a toxic duo, a bitter chat group, a firing, and a lot of drama

A reader writes:

I work in a small tech company. For a long time (starting around six years ago), there were two employees who had ongoing conflicts with dozens of people and were frequently reported for disrespectful, aggressive, or verbally abusive behavior. Toxic Employee #1 was a mid-level manager. Toxic Employee #2 was a vice president.

Until quite recently, there was no HR department, so little action was taken against them. Starting around a year ago, as complaints against them continued to increase and several people quit due to their behavior, the Toxic Duo started becoming subject to disciplinary action. It started with verbal warnings. Then written warnings. Followed by removal of managerial authority and being forbidden from attending meetings, after too many people complained about their rudeness during meetings. Finally, after being denied raises and bonuses at a time that everyone else in the company received them, these two people quit.

There was a group of employees who were immensely angry and resentful, thinking that not enough had been done about those two. These 16 people created a Microsoft Teams group that was mostly for chitchat and planning weekend hangouts, but also contained large amounts of venting and derogatory remarks about those two former employees. I wasn’t a member of this chat, but I was aware that it was going on.

This went on for a year, until HR found out about the group chat. The person who did the most amount of venting (“Venter #1”) was terminated. The second and third biggest participants (“Venter #2” and “Venter #3”) were written up. Everyone else in the group was given a verbal warning.

Venter #1 was well-liked and a top performer, so his termination created a domino effect. Less than a month after his dismissal, Venter #2 and Venter #3 (who were also top performers) also resigned. A month after that, three more people in the same department also quit, because they felt he was treated unfairly.

Since I was close friends with everyone involved, the CEO called for a 1:1 meeting with me last week. He explained to me that:

• Venter #1 wasn’t terminated as an impulsive decision. He had previously been warned for badmouthing those two employees in other venues.

• Nearly everyone believes that the Toxic Duo got away with murder. However, they were actually disciplined in other ways that weren’t made known to everyone else, due to privacy reasons

• Although the Toxic Duo weren’t explicitly terminated, they effectively were pushed out the door. They had been subject to sanctions to the point that they knew their presence was no longer wanted at the company

• A lot of their offenses were covered up by senior members of that department. The CEO claims that until very recently, he had only been made aware of less than 20% of incidents involving those two employees.

The company is now severely understaffed and has a backlog of over $8 million in customer orders, due to not enough manpower to fulfill these orders. I love my job and everyone in my department, and the three gentlemen who founded the company (they are the president, CTO, and COO) are some of the most wonderful, kind, and capable people I have ever worked with. But every day, I hear whispers from employees who are indignant about Venter #1 being terminated and are talking about resigning. I am very afraid about the future of the organization. Is there any hope that things can be turned around?

I wrote back and said, “It’s weird that they were willing to fire Venter #1 but not either of the two original problem employees. Were they using this group chat during work time — and did it take up a lot of time? Was the stuff said in there pretty over the top?” The response:

The group chat was used quite a bit during normal business hours. Most of the comments were caricatures and parodies and satires of things that those two people had done/said in the past, or just outright complaining. Some specific examples of things said were:

• “[Toxic Employee #2] sticks his nose into everything, but he doesn’t know shit about XXX.”
• “[Toxic Employee #1] is a privileged, entitled, lazy bum.”
• A photoshoppped picture of those two people crying or crapping their pants
• Poems or songs (along the lines of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells”) mocking those two people
• Jokes about hosting a party or happy hour, and inviting everyone except those two people

Some historical context explaining why the original two problem employees may not have been fired: Toxic Employee #1 (a mid-level manager) was the direct report of Toxic Employee #2 (a VP). Toxic VP very aggressively defended Toxic Manager, and demonstrated a lot of abusive and intimidating behavior towards people who tried to report issues with Toxic Manager. It was only in the past year that there was such an enormous volume of complaints about these two people, the problem could no longer be ignored.

Okay. Lots of bad behavior here to go around.

The two original toxic employee should have been dealt with much earlier. I can accept that it took a while to uncover what was happening since the VP was covering for the other guy, but once it came out, they should have been dealt with more decisively. When you’re at the point of forbidding someone from attending meetings (!), that’s a sign that you still have a serious problem to fix. It sounds like your company hoped to just get them to leave on their own and that’s a terrible strategy, particularly when someone is toxic and disruptive. So your company messed up, even if the CEO is right that more was happening behind the scenes.

But this chat group sounds toxic in and of itself, and it’s odd that people remained so focused on those two employees a year after they’d left. A stray comment here or there, sure. But a chat group “used quite a bit” with songs about them and photos of them crying and soiling their pants? That’s over the top.

It’s pretty understandable that your company would fire the person spending the most time on that, particularly since he’d been warned previously.

What’s not understandable is that your company was so decisive with him but so namby-pamby with the original toxic two. If I were an employee there, that’s what I’d be pissed off about — not that they fired Venter #1, but they fired him while not firing the other two, who sound like they were bigger (or least longer-running) problems.

That’s not to say that if a company mismanages one situation, they’re bound to that same course of action for future situations. Of course not; you want managers to be able to course-correct and get better at managing. But when you drag your feet on one situation and then react much more harshly to a different one later, you need to acknowledge the change and be transparent about why it happened. Things might look different in your company now if they’d done that.

Or not. Frankly, it sounds like there’s pretty deeply entrenched dysfunction there — it’s what allowed the original toxic two to go unaddressed for so long, and it’s what created the conditions for a highly juvenile, highly bitter chat group to flourish for a year.

