why do highly qualified people stay at dysfunctional companies?

A reader writes:

What motivation do good, highly qualified managers have to stay at a company where there’s lots of strife and politics?

Nearly a year ago, my large, multinational company hired an Evil VP. He’s located in the new headquarters in the U.S. while our office of 50 people is in a different country.

Since coming on board, the Evil VP has absolutely destroyed morale in our office. He hired a plethora of new, very confrontational people in the headquarters (the term “cronyism” is being bandied about). He has taken work away from our teams (his new people are literally re-building the software our teams already created). He has reassigned staff from our teams to work on his pet projects and they hate it (they’re concerned that the pet projects follow dated practices and thus add nothing to their resumes). He has been downright insulting to the managers in our office (his boss even strongly encouraged/forced him to “reset” the relationship at one point). There are other examples, but I’ll stop there. It’s clear that the Evil VP wishes we would all quit so that he can hire our replacements in the U.S. office. Needless to say, it’s working. In the eight months I’ve been here, at least 10 people quit.

Throughout all this, I’m sitting in on manager meetings (I’m an individual contributor at a manager level) and listening to the directors/managers try to mitigate the damage, protect staff, and work to keep them from quitting. It’s at the point where the managers are talking about how we can keep the Evil VP from gutting the team so much that there’s no reason to keep an office in our country.

In my opinion, these managers are amazing people. They all seem to be on the ball, and truly caring about the staff. But they’re so awesome, I know they wouldn’t have a problem getting a job at another company for more money (our staff are paid below market value in our area). Why are they sticking around? Why aren’t they protecting themselves and actively job hunting? (Myself, I’m staying because I know I won’t get paid nearly as much at any other company.)

In my experience, it’s a few reasons:

1. When you’re steeped in dysfunction, it can change your ideas of what’s normal and you stop reacting as strongly to things that other people would be shocked by. You think things like, “Yeah, that’s not great, but what can you do?” and “Eh, everywhere has their problems.” Or you don’t even recognize something is a problem at all because your norms have been so warped. (That might be less likely in your situation because it sounds like things changed drastically when this VP arrived, but it’s often a factor.)

2. Some people feel inappropriately committed to or invested in their employer. When you’ve been somewhere for a while, or you feel they’ve been good to you (promoted you, invested in you, mentored you, gave you a chance when others weren’t), or you’re personally committed to their mission (very common with nonprofits), you can start feeling it’s your obligation to help fix the problems there or at least to stick it out and make it work. It’s not — but a lot of people start feeling that way. Or — a different spin on this — they feel invested in their coworkers and want to try to make things work for them.

3. Some people worry they they won’t find anything else as good. They’re willing to put up with toxicity because they’re paid well, have a short commute, have great benefits or a lot of flexibility, love their work, etc. Sometimes they’re right that it would be hard to match that somewhere else. Sometimes they’re wrong about that.

4. Sometimes people are waiting it out. They’re convinced it’ll change and if they can stick it out long enough, the company will come through and do the right thing. Sometimes that’s true, especially if they know about stuff going on behind the scenes that your’e not privy to. Other times it’s wishful thinking.

5. For some people, the barriers to changing jobs feel really high. They’re convinced they’re terrible at interviewing, or they were out of work for a long time last time and are afraid of it happening again, or they have a rocky job history and don’t want to add to it, or they just can’t stomach the thought of taking on a job search right now (and maybe have other stuff going on in their lives that they need to focus on). Or they worry there’s a high risk of ending up somewhere else that’s dysfunctional and they figure the devil they know is better than the one they don’t.

A lot of these reasons are bad ones! But sometimes they do make sense for the person. For example, it’s not unreasonable to choose to stay in a crappy environment because the flexible schedule and short commute are more important to you right now.

The key is to make those choices with your eyes wide open. It becomes a problem when people aren’t clear-eyed about the trade-offs they’re making … or when they don’t clearly see how toxic or dysfunctional things really are … or when by staying, they can’t avoid becoming complicit in the mistreatment of others. (That last one is particularly tough, and it can be hard for people to see it clearly until they’re out.)

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. WantonSeedStitch*

    I think it’s also possible that some of the good managers feel committed to their *reports.* They might feel like if they leave, they’ll be abandoning good, hard-working people they care about to the dysfunction, leaving them without a shield/buffer. I think this could especially be true of people who’ve been at the company for a long time, since they’ve had a chance to build up good relationships with people over time.

    1. Wear Floral Every Day*

      this is exactly why I stayed at my toxic workplace longer than I should. I had been working there for eleven years and I was responsible (among other things) to hire, train and build the working teams. I have developed great, trusting relationships with all members of the teams. One year ago our grand boss decided to re-build and follow a different management policy. He hired an assistant who acted as a snitch and bullied everyone. As the most senior person after my grand boss I felt responsibility to smooth things out and act as a shield, especially for younger or junior members of staff. I put up with A LOT. I started therapy 6 months ago to build the courage to leave this place. It was also a mix of the reasons that Alison presented that kept me back. But mostly it was my sense of duty to other people. My last day was few days before start of quarantine (I dont live in USA) and, although, I feel sad that I losing my great colleagues, I feel that my sanity is above everything.

      1. Just stoppin' by to chat*

        Good for you! I had a manager that did this in a previous job, and he also went on anti-anxiety medication to deal with the terrible manager that he only started reporting to in order to protect his team.

    2. Veronica Mars*

      I’ve also seen good managers who have a level of loyalty / desire to protect their teams that keeps them leaving. Since good managers all seem to have a basic level of humanity and friendliness to them, its probably a predisposition. I know that’s not really fair, I saw the pressure to protect us completely destroy my old amazing-boss. But I get where it comes from.

    3. Sandman*

      I came here to say exactly this. My husband’s company has slowly become kind of terrible but he feels deeply responsible to his team, especially the people he hired himself. He has other relationships that have kept him there in the past, but is having a hard time even thinking of making a change because to him it feels like a betrayal of his team.

