how bad jobs warp your sense of what’s normal

Working at a dysfunctional job is terrible for all the obvious reasons: unclear expectations, unrealistic workload, tyrannical boss, toxic coworkers, or whatever might warrant the category of “dysfunctional job” in the first place. But on top of the obvious, bad jobs exact an additional price that many people don’t realize: If you stay in one long enough, it can totally warp your idea of “normal.” You’ll often end up accepting things as unexceptional that you shouldn’t tolerate at all, like unfair pay or being yelled at—and these expectations can shadow you into your next job, too.

For Slate today, I wrote about how bad jobs mess up your brain, and how you can avoid it. You can read it here.

{ 196 comments… read them below }

  1. Emma

    The struggle is real!!! Talking to other people in my industry has been so helpful in determining that my department/office is actually bonkers & that feeling like your team’s problem child is not healthy or normal.

    1. Not Today Satan

      “feeling like your team’s problem child is not healthy or normal.”
      Yeah! Toxic places can really warp your self-image… I had been told I was difficult for so long I began to believe it.

      1. lizzsook

        Agreed! My last manager told me on my last day that my new job had hired “the town crier” and they didn’t know it yet. Yep, those were his last words to me. I was leaving because the company was devolving into chaos, & he got off on playing people against one another to “inspire competition”. I was told I was “difficult” because sales reps sold digital products incorrectly & I couldn’t make them work they way they sold them (uh, probably because that’s not how any of it worked). My husband was the one who kept telling me “normal companies don’t work like that” when I would talk about it. I stuck it out as long as I could & left at the first opportunity.

      2. Turtles

        I was pretty much told I was a failure and should find another line of work at my last (toxic) job on the day I was let go. This was also about 5-6 months after getting a promotion at that company. They twisted it and said they had REALLY just switched me to a different job to see if I did any better because I had been failing at the job I was originally hired for. Except that my “promotion” gave me even more contact with clients AND came after I got a glowing performance review from my then-manager AND came after they canned the guy who was doing the job before and making probably $20k more than me. So yeah, gaslighting was something else I could add to the long list of dysfunctional behavior at that company. Did I mention my department had a 40% turnover rate that year? Only one of those people quit. Most were fired at the whim of the executive in charge who was an old frat buddy of the company owner.

        My new boss/company loves me. I’m making more and am doing more interesting work, but in the exact same field. Oh! And I have work/life balance.

    2. NotHappening

      Had a similar experience which really was just instigated by a several individuals from the same clique because they had their own insecurities. It got so bad to the point HR had to get involved.

      I ended up trying to stay as long as I could which I now regret, but didn’t want to be jobless. Looking back it’d have been better to leave sooner for my mental/physical well being. It’s almost never worth it in the end and these individuals never change.

      1. iCare

        Didn’t realize I had commented already!
        Same story, right down to the critiques coming from insecure individuals. Did you go two years without a pay raise, too?

        1. NotHappening

          >two years without a pay raise

          This and the fact the compensation was horrible, I remained as professional as I could but ended up developing some pretty bad work habits from remaining there.

    3. Been There, Done That

      Boy am I glad I read this. My workplace went thru major changes just before I got there and my manager was promoted 4 months before she hired me. There was a tremendous amount of anger there. It’s been years and people are still angry and there’s been a lot of turnover, extreme favoritism, and yet everybody clings to the job (fallout from the great recession. That’s also my rationale. Being jobless all that time was damn scary.) The place revolves around a worker who displays some minor mental health issues. You never know what’s going to bend her out of shape, and my manager’s first priority is making sure she keeps her job. I know it’s not normal here, but having to function in an abnormal way has gotten very wearing.

  2. Detective Amy Santiago

    It takes a long time to recalibrate too! I’m in my 2nd role nearly 3 years post ToxicJob and still finding myself surprised by how ‘normal’ things are.

    1. Cassandra

      Nearly seven years post-TJ. Still amazed at normalcy now and then.

      I hope I never stop being grateful, but I don’t know that the amazement is all that useful really…

      1. The Toxic Avenger

        Six years post Toxic Job and I still don’t keep a single item in my office. Not even a paper clip.

    2. Liz

      I shifted from toxic manager to normal manager, who does not have a poker face. I have learned her face that means, ” there she goes again, doing something that helped her survive toxic manager but is very strange in normal land.”

    3. BRR

      Similarly I think even if you know something is not normal, it can still affect you. My job is awful and I’ve had a bad job before and thought, “Well I know this isn’t normal so it won’t affect me that much.” WRONG

  3. Environmental Compliance

    Reading a lot of AAM helped me to see how toxic my last job was, and helped me gain the confidence to get out.

    1. SoCalHR

      I agree that AAM helps to judge your workplace on normalcy or what should be pushed back against (although sometimes it makes me think – oh I don’t have anyone biting me or hoarding food or casting evil spells on me? I don’t have it that bad) :-)

      1. Blackeagle

        AAM is definitely good at calling out behavior as toxic (or even just “not normal”). However, folks don’t usually write in about how smoothly things are going in their non-toxic workplace, so even AAM does better at calling out abnormal workplaces rather than illustrating good ones.

      1. Life is Good

        I found AAM when I was at old dysfunctional workplace. I was trying to figure out if what I was experiencing was normal and how I could make myself fit in. Found out through Alison’s practical, excellent advice to others that that job sucked and would never not suck and moved on to the competitor. Best move I ever made.

        1. Life is Good

          …one other thought re: how toxic workplaces can affect you. This is hard to admit, but I became a person I didn’t like too much (now looking back). I did try to fit in and became very much like the others there. I became a person I would normally dislike. I was incredibly short with my husband all the time and I know I was pretty hard to live with. There were many, many evenings when I would be just spent and couldn’t do anything except climb in bed and hope the next day would be tolerable. I marinated in that toxicity for so long that I didn’t see that it was messed up.

  4. ragazza

    This is so true. I’ve stayed in a dysfunctional workplace far too long. I moved to a far more functional team with a normal boss about six months ago, but I feel a bit like a recovering abuse victim sometimes in meetings when I’m expecting her to say or do something unreasonable, and instead she’s actually supportive and helpful. It worries me, because I do want to find a new job and I don’t want to have these skewed expectations. I think it really affects my creativity and potential.

    1. Liz

      Yes, I said above that my new normal manager looks at me really strangely sometimes when I use my old coping skills.

      1. ragazza

        Honestly, not to minimize actual child abuse, but I do sometimes feel like a child expecting to be hit.

        1. Eplawyer

          Abuse is abuse. The mental abuse wears you down first. So yes it’s abuse whether you are 7 or 37. Whether it’s a parent or your boss.

        2. Coywolf

          As a survivor of child abuse, I don’t think you’re minimizing it at all! The talent some people have for breaking down others around them isn’t reserved only for their children. Ugh.

        3. Turtles

          YES. I’ve been in places where every day I come in expecting to be fired. At my last one, I told my husband that one week in particular, I was very much afraid of it. He brushed it off and thought I had nothing to worry about. My fears were not related to anything I had done; my fears stemmed from being hyper-aware of the attitudes and actions of people senior to me. Just like a family dog, I learned to attune myself to anything that seemed off-kilter.

          I wasn’t fired that week. I was fired 2 months later.

    2. Ama

      I’m five years out of toxic job and still finding that I get really nervous any time a new project that might involve me gets floated by a coworker or my boss asks me to schedule time to talk about a new project, because at old job I got major projects dumped on me all the time by coworkers and all attempts to discuss my overwhelming workload were met with gaslighting. 90% of the time it is a completely reasonable conversation and just trying to suss out what I think I *do* have room for (and the 10% of the time I do have to take on something major at the last minute, my boss has been extremely clear that this is a special request she wouldn’t make if we had another option).

      I know part of it is I am determined not to let the slippery slope of “just do this one more thing” get me this time, and I actually like this job so the prospect of it turning sour makes me more upset than if I was at a job I was indifferent or unhappy with.

      1. Piglet

        +1, you just described my thought processes exactly. I am so glad I opened this thread. What a relief to see that others are suffering some of the work PTSD that I *know* I have from old Toxic Job.

      2. Danger: Gumption Ahead

        Me and another old coworker still have nightmares about our old boss. It has been 2.5 years since we both left.

      3. Becca

        Yeah, I still think I’m going to get in trouble for not getting enough done, even though I got plenty done and I’ve been assured that they’re happy with my productivity.

        And with that sort of thing it’s hard to explain to someone because there’s that nagging feeling that maybe the expectations weren’t unreasonable. Maybe I was just a poor worker and I should be getting more done and this person I’m talking to will know that. I have to stress that it wasn’t just me, the whole team was having this problem, and I was the favorite. But maybe… Really messes with my self confidence, which wasn’t great to begin with.

    3. Marie

      My toxic job laid me off a year ago, just 9 months after they lured me from a healthy workplace and made me relocate across the country. That major company also makes home appliances and I almost want to spit on the display models at Home Depot.

      My therapist was a great help during my onboarding at my current company, following months of job hunting. It took six months before I didn’t have to tell myself every day that this new boss was NOT my old boss; he didn’t lie to my face repeatedly and upend my life with total disregard.

      I really recommend talk therapy to anyone trying to process a trauma of any kind, including from a traumatic workplace experience.

  5. PsychicMuppet

    My last boss humiliated me several times for absurd reasons, would let me know after an assignment what had actually been expected of me, and was just in so many ways awful. She gave me complete anxiety and I found myself anticipating being reprimanded in front of my co-workers for basically nothing.

    I just started a new job and so far I really like it, but I still have so much leftover anxiety from my last job that I find myself waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. It sucks, and I have to remind myself that this place is different and I have no reason to think these new people aren’t reasonable and professional.

    1. Toxic waste

      Same here- it’s like PTSD. My last job was abusive and dysfunctional, but my current job isn’t much better. (Some ways better, some ways worse.) It’s definitely hard to shake those feelings.

      1. Hills to Die on

        So much PTSD. I knew it wasn’t normal, I knew the boss was crazy and that he was deliberately trying to play head games with me. I got out but it just really takes a toll on you emotionally, mentally, and physically. It has taken over a year of being away from that place and I am just now getting back to normal.

      2. WubbaLubbaDubDub

        Your feelings are valid and I’m sorry this happens to you. It sucks. It’s shitty. I sincerely recommend therapy.