You asked if there’s any hope that things can be turned around. It depends on your company’s leadership and whether they (a) see the problems and (b) are committed to working on them. Culture change is hard — and it can involve showing more people the door, which can cause more pain in the short term — but it can be done. The question is whether they see it the way you do and are willing to do that work.

{ 279 comments… read them below }

  1. animaniactoo*

    Has your company made the prior discipline of anyone involved public NOW after they are gone?

    Because if not, I strongly suggest part of the culture rot is that all anyone has to go on is a lack of awareness of what disciplinary actions were taken, and that within reason, you might need to be clearer about what was done and when and why, and what was not done, and when, and why, and that might need to be a big public e-mail or meeting. Personally I would start at the e-mail, because any large meeting is bound to descend into people yelling at some point. Maybe a bunch of smaller meetings dept-by-dept or some such.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      This is a point I’ve tried to make to previous managers. When you say nothing, you leave room for your staff to believe you’re doing nothing. I understand that situations like this that involve disciplinary actions mean that you can’t be 100% transparent about all the actions being taken. But that shouldn’t stop you from making it clear that you understand the seriousness of the situation and you’re doing everything in your power to make it right.

      But OP, if I were one of the employees in your company, I don’t think your leadership’s answer of “we tried really hard to make them quit” would make me feel better.

      1. Cat Tree*

        I also think that more transparency is warranted for high level managers. They should still have some privacy and it should be handled tactfully, but they had more power and more responsibility so it’s fair to share more about how it was handled compared to average employees.

      2. MoreFriesPlz*

        Exactly. Transparency is helpful… if management is able to effectively communicate they were taking real action and employees might not see it all, but it’s happening.

        There is absolutely no way to message this in a way that is going to make people feel better, because their actions were way, way too little, way, way too late.

        At best, they came tell employees what they’ll do better going forward, knowing they have zero trust and earning it will be an uphill battle.

    2. CrystalZelda*

      I totally understand not letting punishments be made public, it’s a violation of people’s privacy, but on the other hand, you have to be aware of how much it poisons the atmosphere and depresses morale to see an employee behave odiously and as far as the office knows, never get in trouble for it. Even if you say something like, “oh we talked to them” I would feel very hurt if I’d been a target of that employee and all I’m told is they got a little talking to? That would make me feel like the company pseudo endorses bullying by letting it go unpunished and unchecked.

      The fact that that they got multiple punishments is practically irrelevant because 1. it clearly didn’t deter them and 2. didn’t send them or their victims the message that this behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. Quite the opposite! Kind of a “if a tree falls and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” If someone’s reprimanded and they don’t care and no one knows they got reprimanded, literally what does it do? As far as this company is concerned, those trees didn’t make any noise. That’s how you breed such a culture of resentment that lead to message board bs (if people felt like this was the only catharsis they’d get) and employees who are so on their side about it they’re protest quitting. I’m not saying the message board stuff was okay, but if you make people feel unheard, they’ll take matters in their own hands and now an entire company suffers bc they let this fester for so long.

      1. tamarack & fireweed*

        There is still a difference between saying nothing and providing transparency, especially if it comes with an apology.

        You’re right, if the message is “you’re wrong to think we did nothing – these people were reprimanded multiple times and disciplinary action included write-ups and even suspension without wage” then people will just get angry because it didn’t bloody work!

        But it’s different if the message is “We want to give you more insight into the situation related to two former employees. We first became aware of conflict created by them via complaints around [time] about [behavior transgression]. Over time, HR received [number] of complaints, though we recognize that since TM1 was the line manager of TM2, a number of complaints about TM2 were likely never passed on. There were many actions that intended to curb the behavior but the key point is that they were not effective. And we are very sorry for not moving much more rapidly to effective action. The situation should have been resolved, by [time plus six months] instead of allowing it to continue for [X years]. Our failure to act has caused significant disruption to people’s work life and to our ability to function. Going forward, acting outside [policy on behavior standards] especially [most significant bits – respect, anti-bullying, discrimination, harassment] will be dealt with much more vigorously, including through termination. If you’re a people manager, please expect further information about mandatory training we will provide on enforcement of policies and complaints”.

        1. Researcher*

          Fantastic script. This is something I would appreciate hearing as an employee of this organization. It STILL may not soothe a lot of resentment, but it would go a long way.

        2. MoreFriesPlz*

          It’s a great script but it would make very little difference to me as an employee.

          They fucked up. Badly. For a long, long time. There’s no way to message that into something tolerable.

          Describing what they would do differently in the future, when they have popular, high-performing employees leaving left and right after a years of disfunction, isnt going to be effective. They lack any credibility with a lot of their staff.

          The only thing that I think could come close to fixing this short-term would be immediately terminating everyone who was aware of the initial toxic employees, had power to take action, and didn’t do so quickly. But it sounds like this company is small enough and those people were high up enough that that would require the CEO firing himself.

          I do think the script would probably be the best one to make me think “OK, I’ll wait a little while before I actively job hunt,” if I otherwise really liked my job and my coworkers and I was getting paid well. But you can’t talk your way out horrible actions.

          1. tamarack & fireweed*

            Oh, I would still job hunt even if I had been the one who *sent out* this email.

            Just because it’s not magically end all trouble isn’t a reason not to do it. Taking responsibility still the right thing to do.

        3. Mangled metaphor*

          This is so beautifully worded, is it possible for Alison to reference it?

          It sounds like the company has been putting a sticking plaster/band-aid on a broken arm. This script may be a titanium pin and a plaster cast. It’s still going to hurt like hell, but things can be put in place for healing to happen.

