the right way to leave a toxic workplace

A reader writes:

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

And I know things are about to get much, much worse for them at work. The company is in trouble financially, which we all know: it was used as an excuse to downsize, move us to tiny offices, increase unpaid overtime, not give raises, bonuses or paid leave, etc. We’ve all pulled together to make that work because we loved what we do. We used to have a really incredibly bad owner, who recently sold the company to her partner and fled: we’re still uncovering the mess she made of things.

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

Do I have a responsibility to stick my nose in all this mess that is going to come raining down or does my leaving mean I can’t have anything to do with it? Is there some trick to just washing your hands and moving on?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Partly Cloudy

    Survivor’s guilt. I’ve had it.

    Is it worth it to be honest about toxic culture stuff in an exit interview when you’re 99% sure the information is going to be buried or ignored anyway?

    1. INTP

      Nope. I was honest once when the manager was more inexperienced than evil and I heard things got better after I left, so that was worth it. But if it’s an inherently toxic person or system, your honesty helps no one and might hurt you.

      1. LizzyP

        Thanks, I was just talking to someone about leaving a toxic place and wanting to do it in the best way for all involved… and I was reminded I need to protect myself, honesty in a dysfuntional environment may not be a smart move.

    2. edj3

      Agree with Stephanie, no. When I left my own less than healthy position a couple of years ago, I agreed to the exit interview, spoke to the things that were not controversial and just said I preferred not to answer some of the questions. In this case, my HR person was sympathetic and likely knew the real reasons I was leaving but she didn’t push me and I didn’t burn any bridges.

    3. Burkleigh

      Do whatever feels best for you. When I get out of my current job, I plan to be honest in the exit interview, as long as I can do so without getting overly emotional. I doubt anything will change as a result of anything I say, but I’d still like to talk about my experiences in the hope that something *might* change for the better.

    4. Ruffingit

      No, there’s no reason to bother with honesty because they do not care and you may make it worse for yourself re: references. Get out as quickly and easily as possible and enjoy the freedom of doing so.

    5. Annonymouse

      I’m super disappointed the answer isn’t “as a smoking crater”

      I left a very dysfunctional work place almost 2 years ago and I still have scars/open wounds/ issues from there. I probably need therapy to get over it.

  2. TootsNYC

    regarding this: The company is in trouble financially, which we all know: it was used as an excuse to downsize, move us to tiny offices, increase unpaid overtime, not give raises, bonuses or paid leave, etc.

    I’m really bothered by the use of the phrase “used as an excuse.”

    I think “reason” is a more accurate term. Companies exist to make money; when they are in financial trouble, it is appropriate to move to smaller offices. It may even be appropriate to change the financial structure of what you pay people. Contracts can be modified. Especially when the other party to that contract (the employee) is free to leave the contract entirely.
    It stinks, sure it does. But companies aren’t behaving nefariously when they make adjustments in the face of financial trouble.

    1. StarGeezer

      The phrase “unpaid overtime” makes me curious if any of the OP’s team members are non-exempt. Certainly any non-exempt employee being forced to work unpaid overtime is NOT okay, even if the company is in financial trouble.

      1. Ann O'Nemity

        Or it could mean that exempt employees are now required to work extra hours a week, above and beyond the norms for the company or the industry.

        Years ago I worked at a company that reduced headcount by shifting to the load to the surviving exempt workers. Fire one in five, and then make the surviving four employees work 10 extra hours a week. There was a lot of talk about “unpaid overtime” even though none of us were entitled to overtime anyway.

    2. MissDisplaced

      This is true TootsNYC. However it depends what the former owner did to put the company in such dire financial straits (if indeed that was part of the mess). If the owner was taking large sums from the company resources and/or spending that money on a lavish lifestyle then yes, it is very much an excuse. I’ve totally seen this happen, and unfortunately the employees end up paying the price.

  3. Long Time Reader First Time Poster

    You can’t do anything for these people in their current jobs. The issues of your former company are no longer your problem.

    However, what you can do is help them be ready to move on. When a similar situation occurred at my place of work, my manager saw the writing on the wall — before she left she wrote everyone on her team a detailed and thoughtful LinkedIn recommendation. She also was quite candid with us about the current status of the company (without breaking any confidentiality agreements) and made it clear that she didn’t think the future at the company was solid. She also passed our info (with our permission) on to a recruiter that she was working with.