        I also wanna say that it kinda grinds my gears a bit when people throw PTSD out. I have PTSD from years of childhood abuse and sexual assault. I sincerely hope you do not have it, as it’s caused by watching immense suffering, experiencing severe abuse or sexual assault, or near death experiences. I don’t say this to minimize what you’ve gone through. Hell, you might have PTSD. I’m saying it because when we get loose with the term PTSD, we forget that Emily who sits two desks over at work might have a PTSD diagnosis from a doc. And when she hears every little thing get called “PTSD,” it makes her feel like intense night-terrors and diassociation and flashbacks during meetings is normal — and maybe not such a big deal.

        1. Bird

          I don’t think that anyone here is trying to minimize PTSD, but what you call “every little thing” may actually be a very big thing.

          Overshare time: my own PTSD diagnosis came after I spent merely seven months in an unhealthy relationship. Maybe someone else wouldn’t have developed it under the same circumstances, but I did. So, if I get flashbacks when I listen to Queen, or can’t eat certain foods sometimes, or specific interactions reduce me to a pale and shaking mess, is that legit? It was only seven months. I was an adult. They never hit me. It was just words, sometimes not even that: just little things.

          Is that better or worse than someone else’s trauma?

        2. Kai Jones

          You deserved better, and you deserve better now.

          Complex PTSD is the new name for the kind of ongoing, long-term situation which can happen in childhood or through any other long-term relationship. Single-event PTSD is different and has different recommended treatment.

      3. the stuff

        “would let me know after an assignment what had actually been expected of me”
        YES!
        I had a boss like that. He would give me assignments, I would do the work, and THEN he would come to me with this “you poor idiot” expression and tell me how wrong I was. Because I was somehow supposed to magically know about decisions he made that affected my assignments, but didn’t bother sharing with anyone.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes! I talk about that toward the end of the article, and say that because we tend to see ourselves as less emotionally intertwined with work than we are with family members or with romantic partners, we’re less likely to recognize it when work has messed with our heads.

      1. Eplawyer

        Thank you.

        Folks if you are in a toxic job don’t beat yourself up for not getting out immediately. You have reasons for staying and they are your reasons. Do, however, make plans to get out. Even if it takes time. That’s okay.

        Get help if you need it. If your therapist minimizes it as just work and that’s the way it is get a new therapist.

      2. CM

        I think it’s also that we see relationship norms in our own households, in movies, at friends’ homes, etc. — we have lots of models for that. But aside from this blog, most people’s ideas of what a workplace should be like are entirely based on their personal experiences.

        1. Nanani

          And/or on workplace dramas, which rarely depict nice normal jobs either – People being respected while they work together smoothly would be pretty boring television after all.

        2. Not a Dr

          Also sometimes relationships with family and friends are dependant. Your partner controls the bank account, you are a minor so your parents control everything etc.

          But work is so often dependant. You need to pay rent, you need to eat. If you quit you don’t get EI. It is harder to get out of a money dependant situation, no matter what the relationship is.

      3. saffytaffy

        Oops, sorry I missed the end. :) I got distracted by the alluring possibility of posting an early comment. I am so grateful for your blog and good advice.

  6. ML

    This is so true. I had a nightmare of a boss. I was yelled at constantly, and I was young, it was my first “big girl” job out of college. I had no idea how dysfunctional that office was, but I was always saying “yes” to things because I thought that’s what people wanted to hear, plus I was afraid to assert anything lest it upset my boss or make me look demanding or entitled.

    This boss would throw fits like you would not believe. Slamming desks, yelling, knee jerky. She would decide to be upset about something all week, and then the next week it would be forgotten about but she would still hold a grudge, and then would move on to something else to be mad about. Don’t ever ask her a question, either. She acted like a 5 year old.

    When she went on vacation, the whole entire office was on vacation too.

    My next jobs, I had good management, but still felt like I was going to be in trouble, or yelled at, for little things. I would be extremely conscientious about the smallest of details, which I guess isn’t a bad thing, but all it did was create anxiety even though I knew my current boss was reasonable. I was motivated by fear, and not just doing a good job.

  7. Anon Today

    My biggest struggle has been when I became a manager in a less functional workplace. Because I had unclear expectations, and a ridiculous workload, I didn’t have a good sense of what was normal. It is something that I still struggle with several years later, because my perspective of what is acceptable behavior and what is not, has been wharped to some degree. So I have to be a lot more conscious with my own reports.

  8. Werewolves not Swearwolves

    Was at toxic old job for almost six years, left six months ago…still trying to re-adjust to a comparatively *very* normal workplace. No one is red-faced yelling at me and pointing fingers in my face, cornering me, sending aggressive or harassing emails, withholding information to “see how I handle it,” okay now I need to stop because the list is too long and painful. There was just so much emotional work that I had to do in order to survive.

    The good thing is that I was able to recognize all of the unhealthy ways I had to compensate…so I’ve been very deliberate about how I handle things now.

    It makes me really angry because I hear so many stories like mine. That kind of political, toxic culture should not be tolerated. People who are in positions of power need to really step it up and create a baseline of professionalism.

    1. Been There, Done That

      The sad, sorry thing is, if you asked my boss, she’d say she’d very professional, caring, and tolerant as a boss. To me, the “problem child”, she’s verbally abusive and at times outright insulting. It’s not even that she’s a pure and simple mean boss. She doesn’t even remember what she says five seconds after she says it.

  9. nnn

    Makes me think of my first job, as a cashier. If we were running low on change in our cash drawer, we were supposed to go to the office to have them give us rolls of change out of the safe.

    And whenever I did go to the office for change, they’d sigh and roll their eyes as though it’s a massive imposition.

    It took me decades to overcome the instinctive feeling that asking a co-worker to literally do their job in accordance with established procedures was a massive imposition.

    1. Justme, The OG

      That would happen to me as a cashier when I asked for change too.

      Or call a manager for an override on a coupon (because we needed an override on all coupons).

    2. babblemouth

      I still have this!I work on a project and when I point out an extra task needs to be done, the project manager asks me “yeah, but who’s going to do it?” It’s literally his job to find who does what, but every time he asks it, I feel bad for raising the point that a task needs to be done, as I create work for him to figure out who needs to be asked to do it.

    3. ML

      Yesterday my office was locked. Security is supposed to open it. I called security and they gave me a bunch of excuses like “oh such and such brought the key back” or “it should already be open” and I flat out told him I don’t care, my office is locked, and i can’t get in, my coworkers can’t get in. Unlock the door.

      It took them 30 minutes. 30 minutes! To come over and unlock the office.

      Every time this happens, they act like we just asked them to go above and beyond the call of duty, like we completely wasted their time.

  10. Bookworm

    This is true. My very first job was with verbally abusive, fragile woman who had no problems yelling at people, once threw a piece of paper in my face (hard enough to sting but no blood). I accepted it because it was my first job and I had no idea. I even mentioned it to the career counselor (still near enough to my former college and because it was within a certain time frame after graduation it was free) and he didn’t say anything. In retrospect he seemed to want to and while ultimately it was certainly on me to take responsibility and to speak up I did think this was not worth bringing up after trying to broach the subject of Awful Manager with *her* boss and wished he had spoken up, if only to bring it about in a roundabout way.

    Same with the recent job I just left. There was a vague sense of something was wrong but because I worked mostly from home I felt like in some ways it was me vs. the in-office employees. Looking back there was certainly less hostility compared to my first job but their “normal” vs. mine was very different and they seemed to view as me not understanding this particular job.

    As others say, AAM really helps, even if I never have anything anywhere near like some of the scenarios LWs discuss. :O

  11. DrowningInMediocrity

    Fully been here – multiple times. I had such a bad relationship with my last boss that when my new boss was super great to work with, it actually caused problems the opposite direction (being on TOO friendly terms). That boss isn’t there anymore, so that problem is now solved. However, current workplace seems to accept mediocrity but now that I’m interviewing for a more work-a-holic type environment I worry that my drive has been affected too much from my current environment.

  12. KHB

    I was struck by the first example (the person whose managers were so critical that she felt she didn’t deserve anything better) because of how normal it seems. I look at all the banana crackers stories on AAM and thank my lucky stars I don’t have to work with those people, but now I’m wondering. My managers aren’t harshly critical (at least, not usually), but they’re very stingy with compliments. While I’m confident that I’m acceptably competent at the job I have, I have this ever-present feeling that I really should be doing more, better, faster. And that there’s no way anyone will ever think I’m qualified to do anything else, so I’ve resigned myself to the prospect of working here until I have enough money to retire (which I pray will happen before robots learn how to do my job better than I can).

    I’ve always figured that this was mostly a mix of impostor syndrome and actual inadequacies, but now I wonder if some of it’s that I’m stuck in a culture where nobody ever thinks to tell anyone “Hey, you’re doing a great job.”

    1. 30 Years in the Biz

      I’m thinking you’re in a culture where, for various reasons-often fear, good work is not recognized. Don’t let them diminish your “flame”. You don’t need their approval. Do good work to support your customers (customers can be managers, coworkers, as well as external customers), look for opportunities to grow and increase your value in case you find another position or career that interests you.

      1. KHB

        Thanks – that’s really helpful to hear. I think you’re absolutely right that fear is a big part of it. Nobody wants to be the first to start doling out compliments liberally, lest it create the impression that everyone else is better than we are. A couple other possible contributing factors:

        – The job we do is really, really hard to do well. Looking at our product, it’s easy to spot all the ways in which it’s not quite perfect. But it’s hard to explain exactly why it’s not quite perfect, and it’s damn near impossible to make it perfect. We’re all tasked with double-checking each other’s work, so our interactions with each other are mostly of the form “This doesn’t work and you need to fix it,” – which, while not meant or taken personally, can still be really draining.

        – We’re still crawling out from under the legacy of a semi-toxic boss who left a couple of years ago. Said boss had a real knack for dressing up impossible expectations to make them sound reasonable, and leaving you wondering what the heck was wrong with you that you couldn’t figure out how to implement his very reasonable requests. New Boss is a lot better, but there’s still a lot of lingering damage, I think.

        1. SusanIvanova

          It’s damn near impossible to make *anything* perfect.