      1. Wear Floral Every Day*

        Before I left I told my team that I will always be there for them, they can text me or call me anytime after I leave. I told them that I prefer to stay healthy and be available as a mentor and friend. If I stayed at that place I would collapse and my relationships would turn sour at the end. And, you know what? Everyone was happy that I made this decision, they knew that I had been under incredible pressure.

    4. Bostonian*

      Yup. I came here to say this because I’ve seen managers with this mentality. They’re staying for you! Especially if, as you suggest, they’re worried about Evil VP trying to drive people out to close your location altogether.

    5. Qwerty*

      This! Especially in situations like this were the company used to be good but it has taken a turn downhill. You feel like you owe it to your people to try to slow down or reverse the decay, or least help build a lifeboat for your team.

      But then it can turn circular, where people stay because they like their manager. I finally left a job that I used love but had turned toxic after my trainees sat me down with a “Why are you still here? We don’t really have motivation to leave while you are here, but this place is sexist and you deserve better”. So I found a new job and then gave them an great reference (and tips on which companies to check out) when they started interviewing.

    6. Amanda*

      This. My supervisor at my previous job was amazing at shielding his team. When that company’s policies got (very) crazy, we felt very litle difference in our day to day for a while, though of course et eventually fell apart. He encouraged all of us to look for new jobs, and sometimes actively got us interviews within his network in places he thought we’d enjoy. It was only when all 10 of us in his team either got hired somewhere else, like me, or flat out told him they decided to stay awhile longer, that he quit himself. He went on to open his own company, to where a lot of former clients followed him too.

    7. juliebulie*

      I remember being in a toxic workplace and urging my manager to take the opportunity that fell into her lap. I was not her responsibility… she was.

      It was tough to see her go, but frankly the company did not deserve her.

    8. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

      Agree—and their reports and/or colleagues may be a huge part of what they DO like about their job.

    9. designbot*

      So true. Part of my calculation of what I can’t get elsewhere is that I built this team from scratch. Most of them I trained in this specialty myself. I’m not going to get that level of connection and loyalty and alignment anywhere else, at least not without years of work. My team also (knock on wood) has the lowest turnover in the office, I haven’t had anyone leave in a year and a half. If that stopped being the case, I might feel differently. But for now that’s a big point in the ‘stay’ column.

      1. Mookie*

        Query, if you feel like answering: what would be the breaking point? It sounds like there’s a consensus belowthread that being able to carve out a functional team, irrespective of larger cultural issues, tends to retain highly productive managers. Is there anything, in your estimation, direct reports can do to keep that talent?

        For me, this is a perennial worry, because I work in an industry where managers and department heads are afforded a pretty substantial independence and control over setting standards. Good bosses aren’t hard to come by, but turnover at that level can be high, even during lean times and downward slumps where salaries aren’t competitive.

    10. CM*

      This. I stayed at my last toxic job way longer than I should have because I felt responsible for my team and was trying to improve their situation. A big part of the reason I took the promotion to management was because I thought I could try to change things once I was there — which, in retrospect, was way too optimistic.

      Even once it became clear that the best choice for me would have been to bail overboard, I stayed for another year and kept trying to help my team because I felt like it was wrong to abandon them when they were counting on me. All that happened is that I ran myself into the ground, but I don’t think I’d feel great about myself in the timeline where I just bailed, either. It was a lose-lose situation.

    11. Mookie*

      This, in addition to Alison’s pretty comprehensive answer, has been my experience, as a person having worked with/for highly exceptional and conscientious people surviving bad environments. Some people naturally sow calm where chaos grows without even realizing it, but more often similarly skilled people, especially with a high emotional “IQ,” tend to rationalize staying for the sake of their family and/or the sake of their team. I can’t fault them for that; everybody, relatively speaking, needs to work, and on a wide spectrum of dysfunction, a lot, maybe even a plurality of workspaces rely on high achievers to cancel out institutional and personal problems; taken as a whole, they help the rest of us stick out a bad situation in order to eat. I have always been grateful for them.

      1. Springella*

        I stayed at one toxic workplace, doing my best in dysfunction. This was until I realized that by ‘mitigating’ and ‘shielding’ other people’s bad behaviour I was unethical myself because I facilitated bad management practices and substandard work. If you work unecessarily over the weekend because somebody hadn’t been bothered (or not capable) to organize work process on time, then you’re enabling such bad organization of work. Nothing will ever change if you only complain (or not even that) but the work gets always done. I left that workplace and not surprisingly, this organizational doesn’t exist anymore.

  2. Ann O'Nemity*

    That makes sense. You like your immediate team, but you don’t like another part of the business, like senior leadership.

    Or the reverse can happen – your overall company is great, but the team you’re on is toxic.

    1. Ralph Wiggum*

      I came in to say this, since I didn’t think Alison covered it. Usually, one’s direct manager has the strongest influence on how one feels about the company. It’s possible that those awesome managers are successful in insulating staff (for a while).

      1. living-in-colour*

        That’s exactly how I feel at my company. Direct managers/team leads are all great, upper management is terrible. When I don’t have to deal with upper management, it’s fine – I even forget about it sometimes :( but when I do have to work with the grandbosses, I can practically feel the stress shaving weeks off my life.

        As far as why I don’t leave, I’m definitely in the #5 category. I think I may have been scarred by being a teen trying to find a summer job during the Great Recession, but I have a lot of anxiety around job applications, interviewing, etc – think agonizing over a cover letter for 3 hours – and I have a hard time not getting incredibly discouraged when my efforts don’t pan out. Which is my issue, I know, but there you have it.

    2. ThatGirl*

      Yeah, my husband likes his job, likes his coworkers, but the administration (it’s a university) is lousy. He has looked, on and off, for new jobs – but there just aren’t a lot of them out there doing the same thing in a different setting.