      2. Zircon*

        I don’t understand why disciplinary action should be kept private. If someone had acted like many managers do in a public space, they could be subject to criminal charges. Victims are then kept informed throughout the process and the consequences / punishment is published. Why do we think that victims within a workplace shouldn’t see and know the consequences their offender faces?

    3. RC Rascal*

      Struggling employees deserve privacy, even toxic managers. It isn’t necessary to communicate that disciplinary action is going on. It is ok to say something vague like “Fergus has been given opportunities to work on.”

      What is missing, and what bosses and HR departments don’t seem to understand, is that when they discipline a toxic senior manager and the person does not change their behavior, direct reports and peers ASSUME NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. As long as the problem employee does not change their behavior, all others default to the believe that the Toxic One is getting away with murder and NO ONE CARES.

      This is why ineffective disciplinary action is such a bad thing. You have to be willing to fire these people.

      1. Ann Perkins Knope*

        Yes, because, effectively, nothing HAS happened, right? As lots of other people in the comments have pointed out, if you are “disciplining” them in a way that does not prevent the harm, that is not going to feel much better – like, okay, you can say you did all this stuff, but if it had no tangible impact on protecting the people from harm who they were harming, well, thanks, I guess, but I also don’t give a…

        And honestly, “pushed them out” doesn’t really mean anything either. There is no there there. My toxic boss was able to leave on his own, which, like, I get, things were political there, whatever, not my call to make, but if they then turned around and fired one of us for complaining about him, which we still do, regularly (not in writing, not anything like this, I mean, for the record), approx 3 years after he left, well, yeah, I think I’d about lose my mind. Like, maybe give me this “pushing” you gave them? I’d be happy to take a year + to line up my next, better job, all of the pay I currently get and no consequences in the form of having to admit I got fired, etc.

        1. Product Person*

          And honestly, “pushed them out” doesn’t really mean anything either. There is no there there.”

          Exactly! The company allowed the bad managers stay employed until they found something better. How is that “disciplining”?

          I bet the person who left then found a place for the other culprit, and now both are again making people miserable at their new job, helped by the fact that neither was fired.

        2. LittleMarshmallow*

          In situations I’ve seen or been in, the continued complaining about a toxic person that left or was fired is usually spurred on by months or years of cleaning up that person’s messes that were allowed to fester for so long. I work in a manufacturing environment and often incompetence and other toxic behavior that isn’t addressed leads to infrastructure issues that take years to resolve so yeah, the people stuck dealing with the mess are probably going to complain about the person that caused it especially if that person had gotten away with things for too long.

    4. The OTHER other*

      I disagree, I think disciplinary action should be between the manager and subordinate, and kept private. To announce things publicly may seem satisfying in some cases but runs the risk of resembling the public shame rituals of the cultural revolution. Praise should be public, criticism and discipline should be private.

      IMO the solution is that the discipline/intervention has to be serious and produce visible results, and if it doesn’t, then it has to escalate quickly up to and including demotion and dismissal. In this case upper management let the bad behavior go on for far too long, whatever steps they were taking were not sufficient. Treating people badly hoping they will take the hint and leave is a cowardly way to manage.

      1. tamarack & fireweed*

        Well, yes, sure! You don’t announce “TM1 is on suspension without pay for a week because of verbally abusive behavior of a member of the administrative support team”. You do announce “There have been recent incidents of verbally abusive behavior within our workplace. Behavior that goes counter to [code of conduct] will be, and has been, met with disciplinary action. It will not be tolerated, including from management staff towards subordinated.”

        1. Kevin Sours*

          I’m not sure I agree. Because frankly that announcement sounds a lot like the standard “we support a favorably working environment so long as we don’t actually have to do anything” corporate doublespeak. When the behavior is egregious, very public, and seriously impacts other people in the workplace you have to address the behavior head on. That doesn’t just mean telling the perpetrator that it’s bad, but telling the people he’s impacted that you are doing something about it. Anything else sends the message that you aren’t. Too much privacy over the consequences of public actions is a form of shielding toxic behavior.

          A lack of transparency tends to make the decisions that become public seem capricious and arbitrary when they are not (for instance V1 being fired after a number of warnings but seeming to come out of the blue because nobody knew about the warnings).

          1. Laika*

            Yeah… In my experience, mass emails stating “We will not tolerate incidents of [x]” does very little to addressing these types of concerns. At an old job I was witness to a lot of the terrible behaviour described in the OP. We would regularly recieve those kinds of vaguely finger-waggy emails. They were clearly intended to suggest “We’ve heard the concerns raised about Betty and Jughead and we’ve spoken to them”…except nothing would ever change. All it meant was that we had to be subject to Betty and Jughead’s terrible behaviour AND regular emails reminding us that management thought they had handled it and no longer needed to be involed (with an added patina of “…so will everyone please stop complaining about it”).

          2. tamarack & fireweed*

            I don’t disagree. My point was to address the point from The OTHER Other about keeping all information about discipline private between manager and subordinate. (I’m not clear how TOO is reconciling this with the suggestion to make results visible – except if your only tool in the toolbox is firing people, private discipline that is not be made public would not be visible…)

            You’re right that in the end what counts is actual effective change. That’s what I wrote about elsewhere. But “these are our principles, and here is what we do to enact them” emails, while certainly a corporate genre of their own, have at least the effect of creating a record that leadership can be held to later.

            There will always be *some* limits to in how much detail you can talk about discipline while it’s still going on. Or even later – there’s such a thing as a lawsuit for unfair dismissal. Abusers are often very good at exploiting gaps that are created if processes aren’t scrupulously followed. Sometimes, the legal department will impose limits on what you can say. My point was simply that in this case you shouldn’t throw up your hands and say “ok, we’ll just keep completely mum”. Stating strongly what the values of your culture are, and what teeth they have, isn’t nothing.