          One interview question I got was “how do you know when the software is ready to ship?” Now, an answer like “when there are no bugs and all the features are complete” is unrealistic. That way lies vaporware. My answer was “sometimes you just have to look at the release schedule, finish anything that can be finished, make sure there aren’t any bugs that can’t be worked around, disable things that won’t make it, and ship it.”

    2. LQ

      I’m in a very stingy compliment environment too. My bosses will literally tell me there is nothing else I can do better. But the “You’re doing a great job” or “You’re doing everything we can think of and more” are so incredibly rare as to be nonexistent, and when they do happen they are basically always 2nd hand. But I know that is true culturally. And that no one gets it. It’s helped (somewhat) mitigate the feeling of actual inadequacies, though I still frequently get impostor syndrome flaring up where I’m entirely convinced that I’m just the worst and it’s only moments until someone discovers that.

      Looking around and seeing if anyone gets compliments helps. Encouraging second hand compliments helps here. Culturally we are bad at direct, but we are kind of good at indirect. I tell Jane that Wakeen did a really great job. I might not tell Wakeen (mind you I’m trying to change it but I’m bad at it too), but if Jane will tell Wakeen that LQ thinks he’s doing a great job? Take those compliments seriously too. (I know it isn’t perfect, but it is what it is and culturally it’s where we are.) I also think being a complimenter (I emailed 2 people today to compliment them on things!) is a big piece to help this.

  13. Not Today Satan

    I left my last job (which was totally toxic) for a temporary, low paying gig and I’m so glad I did! My current place isn’t perfect but it’s at least somewhat normal. I now feel so much better about applying to other, permanent jobs. When I was still at my last job, I kept turning down interviews and sabotaging myself because I was afraid that my next job would be just as toxic and terrible.

    I also was really reluctant to take a pay cut, but now I know it can be worth it if it improves my work-life balance enough (for example, my current commute is 10 minutes!).

    1. Erin

      Absolutely, if taking a small pay cut makes the rest of your life better than it’s not a bad thing.

  14. iMayNotKnowMyFlowers

    I’m afraid I’m one of those people who don’t know what’s normal at this point as this is my first real corporate job after college and doing five years of theatre and odd jobs. I don’t know what’s normal in other companies. At my work, things that I think are not normal but I can’t confirm (which make me scared to leave my job as what if I’m actually in an ivory tower):

    – My senior colleague often talks about being a high performing team but she cancels meetings and reschedules over and over, send out emails about working from home at 2am, constantly challenges ‘the value’ of every suggestion people make, and seems to be protective of her work and information and rarely shares what she’s doing, working on or has recently learned.

    – My boss supports her until the end while me and my other coworker struggle to figure out what’s going on. My boss believes in the phrase ‘there will always be grey’ and when we come with suggestions to un-grey things she always agrees with them but doesn’t help to make things change. My boss supports work-life balance, but she herself is always at meetings we hold and wants to know every little detail of projects we are working and and usually ends up hijacking our own meetings.

    – The organization itself is always changing and currently there are at least three initiatives in play to address ideas and processes to help improve the way we work, change culture, improve knowledge sharing and the like. The problem is, they all seem disconnected. All I see is a bunch of directors who can’t make decisions on how they’d like to run their business so they pass the buck to us or a consultant to figure out, but in the end they are only going to do what they like (if anything happens at all).

    – We have tons of processes and policies and procedures but no one seems to follow them, some don’t know about them, there’s usually only one or two people who are the experts in them. It’s impossible to find information and as a result (because we are an internal service organization), we’ve lost the trust of our internal customers and it takes months and months to get something done because we don’t know how to take their needs and put them in the appropriate pipeline.

    Overall, I feel like my job is to figure out my job rather than do my job. Does that make sense? Is this normal corporate hub bub or is this toxic, not-normal, and full of red flags?

    Appreciate your thoughts.

    MD

    1. iMayNotKnowMyFlowers

      Aaaaaaaand I habitually put my initials at the end of the post. Well, hopefully I’m not discovered!

      1. Werewolves not Swearwolves

        LOL :) well if it helps, sometimes I secretly want to spam on social media that ____ ____ University ____ is a really terrible place to work and please do not believe the hype. Someone could probably guess who I am since I left so recently.

      1. iMayNotKnowMyFlowers

        Thanks. I fight with “do I stick with this and help find some normalcy, or do I realize that they are just going to forever wallow in chaos (and secretly enjoy it).”

    2. Liz

      I’d call it toxic bc you have to twist yourself around to deal with shifting sands and those skills don’t work as well as a “normal” work environment. I get being flexible and changing priorities but what you describe is arbitrary changes driven by one person’s personality, not by the needs of the business.

      1. iMayNotKnowMyFlowers

        Thanks, Liz. I like to think I’m a pretty flexible person, but yes, this has driven me to start demanding a solid action to leave with otherwise I feel like I don’t know what to do with my day!

      1. iMayNotKnowMyFlowers

        Well, I guess I better avoid corporations then. My partner cut hair for many years and would just be in awe of how people make a career about worrying about things that aren’t in their control, having countless meeting at Starbucks, and trying to influence decision makers 5 pay grades above them. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this.

        I don’t think it’s normal to send 2am emails can cancel and reschedule lunch on my 10 times, but that’s just me.

  15. Leave it to Beaver

    I started my professional life with a toxic boss. On my second week of work, she told me that if I “needed” to stay past 5:30, I could. I was a 22-year-old assistant who commuted an hour to work by train. There were other instances and other rules. She didn’t want to promote me, so told me that my last raise was based on the work they hoped I would accomplish, not what I actually accomplished. Always ask to take a vacation. “I’d like to take Friday, the 23rd off” was not acceptable. The result is that I have some learned behavior that’s been reinforced by other jobs.

    They say business isn’t personal, but it is. The rules and regulations and whims of an office are dictated by the most powerful and they’re not always done with professional respect. They are done because of personal quirks or behavior, and not unlike high school — can be pretty brutal.

    1. loslothluin

      My coworker that quit said she was done worrying about this place. She said, “I’m not letting a job that can be replaced in a day or two dictate my life anymore.” She quit and went to a much better law firm.

      1. Leave it to Beaver

        It was difficult, since it was my first job, I had no real experience to compare it to. I’d had internships and whatnot, but there’s still a level of naivete about business culture. So, it took me 3+ years to leave. Partially because I wasn’t sure I was capable and partially because I was worried the next place would be worse.

    2. Gazebo Slayer

      “They say business isn’t personal, but it is. The rules and regulations and whims of an office are dictated by the most powerful and they’re not always done with professional respect. They are done because of personal quirks or behavior, and not unlike high school — can be pretty brutal.”

      TRUTH.

  16. Ruthie

    Thank you, thank you for writing this. I was in a toxic, cliquey office for over four years early in my career and was very much the odd one out. I knew my colleagues were unkind, but didn’t realize how much I internalized that there was something wrong with me until I left. When someone at my current job asked me if I wanted to go with her to grab lunch, I nearly fell out of my chair. It turns out I really do get along with most people!

    1. loslothluin

      At my current job, it used to bother me that no one spoke to me at all until the real estate paralegal started working here. Now, I get annoyed when they try to talk to me and won’t leave me alone to do my job.

  17. cajun2core

    I know this is very true because of the post I came to make but then realized that my thinking was distorted.

    I was going to say that the reverse is also true. That working in an incredible environment can distort your sense of the real world. I came from an environment when I could *jokingly* tell my boss or co-workers to “f*** off”. My boss listened to us and only rarely had to say, “This is my company and I am doing it the way I want.” It was a very small company (7 people) and we were all very close. We were like family but in a good way. Our bosses respected us and treated us like equals. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. Our dress code was pants (shorts are fine) and a shirt (t-shirt is fine). Shoes were optional.

    I was going to say that coming from this type of environment to a normal environment can be difficult because I was in a very relaxed atmosphere and I moved to a more formal atmosphere. It has been a challenge for me.

    Now, after thinking about it more, I have to wonder if my current job is more toxic than I thought.

    1. Lizzy

      there’s a difference between a relaxed environment and one that will distort your thinking. IMO, one that will distort your thinking is not normal – it’s borderline toxic in itself because it perpetuates the idea that it’s “normal”.
      I don’t think you should tell people to f-off, even jokingly, but I definitely have heard a few of my coworkers cuss a few times. I honestly don’t know if we have a dress code… I mean, you have to have clothes on, and many of us dress somewhat nicely, but jeans and tshirts are common, and I just walked barefoot to the printer to grab something. That being said, we NEVER have visitors (other than the UPS guy and the delivery guy if someone ordered lunch lol) – all our clientele are located in different cities. We have our President-Elect visiting Friday and I guarantee we’ll be more dressed up for that (business casual).

      1. cajun2core

        Hi Lizzy, the “F-off” was a rarity and was usually in respond to some other snide comment.

        In a way that atmosphere did distort my thinking. It may have been too relaxed. I went from there to a more formal environment (a university academic department) and I had a hard time adjusting.

        Don’t get me wrong, I would go back there in a second, but it was hard for me to adjust to a more formal and what would be considered typical office environment.

  18. Anne (with an “e”)

    I think there might be a typo. When you write, “But on top of the obvious, bad jobs exact an additional price that many people realize.” I think you probably mean, “… an additional price that many people * don’t* realize.”

  19. Catabodua

    I have been in a normal workplace situation for 4 years after a toxic boss and I still get mild anxiety when new normal boss calls and says “come to my office to speak to me.”

    The affects of toxic people linger so much longer than they should.

    1. Pam Beasley

      Totally agree with this! I’ve gotten excellent feedback in my current job, but the toxicity of my last job has caused horrible anxiety when a boss says “come to my office to speak to me” more than anything else.

    2. KatieHR

      100% agree. I was at a bad job for 4 years and whenever boss called me and said, “can we talk for a minute?” It was always about what I am doing wrong now and how I am ruining the company. I had to have a heart to heart with my current boss about how much anxiety I have when I hear that phrase. She will now be very specific about why she needs to talk to me in her office.

  20. Anon anony

    Has anyone been in more than 1 toxic job? Back to back toxic/dysfunctional places?

    1. Werewolves not Swearwolves

      I would also be curious to see some responses to this. I just got an offer from my old workplace and turned them down. It meant turning down a big raise. I’m not yet at peace with the choice I made, but I just could. Not. Go. Back.