  3. Mazzy*

    Came at the beginning for once! Golden handcuffs – Glassdoor and success stories on the internet make it seem easy to get a great job with a great salary. It isn’t. I’ve tried. I’ve seen that so many companies have something wrong with them. I’m saving $3000 – $3500 a month. One month of no pay between jobs means I set myself back two months in savings. Also, from interviewing around, most jobs pay slightly less. I’d rather stay where I am and get this work thing over and retire at a decent age than start again with a slight pay cut.

    1. ASW*

      Same here. Between my higher than usual pay and the extremely generous retirement benefits, I should be able to retire between 55 and 60. I would rather stay here and get out of the work world sooner than go somewhere else that could end up just as bad down the road and have to work an additional 5-10 years or more.

      1. Mazzy*

        We’re the only ones who seem to be talking about “getting out.” I get scared when I hear younger people at work joking about never being able to retire or working until their 70. It’s like, you may not retire, but chances of you still being here or somewhere else are going to go down with each year. All it takes is on recession in middle age and no one hires you again for a decent wage, so you decide to “retire.” Seen it quite a few times

        1. KoiFeeder*

          I have no expectations of being able to retire. I’ll need health insurance for my chronic illnesses, and you basically need a job for that. If I can’t afford my medication, I am straight-up dead.

        2. Arts Akimbo*

          It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we can’t. We aren’t being paid enough to save sufficiently to support ourselves in old age. In short, we are sunk.

        3. boop the first*

          I had a unionized job once, they offered a decent living wage with health benefits (not really an issue in Canada, but still), dental, tight policies, and retirement plan…

          … for a portion of the staff. The union lost a lot of power at some point and got negotiated into a bad corner where they had to split the workforce into “tiers” and agreed to give up their right to strike. So a few aging workers were paid $23-$35 per hour, and any new employee was paid minimum wage.

          Welp, at some point, the company decided to lay everyone off for a rebranding (a corporate renoviction, if you will), and all these terrified, soon-to-retire workers discovered that all of their younger coworkers abandoned ship immediately to get our shitty minimum wage elsewhere, and there was no one left to fight back for them. There was NO WAY they were going to get $25+/hour elsewhere, as it was retail. Who knows what happened to them.

          I’m just saying, this is why younger people don’t hope for retirement. We’ve never known a company that doesn’t dump employees left and right to save a buck. We’re completely on our own and we know it.

        4. Emily K*

          It’s no joke. At 35 years old I can’t even collect full social, assuming it even exists by then, until I’m 68. My own retirement savings aren’t going to be enough without the ss to supplement it unless something in my career starts going dramatically differently. I’m saving at a high rate percentage wise (12% of my income to 401k, 10% to cash savings/CDs/other investments) but I got started late and I work in a low-paying field in a high COLA that I’d love to not be priced out of in retirement. So 68 if the best case scenario for me. I could easily see 70 if social security implodes like it’s been threatening to do for pretty much my entire adult life. I was told from the time I was a teenager not to count on ever seeing that money and consider it a boon if I did.

    2. Veronica Mars*

      Yeah. I’ve tried enough companies by now to know they all have problems. And while there are probably companies out there that are better contained dumpster fires, “the devil you know…”
      I have been looking for over a year, but always get seized by paralyzing fear that the places I’m applying are just better at hiding their dysfunction. Like, how can you *really* know? And in my current field, the better paying the job, the worse the conditions, so I’d be gambling with a pay cut to find out.

    3. MK*

      I agree. OP, you say they wouldn’t have a problem getting a job at another company for more money, but, well, how can you be sure of that? Are there so many openings in your area for people at that level? Remember that the higher you go up the ladder, there are less positions available? Also, how good are those other companies? Can they be sure they wouldn’t be exchanging one dysfunctional workplace for another, possibly even worse, and an unfamiliar one at that? I know we have many updates in this site about people who got better jobs, but there are also a fair number of people who write months, even years, afterwards saying they are still there and still looking or have had to freelance or become temps.

      Also, there might be other factors, like benefits, schedule, location etc., that they wouldn’t get in other companies. Also, if you are in a country with statuatory severance, or working for a company with generous severance policies, it’s often not a good move to quit for a precarious new position. My brother-in-law was in a similar situation: it was the peak of the recession, the company he had worked for for decades was trying to force him out (nothing abusive) and he knew he was unlikely to find another stable high-paying job. He stuck it out till they eliminated his department and got thousands in severance, and he didn’t find another full-time employee position for 3 years.

      1. Daisy*

        I also don’t understand how OP can know they aren’t looking? I definitely wouldn’t tell some random colleague about my vigorous attempts to leave before I had something.

    4. Mel_05*

      Yeah, I stayed way too long at a job, because nothing else in the area paid as well, even when they were asking more of their employees.

      It also was not this toxic, but it wasn’t great.

    5. Alternative Person*

      Yeah, salaries have stagnated in my industry and benefits have been trimmed, for new employees at least. There’s quite a few people that would have moved on and up already, but are sticking around because they still have the old, good contract.

    6. Mookie*

      Not for nothing, but it’s crazy how some countries (and industries) with ridiculously high costs of living and no social safety net to guide people into a safe and financially stable retirement (which, in droves, will help younger, skilled generations to forge careers in addition to job history) force people to make this kind of calculus. Delaying the exodus of an aging portion of your industry’s workforce sacrifices innovation, new skills, progress, and prosperity of younger professionals in the name of rewarding (understandably) your oldest cohort with enough hours not to lose their housing or access to healthcare. This needn’t be a zero sum game, but that is what some of us have inherited in highly stratified countries.

    7. TardyTardis*

      Health insurance, when someone in the family is very ill. In the US, that’s life and death.

  4. LadyByTheLake*

    I have two good friends who are extraordinarily talented who stayed for years in completely toxic untenable situations. Neither of them like change — they were more comfortable dealing with the terrible status quo than moving on because the stress of moving on seemed to them more frightening. It was the “devil you know” issue. They also both tended to minimize how bad it was “it’s just during this downturn”; “it’s just so and so” and assumed that every other place would be the same. It wasn’t until external events forced a move that they each moved on, and then they were astonished at how much better life could be.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Came here to say this.