        2. Jolie*

          This seems unusual to me. My workplace is one where everyone has a contract and all the rules are explicitly written down, and we absolutely will make an announcement at the all-staff meeting that an employee did X, was spoken to by management, and has been disciplined by reduced salary for Y months, or terminated, etc. (Of course, this is for major things: employee tardiness would be dealt with privately, but getting into a fight with clients at a conference would be announced.)

      2. LizM*

        I agree. I do think there’s a middle ground – tell the employee that you’re taking the situation seriously, and you’re going to look into it, and if appropriate, take any necessary action. But then it’s important to follow up and ask them to come to you if the situation continues. Because that’s what other employees actually care about. They don’t care if you got a taking to or a really stern email, they care that they don’t want to be bullied at work. And if the bullying continues, you need to continue to ratchet up discipline (up to and including firing if it’s bad enough).

        But other employees don’t necessarily need to know the details, what they really need is to see the behavior improve or the person needs to be gone.

        1. LizM*

          Although, another thing came to mind after I wrote that.

          I think that leaders who have a track record of addressing issues early on, having candid conversations with all of their employees (privately), and generally treating people fairly and with respect, get a lot more credit when they ask for trust that they’re dealing with a situation, and they get a lot more credit if they admit that a situation is less than ideal, but it’s complicated, and they need some patience while they work through the process.

          Part of the problem here is that the company hadn’t done the work to gain their employees’ trust, so even if they did the right thing in disciplining the second round of employees, no one believed them because the first two toxic employees were allowed to carry on as long as they did.

    5. Eden*

      It’s interesting that CEO claims they didn’t make details public Because Privacy, but is perfectly happy to share them with OP. It doesn’t say OP is in a role where more details are relevant, but that the meeting is because OP is friends with those involved. So on one hand these are private details but on the other one you can have them for non-work-related reasons? Super shady and does not make me think well of the CEO.

      1. Simply the best*

        Sounds to me more like leadership has realized that keeping the discipline too private has resulted in high performers leaving because they didn’t have a full picture, and now they’re trying to be more transparent to curtail any more resignations.

      2. Catherine*

        I feel like the CEO was subtly trying to get OP to whisper-network this information to their work friends in order to make the grumbling stop. Which, wow, super not OP’s responsibility… leadership should be handling it themselves.

    6. BayCay*

      Totally agree with this. I worked with an office bully a few years back and it got so bad, she was formally disciplined. But the specifics were kept hush hush and so it wasn’t very comforting to those she impacted. I understand wanting to respect a person’s privacy, but it would have been so helpful to know at least what steps they had taken to ensure that her behavior improved.

      1. Ann Perkins Knope*

        Yeah, I mean, I reported a former boss (I had been an intern, so I wasn’t still there nor intended to be, but he was still contacting me) and got a form letter approx “After investigation, we found there to be reason for disciplinary action and we took disciplinary action”. I joke that meant he had to take the annual sexual harassment course again, but, in fairness, he really did hate taking it. Luckily I wasn’t there anymore, but that kind of statement is cold comfort.

  2. Anonymous Koala*

    You may want to look beyond this company, OP, especially if you’re early in your career and have managerial aspirations. It’s awesome that you love your work and your remaining co-workers, but it sounds like this would be a terrible place to learn to manage.

    1. The OTHER other*

      I agree. Something that jumped out at me was the CEO saying they had only heard about 20% of the problems that had been arising from these two. Sounds as though upper management is isolated and clueless. Likewise they seem blindsided by exodus of employees, many of whom were top producers.

      Cultural change is possible only if the people at the top truly want it and take major steps to make it happen. Even then, entrenched bad behavior can make it fail. In this case it doesn’t seem as though the people at the top are even aware of the systemic problems and are only paying attention now because their mismanagement has created a huge backlog of work.

      Skilled people are very hard to find in this economy, they are not going to put up with the crap managers have routinely gotten away with for years.

      1. MoreFriesPlz*

        I always love when the answer form management is “don’t blame me! I have no idea what’s going on in my own company!”

        Oh… well in that case…

        I do think one toxic employee reporting into the other definitely must have prolonged things. If your manager is doing something truly egregious, you can often talk to a skip level. If the skip level is backing them up on it, a lot of people aren’t going to be comfortable taking at the next level up. But you’d have to assume the senior of the toxic two had other employees, and both had lateral people who knew what was going on. A few months to uncover and confirm is one thing. Half a decade is quite another.

      2. Kal*

        I have to wonder – given how utterly egregious and well known the toxic behavior was, shouldn’t knowing 20% of it have been more than enough to start an investigation into the behavior (which would have easily shown how severe and widespread it was) and to start disciplinary action?

        Even if the C-suite didn’t know everything that was going on, they knew enough to do something. But they didn’t do anything until it had festered for years, and then they managed it in an incredibly weak and ineffectual way. Definitely doesn’t paint them as capable of or willing to do the hard work needed for a sustained change in workplace culture.

      3. Formerly in HR*

        One detail that has been overlooked so far in the discussion is that, per the OP, there was no HR department until recently. The absence of HR strongly suggests that senior management’s handling of the situations with the toxic manager and VP where not informed by law or best practices but were seat-of-the-pants reactions to give CYA protection to the company.
        If there had been competent HR in place,and their advice heeded by senior management, the situation would likely have stopped before the collateral damage inflicted by keeping disciplinary action secret.

    2. Smithy*

      Absolutely this.

