needs to stop when it affects your well-being.

    As Alison said, you left a toxic situation and should be allowed to break from it. They are adults with adult choices. If they are in a situation that is toxic, 99 times out of 100 they know the steps they need to do to get out of it. You are not responsible for guiding the horse to water, so to speak. Any one who doesn’t want to work towards a solution just wants the pleasure of complaining about it.

    Reply
  28. animaniactoo

    Just this morning, I got a devastated message from a former colleague asking how I dealt with Septa Unella, as she feels she can’t have a conversation with her without being attacked. It breaks my heart to hear how upset this former coworker is, but I’m not sure what I can tell her, or anyone else who reaches out to me.

    “I didn’t. I went home and cried myself to sleep and managed to drag myself into the office the next morning. Eventually I decided I wasn’t the problem and because I wasn’t the problem, I couldn’t fix it. All I could do was try to hang on until I could get out.”

    Okay, depending on the person, you might not want to be quite that explicit – but certainly mentioning that you never did find a successful strategy for dealing with Septa and in large part that’s why you chose to leave. And in your opinion, it would take a pretty unique person to deal with Septa and not take her management style personally. (See that there? It’s code “oh! management *style*, not me, not going to change, this is how she works, fixed point, immovable, no solution.”)

    Sometimes “the only thing that worked for me was leaving” is too subtle for people who are desperate for an answer. Sometimes you have to be a little blunter. “After 3 years, I decided I had put enough time into trying to figure out how to handle that. I was pretty sure by that point that I wasn’t going to find an answer and if I did it would take more of my life than I wanted to give to finding it.”

    Reply
    1. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day

      I really like this language! Agreed that it could be a bit too subtle for some, but it seems like a good, compassionate starting place to walking back the boundaries a bit.

      Reply
  29. Nita

    Yes, OP, you might advise them to lawyer up. Since they don’t seem to have any success getting out, maybe getting rid of one of their tormentors this way might help.

    Although… I wish people would recognize more often that sometimes you really have to walk away into the unknown, because the alternative is worse. My husband’s workplace turned toxic several years after he was hired, and he dug in and refused to get out until he had another job lined up. I understood his reasoning – he pulled himself up from having nothing to get there, and did not want to go back to entry-level anything and waste all that hard work, and he did get out in the end. Only, two or three of his coworkers weren’t so lucky. They were only in their 40s and 50s, but they dropped dead – sudden heart attacks, a stroke… They would have been better off walking out when the stress got too much, and taking their chances in a new field. At least they would still be alive, and as long as you’re alive you have a fighting chance.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      If they’re in the U.S., nothing described is illegal; I wouldn’t advise spending time and money on lawyer acquisition that could more profitably be spent on job searching.

      Reply
    2. Bea

      It’s also a lot about circumstances. I am fast to suss out a toxic situation and have told my partner that I’ll prop up our finances while he escapes the torture. I’m damn lucky to be in that spot but I know well off families that could handle a transition period where the other person isn’t supportive and thinks it’ll blow over, isn’t /that bad/ whatever else and so a person is double trapped.

      I think it’s best to always have a job lined up before jumping ship like your spouse did but he did the hard work of searching while dealing with the nastiness. So many others don’t have the energy or support needed to pull out of the emotional quicksand :(

      Reply
  30. Granny K

    So it sounds like you have some PTSD over this toxic job that you are trying to heal from. In addition, you have guilt over not helping those still in the toxic situation and because you know EXACTLY what they are going through, it drags you back there immediately. For the guilt, let this be your mantra: Put the air mask over your OWN nose and mouth before that of your neighbor. Amy and others have posted that you can’t really help those still at that job, because you can’t change the situation. But the thing is, they can’t either: one can only change one’s self. So they can change how they respond to the toxicity, or they can leave, which I think, as a group we’ve decided is the final answer. Truly, how likely is it for those two to change?

    Reply
  31. Manic Pixie HR Girl

    “I got a devastated message from a former colleague asking how I dealt with Septa Unella, as she feels she can’t have a conversation with her without being attacked.”

    You dealt with her by moving across the country. You acknowledge that what you did is not possible for many of your former coworkers, but they are asking you for a magic bullet. I think it’s OK for you to say, “I realize this may not be an option for you, but I COULDN’T deal with her, so I left the organization. I’m sorry, I know it sucks, but I don’t have any advice beyond that.”

    Reply
  32. Minnie

    I left a very toxic work environment and my former coworkers would often text me with complaints and advice. I was worn down by it and wanted to leave to toxicity behind.
    I started replying with, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you….”

    This sadly stopped all communication, but I’m now free of the drama.

    Reply
  33. Adlib

    I’ve likely been guilty of this as well. I’m not in a toxic job, but when my former team lead left, I kept giving her details of what all was going on, and then she stopped responding. I took the hint and was not upset in the least. I think people get carried away and don’t realize they’re being a drain. I am hopeful they’ll take the boundary-setting in stride, OP. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. MommyMD

      I think once OP voices that she doesn’t want to hear it anymore, she should stop responding.

      On my days off if any coworker texts me complaints about work, I don’t even respond. It’s draining and I want to enjoy my off time.

      Reply
  34. lnelson1218

    My last job was like that. The lay-offs came as a bit of a relief. Naturally when we were all going through the work day together it helped. But when the SVP (spoiled/stupid VP)went off it wasn’t pleasant.
    Toxic is an understatement. The Last remaining employee standing was just laid off (so only 4 people in the US office down from 25 before the lay-offs). He did call to vent and ask advice on several occasions. Yes, it was exhausting, but I was a good person and listened.
    I will almost miss hearing how fast that ship is sinking. Now right after the lay-offs many of us stayed in contact as support going through the process of unemployment and job hunting.
    But everyone has a different tolerance point.

    Reply
    1. Bea

      Ah yes the sinking ship feelings. That’s honestly why I’m just fine hearing from my friends here and there, they aren’t begging for help more so than telling me about the ridiculous circus.

      Reply
  35. Didi

    I was in exactly the same boat a few years ago. The ex-coworker gossip mill was awful.
    I gave them each one final venting session. Then I told them finally that I valued their friendships but the ex-job topics were off-limits, so next time we talked, it would be fun to talk about other things.
    Then I waited.
    Only one person called. The rest forgot about me, I guess.
    Here’s the sad thing: friends at work are often just that – friends AT WORK. Once you don’t work together anymore, you’re probably not going to be friends.
    I see one old friend still and we don’t talk about work much. Once in a while she brings something up, but that’s OK – I know the point of our contact is not just to gossip about everyone.

    Reply
    1. Minnie

      I know how this feels, and I’ve been saddened by the loss of one particular coworker friend.

      I feel that people tend to adapt to the toxic environment, and the ones who escaped become enemies…

      Reply
    2. Manic Pixie HR Girl

      “Here’s the sad thing: friends at work are often just that – friends AT WORK.”
      Unfortunately that is typically true. I can count on one hand the number of people I have maintained a meaningful friendship with once we no longer worked together. In most cases it isn’t because they aren’t lovely people, it’s just that in many cases it’s unlikely we would have been friends outside of work due to different interests, priorities, places we live, etc. When I do see these people, it is more often than not a lot of fun and we enjoy one another and catching up, but it’s not something that happens frequently, and well, that’s OK.

      Reply
  36. Wintermute

    I would be so very tempted to paraphrase Captain Awkward at them: “If this were a fairy tale, I would write the secret inside an enchanted mushroom and wrap it in a magic handkerchief that you could carry with you through the tasks and trials ahead. But it’s not, so when you need a reference, let me know…”

    Reply

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