    Thanks to her transparency about the situation, I had my ducks in a row when the time came for pink slips — I had my portfolio and resume ready, and my desk cleared of personal items. I collected my severance info and walked out with my head on straight. I was grateful to her for the fact that I wasn’t blindsided by anything, in fact I was ready to roll.

    1. Meg Murry

      Yes, I was coming to say something similar. The best thing you can do for your current employees is give them an honest (verbal, nothing written down) run down of their strengths and their weaknesses. My boss telling me all the things that she didn’t want officially written down in a formal performance review (you are awesome at A,B and C, but FYI when you get stressed you get kind of mean and short tempered – watch that) as a mentor was a major help to me.
      Then give them your personal email and/or cell phone and tell them that when/if the time comes you will be a reference for them. Connect with them on LinkedIn if you use it.

      And then when the place you’ve escaped to has job openings, contact them and encourage them to apply. That’s the best thing my former boss/mentors did for me when the writing was on the wall – escaped, and then took me with them when the opportunity arose.

    2. TootsNYC

      All these suggestions are great–very concrete, and something you *can* actually do. And something that might make a difference.

  4. themmases

    I left a toxic workplace a year ago under similar circumstances– I wasn’t a manager but I had chosen my replacement and was supervising her until I left. AAM’s advice is exactly right, and I wish I had known it at the time.

    Leaving a bad workplace can stir up all kinds of political stuff that is stressful. Whether and how to replace you, whether your replacement will have to take on your old responsibilities at a lower title and pay, whether you are burning a person you think highly of by recommending them for your old job. All you can really do is give the best advice you can to the decision makers and your peers separately.

    I was sad to hear recently that my replacement has been sucked into the drama of my old role and is way more focused on getting appropriate pay and recognition there (which will never happen) than on using the job as the stepping stone I’d hoped it would be for her. My last season there was definitely the most stressful one out of a very toxic, stressful job. But looking back, all the changes or non-changes I worried about and tried my hardest to influence were inevitable. The only place I may have had a chance to affect the outcome– and if I’m honest with myself now, the only place I really care about– was on advising the awesome early career people still there to avoid my mistakes.

  5. Ed

    I’ve been there and only really felt bad about my replacement. But I dropped PLENTY of hints during the interview that this was not the perfect job. He finally quit but did send me a note saying he should have listened to me.

  6. Burkleigh

    I’m looking to leave my toxic workplace as soon as I get another job lined up, which could take months or even years (hopefully not that long!) given the current job market for my career field. I have many wonderful coworkers (some of whom are trying to leave as well!), so my plan in the meantime is to document my work processes as best as I can, to make it easier for whomever I leave behind, and for whoever replaces me.

    But…what I’d like to know is, while I’m job hunting, is there any way to figure out in advance which employers might turn out to be toxic? Obviously employers will try to put their best face forward during the interview process, even if it means making false promises and downplaying the bad parts of the job.

    The two signs I can think of that I saw during the interview process for my current job were (1) hearing “We’re looking for someone who can learn without a lot of supervision” (which I thought was a positive thing, but turned out to mean “We’re not going to give you any training and then we’ll get mad at you for saying you need more time to learn things” and (2) when I tried to negotiate salary, I was told “We want you to work here because you want to be here, not because we’re paying you a good salary” (I’m not sure what sort of response I would rather have heard, but that was certainly a bit off-putting). But throughout the interview process, I didn’t see any clues to the narcissistic, micromanaging leadership, poor communication, lack of trust, and low employee morale I would experience here.

    So does anyone have any advice for how to determine the good employers from the bad ones? I know there are Glassdoor reviews, but many places I’m applying to have very few reviews or none at all.

      1. NickelandDime

        This Captain Awkward article is AWESOME. The section about the computers…please believe, if you see antique computers, it only goes downhill from there. I’ve been there.