      And I think it also may be a good but difficult lesson that there can be people you like a lot and might even have good professional qualities in your industry…and still not be good people to work for. I think it’s a really challenging dichotomy to internally process, no matter how much it makes sense intellectually.

      As wonderful and capable as the CEO, CTO and COO were, they enabled a really toxic to continue for 5 years and then opted to push two people out as opposed to firing them, giving it another year to continue further. As great as other people working under the toxic duo may have been, working for toxic management builds a lot of survival skills that are often very specific to surviving in that toxic workplace. Those people were left with the toxic enablers and all of those skills that after a few years or goodness, as long as six is really hard to undo. And to be frank, hard to trust toxic enablers to bring in something better.

      This company may ultimately survive and change the culture – but I think the OP has to be ok with likely a few more years of “issues”. This didn’t happen overnight, and if it ever gets fixed, it won’t get fixed overnight.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        I join others in saying the CEO, CTO, and COO are not capable—at least as C-level executives. They may be good product designers or sales experts, but they really screwed the pooch running the the company and managing people. There is not sign this company can succeed if they remain in charge.

      2. OlympiasEpiriot*

        This is absolutely true. I worked for years at a company that I actually miss many things about. However, there was a level of chaos at the top that caused problems to fester. I finally jumped.

        Good people management is a skill and not everyone has it.

    3. MoreFriesPlz*

      I agree. Does it have really like TurboTax on your career that you’re not seeing and honestly might never see.

      I have a close friend no spent the first five years of her career that is very prestigious but incredibly dysfunctional firm. And she still struggling professionally but it’s obvious she doesn’t really know why. She has a hard time identifying red flags when she’s interviewing. When she’s in the job, she doesn’t seem to know where the line is of regular annoying parts of having a job and things that are inappropriate. She complains about normal boss behavior, because her boss was very lax with her in strange ways, but she also puts up with things she shouldn’t. The inability to discern red flags has led to a lot of job hopping.

      OP I’m not trying to scare you and there’s tons at play in my friends situation! You sound from your letter like you’re very grounded and have handled this really well so far. But I hope you consider this might be harming your perspective in ways you don’t even realize yet.

  3. Thursdaysgeek*

    It sounds like the company needs to communicate a lot better about what it did in the past, and what it plans on doing in the future. OP has some knowledge, but others do not, and in the absence of concrete knowledge, stories are made up to fill in the blanks. Management needs to fill in the blanks with truth instead. (And yes, somehow also allowing privacy for the people let go.)

    1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      Right. Employees who start a vent group are doing so because they don’t feel they have an effective way to communicate their concerns up the management chain. THAT is the problem this organization needs to address, probably by hiring a competent HR director and letting them set up communication channels and management training as needed.

    2. MoreFriesPlz*

      I don’t think communicating is going to fix much here. They handled things really poorly. At best they can communicate that they understand that now and try to rebuild some level of trust and credibility.

      People were so abusive they were not allowed to meet with other members of the company, and they still weren’t fired. That is egregious. You can’t message huge screwup‘s in a way that will make employees forget they were a huge screwup‘s.

    1. Selina Luna*

      Somewhat humorously, I ran an after-school group for tutoring writing, entirely staffed by 7th graders. They were consummate professionals, who would never have pulled this crap.

    2. MoreFriesPlz*

      Adorable plot twist: the tech company is a jr high school online newspaper and OP is just an incredibly well spoken 13-year-old who is wear of their peers crap.

      Honest to god this would explain why a company would refuse to fire a senior exec who they’ve determined is too toxic to attend meetings better than anything else I can think of. My jaw is on the floor.

  4. Petty Patty*

    The company screwed up by letting Toxic Duo get away with it for so long. Not just because they didn’t deal with it sooner or more effectively, but because it allowed this toxic atmosphere to thrive, even once Toxic Duo were gone. TD were bad, but what was left behind was even worse, because it grew out of control. And, IMO, their method of dealing with Venter #1 also turned out to be a huge mistake, because they imposed an expectation on him that TD were not subject to.

    I don’t see your company recovering from this.

    1. Cube Farmer*

      Yeah, that’s pretty bad leadership if the CEO claimed that he didn’t know most of what was going on, despite rumblings and past complaints. I think it was more that the CEO was actively ignoring a problem and hoping that it would go away.

      1. EPLawyer*

        Even if they knew only 20% that should have been bad enough. I mean if you bar a VP from meetings, there’s a problem. And quite frankly, before that you think that is a good way to discipline, you should consider firing them might be the better option.

        But then, yeah went after Venter #1. Maybe they were warned. But given the history, what was the warning? Did they know they could be fired? Discipline needs to be clear and actionable. It also needs to be transparent. Sure you might not give details, but you can assure people it is being taken care of — and the demonstrate it is by either seeing an improvement or showing the person the door.

        Right now, no one at the company trusts the bosses if they say a problem is being taken care of. They also don’t trust the bosses to not just fire someone “out of the blue.” that is a tough thing to overcome. The upper level guys might be great people but they SUCK at management.

        1. Gnome*


          I had a toxic coworker. I tried dealing with it myself. That did work, so I raised it. Was told “I’ll deal with it” a bunch. That didn’t work (for months) AND the behavior escalated, so I raised it further. Then it was maybe going to be dealt with… But then the passive aggressive thing happened. At that point it was nearly a year. I didn’t trust management to deal with it, so I left. This caused a cascade effect, which I warned them about, and now it’s really bad there.