      My spouse has been at the same company for almost 20 years. Some of those have been good and some have been awful, but he is extremely change averse, and finds it stressful even to update his CV and apply for jobs. Interviews are a Step Beyond. So I guess, there he will stay.

  5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It’s the good old “Devil you know verses devil you don’t.”

    Ask yourself why people also stay in abusive relationships or keep toxic friends around who use them. It’s all the same kind of psychology!

    I stayed a few places because I could deal with their BS and like you, I was paid enough. If you pay someone enough or what they deem enough, they have that incentive. I stayed out of the displaced loyalty before as well, that’s a real thing.

    Lots of people are creatures of habit and just hate change, so much so that they’ll take a whole lot of awful stuff thrown at them.

    These people are the “lifers” among us. It’s so much easier to quit right away, I have noticed in my life. If I don’t like something within the first few weeks that it’s actually awful stuff, I’ll hit the ejection seat button. But if I get to the point I’ve been there, adjusted to it and can at least roll with the tides without causing me deep devastating mental harm, I’ll be around for awhile.

    1. Marie*

      Change is stressful. I’ve stayed put at times because I was already dealing with as much stress as I could, without adding a job search, interviews, and onboarding in a new role.

    2. Goliath Corp.*

      I think you’re right to compare it to an abusive relationship in some cases. It’s the same cycle — break you down, diminish your self esteem (so you don’t think you’ll succeed anywhere else), and then give you juuust enough hope that things might change to keep you around for another cycle.

    3. Emily K*

      Particularly relevant to the last few years and weeks and days, one of humanity’s greatest strengths and greatest flaws is how adaptable we are. We figure out how to survive and we acclimate to the new normal and get on with the business of living, no matter how extreme the new normal may have seemed at first. It’s that helps people have things like hope and dignity in the middle of tragedy and crisis, but it can also make it hard to keep fighting big or slow problems, when most every day they seem a little bit more tolerable than the day before because you’re a little bit more used to it than the day before.

  6. Ali G*

    For me it was this feeling that if I just waiting long enough eventually other influential people would see that Something Isn’t Right in all of this. And there was also me wanting to protect my team. But mostly I was just aghast that everyone else who’s opinions mattered more than mine was perfectly fine with what was going on.
    It never got better and I don’t work there anymore.

    1. lemon*

      Yes, this! I stayed at my last toxic job for too long because I figured surely, the new CIO would see what a terrible, toxic manager my boss was and would step in and do something. I regularly had meetings with my boss in his office, right next to the CIO’s office, where I’d leave in tears or red-faced in anger, and CIO definitely saw and noticed. Fights were constantly breaking out amongst our team. But even after filing an HR complaint after my boss physically intimidated me and made me feel unsafe, the only thing that happened was that HR fired my co-worker, because we were both witnesses and were backing each other up. She was the easier one to fire because I was a high-performer. I realized things were never going to change because I left.

      I think often one toxic manager is just a symptom of a culture that’s toxic through and through, all the way up.

    2. Goliath Corp.*

      Oof, yeah. I’ve been there — but in the end they all know what’s going on and condone it, either explicitly or tacitly.

  7. ASW*

    I can agree with many of the examples that Alison listed. My current employer has plenty of dysfunction, though it’s not nearly as bad as what OP is describing. Maybe I would feel differently if things were worse, but there is no way I want to leave. My pay is much higher than comparable jobs in my area so if I left, I would most likely take a huge pay cut. My commute is 7 miles and in my area that still means a minimum of 20-30 minutes. There isn’t much else within that range. I would likely be facing a commute of an hour or more each way. The benefits are fantastic. The employer match is 200% of my contribution. I don’t pay anything for my health insurance, and I can stay on the company’s health insurance if I retire before 65, as I’m hoping to do. On top of that, most of the people causing the dysfunction are long-term employees who are very close to retirement. I don’t want to give up an otherwise awesome job when I have 20-30 years before retirement only to find out that things got better in a couple of years when the problem people left. The pay, commute, and benefits are more important to me than having to deal with a few ridiculous people who make my work life difficult.

  8. Well Then*

    I wonder if OP has any insight into why the is company holding onto the VP. It sounds like his primary contributions are dysfunction, waste, and turnover! What a frustrating situation. I hope OP can outlast him.

    1. RC Rascal*

      My guess is he was hired as a change agent but has instead gone off the rails. I’ve seen this a few times.

    2. Tink*

      Is it possible the evil VP was given a mandate to close the ex-US office with incurring severance costs?

      1. SweetestCin*

        We had an EvilVP at OldJob who we wondered this very thing aloud, more than once. Sometimes in front of senior-ish management from HQ.

        If there were denials, they weren’t loud enough. A lot of my department (all but one) left OldJob.

  9. RC Rascal*

    You forgot these 3:

    They are job searching and don’t have an offer yet.

    The dysfunction takes so much out of them they don’t have the energy to search.

    They are receiving a benefit they KNOW they cannot replace. Defined benefit pension, company sponsored insurance with excellent coverage or low or no copay. Some of this still exists.

    1. Ashley*

      Right now the economy is a major factor. Who wants to give up security in a really uncertain era.

      1. A Silver Spork*

        Yeah, this. I know so many people who are staying in awful environments because they need a job that pays the rent/medical bills, and they simply can’t afford to miss even a month’s worth of paychecks. A toxic work environment is often preferable to dying of a treatable chronic disease or becoming homeless.

        Personally, at one point, I stayed in a a job about six months past when things went really, really wrong (like, “the feds showed up and started shutting things down” wrong) because my spouse and I had solid plans to move to a different state, and I wanted to save up as much money as possible (and finding a new position only to leave a few months later didn’t feel right).

          1. Julia*

            Maybe, but not all illnesses are stress-related. And it doesn’t really help to tell people to “reduce stress” to become healthier because that’s super frickin’ hard.

    2. Anon for This*

      Yup, these three are true for me. Finding a management job that replaces or betters your salary, benefits, commute and schedule can be difficult to find.