        1. Werewolves not Swearwolves

          It totally is- which is why I made the choice to turn them down…but I’m one of those millennials who is deeply behind financially, so it really stings.

    2. Goya de la Mancha

      I would be tempted to go off-grid and live off the land if that happened to me! :(

    3. Leave it to Beaver

      I had a toxic boss and a toxic job. The boss at my first job taught me a lot, including never leave the office before 5:30. (see my above post) But my last job was exceptional in its toxicity. After 4 years of a decent work environment, a new boss came in and everything went pear shaped. My reviews were also meets expectations or above. But, suddenly I was persona non-grata. Placed on a PIP, told that I was terrible at everything, I asked for examples and was told they wanted to keep the confidentiality of the people who complained about me. Fortunately, I left before I got fired, but I also worry that they’ll haunt my professional life if ever contacted during new job background checks. I still suffer after effects from that experience.

      1. ragazza

        That’s what’s so frustrating. You can be in a good environment and one new toxic boss can ruin everything.

        1. loslothluin

          We had one that the real estate paralegal and I were sure he was bipolar or something. We finally started calling him BB – bipolar bob – after a few blow ups. Thankfully, he quit and is someone else’s headache.

      2. Close Bracket

        “After 4 years of a decent work environment, a new boss came in and everything went pear shaped. My reviews were also meets expectations or above. But, suddenly I was persona non-grata. Placed on a PIP, told that I was terrible at everything, I asked for examples and was told they wanted to keep the confidentiality of the people who complained about me.”
        Wait a minute, are you me? Oh no, you said you left before you got fired, and I actually got fired. Other than that, we have practically identical stories.

        1. Leave it to Beaver

          I formally protested the PIP and used some formal language. It helped that they knew I had a lawyer in the family (though she didn’t write it). I think it bought me some time and made them extra cautious.

          But, even though you got fired, I have a feeling we’re both better off. Even if we still bare the scars of toxic $#@%$#@.

        2. Turtles

          Oh, you and I have almost identical stories, except I was only in Toxic Work Place for a year. I even got promoted in that time period, and then fired 5 months later. Does that sound at all reasonable?

    4. loslothluin

      Yes! I’ve had three, unfortunately. The first was when I was just out of high school working at a frame shop while going to college. The store manager called my mom at her job (cannot remember why), and the store manager then tried to slap my mother. Then, I had a job at a ceramics studio doing hand-painted dinnerware (think Gail Pittman or Mackenzie-Child’s). So, that boss did nothing but berate people all day, every single day. It went in for five years, and he was yelling at me about something not being done fast enough and why I could do it as fast as Jackwagon. I finally told him it was bad cause she got all the easy stuff and that people were saying she was giving him bl***obs to have it that way. I got laid off the next week. In a bit of karma, the entire place went under, and he lost a TON of money buying land to build a subdivision. Now, he owns a tiny landscaping business.

    5. Anonymous for this one

      I had one job for eight years that was so dysfunctional I think I overlooked some of the warning signs at the next place I went. It took being laid off and moving on to a very positive place to make me realize how bad that second job had been.

    6. Nita

      Yeah. My husband has. That really messes with one’s mind. You get out of one messed-up job and land in another one, and you start to think that maybe you’re the problem here.

      Thankfully he realizes that most of what’s going on is just the nature of his line of work, and it’s going to keep happening in any workplace unless he’s able to leave this type of work altogether. Also, he’s been talking to old coworkers and they’re having the same problems he did, so he knows it’s not him carrying the issues around wherever he goes. Still… it does get the idea planted in one’s mind, and it’s very unhealthy.

    7. Turquoisecow

      I haven’t, but I’ve known people who have. An old workplace of mine was slowly meandering toward a second bankruptcy and bleeding workers left and right – for good reason! Some of the management was trying their best, but the highest up was super incompetent. A couple of people left and came back – but got a significant increase in salary – that they wouldn’t have gotten if they’d stayed, as the rest of us remained in a salary freeze. (I worked there seven years. first I got a bonus. Second year I got a raise when I was promoted. The rest of the time? Nothing.)

      It’s not a big industry, so I ended up working with a lot of former coworkers at my current place. The thing was, a lot of the minions like us were nice, and great to work with and there was a sense of camaraderie. The higher ups made bad decisions, and we suffered for it, but most of us didn’t blame each other. There was a bit of a culture of complaints, which it’s been hard to move away from – even with less to complain about.

    8. RabbitRabbit

      I was, but they were toxic in different ways, which made me nervous about leaving the second one because I expected they would all be bad. This really hampered my career, and I’m only recently starting to make up for lost time.
      The first one had a boss who was bad at communicating, wouldn’t stick up for his team, and who pushed us to do things that didn’t seem appropriate but would then fail to back us up when something would go wrong. I was laid off due to budget cuts, so I had to leave that one.
      So maybe I was overly grateful to get a second job, but in this one, the first manager just didn’t want to do anything (and fortunately we didn’t need him that much, so eventually that was noticed and he was removed), and the second was similar but also nasty/Mean Girl in various ways.
      My current job, I’m on the team with possibly the highest employee engagement score in the whole institution (several thousand employees) as of our last evaluation – no, it’s not perfect but we are a solid team and know what we have to do and why.

    9. Close Bracket

      Every job I have been at has been dysfunctional in its special own way. Some had systemic dysfunction, and some had one jerk who ruined everything (I should add, one jerk in a position to set the tone). I have now worked in enough places that I can see what the good elements were in each place as well.
      I am starting to feel as though the toxic workplace discourse has a strong element of No True Scotsman. That is, every workplace will have some horrible element to it. Instead of acknowledging that every workplace will have some horrible element to it, we dismiss those work places as being one-off and label them as toxic (” no true good work place…”). Really, the problem is that work places are composed of individuals, and individuals are selfish, manipulative, passive aggressive, narcissistic, egotistical, unable to constructively deal with conflict, and a host of other negative qualities. The only way to get a non-toxic workplace is to found a work place with no individuals. Good luck with that.

      1. Werewolves not Swearwolves

        I somewhat agree that most workplaces will have that element at some point, but it is also possible if management/administration chooses to make professionalism a big priority.

      2. Cedrus Libani

        To rip off Tolstoy…every happy workplace is alike, but every unhappy workplace is unhappy in its own way.

        I am in a happy workplace. My coworkers are not saints, nor am I. We’re normal humans, with base motivations, annoying quirks etc. However, we all know that behaving like grownups is not optional, and if you can’t, there’s the door…

    10. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

      I’ve had two internships that were toxic in different ways. #1 gave me zero feedback until I suddenly heard that they had cancelled all the plans we had for after the internship and that I basically sucked at everything. It came so out of the blue that it was really traumatizing and it took me years and several positive work experiences to believe in myself professionally again. Maybe this lack of confidence and effects of previous trauma somehow showed in me because at internship #2 I went through some pretty classic emotional abuse. It was just my boss and me, she had no regular employees, and I endured several escalating rounds of yelling, telling me how impossibly awful I was at everything, and then her trying to make amends by being excessively nice – until it starts all over again. That was actually somehow easier to handle because it was so clearly and obviously not normal (though I still believed I suck at everything, but I knew adults aren’t supposed to yell and be scary like that). At place #1 everything seemed to be fine until suddenly nothing was fine, and I think it was worse.

      1. Midge

        I had a college class a little like #1. The professor gave us a midterm project, but didn’t believe in giving us any grades until the end of the semester. I thought I had learned a lot and was doing well, but when I got my final grade it was a C-. Lowest in the class. How do I know? Because all the grades were posted on a single sheet of paper next to our names. I tried to reach out to the professor for feedback on my work, but she had left the country to do research over the summer and would not respond to email.

        1. The New Wanderer

          Ugh, I had a grad school class kind of like that. I even asked for feedback on the Major Paper drafts we had to do and he said it looked good so far, but came back with a low (for grad school) grade, which, what? Then on a second project where we had to work with a partner, those grades didn’t come out til after the last day of class and yep, lowest in the class.

          I met with him after that and he said a) I shouldn’t have asked for feedback, that’s basically cheating, and b) even though my partner was the only undergrad in the class (who was in over his head) and it was obvious to the prof that I had done 80% of the work because of its high quality, it still should have been better. He called me a grade grubber, then tried to tell me GPAs don’t matter anyway (um, they still do in some cases, like at my previous employer!). He also said if I contested the grade with the dean, he would deny saying anything that we just discussed. So, yeah.

          He was married but was also a lech to one student in particular, who very quickly learned not to meet with him alone. If I’d been his grad student I would have bailed. As it was, I refused to have him on my dissertation committee on principle.

    11. Nisie

      Job 1- boss was crazy, bullying and insane. She changed policy depending on the weather.
      Job 2- boss just gave up and was bidding time until retirement. He let the second shift constantly have it’s way and also became somewhat enamoured with young female coworkers.
      Job 3- no feedback until I was fired.

    12. Gazebo Slayer

      Yuuuuup! A place where my boss made me cry daily and sexually harassed my coworker while sabotaging her attempts to find another job so she could get away from him. Then, right after it, one where my boss had a habit of not paying people (while going on at length about how he was sooo ethical and enlightened and better than those evil big corporations); when I quit because of this he told me he’d been doing me a favor because I’d never get a job anywhere else.

    13. Vermonter

      I stayed in the same position at the same company, but my toxic manager was ousted and replaced with… another toxic manager.

  21. Goya de la Mancha

    My job isn’t toxic, but it definitely leads down the dysfunctional path. I’ve been taking baby steps to lead it toward the functional path, but it’s been a two steps forward/one step back type deal. Looking back at how dysfunctional it WAS though, my Supervisor has grown a lot and we are slowly headed in the right direction. Hopefully we get there before I lose all sense of business normalcy ;)

    1. Dame Judi Brunch

      Agreed! It’s so infuriating!
      I tolerated Toxic Job for 6 years. Yelling, screaming, the blame game, you name it, we had it.
      It took the addition of gaslighting to push me over the edge and decide to leave. It helped that people had already left and found normal jobs. Their reporting back from the real world helped me see that the environment was not normal.
      It had gotten to the point where I assumed every employer was the same and I was never going to be treated any differently, so why leave?
      All the alumni from this place still have some anxiety and PTSD, but it’s getting better.