      2. BakerStreet

        Fantastic article! I realized that my former employer (just got laid off) was a serious woman-hater and kept incompetent male friends. Only the women were laid off in his group and the company protects gross old male pervs too. The fact that so many people left the job I was filling (over six people in two years) was something I wish I had asked about during the interview. When I found out later how many people quit that company and department in general I was surprised. The questions to ask your interviewer were very useful. I’ll use them on my new job search. The “we’re like family” experience is something I never want to deal with again. Those tend to be the worst companies to work for aside from the ultra-conservative women haters.

    1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster

      I always ask why the person vacating the role is leaving. I also have questions about how much turnover there has been in the role and on the team in general. Other good things to ask include ‘when was the last time you took a vacation?’, ‘what is your (or your manager’s) management style like? How do you (or your manager) manage stressful situations?’ ‘What’s a typical crisis like around here?’ — you can read a lot between the lines, especially if you ask more than one person the same questions and then compare the answers.

        1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster

          It can be very telling. I think it’s especially interesting to ask junior team members this question, because I think they are often the ones that bear the brunt of a crisis. If they can laugh about it or if they tell a story about something that blew over, things are probably cool… but when they get a deer in the headlights look or start making crazy excuses about stuff that’s likely out of their control it’s probably bad. And if they basically say it’s always a crisis here… run!!!

      1. Chickaletta

        At my last job I asked why the person whose role I’m filling was leaving, and their reply was that she was having a baby and wanted to stay at home. Only after I started working there I found out that this was not her choice, she was in fact the second person in the office to be let go for having a baby. I eventually became the third. So, be careful. Even the most benign seeming answers might have something much darker hiding beneath the surface.

        If you’re lucky, you’ll get someone who’s honest. Last week I had an interview and they told me it could get really slow in the office (the person whose job I was replacing described the job as quote “kill me now!” and threw his head back in mock exasperation). I’m not losing sleep that they didn’t call me back…

    2. Jennifer

      The trend these days is that nobody wants to train anybody, they want to hire someone who already knows how to do everything so they can just throw stuff at them.

      All things considered, maybe it was just fine that I didn’t get the job where they said that to me.

      1. BakerStreet

        When they expect you to do everything with zero training I’d be concerned. It sounds like you dodged a bullet.

  7. Amber Rose

    Beware of backlash. I went through something similar at my last job, but when I decided to leave, my coworkers were resentful and angry my entire last two weeks. You can’t help some people.

    1. Merry and Bright

      I think there is a multinational corporation out there where many AAM readers have worked at some point!

  8. brownblack

    I think it’s important to recognize that the letter writer probably doesn’t have any unique information or insight that the coworkers don’t have. Does she have specific ideas for actions she could take that would be valuable and beneficial for her coworkers? Or does she just have a general sense that she needs to “do something?”

  9. From an economic perspective

    “I’ve been in a fairly toxic workplace for two years”

    This troubles me. If more people would flee workplaces like this, there would be fewer toxic workplaces. Staying at such a toxic workplace for two years not only hurts you, it also hurts others because it encourages dysfunctional business practices. Employees at toxic workplaces should leave in droves to let the market clear those workplaces out.

    Companies are toxic because they are punished insufficiently for being toxic. Guilt is the last emotion I’d be feeling in this situation. If I were you, I’d hope my colleagues would leave and find a better place.

    1. Dynamic Beige

      I would agree with you except for one thing: very few people know that a workplace is toxic until they get there, and it may take a while for that information to fully sink in, during the initial rush of I’ve Got a Job! and I Can Pay My Bills! Then, once you realise and fully accept that the situation is bad, that you have no control over changing it — where do you go? What do you do? You may start a job search, but how long is it going to take until you find a new job? And what about all the negative connotations around job-hopping? There are so many questions here about whether or not to put a job of less than 6 months on your résumé, at some point someone may decide to stay in a less-than-ideal situation merely to avoid the appearance of being a flake.