      Additionally, after a few years you see that some of these difficult people wash out after 12-18 months! If you can hang on, while building relationships and tenure, you might be ahead of the game.

    3. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      This. It took me about a year to leave my old job. People don’t believe me when I say weeding out picky, delusional and/or abusive potential employers is an art in itself.

    4. Dawbs*

      Yup.
      My kid needs certain special therapies that most med. Ins. Plans don’t cover well.
      Mr. Dawbs works a job with AMAZING coverage on that front.

      Honestly, he can’t job search until the kid is an adult; his insurance is a unicorn we wouldn’t be able to replace.

    5. qvaken*

      Thank you! I thought, they might be looking and are being discrete about it.

      Also, it’s about weighing up pros and cons. I once took a cut in hours and pay to get away from a workplace bully.

      At the same time, I withdrew an application while trying to get away from that same job, because in the interview they made it sound like their expectations would be much higher than at my current job, while offering fewer benefits. I decided I would be willing to deal with the bully for a while longer if it meant I could eventually move to a job where I could be happier, rather than rush into a worse situation.

    6. LBAI*

      The dysfunction takes so much out of them they don’t have the energy to search.

      This.

      Every day is such a toxic struggle its all I can do to actually go to work. And it ends up being a vicious cycle. Its so hard to break out of it. I know I need to leave, but I’m working so hard just to do my job, I can’t function to get a new one.

  10. Coco*

    For me it is the benefits – I’ve been where I am for over 10 years. This means a lot of accrued sick leave and 24 days of vacation/ leave that isn’t sick leave. It also means I’ve made friends and am comfortable. This company has gone through so many mergers/ been bought out by other companies, layoffs twice a year, etc while I’ve been here. But I stay because of the leave policy, my relationships with coworkers, and a curiosity as to how far this train wreck will go.

    1. SansaStark*

      I completely agree. My employer has its share of issues but my leave, overall flexibility, and retirement benefits outweigh the costs right now.

  11. Annie O Mous*

    There are a lot of people that are simply too afraid to leave for a plethora of reasons. My friend is in her 60s and has been with her company for 15+ years. It doesn’t pay well, the benefits are not good (in fact they are freezing PTO and sick time during the COVID-19 outbreak). Her home life isn’t great Her husband has severe mental health issues and hasn’t worked in many years. I think its all too much for her to look for something new, so she stays. I do feel bad for her and I think she could do well somewhere else.

  12. Anon for this*

    For some of us in small towns – which we choose to live in for Reasons – the toxic employer may be the only option in town. To move somewhere else and uproot spouse and kids is not really an option. So you tough it out.

    1. Kathy*

      This was exactly it for me.
      I am in a specialized field and they were the only employer in my town of 1M people.

      1. CastIrony*

        1) Kathy, one million to me is a huge town. That’s actually almost my whole state.
        2) Everything you said about small towns is true- I went all over the clinics in town to get hired as a medical administrative assistant to quit my dead-end part-time job. I even tried retail jobs in addition to that. All I got was a part-time cashier job, so I had to make it my second job.

        So I stay in a job that I will never move up from because there is nothing for me. I’m too afraid to try again.

    2. TardyTardis*

      Exactly. At ExJob, we were aristocracy in this town even with low wages because we had actual benefits.

  13. Lifelong student*

    I had a dream job- and the Grand Boss retired. She was replaced by the Wicked Witch. I stayed for a year and a half- looking but not desperate. When I realized there was nothing I could do to help my co-workers any more- I found a new job with a big pay cut and loss of benefits. That turned out to be temporarily a good move- but then went sour. Fortunately I found another opportunity for two years- then retired.

  14. Vermonter*

    2, 3, 5, and a visa. My company lied to me about whether or not I could stay in the country if I quit. (Turns out I could have, at least until my visa expired… in three years.)

  15. mcr-red*

    I’ve been job searching for YEARS. It’s the region I’m in (and I can’t move for various reasons) and the fact that my job comes with very specific skills that don’t transfer well to many other businesses.

    1. Anonforthisone*

      Same here. People keep telling me I should have no problem finding a job with my resume and skills, but they’re just not out there. At least, not within a 300-mile radius of where I live. Good luck to you in your search!

  16. Anon Because Serious*

    All of these reasons are extremely valid. The cost/benefit calculation that many people fail to make is that staying in one job too long without a clear progression in skills or responsibilities can make finding your next job much more difficult, and staying at the same job likely means that your pay raises are diminished, because employers universally seem to prefer to pay existing employees less than they do shiny new hires.

    That said, I would be so scared to change jobs right now (and like so many others, I certainly don’t feel secure in my current job).

  17. A Simple Narwhal*

    I had a hard time quitting from a few awful jobs for several reasons – I was afraid things could be even worse somewhere else, things had been good at one point so I was hoping they would revert back, I was so burnt out from work that I didn’t have the capacity to job hunt, the usual culprits, – but the biggest one that held me back was the belief that quitting my job would make me well, a quitter.

    It may sound ridiculous, but I had been raised to believe that if you worked hard enough at something you would be successful. So if I was struggling at work it meant I wasn’t trying hard enough, and quitting because things weren’t going well would make me a failure. It didn’t matter if my role had changed, or if I had unreasonable managers, or if I was just completely miserable to the point of becoming physically ill – suck it up buttercup, quitting is for quitters and quitters are disappointments, you aren’t one of those, are you?

    Fortunately a loving spouse and a good therapist helped me realize this was ridiculous and I actually left my last horrible job (looong after I should have, but hey it’s a start). So yea, the biggest thing that kept me at a bad place was me never realizing you were actually allowed to leave a bad place. I don’t know if this is common at all or if I’m just weird, but the idea that you don’t have to just tough something out was somehow new to me.

  18. oh you*

    This may not be the situation in this case, but they may have perks they don’t think they can get other places.