          The lack of trust was the thing that took it over the edge for me (and then all the folks who were aware of the situation). That’s exactly what’s going on here. They don’t take care of it, then they react harshly to people venting about the bad behavior. Management could have said “we let this go on too long. We want a better more positive culture. Going forward, negative/complaint chats aren’t going to be tolerated, nor are disparaging comments about others.

          Then they might have some credibility.

          I’d be pissed if I worked there… And I’d feel insecure because management appears to change expectations on a whim with no warning.

      2. Mister Lady*

        Yup. When my partner left Last Job, their manager asked why, and received a full and detailed explanation. Manager’s response was “but I didn’t KNOW that I was paying you less than new hires with no experience!” and thought that was reason enough my partner should stay–WITHOUT offering any increase in pay! What was he expecting? “Oh, you’re terrible at your job? Well then in that case I’ll stay, thanks for the no money”–???

    2. tamarack & fireweed*

      I’m not actually think that a private MS Teams group that posts disparaging memes of previous employees who are widely recognized to be abusive assholes is worse than ongoing abuse!

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Alison’s phrase “course correct” resonated with me on this one.
        “Going forward, we are going to be involved with our employees! We are going to be aware of negativity in the work place. We are going to identify and rectify toxic situations.”
        “we are going to indiscriminately punish people who are actively critical in our workplace.”

        1. SnappinTerrapin*

          That’s the key.

          The message should be:
          “We have made some mistakes in managing toxic behavior and in handling discipline in the past. We are learning from our mistakes. We are still going to make an effort to handle discipline discreetly, to respect the privacy of employees who are trying to learn from their mistakes, but we intend to be more proactive about protecting employees from toxic behaviors and in clearing obstacles from your work.”

  5. TCO*

    It doesn’t really change the substance of the advice at all, but I don’t think the group chat continued for a year after the manager and VP left. It sounds like discipline against the manager and VP only began within the last year, and that the group chat has lasted for over a year. So it doesn’t seem like the manager and VP left all that terribly long ago.

    But regardless… yikes, OP. I’d question whether your leadership is really as good as you think it is, if they overlooked/didn’t see so much bad behavior for so long, didn’t take more decisive action to fire the manager and VP, and haven’t handled the fallout well since they left.

    1. TCO*

      Also, it sounds like the culture among the venter group is also toxic! They might have been treated unfairly, but their behavior was also inappropriate. And they sound really cliquey if they’re also planning lots of weekend hangouts together. Are there still enough of those group members around that they might continue to spread their own brand of toxicity around, potentially maybe even to new hires? How is your leadership addressing that? That could have a big impact on your culture going forward.

    2. Seriously?*

      The timing isn’t clear at all. But in some ways if they recently quit it’s almost worse? Why not dissolve chat and warn all and make clear to entire company new HR regs? Then start fresh.

      1. MoreFriesPlz*

        The toxic duo began receiving discipline “about a year ago” and it’s implied that there was a big gap between discipline and firing (including steps like no meetings, what the actual???).

        The chat went on for a year before HR found out.

        I’d be a lot more concerned about an employee who continued to spend time venting and… editing pooping pictures??… to a large group for six months or a year after someone was gone than employees who vented as a group about an ongoing or very recent awful situation.

        If you subject people to this kind of abuse then they are going to find an outlet to vent about it, and firing them for that is stupid. On the other hand I’ve had some really toxic coworkers and if people were still obsessively talking trash six months later I’d tell them to get a freaking grip and leave that chat. Choosing to spend your energy that way is a personal and professional problem.

        I’m curious on a personal level how long the gap was because this is a dumpster fire of fascinating proportion but either way, OP this culture is very bad and unlikely to improve quickly.

        1. Anonymous Mouse*

          In fairness, it sounds like the chat was essentially for venting, and everyone was at it. It can understand addressing the overuse of it in work time, but I think that firing someone over it was an extremely tone-deaf decision. These people were effing pissed, and to an extent, it comes across as though the company’s reaction was akin to a court punishing someone guilty of assault by assaulting the victim a second time.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            The chat may have been for venting but it also keep the fires stoked and helped to keep everyone angry about the whole situation.
            Instead of telling each other, they should have been in 1-on-1s with the bosses to cover the scope of the problem and find new ways of dealing with old issues.

            Anger itself is not wrong. It’s how we use that anger that makes the difference.
            And it makes sense that the top performers lead the way with this chat. They are top performers for a reason, anything they do they do it thoroughly. Hence a chat that lived on and on and on because the strongest players were at the helm.

            There is a line where the victim becomes the bully, *sometimes*. Once the bad bosses were gone, there was still much anger at the remaining management that allowed this situation to flourish. And that needed to be dealt with. The secondary purpose of the chat was to tear down remaining management for their f-up. That was the underlying purpose.

            The people leading the chat were probably beyond consolation- there was NOTHING that could be said that would set things right for these people. And this happens, there is nothing wrong with a person taking that hard stance. But that person needs to realize that the job is over and just move on.
            Personally, if I have to get up everyday and think/talk about how much of an AH my employer is, then I have to realize that this is tearing at my health and quality of life. I need to move on.

            For OP, the only way I see of salvaging this situation is to bring in a bunch of new people. Inject new life in to the organization. And this is a crock pot idea, it takes time and does not instantly fix the work flow problem. They may need to hire extra people to get out from under the backlog.
            For yourself, you have to think about what is best for you. Do you think this company is capable of correcting all that is wrong? How long are you willing to wait to see proof? You sound like a strong person, how are you doing? Is this all impacting your physical health and mental well-being? You do not have to stay and fix all this if you would prefer not to. You have to put your own oxygen mask on first.