  22. ArtsNerd

    Reading through my comments on that post last year, I’m still navigating many of the same challenges (e.g. how to productively move from deadline adrenaline to longer term, more strategic work; how to communicate project status and get feedback vs. hiding my work from micromanagers) but I’m much further along than I was. I’m so grateful for my current work environment. I’m even making plans on weekday evenings now, because I know I’ll be able to leave the office to attend them.

  23. Kitty Kai

    Oh, definitely been there. Or rather currently there. I didn’t realize how much I was brushing off as normal in my current job until a new employee came in and pointed out just how disfunctional everything is. Just today my manager told another coworker, who has food poisoning, to “take pepto bismol and show up. ” I and the new employee are working out our last week, so we won’t have to put up with it for much longer thankfully.

  24. loslothluin

    I’m in this right now. I work for 3 attorneys, and the litigation paralegal quit and th contract attorney quit, too,. I am now functioning as admin, paralegal, legal secretary, receptionist, and picking up the slack from the contract attorney. I got yelled at the other day when I sent a totally reasonable question to verify my base salary since I was applying for a new checking account at a new bank. My attorney went absolutely nuts and started yelling that no way would he ever give me a raise since I don’t deserve one. They’re all unhinged. The firm administrator once yelled at me for parking near the front door the day after Christmas when we were the only two people in the entire office at work. Hey, no mater how well I do in interviews, I can’t get out of this hellhole to save my life.

    I know it’s dysfunctional, but I can’t escape.

    1. irene adler

      I hear ya.

      Three years of interviewing. No bites.
      ONe day I’d like to find a boss that actually has my back. Around here, one never knows for sure.

      1. loslothluin

        Mine never does. I’ve been here 11 years, and they still have to mansplain everything.

    2. DanniellaBee

      It is insane how toxic the law firm environment can be. I put myself through college working as a legal assistant and then got a job at the fanciest corporate law firm in Seattle after college because I was still testing the waters as to whether I wanted to apply to law school. My very first week there a fellow assistant shared with me that she and most of the other staff members were on anti-anxiety meds and I should really think about getting on some to be proactive. I stayed 9 months until I could find a new job and pivoted to IT project management. I am so sorry you are dealing with so much crazy! Keep trying to escape as soon as you can.

      1. Haiku

        Can I ask how you did that? I’m interested in IT project management myself, though currently employed at a human services type nonprofit.

    3. Al who is that Al

      When this happened to me, I quit. They tried to make me stay but I left anyway, no job, no prospects, big mortgage etc etc. Within a day of leaving I was far happier than I had been in years. My confidence came rushing back and within days I was job hunting 8 hours a day, talking to all sorts of people. 6 weeks later walked into a contract job paying £350 a day. Totally blasted the interview as I felt I was the complete mutts. I would never have got the job while working for the previous place as I was so drained and pitiful.

  25. A Nickname for AAM

    I’ve worked in so many toxic environments over the years that I now feel that there’s something wrong with me for being unable to take the toxic environments. Like I’m a weakling.

    Instead of saying, “X is always unacceptable in the workplace,” I think, “So many people put up with X in the workplace, why can’t I too?”

    1. ArtsNerd

      I’m sorry. That mindset is insidious. In almost all situations X IS truly unacceptable in the workplace and it takes strength to recognize that and walk away. Good luck.

    2. Tex

      I would consider it a strength, not a weakness, to know your boundaries and deal breakers.

      After all, if you take a job knowing that X is bad, that means you are in a position of weakness, that you feel you have no other choice. Instead, there are always other choices – not necessarily good alternatives, just different ones.

    3. Alternative Person

      I think there’s a level of toxicity in some fields that is so normalized it’s hard to fight against. Mine, particularly the geographical area I work in has a nasty self-defeating employee cycle that tends to result in good staff moving on (both within the field and elsewhere) and mediocre accumulating just enough seniority/power to become pain in the asses to anyone they perceive a threat.

      It’s super hard to deal with because there are so many levels of ingrained, unhealthy culture to peel back. I think it’s important to remember that you’re doing your best against a lot of unhealthy things that have been perpetuated over a very long time. It takes strength not to give into unhealthy practices and toxic environments. You’re doing great for being able to acknowledge that stuff is toxic and not accepting it.

  26. I'm A Little TeaPot

    Doesn’t even have to be “toxic”. A mildly dysfunctional environment can accumulate over time and mess up your normal meter.

    1. strawberries and raspberries

      It totally can, especially if it’s a “we’re a family” type place and everything seems friendly until you’re on the outside and then you always look like the irrational one if you have a problem because the team is supposed to be so solid. (Not that that’s happening right now or anything.)

      1. ArtsNerd

        “We’re a family” is such a red flag to me that when someone described my musical group as a kind of family, I was horrified. “No, we’re much more functional than that.” My family isn’t even all that dysfunctional. I love them to bits. And I would never survive in an office with those interpersonal dynamics.

      2. ArtsNerd

        I’m sorry you’re going through that. Strong teams are able to handle disagreement. Good luck!

      3. ragazza

        I just read something about how referring to a workplace as a “family” allows all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors, wish I could find it. A workplace is emphatically NOT a family, nor should it be. Big red flag for me when companies use this to describe their culture.

  27. clow

    I knew my last job was toxic pretty early on, and still tried to let go of stuff. There was a lot of subtle stuff, gaslighting, manipulation etc, instead of the yelling and screaming. It was reading this site that made me realize that I really needed to get out before it was too late. I am lucky that I wasn’t even there a year, and I am still a much more anxious person than I used to be even a year later. My anxiety almost becomes paranoia at times these days, and it all began after taking that job. I cannot imagine how people stay in these jobs for years, my heart really goes out to anyone who is in an abusive job, it can destroy your sense of well-being really quickly.

  28. AKA Noone

    Wondering if anyone else out there is at a toxic job without the yelling, abuse, etc.? Meaning – I think my job has become toxic over time and I also think I’ve lost perspective. Mine is every creeping workload and expectations, bad benefits that are sold as normal, performance expectations without support to get there:
    1. Projects and promises become deals with the devil. Whenever they want us to take on a new project or role, the team agrees to limits and then we learn those limits don’t apply and what you agreed too now is a HUGE amount of work and something you would have never agreed to in the first place. It is too late to back out because the project is rolling, etc. This is now so common that any time my CEO or boss asks for volunteers or sells a new project (“because we got a grant and now we have to do X, Y” before checking to see if we could actually do X, Y without staff, money, etc.) I avoid it like the plague because I know Darth is going to be “altering the terms of our agreement.” Then I worry I am tanking because I am not a team player.
    2. For those new projects, there is no money but pressure to spend your own. Like getting the special training (continuing education required to do project x) on your own $ and you own PTO, and then the CEO guilts you into “It’s only $300, really and you can do it at night or in one day off?” Talking to other people I find they get paid nicely to do that extra training to get that certification and the PTO.etc. Talking to others in the same work and for similar companies they look at me like I am crazy – why do you stay?
    3. Stating our benefits are competitive when they are not. Doing it so often you start to believe it until you sniff around.
    4. Hour creep – the 70 hour a week job is becoming more and when you say you need the next day off to recover from the night shift, it’s buck up. Or take your own PTO (after working the weekend).
    5. I started setting boundaries (nowhere near enough for my family) and feel guilty for doing it. Not crazy boundaries – more like, it’s my day off, there is no fire, don’t schedule a meeting because “it’s the only thing that works for boss.”

    Sorry so long – how do you get perspective back on stuff like this? I worry that I am the negative attitude that needs to change (my reviews are stellar – I try to keep it outside of work). How do you figure out if it is YOU or the place is skewing you? I am having a bigger epiphany after coming back from a conference…

    1. CM

      Talk to people! I think networking can help a lot here. When you meet people in your industry, you can casually ask them what their work life is like. Interviewing for other jobs may actually be helpful too — you can get a sense of what is out there, even if all you do is look at job descriptions and do some Googling.

    2. loslothluin

      No way on the PTO/paying for a certification that the boss wants me to have. I have pushed back on this kind of thing. It makes them mad, but I’m not spending my time off or money for the benefit of the office.

    3. Anonymous stranger on the 5pm train to nowhere

      I have actually had not one but two jobs that both involved a sort of subtile toxicity, rather than the yelling and screaming abuse. I would, however, like to first say that I am super grateful not to have had to deal with any yelling and I am also very grateful that the vast majority of my coworkers have been reasonable, decent people. I’ll take my experience over some of the other experiences described here anyday :)

      Note: Gender neutral pronouns used to protect the not-so-innocent.

      I had two jobs (both immediately following graduation, first from undergrad then from grad school) that nonetheless had some pretty lasting negative impacts. In both cases, being right out of school, I found that my bosses really looked down on me, didn’t respect me, and didn’t have any interest in building up their staff, despite knowing full well that I was in an entry-level type role. In the first one, I was given literally no work, and my boss made it clear that most of the time they saw having to manage me as an annoyance (Me: “here is the thing you asked for, is there something else I can do for you?” Boss: *shuts door in my face*.) I would occasionally try to take more initiative, but the problem was that I had so little work that I was very un-integrated in the organization. I remember comparing how I felt 10 weeks into the job vs. 10 weeks into my summer internship the year before, and noticing how much more confident, integrated and respected I felt at the end of my internship than I did at the new job. One of the other entry-level hires had the same problem (very little work, and what was given was very mundane) and they were far more vocal about the fact that they did not have the type or amount of work appropriate for a college graduate. They were fired.

      The second time (after a masters degree and some experience), I at least had a good work load and some substantive work, but my boss regularly referred to my junior-ness (I was junior, but I’ve never before or since had a boss announce that fact so often) and gave me a ton of very mundane tasks that did not fit with what the job should have been (it was supposedly a “junior professional”-type position to built up recent masters-level graduates…in reality I was an underpaid personal assistant). Despite the fact that my boss recognized that I was well-qualified in terms of education and experience, my boss wouldn’t include me in the more career-oriented work and would undermine my ability to take on more responsibility. For example, during a time of peak workload, I tried to calmly and impartially explain that a new project would be difficult to manage with big (and more interesting) projects A, B, and C plus my regular personal assistant responsibilities all going on concurrently. My boss responded by saying that if it was too much he could take away one of the more interesting projects (ensuring I had time for the personal assistant stuff). Result: I did everything, but the quality was reduced due to level of workload.