    I have a friend who won’t leave her job because they don’t care when she comes in, in the morning, and she’s terrible at being on time. I think she could find other places that would accommodate her, but she doesn’t.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Do you mean, why does OP think the managers could/should jump ship, even though she stays?

      She thinks they can get higher paying jobs if they leave, but she won’t be able to. Like, at Current Company, managers are somewhat underpaid for the local market, but due to her specific role, she’s somewhat overpaid.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          Not necessarily. Plenty of places are transparent about their pay bands, and some people chat about it. She may not know the exact amount, but within $10K or so.

    2. Koala dreams*

      I was also thinking abou that when I read the question. How much will the higher pay matter if (when?) the Evil Overlord makes away with the office in the country? I know you can’t give every detail in a short letter, but somehow it seems funny.

  19. Public Sector Manager*

    I’m a managing lawyer in state government and the agency I work for is highly toxic. But I’m currently staying because:

    (1) For government work, I’m well paid. I’m also the sole financial provider for my family. I can’t leave this place unless I have another job, and other government jobs at my level are really hard to come by (infrequent and insanely competitive).

    (2) I could demote myself to be a senior non-managing attorney in another agency, but it would be a huge pay cut that my family can’t afford.

    (3) My team is fantastic! I stay not to protect them, but all the people on my team who had previously been on a PIP have moved on. It’s really a joy to have a highly functioning team with no performance problems–this is so rare in state service that I want to enjoy it for a while (it won’t last forever).

  20. Aphrodite*

    I work at a community college in southern California. Ours has gone from dysfunctional (the level at which I told people that I liked reading AAM because then I could say to myself that at least it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as some of the letters in here) to totally toxic. But I’m not leaving. The reason is that the benefits are outstanding–and I do mean outstanding–and the union for those of us who are classified is strong and protective. Sure, the union enables some crappy people to stay around but it primarily works very hard to keep us safe from what would surely be nasty behavior. I appreciate my hardworking union leadership on campus more than I can say. And I ain’t goin’ anywhere.

  21. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    I’m a senior level individual contributor and I have stayed in previous jobs longer than I should have – for various reasons:

    – Negative circumstances seemed to be temporary or situational (e.g. it wasn’t the company that was bad, it was the project – except I went from bad project to bad project)
    – I was so stressed by the work environment and my bullying manager that I couldn’t even consider anything except getting through the day – longer term planning was beyond me
    – It took me a while to internalise that the benefits of the job (e.g. great colleagues, access to mentorship, experience in a new industry, opportunity to develop a new skillset) either weren’t going to materialise or were outweighed by the negatives
    – Paid parental leave that would leave me out of pocket if I left before the agreed time period
    – The idea that I might be able to somehow influence or improve the environment – hardly ever the case unfortunately

    I also had a very smart and capable friend who stayed in a somewhat dead-end job in a toxic company because she saw it as a job and not a career, she wanted an undemanding 9-5 position that paid well, and it ticked the right boxes for her – all things considered.

    The point being, that I think unless your default setting to a non-ideal job is to resign, you may have a different reasons for sticking around, depending on the situation.

    1. Lizzo*

      Also, employer tuition reimbursement benefits frequently require that you stay on for a certain number of months after reimbursement or they’ll require you to pay it back.

  22. Person from the Resume*

    In this particular example, it’s clearly one guy that’s the problem. Maybe they are trying to wait the evil VP out. Tat makes more sense than trying to wait out a toxic workplace to change.

  23. Liz*

    I would also add that a dysfunctional work environment really undermines your confidence. When you are really trying your best but everything is still chaotic, or just feels really challenging, it’s easy to feel like the problem is YOU. Plus toxic employers are really good at gaslighting or scapegoating their employees. When you’re in that environment, striving to make it work, but feeling like you’re failing, you really don’t feel capable of selling yourself to another employer, or dealing with a change of environment, because deep down you think you’re just a crummy employee.

    1. Julia*

      This. When your previous boss told you you’re stupid and your coworker keeps bullying you, how do you even write a convincing coverletter and promote youself at an interview?

  24. AVP*

    Another option is just that they are trying to leave and you don’t know it. Even if they’d generally be competitive on the hiring market, it can be harder if there’s a big outflow from one company – if any of them would be essentially competing against each other for interviews it might be harder for any one person to get a new job in the timeframe you’d normally expect.

  25. Panthera uncia*

    I know several people with difficult, messy personal lives that simply cannot handle any more upheaval. Once you’re in a job for a while, you get good at it and can coast a bit, despite any toxicity. Doing something by rote for a steady paycheck is a godsend when you’ve got sickly parents, addicted kids, a failing marriage, etc.

    1. Argh!*

      Stayed where I am because of my mom, who died in 2016. I gave myself a year to grieve, and I regret that. I should have jumped ship anyway, because the new grandboss is a nightmare and things have gotten much worse since that.

      I’m still stuck here :-(

  26. Dana Lynne*

    Also, people haven’t mentioned ageism, being in an industry or a region that is not experiencing the booming economy we had until two weeks ago, having the wrong or inadequate credentials and being left behind by an industry — some people have delayed or not been able to keep current because of family obligations of one kind or another or medical problems.

    I know plenty of people who stay because they have taken a clear look at the situation and their options are just plain limited. Not everyone lives in big cities with a booming hiring market.

    (Of course all bets are off in all industries now for the rest of 202o. But even with the booming economy we had for the last couple of years, everyone’s job search opportunities are far from equal.)

    1. No name this time*

      I was an individual contributor with no interest in managing. I had good benefits and okay pay. It was not enough to make me leave because once you are over 55, finding a new job that comes close in pay and benefits is nearly impossible.

      Current age discrimination laws are nearly useless for job hunters because prospective employers can simply say that others were more qualified to hide discriminatory patterns. Perhaps the same kind of scrutiny on employers now face regarding race and gender discrimination should be applied to those over age 55.

      This may come off as bitter but I hope those who don’t hire older workers or push them out may someday experience what it’s like to be unable to find work or be pushed out from a job because you are considered old.