  6. Stebuu*

    This company has trumpeted the fact that they treat bad employees much better than mostly good employees. The problem is only going to get worse.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      This. OP, you can’t want to save the company more that the leaders do. They made their decisions. Drag on with toxic employees who were in leadership positions. Shut down lower level employees who complain. Then, when they still complain, fire them.
      Not a good look.

    2. MoreFriesPlz*

      They’ve effectively communicated that if you’re mean enough, you get to SKIP MEETINGS FOREVER, and you won’t be fired for whatever impact that has on your work.

      I’d be flipping off and cussing out beloved coworkers at the next chance.

    3. DrRat*


      Here is what your employees see: Toxic Duo continued their horrible behavior for OVER FIVE YEARS and were NEVER FIRED.

      Who was fired? An otherwise excellent employee who (childishly) COMPLAINED about the toxic duo.

      Your employees see this. Awful people in management positions – not fired. Non manager who complained about awful people – fired. No wonder they are leaving in droves.

      Was the complaining over the top? Absolutely. But you know? If enough steam builds up, an explosion is going to happen somewhere, sooner or later.

      Your company is doomed. I’d be job hunting, too!

      1. Anonymous Mouse*

        It almost feels as though the company punished the toxic duo by taking it out on the venting employee instead (imagine punishing a criminal by beating up his victim a second time)

  7. Juniantara*

    I think keeping disciplinary actions private is often the better answer, but this company needs to get way more transparent about what they are doing and need to clear the air with all employees. A clear harassment/ bullying/ courtesy policy seems to be in order, plus a commitment to cleaning up the behavior of *all* employees.

    1. Cafe au Lait*

      We’re dealing with something similar at my workplace. Two unit heads have caused issues for years. A staff survey was done and former soft, whispers of complaints were laid out in black and white print.

      Change is coming. The two unit heads aren’t being fired. (for now). As I told the dean there needs to be a publicly posted outline of discipline. So employees can look up on the staff intranet and see that when someone gets into trouble, the first step is G, the second step is H, the third step is J.

    2. Kevin Sours*

      Often. But I keep coming back to “Joe behaved in an unacceptable way, we tried to address it with him, but in the end we could not allow him to continue with that behavior” is a *powerful* message. Particularly when everybody witnessed said behavior.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        If everyone witnessed the behavior then there is no need to name names. Everyone knows who management is talking about.
        A simple general statement is all that is necessary. “Bullying/toxic behavior will not be tolerated at this company. Here is the new method for reporting this behavior. [Insert description and resources.]”

        1. Kevin Sours*

          Tackling the issue head on makes it clear that the specific issue has been addressed instead of leaving it to people make the assumption. Moreover, your phrasing makes it sound like a pervasive problem that everybody needs to improve rather than bad behavior attributable to one person. I’ve never been a fan of the muddy communication style were we try address something while simultaneously pretending that it didn’t happen. It’s just not very effective.

  8. Cube Farmer*

    I’m struck by the employee chat happening on employer-owned equipment and software. That’s simply dumb.

    Is anyone else struck by the irony that two toxic co-workers weren’t terminated, but the authors of a toxic chat (who themselves had probably become toxic,) were and everyone is upset? This whole working environment seems weird, and if I were LW, I would be looking to make a change.

    1. Petty Patty*

      Yeah, I mean letting Toxic Duo go on that long but cutting high performing Venter #1 off at the knees is a really bad look.

      1. BeenThere*

        This is how it always happens in my experience, the leaders are protected and slowly pushed out while all the high performing workers that are under them are subject to the rot. Any worker that complains is more swiftly dealt with than a toxic manager. It’s also the same dynamic in play with many other scenarios, the rope for leadership is long and even had gold bars at the end of it.

    2. tamarack & fireweed*

      I’m not surprised. In pre-social media times these same venting sessions would have happened on lunch breaks, coffee breaks (including in the company cafeteria) as well as down the pub. It’s just that we’ve shifted a lot of this interaction to online (LIKE RIGHT THIS MOMENT as I am typing!).

      And in creative professions that work nearly 100% on the computer, the work computer is just the tool that you use, and you’re tolerated to use, for your day-to-day computer use. It doesn’t feel different for me from making or receiving a call to a doctor’s office or the kids’ school on the work phone.

    3. Pants*

      Toxic content aside, the fact that the 3 Venters thought using work equipment to trash talk is enough to make me question their judgement regarding work and appropriateness. If I question their judgement on those things, I don’t think it’s beneficial to employ them.

      1. tamarack & fireweed*

        Chances are that the people who would be firing them also use work equipment to do private stuff.

    4. Candy*

      // I’m struck by the employee chat happening on employer-owned equipment and software. That’s simply dumb. //

      Seriously! All the coworker groups chats I’ve been a part of have been on viber, whatsapp, or messenger. Never, ever, ever would any of us take our venting to teams or slack or anything we would reasonably expect our employer to have access to

    5. Not So NewReader*

      If they have decided to address toxic behaviors more aggressively that needs to be clearly stated to all employees.
      The fired employee should have had a 1-on-1 PLUS seen general discussion through out the company such as company meetings talking about unacceptable behaviors. This would be a two-pronged approach.

      I am guessing that the general meetings did not take place. And management did not come across as credible when they told the venter that it had to stop. It’s either that or the venter decided that this was their hill and they were willing to die on it.

      I am not impressed that management is having private meetings with OP and there is no mention in OP’s letters that additional group meetings have taken place.