      While no doubt this was far less traumatic that the abusive type of toxic work places, it really did damanage my confidence in my abilities, which negatively impacted me in my next jobs. I became used to micromanaging and became uncomfortable taking initiative because I was used to environments where I wasn’t “allowed” to do anything of any substance. I always felt like I need to apologize for wanting to take on higher level work.

      In both jobs, at the time of hiring there was an attitude of “we know the salary is a bit low, but it’s a great opportunity to gain experience,” but in reality I found that the low salary really did reflect how much I was valued, i.e. not much.

      Fortunately, I am getting over this now that I have worked in places that are more empowering. I still get very defensive if I feel like anyone is encroaching on my territory or trying to take away substantive work from me, but overall I think I can function normally in the workplace. It took about 6 very rough months after the second bad job mentioned above to get this way, but I think I’m fairly quickly headed in the right direction.

    4. Amylou

      Wow you talking about my last job (=my first ever job)? There was definitely workload creep (if you were doing sth really well, why don’t you do task X as well and maybe task Y too, etc etc, and ended up with double workload yay…), longer and longer hours, low pay and “good benefits” (nah no they weren’t;), “its a family”, being promised training and then when picking sth “let’s wait and see what potential skills potential new person brings”, colleagues being all up in your schedule (what’s that outside meeting about? What was discussed?), non-managing manager… tons of small things that (in hindsight) add up to a non-functioning/toxic workplace.

      It exhausted me at some points. I tried so hard but it was never good enough it seemed. I had been looking for other jobs for a while but it’s so hard to put energy into that if all your energy goes into work. At some point, something clicked: that there wasn’t anything I could change about the situation except leaving and that I should set boundaries. I got really strict with working hours, figuring: hey if you’re not happy I don’t finish my work, well sorry only got so many hours in the day! A bit of a cynical attitude I know but it freed up some mental space for a bit.

      I am now working at a new job, much better paid and much better benefits (double the vacation days, actual good benefits); I am far less busy busy busy than I was at my old job. It does make me feel a little guilty sometimes. But I know things will get busy later as most projects are still in the starting phase.

      Good luck to you AKA Noone ! Hope you’re able to set some boundaries and get into a good groove again.

      Reading AAM definitely helped. (Thanks Alison!)

  29. Ro

    Not necessarily how it warps your thinking about how the work world should operate, but…

    Staying in a toxic work environment also really messes with your ability to see yourself as competent. It’s been really hard for me in job searching to come up with lots of positive ways to talk about myself and my accomplishments. After being beaten down, bullied, and discounted for so many years, it’s taken LOTS of effort to go through what I’ve done at work and recognize/reframe them as accomplishments (as opposed to how my efforts are viewed here- just low-level grunt work that anyone could do and not worthy of praise).

    1. I'm A Little TeaPot

      Same, and it wasn’t all that toxic. I’ve actually had multiple people from last job ask me if I’d come back. I would love to. Not while THAT manager is unchanged. Training, leave, don’t have people report to them, etc. I was a top performer. I was convinced that I was a bottom performer. Tells you something.

  30. CM

    I wouldn’t call my job at a big law firm toxic, but I can relate to assuming everything is normal. “Normal” for me included regularly staying up all night, working all weekend, being available on a moment’s notice, and being expected to make work my one and only priority and have somebody else take care of everything else in my life. I went to therapy because I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me when everybody else seemed to be thriving in that environment – and I actually liked my job! My therapist said, “Um, you don’t have time to sleep, exercise, see your family, or do anything outside of work,” and I was like, “Yes, and?” I just figured every job open to me would be like that.

    Around the same time, I was getting recruited by another law firm. A friend who worked there encouraged me to interview and went on and on about how great the firm was. Later in the same conversation, she cried and told me how she was miserable at work. When I said, “You just told me to apply and that it was a great place to work!” and she said, “Well, it is! For a law firm.”

    1. loslothluin

      A friend got an email from someone at a national firm for the office I my city. In the email, it said, “The attorneys are actually nice. They DO exist!”

  31. Legallyspeaking

    So very true.

    My last boss wasn’t mean or anything but she was promoted and given a team without practical work experience in our subject matter expert area.

    Which led her to deflect questions (which were time sensitive,) avoid difficult conversations which impacted our decision making and she always spoke about her drinking, dating life and partying.

    It wasn’t abusive but getting work done meant not including her in important conversations because she didn’t add any benefit.

  32. Jaybeetee

    I’ve been a recession child, and wound up in many crappy entry-level jobs over the years with assorted types of toxicity. The one that stuck with me the most was this non-profit museum I worked at for a couple of years in my mid-20s. Both museums and non-profits are known for nuttiness and shoestring budgets, and this place was all kinds of dysfunction:

    1) Micromanaged and treated like errant children (break-times monitored, raked over the coals for minor mistakes, weird “rules”.)

    2) General insanity around money and expenses – I remember literally being chastised over $5 one time – “The museum can’t afford that!” We were all being paid below market value (most of us students/recent grads), which stung even more as this was a rural location and everyone had to drive there.

    3) A new ED was brought in, presumably to straighten everything out. Which she did…then went overboard. Went from “no one ever gets fired, even if they really should be” to “You ticked off the ED in that meeting, watch your back…” She let go about 25% of our workplace in the space of about a year. This wound up creating an even more toxic culture, where everyone was trying to curry favour with the ED, and in some cases sabotaging other employees (me) in order to curry that favour. It became a very “Mean Girls” culture.

    That was the worst, but I wound up in a few other crappy situations too, especially through temping, where the message was, “If you look at us cross-eyed, we’ll have you out of here and a new body in by tomorrow.” 2 temp-to-perm positions actually did let me go within days of starting because I was a “bad fit” (at less than a week in, I still think this should have been caught during the recruitment process – and no, I didn’t do anything egregious at either job).

    In the present day, I work for government, and I’m still getting used to the ideas that a) if I need something, they will pay for it, b) if I need additional training or am having trouble, I can ask for it (and not just get eviscerated every time I make a mistake), c) If they’re not happy with me, I’ll know about it long before it gets to getting fired over it, d) No one is watching my comings/goings/breaks/appointments, as long as I’m getting everything done and my absences aren’t too frequent/egregious, and e) if the managers have a closed-door meeting, they’re probably not even talking about me, let alone planning on firing me. I’m still getting over a certain amount of job-related anxiety related to years of uncertainty and crappy work environments.

    1. Jennifer Thneed

      “Bad fit” can mean “I don’t like them, for no particular reason, or for a reason I know I’m not allowed to say.” And you know it’s true that sometimes you just “click” with a person, and sometimes you just whatever-the-opposite-of-clicking-is with a person. I think it’s down to scent, myself, at a very unconscious level, but whatever.

      That stuff *can’t* be caught during a recruitment process by the temp agency, because it’s so personal. It might be caught during an interview (if you get to do that), but probably it will only be caught when you spend time together with the person in question.

      I’m really glad that you’re in a better place now.

  33. annakarina1

    I had gotten fired from a job two years ago where I felt like I was going backwards in my training, was treated more like an intern instead of a mature professional (I’m in my thirties, but was treated as if I was an inexperienced entry-level worker), was kept out of important meetings, was talked down to a lot, and it was a miserable environment. It took me several months to get another job, and though I’ve been doing well in my current job for over a year, I still had that nervousness about getting fired for the first several months, and being amazed that I made it to a year and past instead of being let go or treated like crap.

  34. Close Bracket

    The arm-biter will always be my workplace hero. That was just the chickens coming home to roost.

  35. Toxic Isn't the Word for It

    I am suffering from PTSD from LastJob. Talk about toxic!

    I have severe bronchial issues (asthma, COPD, genetic emphysema–it’s called A1AD) and requested an accommodation. The accommodation was that folks who sit near me not use spray air fresheners/Lysol/perfumes. HR was on board, but they wouldn’t enforce it. I spent six months with my co-worker spraying air freshener and Lysol all over the place. At one point, she drenched my London Fog shorty rain coat with Lysol. That was two years ago and it is still unwearable.

    I went to HR and kept telling them that she wasn’t adhering to my accommodation. Six months. Finally, one day the shit hit the fan and co-worker and I ended up in HR. I lost my cool and told them that I wouldn’t be so stressed out if I wasn’t afraid my co-worker was going to kill me every day. Bitchy co-worker said, in front of HR in a crazy snotty voice, “I don’t understand how spraying Lysol could kill you!” Instead of telling her that they (HR) understood and that’s all she needed to know, I had to give up my right to medical privacy and lay it all out for her, how Lysol affects my bronchioles and why it cannot be used around me and how it can kill me. I also mentioned that the Company Policies clearly noted that products like that could not be used at all within the company, so not only was this my medical accommodation but this was also a company policy. So bitchy co-worker wasn’t just violating my accommodation, she was also violating company policy. And the company didn’t care. When the accommodation was first granted, HR embraced it by saying “Yeah, you would probably have a Worker’s Comp case….”. And then they did nothing.

    I ended up in the hospital three times while I was at that job, the last time when I had a heart attack (at age 49) on 12/18/16 (Merry Christmas to me I guess). I am so happy to say that I haven’t had to go to the hospital since I left ShitJob. My PTSD occasionally rears its head, but it’s minor and I am able to get it under control fairly rapidly. If not, I have a very effective 1mg Valium prescription that calms me down so I don’t freak out. But I do still have my freakouts, and every time it’s due to any situation that resembles the situation at ShitJob.

    1. Werewolves not Swearwolves

      Dear lord that is an awful experience. At the old job, my desk was right next to a huge window and the way the room was laid out I had to face the window. Well, it turns out that trying to focus on a computer screen with a super bright window behind it triggered visual migraines! Oh my god, I was treated like the biggest killjoy because I needed to have my blinds drawn. It was commented on almost daily. And yet no one would let me move to another spot. It was like I was just making it up. I even went to the extreme of having my doctor write it out for my boss. No one ever stopped whining about it.

      1. Toxic Isn't The Word For It

        The foraging on the cupcake was this…..