      When I was in a toxic job, the first red flag I had (which was when I was offered the job) I didn’t know was a red flag until much later because I was young and inexperienced in that kind of stuff. And aren’t we all taught to expect the best in people/give them the benefit of the doubt? I went through that “honeymoon” phase and had great hopes for future success. By the time I realised that Hmmm Things Here Ain’t Exactly Right, I still had hope that if I just tried harder, worker harder, learned more, was more accommodating/helpful, they would see that I was worth investing in/being promoted — because isn’t that what we’re all told when we’re kids? Work hard, keep your nose clean and you will be recognised for that and get ahead. By the time I had fully accepted that my job was not going to change and Things Here Are Bad (At Least For Me), I started making plans to make the shift… and then suffered a personal setback. It was too much and I didn’t feel like I could handle changing a job in the middle of all of that, so I stayed. I see now that I was an idiot and I should have run screaming like my arse was on fire… but at the time I was just overwhelmed. So I stayed. And yes, it was demoralising and the day I left, there was no exit interview, I walked out the building feeling defeated because it wasn’t like I was leaving to a Brand New Amazing Job That Showed Them They Were All Idiots — Ha! I was leaving to go freelance, which kind of felt like giving up to me at the time and I had no real plan for it, just that I was going to do it somehow. One of the great things about freelancing is that you are removed from the toxic workplace and you know that this project/client/job has an end. Once it’s over, it’s your decision to ever work for them again.

      A while ago, I worked with someone and I could tell they were very unhappy. They started talking to me about what it was like being there, they had only been there a month. As a fresh graduate but not a super-young kid, I knew that they might have landed in a better situation and they mentioned that they were thinking they would be more interested in pursuing X, which was similar to what their job entailed, but in a different industry. So I told them that if they are this unhappy now, things aren’t going to change. There wasn’t going to be some magic conversion that happened at 6 months that made it all better. They said that their parents had been telling them the same thing. They left rather dramatically not long afterwards, I have no idea what happened to them after that. It was a bad fit, IMO, and their personality just wasn’t one that would have survived or flourished there so I’m glad they got out, but when you’re older and don’t have parents to fall back on, you may just have to stick it out at a toxic workplace until you can find something better. If there were loads of jobs just waiting at sane and healthy workplaces, people would leave toxic ones in droves.

      1. Jennifer

        Figuring out you’re in a bad situation does take awhile. Heck, I’ve worked where I have for over a decade, but where I started out was a nice, quiet, small department that rarely dealt with other humans. I was slowly and unpleasantly surprised when I got transferred, let me tell ya.

        I’ve come to the conclusions that the problems are that (a) this end works with the general public, who are convinced that we literally take care of every single thing at the giant org, (b) we’re not allowed to say no, this is not our area of expertise most of the time and I have gotten in trouble for saying that I don’t know how to fix say, programming issues, (c) the office is tangentially related to other people’s money drama, which make everyone crazy, and (d) one particular manager can be difficult and frequently roadblocks hiring-we need more support staff because we’re always short staffed and drowning, and all she wants to do is hire fancy computer specialists because that was her idea. Only half of that could ever be helped, and it’s not going to be, so….yeah. I just need to put up with it because it’s still better than being homeless and finding other options hasn’t been working at all.

      2. Lois

        I really like that phrase: “Things Here Are Bad (At Least for Me)”. Looking around my job, I could see that the environment worked for a couple of people. They seemed to embrace and embody the dysfunction, and were promoted. It took a while to realize that I couldn’t become one of the happy ones just by doing my best all the time.

    2. Jennifer

      It’s not as easy to flee jobs as it used to be, though. I’ve been trying to find something else since 2011 :P

  10. Big wave coming

    I’ve just read this article on “sick systems”…OMG, I know THIS! I doubt my boss uses the technique consciously…perhaps she is natural. At the back of my mind, I was always suspecting there was something wrong about her management style and wondering if my job was slowly ruining my physical and mental health (I’m currently on medication due to stress).

    At the job interview, she was full of vitality and I liked it. I don’t think she is a bad person but the simple fact is I cannot work with her. Sometimes it’s not possible to predict how things turn out. Sticking out while chewing stress medicine may not be a wise answer…I think I need to get a new job soon. Wish me luck :-)

    1. Panda Bandit

      Good luck to you! :)

      I’m in a sick system too. I don’t think my boss is doing most of this consciously either, but you know what they say about the road to hell. I have a good system of friends and a great psychologist so the system won’t be able to keep its hooks in me, and eventually I’ll have another job.

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