  27. whocanpickone*

    I am a person who stayed employed for a toxic manager longer than I should have, and it was for one of the reasons noted above. Upper management told me that things would change and asked me to ride it out and encourage my staff to do the same (without telling them about the changes). When I eventually left, it was still another couple months before the toxic VP was replaced.

    So that played a major part in the decision. Additionally, I had spent several years proving my value as a high performer in that workplace and it was hard to have to start over.

  28. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    This evil VP may very well end up leaving. He may be on a three-year contract which doesn’t get renewed. Although it sounds like he’ll do a lot of damage before that happens.

  29. Argh!*

    Stockholm Syndrome & Cognitive dissonance

    … and a house that won’t sell fast, family that have deep ties in the area, or kids who are stars on the sportsball teams.

  30. Belle*

    FMLA was why I stayed at one company that was toxic. I was managing a chronic health condition and needed to use FMLA for appointments and surgery. I knew if I left it wouldn’t be as easy to be protected, so I stayed until my health was better.

  31. Lady Heather*

    Alison and other nonprofit folk – it often comes up on this blog that nonprofit people put up with things like weird environments, low salary, etc because they are committed to their mission.
    How does that work, exactly? Do you apply to an organization with ‘I like your mission, do you have any work for me’? Or is it more like ‘I want to be a system administrator with a company that helps people’ and then the exact mission gradually grows on you?

    My country’s nonprofit sector appears to be very different to the US type so it’s hard for me to put it in context.

    1. Liz T*

      Mostly the latter. We have jobs boards specifically for non-profits and do-gooder orgs, you look for places you can admire to post a job you can do, for the most part.

    2. Liz T*

      Of course sometimes the mission you’re committed to is “make the best widget” or whatever. It doesn’t have to be a nonprofit for you to care about what they do.

    3. Anoooon For Now*

      Sometimes I think it’s more “a mission, any mission, that helps people” rather than a specific mission, although there is that as well.

    4. HelloHello*

      Typically if you want to work in the non-profit industry in the US, or are at least open to it, you look at job postings from non-profits who do work you believe in. (There are a handful of job search sites that specifically list non-profit and non-profit adjacent job listings.) Generally speaking, I’d say the people who are tied to a job because of a mission initially applied for that job because they liked the work the organization is doing, and were possibly willing to take a lower salary/fewer benefits/etc. than they could get elsewhere because they wanted to support that mission. Though I’m sure there are some people who took the job because it was a job and then grew to care about the mission as they worked.

    5. New Jack Karyn*

      There are websites such as Indeed that focus on nonprofit and similar jobs. You can enter your criteria to narrow the search. If there are specific agencies or companies you’re interested in, you hit their Careers page regularly to see if they are hiring in a role that suits you. You don’t generally send in an unsolicited letter.

      Someone such as a sysadmin, or office staff maybe, who don’t have particular training to the mission might still take a somewhat lower pay scale if they believe in the mission.

      I’m not sure this fully answers your question, but I hope it helps.

  32. J.B.*

    I stayed for a long time because I could get some distance from the worst bully and had a decent pocket protected from the toxicity. I knew I had to leave when the bully was likely to get promoted to boss. Still worth it every day, even though I may not make as much.

  33. Ellie May*

    Alison’s 5 reasons are the same reasons people remain in dysfunctional relationships … be it family toxicity or abusive romantic relationships.

    1. Dinopigeon*

      I used to jokingly refer to my job as my abusive spouse. My colleagues thought this was funny and normal. My friends were shocked. That should’ve been a clue.

      (Also my therapist pulled out a list of abusive partner characteristics and began pointing out how they compared to my ex-manager and work environment as a whole… so that, too.)

  34. Emilitron*

    It’s also a matter of self-perception: if you come from a team background where your job is to help the team achieve this goal and complete a project, you’ve got a defined task at hand, and you’re identifying obstacles and a date at which you declare success, and maybe you’re also seeing how your cog in the machine can be adequately replaced by a similar-shaped gear. Then you become a manager and it’s now your job to help the company succeed, but the obstacles are the company itself, and everything becomes non-separable; it’s not so much that the company’s success is personally important to the manager or a strong belief in their mission, but that manager can mistake their personal mission to “be good at my job” for the company’s mission to succeed. Basically the higher up you get the easier it is to forget that you are not the company.

  35. TootsNYC*

    It takes a lot of energy to look for a new job. A lot of perseverence and creativity and initiative.

    One of the bad things that toxic jobs do is that the eat up your energy. They make you pour so much creativity, tenacity, and self-soothing and self-motivating into just getting through the day.
    And before you finally realize you need to get out, you’ve actually bought into the “try to make it better” idea. So you’re behind the curve.

  36. A Silver Spork*

    My spouse and I moved a couple of years ago, and the company covered our moving costs on the condition that my spouse stay with them for two years – we’d be on the hook for several thousand dollars otherwise, since hauling an entire household cross-country isn’t cheap. A lot of companies also have policies that they’ll pay for you to get an advanced degree, but you have to stay for the duration of your degree + 1-3 years after the fact. I’ve learned that these sorts of provisions are very, very common, because companies want to get some use out of you once they’ve invested all that money into your life.

  37. Treebeardette*

    It’s hard to be motivated to find a new job. It means I have to move to a totally new city and hope I don’t land into another soul sucking job. It’s hard to be positive about work when I’ve had nothing but bad. In still in my first career. I’m probably a bit depressed too which means I need to change my career.

  38. RB*

    Sometimes it is fun to sit back and watch the shit-storm happen. Although other reasons would have to be there, like getting paid well, etc., etc.

  39. Dinopigeon*

    From personal experience… spend enough time in a shitty environment, and you also start to believe you’re not good enough or qualified to work anywhere else.

  40. Still trying to adult...*

    In my own experiences with weird to toxic job situations, I’ve always felt a sense of stay in the frying pan, versus jumping into an even bigger fire. So, yes, the stress of working in a toxic place sucks all the joy out of you, leaving you with little energy for the family stuff at home, and even less for job searching.