        The last time I went to HR to complain, the HR rep held up my file and said that no one else in the company had a file as thick as mine. I opined that if he would enforce the accommodation that was granted, I wouldn’t be in HR every week. I never complained again and spent my final six months there driving to work every day in a state of terror, wondering if this was the day I was going to be taken out in an ambulance or a hearse. That stress was what caused my heart attack. I mean, I’m not afraid of death, but I’m not ready to die yet.

        1. Toxic Isn't The Word For It

          Foraging=frosting.

          Aaaaaand, when I had my heart attack it was considered seven individual unexcused absences. Nice, huh? One of the top credit card processors in the world.

            1. Toxic Isn't The Word For It

              Yeah, and they were individual because I didn’t check in via phone every day. With a tube down my throat. I had webmail in the hospital and sent them an email, usually around. 4-5 am when I was doing my breathing treatment/getting my blood drawn. That wasn’t good enough.

              Then, just for sh’giggles, when I went back to work….in the hospital, my PCP was coordinating everything (I got a few things going and he was in charge of coordinating my care). My work wouldn’t accept the return to work letter from him, only from my pulmonologist. For a day and half I tried and tried to get a letter from that doctor…until he fired me as a patient. My PCP had to write a detailed return to work letter, writing specific things I couldn’t do (e.g., heavy lifting……which I never did anyways), and for how long. I lasted four more months and it took a month before I could even think of app,ting for another job.

              Oh. And they fought my unemployment. I lost.

              1. SpaceNovice

                Holy crap. I’m so glad you got out. That’s awful! The entire story is horrible.

                It is sadly believable, though. My last workplace sent me to the hospital because they kept the temperatures too cold in the office, and the building manager (we were contractors, the building was owned by the government) wouldn’t raise the temperatures or approve a heater. Due to severely undertreated hypothyroidism, my body couldn’t stay warm. It was just like you said–I went in every day terrified that it would kill me or hospitalize me worse than it did before. A unique sort of awful, and I’m really sorry you went through it, too–especially since you had it far worse than I did.

                No problem getting a heater at my current job, and they were actually confused why I was worried it would be an issue.

    2. Thursday Next

      Literally toxic. I’m so sorry your old job put you through all this, and glad you’re better now.

  36. Luna123

    I was fired from a toxic job six months ago, and now that I have an amazing new job, I can’t stop comparing them. During my first month here, I messed up some letters (used the wrong stamp), but my coworker just told me about it and made sure it knew how to do it correctly for the next time. My old boss was SO passive-aggressive, either she wouldn’t have said anything and let her frustration fester, or she would have sent me a 300 word email about it at 4am the next morning.

    I took a pay cut, but it’s 100% worth it to be working with normal, professional adults

  37. Penelope

    It really is like being in a bad relationship and then witnessing a great one (or getting into a great one and wondering how you survived the bad one). I worked at a place that was old fashioned, sexist, in an outdated industry that was way, way behind. I went to Meetups that focused on the position I really wanted, in companies that were in the forefront. It helped ease the transition from undesirable position to one that was a better fit. It was still a shock though, and I had some bad habits I needed to break very quickly

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

      I have a “going from bad to good” relationship example, so I know exactly what you are talking about! One time my then-bf texted me just as I was leaving for his place, to tell me that he was coming down with a bad cold, but to come over anyway. He woke up the next morning saying “I am really sick, I have the fever and the chills. Sit on the couch, I want to lie down with my head in your lap for a couple of hours” and I did, knowing full well I would get his cold. Which of course I did, and came down with it a few days later. I was sick as a dog, used up my sick days. He apologized, I think. Fast forward a few years to my next relationship, I come to the new bf’s place for a weekend and, as soon as I walk in, he says, “wait don’t hug me. I was sick with a cold all week. I’m well now, but might still be contagious.” I just stared at him like he’d told me he could fly. I had not known my SOs could be considerate of me like that! I clearly remember feeling shocked.

      Hope to get a similar workplace-related experience someday. My current place is pretty dysfunctional. Just like in your case, our skills are not quite at the marketable level, so getting out is not going to be easy. My biggest fear is going from one dysfunctional place to another just like it, because no one else would have me. Can you maybe elaborate on how the Meetups helped you transition to a more in-demand position?

  38. anon toxic

    Haven’t read all the comments yet, but want to.

    I wanted to say that I am 16 years out of a toxic job. It was my first job out of college and it was so extraordinarily unusual. It was impossible to describe how intense and, at times, bad it was to outsiders. To this day, 16 years later, certain things can trigger painful memories.

  39. AnonAnon

    Funny timing. I was just reviewing Alison’s response to my question from a couple of years ago, about how much of my boss’ job I should do for him: https://www.askamanager.org/2016/12/does-my-boss-expect-too-much-from-me.html

    Her response was incredibly insightful, pointing out that part of what was going wrong was that I was losing track of what was and was not reasonable — which meant that not only was I slowly becoming acclimated to my boss’ unreasonable requests… but also that I was overreacting to reasonable ones:

    “And what’s happening to you sounds like a thing that happens very often when you’re working in a job with some dysfunction: You start not being able to tell what’s normal and what isn’t, and you can end up overreacting to things that aren’t that big of a deal or even things that are fairly standard. You can also end up under-reacting to things that are a huge deal, because your norms are all thrown off. This is one of the biggest long-term problems with working for a bad boss, and it can make things tough when you move to a more functional employer and are still calibrated for the dysfunctional one.”

    (This came up today because my boss’ boss asked for feedback about my boss, following some complaints made by other staff, and presumably in anticipation of a performance conversation. So things haven’t improved, except that my boss’ boss is new since I wrote in and is a much stronger leader than our previous VP.)

    1. A job for Frances

      I realize I’m a touch late to the commenting party on this one but this response reminded me of different type of PTSD symptom called hypervigilance. I saw, am seeing, my brother go through this. After a seriously dysfunctional, toxic, and traumatic work environment/experience/coworkers/boss, now at NewJob he is hypersensitive to the merest possibility that things could be bad and looks for problems where there really aren’t any with the attitude of “I won’t tolerate this again!”. Like something or some circumstance may be not optimal, but it’s certainly nothing crazy and is most definitely short term due to the impending deadline on a project or a transition period with a new employee or something. There is usually awareness and acknowledgment of the issue(s) at other levels (or so he describes) that tell me that whatever the event of the week is, it isn’t just unchecked dysfunction wreaking havoc. He is so easily freaked out by everything that it really does push the listener (usually me or his wife) to minimize, even things that maybe are problematic and need to be addressed. He has not actually been diagnosed yet, but I’ve been subtly pushing him towards actually seeing someone because I think it could help him process and reduce his overall anxiety levels, which are through the roof and must be just exhausting. Has anyone else had experience with this/witnessed this? Any thoughts on responding to this?

      1. Jennifer Thneed

        At least acknowledge that he *is* freaked out! Even if you think that he is over-reacting, he’s reacting to something real, and he needs you to believe him *before* you minimize it.

  40. Higher Ed Database Dork

    One of the things that took me a long time to recalibrate was my sense of competency. At my first full-time job, my director told us all that the administration didn’t do regular performance reviews because they didn’t want anyone to think they could ask for a raise (her actual words!). I sort of knew if I was doing a good job, but most of the time it was just constant criticism, so even if I felt like I did my best, it was knocked down.

    At my second job, my manager was so effuse with his praise that it basically had the same effect – I had no idea if I was actually doing a good job, or what I needed to work on, because he would never provide constructive feedback. He just heaped generic praise on me all the time, which is not as good as it sounds. I would ask specifically what things I did well – he couldn’t answer. I’d ask specifically what things needed improvement – he couldn’t answer. All my performance reviews were him copy/pasting my self evals into a form, emailing it to me with a “great job!”, and then submitting that. This caused me to really doubt my skills, especially when I was job searching, because I felt like I couldn’t really be confident that what I was doing, I was doing well. To top it off, if we encountered some kind of major technical problem (it was application support), he’d fly off the handle and freak out at my team – mostly because he was losing face with upper mgmt.

    Now I have a really great boss who provides a good blend of praise and constructive criticism, and he points to specifics. I actually have areas I can improve, and I feel more of a sense of accomplishment, instead of just flailing around.

  41. Peachy

    My last workplace (and first out of college) was so toxic that I still feel physically sick thinking about it three years later. So, so many awful things happened there.

    One time, I had a phone call with my manager to go over some projects I was working on (she worked on the west coast remotely, I worked in the midwest, and almost all of the rest of the time worked on the east coast). Because of this, my manager told me on my first day of work only to refer to EST when discussing times to avoid confusion. Anyway, she had asked me early that morning if 10:00 worked for our phone call (of course, I assumed EST). I called her at 10:00 AM EST…no answer. I sent her an email around 10:30 EST asking if she wanted to reschedule (since I still hadn’t heard from her). Around 12:00 PM EST, I casually mentioned to my coworker (the only other individual working out of our midwest office on the team) that I was supposed to have a meeting with my supervisor at 10:00 AM EST, but hadn’t been able to get ahold of my manager. My coworker happened to be managed by my manager’s husband (which, was a problem in itself, they were so, so petty). My coworker happened to have her own meeting with her manager (my manager’s husband) and casually mentioned that I was supposed to meet with my manager (aka his wife), but I hadn’t heard from her.

    Well, my manager called me about 30 minutes later. I picked up the phone and pleasantly said “hello?” only to be berated immediately. The first words out of her mouth were, “um, do you have an issue with how I handle my time?” I was so caught off guard and said “no…” She said, “okay, well apparently you do since you felt the need to involve my husband. I was at a dentist appointment, do you need something?” I said, “no, I had just wondered about our meeting since it was supposed to be at 10:00 EST.” She huffed and said “um, nope, I was going off of MY time” (which was 3 hours behind EST). You really need to be more self sufficient and stop trying to get ahold of me for everything.” It was so insanely rude (especially since we’d been using EST per her request since my first day with the company, and she’d scheduled the phone call.) She was constantly jumping to conclusions and having fits over nothing. She’d berate me and make me feel two feet tall every time she spoke to me.

    It was awful. I’m still shocked when my current manager praises my work and acts reasonably based on my past experience.

  42. Pam Beasley

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll never forget my last day at my old, toxic job.

    I had an exit interview at my office scheduled for 3:30 PM that day (I usually worked until 4:30). I emailed our group “tax managers” email address to inform them that I’d entered my clock-out time as 4:30, but would not be available after 3:30 since I would be in my exit interview the last hour of the day. The head honcho of the whole tax department (whom I’d NEVER spoken to before – she worked out of an office in a different state), emailed back and said:

    “We don’t use phrases like ‘clock-in’ and ‘clock-out’ here. That’s just not professional. That may be a phrase that was acceptable in your previous college jobs, but this is a professional corporation, and a REAL career, so please reconsider your professionalism next time.”

    That was it. HOURS before my departure from this company forever. It was like they just had to throw in one last petty jab.

  43. Former Computer Professional

    A former boss was horrible. If he called you into his office, you knew you were getting screamed at. I got a new job. The second boss was worse. It was a nightmare. It got so bad for me and my coworkers that I went to the division director, who said that unless my coworkers spoke up, she could only assume it was a personal conflict.

    I found yet another job. Every time my newest boss called me into her office, I’d flinch. She’d tell me that I wasn’t in trouble. It took about two months before I realized she wouldn’t yell. What I’d experienced, twice, wasn’t normal.

    There was a bright side, though. My leaving the second job upset many in the division. They knew why I left, and (finally) went to the director to tell what they’d witnessed. My coworkers, too, started speaking up. It also turned out that the boss had screamed so much, at a meeting with some of my coworkers as well as people from other departments, that she called someone an f-ing moron.

    A month after I went to the third job, the second ex-boss got a major demotion. She wasn’t fired, but it was still justice.

  44. totally relate

    I worked at a toxic job for way too long and while I am no longer an employee of the company, I occasionally need to work with the old boss in my new position. It is really affecting my ability to do my job now, as she still tells me I am doing things wrong even when she 1) is not my boss and 2) often doesn’t know or understand the situation

    And of course, my new boss is sweet and helpful but I have a hard time dealing with old boss. I’ve realized that a lot of the things the old boss yelled at me for were things I could not have possibly done “right” (for example, I assumed that because I did something one way for 3 years with no comment it was okay to continue doing that task the same way – how was I to know that I was “wrong”?) but it’s hard to feel good about myself for anything

  45. Beeblebrox

    Unfortunately I had one of those toxic jobs right out of college, when I was young, impressionable and had no basis for comparison. You could have made a TV show out of that job– a law firm in NYC. I’m not exaggerating when I say that toxic job changed me permanently. That job taught me that I wasn’t good enough… for… whatever I was doing. My self-confidence never really fully recovered. I then went on to work for another law firm in a different city, and what a miracle, the people were decent human beings, polite, no one yelled, no drama, a nice work environment where I was respected. But it was too late for some shattered pieces of my personality.

  46. Former pizza worker

    I worked at a pizza place that was very toxic. I was trying to stay until I at least graduated and found an office job, but it got extremely toxic for me in there. I was to the point that I was ready to just stab and be in prison because of how they treated me. I got luck and got a seasonal job and they treated me so much better. That job closed sadly. But I got something else asap while I finished school. Now they treat me good while I look for an office job. The pizza job had caused me to angry cry a lot and I never had a job do that. I’ve been treated crappy at others, but never as bad as that one. And they have mistreated other former employees and then wonder why no one stays. Staying at a toxic job can be really bad. I will never stay at a job that treats me like that ever again

  47. Seastar

    Bookmarked. I had a job where the boss gave little positive feedback but much negative feedback and sometimes didn’t tell me I was doing something wrong until I had done it for a while, where they accommodated my disabilities in the workplace but showed that my inability to drive was a burden on them and threatened to fire me when my driver was late, where I constantly felt (truly or not) that I was one mistake away from being fired. (Though this was also because I had previously seen a boss at an unrelated job get fired by the higher-ups with no apparent warning and been fired from a longtime unrelated volunteer position because I once got upset to learn something about the organization’s operating philosophy). When I resigned, I thought I was doing them a favor as well as saving myself. I was amazed that they urged me to reconsider, claimed they would give a good reference, and said in my exit performance review that I had done good work. For the nearly three years since, I’ve done paid and volunteer work where I am praised and valued, but I continue to devalue myself. Whenever something bad happens that I might have caused — e.g. when a faulty old copier breaks while I’m using it or a customer gets enraged by a misunderstanding in an email correspondence with me — I get *terrified* that I’m going to lose my job for it, though my current boss has never threatened this. And when I’m job-seeking, my brain keeps telling me “Why would any employer want you?”

    Thank you for the reminder that so many people struggle with this. I wish none of us did, but at least it’s good to know we’re not alone.

  48. Turning the tide

    I am about to take a new position and I believe one of the departments I will be overseeing is one of these environments! I have heard in the past that the manager is unhinged, and people are suffering with this type of mind f*ckery. Any tips for how to handle this, or what to confront first? Obviously I would like to transition this manager out, but unfortunately I can’t do that day one…

    1. Effective Immediately

      Get everyone together day one and set the tone. What is acceptable under your watch and what is unacceptable. Have an open door policy and mean it. I’ve done this three times in my career (at varying levels of dysfunction) and I find communicating in terms of values is effective: we value honest, direct communication (as opposed to gossip and backstabbing); we value interdepartmental cooperation (as opposed to straight up cross programmatic hostility); we are proactive (as opposed to running around with our hair on fire). Give them examples of what this looks like (“When someone from another department calls with a request, we respond promptly and in good faith”). Communicating the values in an inclusive way–using the word ‘we’ a lot–makes it clear that these will become the values of the team under your leadership and gives them a sense of your managerial style. It also gives them something to fall back on when they’re handling things on their own, since they don’t have to guess at what they should/shouldn’t do and whether it aligns with your vision for the department.

      I’ve found on really dysfunctional teams, using their existing strengths as some of the values works really well. I once ran a team that everyone in the company refused to touch. “Oof, they’re a tough crowd”, they’d say with pitying looks. That team had been through some serious upheaval and workplace trauma; where they saw ‘difficult’, I saw ‘forthright’. So I highlighted that as one of our ‘values’; they ended up being the most productive team in the organization.

      And definitely watch that manager like a hawk. Take the team’s feedback seriously. Good luck!

      1. Turning the Tide

        Thank you! This is really insightful, and very validating to what I had been thinking. I come from a much smaller team, but one that has a stellar reputation for collaboration and professionalism. I was so startled by what I was walking into, it had me questioning my instincts. I appreciate you taking the time to respond!

  49. Junior Dev

    Struggling with this now. My boss said she wants to talk to me and in the 5 seconds before she specified what about, I went straight to panicking that I’m getting fired. It’s exhausting.

  50. Delta Delta

    I knew I was in a toxic job when I realized the following things: 1. It is not normal to cry in the car on the way to work every day. 2. It is not normal to cry in the car on the way home from work every day.

    I got dehydrated a lot. Also I quit.

    1. Seastar

      That was part of it for me too. I kept getting upset at my morning driver for saying “Have a nice day” when I clearly wouldn’t, and crying at home in the evenings after the bus dropped me off. That shouldn’t be normal.

  51. Humans

    I’ve had quite a few jobs that has done to this to me. I was treated like crap at a retail that I worked at for several years while in college. I finally quit that job with nothing lined up and found a job several months later. I was treated quite well at that job but in my head I felt like I didn’t deserve it. Managers at my past job made me feel like shit so when someone finally treats me good, it just feels weird. Unfortunately, because of that I lost that job as well.

    I was at a call center job that treat me like shit for 2.5 years with 2 different employers, I couldn’t believe this happen again. So maybe it’s something to do with me choosing these types of jobs. They would monitor our every move if we took breaks, lunches, etc. Belittle us and blast the office with emails if we did something wrong. I finally got laid off and was able to collect unemployment, however I’m still haven’t completely recovered from that call center job. I’m paranoid about dealing with a psychopath recruiter/hr manager as I was abused by people in those positions in the past. I’m constantly asking a lot of questions in job interviews just to make sure I don’t run into another nightmare job. Why are human beings this bad? Why?

  52. ..Kat..

    Unfortunately, if you grow up in a toxic family, this warps you for what to expect at your job. My family was so toxic, that I am still recovering from them. Sadly, half of my job years have been at toxic jobs. It is really hard to overcome what my family conditioned me for. Thankfully, I am currently in a job with a good boss. But, when someone goes psycho on me at my current job, my knee jerk reaction is that I deserve it.

  53. Zaphod Beeblebrox

    At one job, I was promoted way out of my depth (probably because they could justify paying me less that someone well qualified). I spent every day being told how I was messing everything up, how I was doing everything wrong, and generally being made to feel useless & worthless.

    15 years later, It still affects my work. Pathetic, I know.

  54. ex-OP

    I was the OP from the ‘managing a team during a personal crisis’ letter and this is so true. At my new job, I am constantly thanked for being part of the team. My feedback is taken seriously and I’m sought for consults for pretty much every department. They act like they’re excited to *have me* not that I should be honored to be allowed to work for them. No one even bats an eye if I leave for an appointment or work from home, but the urge to ‘prove’ I’m not in the office for legitimate reasons, and that I’m productive and valuable, is still deeply ingrained.

    The culture here is very much “leave at end of business” and that has taken a ton of getting used to. I feel incredibly guilty for leaving on time every day, even if there is legitimately no reason to stay late and the parking lot is already half empty by the time I walk out.

    Toxic jobs get in your head like emotional abuse.

  55. annejumps

    My first job out of college and first office job was a toxic environment, and it took me a while to realize that (for starters) no, it’s not normal for a company to specifically hire people with non-confrontational, people-pleasing, timid personality types to staff a department so we won’t fight back (those of us who did quit or were fired).

  56. LadyArchaeologist

    I needed to read this today. Currently in toxic work environment and I think I’ve finally worked up the courage to put in my notice. Wish me luck!

  57. MissDissplaced

    I had a boss who basically told me all my work, whether it was design or writing was crap (not only me, but all vendors too) when you were just making all the changes he demanded (which made the work crap!).
    It took a long time to get over that, and I still feel uncomfortable if someone gives me a compliment.

  58. Greg Ruxpin

    I actually just left a toxic job on two weeks ago. My old boss was a Gaslighting Queen. I worked with people who worked in my industry for close to 30 years and she has beat them up so much they feel like they know nothing. Its horrible. Feel horrible for my old co workers but I found myself slipping deep into my depression. I am still worried about starting a new job.

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