    And over those many years of experience, I’ve concluded that upper management is often clueless about the damage that employees under them are doing. Sad, but true. I still have dreams of working for good managers and seeing humane effective management, but those dreams are seriously dimmed by reality.

  41. Dave*

    When I started my 30+ year teaching career I had wonderful, experienced and competent principals and assistant principals.

    New school superintendents were hired with different agendas and many of these wonderful bosses ran to suburban school districts for more money and better conditions. They were replaced with backstabbing weasels who blamed teachers for schools failures, climate and student behaviors instead of setting strong boundaries and expectations.

    Most teachers with many years of experience were not wanted by the suburban districts as they were perceived to be tainted by lack of student achievement and working in a different culture than that of the suburban schools. Teachers would say, the administration will be gone soon, but we will be here forever, until they were forced transferred to another school for not kowtowing to those in charge.

    For so many, the public education experience is a failure and for so many reasons, but it is always blamed on greedy teachers and teachers unions. Never on those in administration whose responsibilities should be to make the schools a place for learning, safety, and a healthy environment.

  42. Rexish*

    “I know they wouldn’t have a problem getting a job at another Company” do we really know this? Cause finding a new job can be hard.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Seconded! Getting a new job is difficult to very difficult for some people!

      Also, just because someone seems like a good candidate to be able to find something doesn’t mean they are in the eyes of other employers. (For example, me.)

  43. ainnnymouse*

    At first I thought it was me. I was the terrible one. I was just not getting the hang of the job. I should have left a long time ago but the pay was good compared to other places. And I have a rocky job history. They aren’t kidding when they say that place hires anybody. I think that was the reason they held on to so many people was because they paid like $2 over the state minimum wage for entry level positions.

  44. Martha*

    I stayed at an incredibly toxic environment for 5 years. I was so stressed every day I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack (my mother had a heart attack at work due to stress so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I might too). My stress levels were insane, I was working 10-12 hour days, no paid OT, no respect, treated like absolute garbage, even to my last day.

    Part of the reason I stayed?
    They beat us down so much that they made you think you were stupid, and you’d never get anything better. That this is where your life is and will always be. My self confidence hit an all time low at that job and 2 years after leaving it’s still taking a long time to bounce back from that.

    When I left I likened it to an abusive relationship. They gaslighted us, treated us like garbage, beat us down, made you feel absolutely awful and that you were pond scum, and when my last day came and I walked out of the building it felt like a million years of weight had been taken off my shoulders. I was FREE.

  45. i got out*

    I just got out of the toxic work environment from hell and seeing it from a new perspective (now employed at a normal company with way less drama and better management) it’s insane to me how so many things seemed normal at the time. It’s almost like brainwashing.

  46. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    Sounds like the CIO at my last company. I had been working there for about 2 years when they brought him in. The first time I met him my instincts were telling me he was an asshole. He brought in his managers, one by one. Many of the current managers were either encouraged to resign, or left on their own. There were several rounds of layoffs. He outsourced our help desk (which was the wrong move because many of our applications were proprietary and a large majority of our IT department started at the help desk), and made things so bad that many people quit. Then after about 2 years he left, followed one by one by his cronies. After some research we found out that this is what he does…he goes from company to company and “cleans house”. I stayed for another 2 years after he left, even though most of the good people were gone and my new manager had no business being in that position. While I’m not in a manager role, I stayed because I felt like a survivor. I’d been laid off twice before, but I made it! Ironically, my former manager who had been laid off during the CIO regime reached out to me with a job opening, and I went to work for her again.

  47. Ariana Grande's Ponytail*

    I can speak to sticking around because you have other stressful stuff going on. I finally ran out of patience with my job over a year ago, but then thing after thing rolled around and now, 13 months later, I’m still here. First I was moving in with my partner, then I got violently ill 2 times in the space of 6 weeks, then it was summer, I was training for a bunch of races I had already paid for, and work was terrible from about May through the end of last year. It’s incredibly difficult when you have other stuff going on to try and figure out what kind of jobs you even want to apply to, much less go through the grueling process of actually applying and interviewing and all that. It comes from either physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion, or both, and it doesn’t even feel worth it when you’re already burnt out and you feel worthless because nobody believes in you at your job.

  48. Jules the Goblin*

    I’m a mixture of #3 and #5. I have been working from home nearly full-time even before the COVID-19 outbreak. The flexibility and understanding my boss has shown me has made me put up with a lot of his lack of management & general communication issues within my company. Plus #5 — the reason I’ve been working from home is due to an unknown issue I’ve been struggling with for a long time, that is undiagnosed but similar to fibromyalgia. I certainly do not a) have the energy to search for a new job, b) have high enough self-esteem / faith in my abilities to go job searching, c) don’t know if I’ll find anything better, and d) there’s a worldwide pandemic… so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Yeah, there’s no way I’ll be able to find another job now that there’s Great Depression II, right? At least I have a regular paycheck, health insurance, and won’t get fired.

  49. Probably looking*

    I worked in a toxic environment. I looked for a year for a new job elsewhere. One never happened. These managers may be looking and simply haven’t found anything yet. Depending on the industry, not every job is in high demand.

  50. Anna*

    For nonprofits specifically, people also stay because they believe in the mission or they stay for the people being helped by the nonprofits. In my job, if we lose more staff/have to train new staff, the services provided suffer, and can actually re-traumatize the population we work with in a really damaging way. It’s hard to imagine walking away from that.

  51. The Other Dawn*

    For me there were several factors at play: I’d been there since the day the company opened, I gained a ton of experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise (although I now know I was underpaid), they paid for college when there was no tuition reimbursement policy in place (it was done as a one-off), they treated me well, and I felt a lot of loyalty to the company and the CEO. Plus I really wouldn’t call that company or job “toxic.” Maybe dysfunctional in some ways, though, like communication could have been much better, management could have made better decisions about certain things at the time, etc.

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