  9. CatCat*

    Ooof. At the employee level, it looks like managers can get away with being rude, obnoxious, and awful and not get fired while employees are held to a different standard. Because the toxicity has been so normalized, it persisted when the problem duo were gone of their own volition. Firing Venter #1 was probably a good call, but it completely shakes up the normal with no clear communication about why that is. What it looks like is that employees are held to a different standard than management when it comes to behavior. That’s not going to sit well with any employee.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Exactly. Employees see that their colleagues were trying to get support in dealing with toxic leadership, support was denied, so the colleagues found what they thought was the only coping strategy available to them and then got fired for it.

      1. Little Lobster*

        This is my takeaway, too. If the company hadn’t let this situation fester for so long, the affected employees wouldn’t have felt the need to start this chat.

    2. The OTHER other*

      Right, why weren’t these employees induced to quit after years of warnings etc? Was the CEO somehow aware of all of their misdeeds whereas somehow only 20% of the bad behavior of toxic VP and his toxic sidekick reach the CEO? You’d think the CEO would be more familiar with the work and behavior of people closer to him on the org chart.

    3. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I think this is key too: “problem duo were gone of their own volition”. The two bullies were able to save face and “quit” their job, but the victims were punished for not getting over it on the company timeline. Was Venter #1 given the saving grace of “resign or be fired”? Was he given severance (if not, I think he should have been). Were any of the victims given support in the manner of on-site counseling or referrals to an EAP? Were the victims given some recompense in the way of extra paid time off or…anything. I think the company went the laziest route possible and in many ways continues to do so.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Were the victims given some recompense in the way of extra paid time off or…anything.
        No, the lead venter was lectured to by the CEO, then reprimanded, written up and summarily fired.
        So, look how fast things happen when you are at the employee level.

    4. Smithy*

      Absolutely. I also think that when you have a toxic environment going on for this long, staff who stick around inevitably develop their own survival/coping mechanisms that likely aren’t the best workplace behaviors either. While it’s easy to point out Teams being a “workplace tool”, those types of venting group chats happening over text/WhatsApp or other non-work tools are wildly common survival tools. And while the content presented in the style of this letter certainly looks unprofessional and immature, in the grand scheme of employees venting about frustrating workplaces – I bet its also pretty common.

      I get that in these situations, the huge desire is to feel that when the bad actor(s) leave the situation will become good. But the reality is that a system was in place overseen by the founders where they enabled 5 years of toxic management and were either entirely clueless or decided that the 20% they knew about was acceptable. And that system demanded a team to adopt styles of working to survive toxic management. Having the initial bad actors leave hasn’t necessarily changed the original system nor has it addressed what was left behind.

      In a few years, this whole situation may truly right itself….but if the OP is set on staying, I do think that they need to accept that kind of timeframe for this issue ultimately resolving itself.

  10. LisaNeedsBraces*

    Yeah, if a VP isn’t allowed to be in a meeting because they are so aggressive/abusive, that VP should have been fired in the first place. Reminds me of how Joss Whedon wasn’t allowed to be in the same room as a teenaged actress.

    No wonder there was enough toxicity to result in that group. Don’t get me wrong, it was unprofessional, but the resentment of being the victim of this behavior is valid. I’m wondering why the CEO told you this? Why not the company? Surely if there is anyway to turn things around, it would involve a company-wide acknowledgment of the hurt done, context for some misinformation and a commitment to not tolerating abusive behavior going forward. Without laying it all out, it really does seem to be different standards for the higher-ups.

    Also letter writer, maybe consider that the perspective of the employees who are angry about this is true. Hoping the higher ups quit in their own terms *is* differential treatment and does ignore the real pain caused by those individuals. They have a right to call an unfair situation unfair, and potentially leave because of it. You may love your team, but the damage may be done and acknowledging that this is the consequence of poor leadership is the only way for you to move forward in whatever way you need to.

    1. quill*

      Yeah. I cannot believe that there aren’t other pockets of dysfunction still left behind that the VP was covering for. The other executives might be nice people, but they have NOT been effective at leading.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I think the CEO is himself a bag of bees. Tapping OP to do damage control because he reacted to employees’ inappropriate/unprofessional actions.
        He was seeking absolution from OP as well as flack services.
        “I didn’t know that they were that bad! As soon as I found out, I made it uncomfortable for them, so they left sooner than they might have! And then, when I do act and fire someone is acting badly, everyone gets upset. Can’t you tell them, I’m doing what they want!?”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Right. All it takes is someone who manages like it’s their first day of work ever. And this is what I am seeing here.

        1. LisaNeedsBraces*

          Yeah…something doesn’t sit right with me about the CEO telling OP all of this and not the entire company. Even if OP is in a senior position and therefore it’s privy to some details the entire company shouldn’t be, the CEO should be able to tailor the message to be appropriate for everyone. It really does seem that the CEO wanted OP to do damage control on there behalf, which is not a great sign of leadership. Or the CEO is only saying this to make sure OP doesn’t leave themselves, which aside making me suspicious of its accuracy, is still playing favorites and prioritizing some teammates over others. A mess all around.

  11. Aspie_Anything*

    1. Look for a better job; you don’t want any part of this.

    2. Is there any chance that the Venter was fired because something he/she put in the chat was mocking or degrading the previous employees based on a protected class?

    If you put something in writing at work disparaging someone on the basis of race, gender, disability (or perceived disability), age, etc. you can pretty much expect to be fired immediately. That creates a hostile work environment and is illegal. Frustrating as it is, the original two toxic people may not have been toxic in ways that open the company up to a lawsuit, or at least not so obviously.

    1. quill*

      When it comes to “photoshopped memes” I’m wondering if they dragged in some memes that are more generally offensive…

    2. EPLawyer*

      1. is so true. The high ups don’t know how to run a company. If they are so behind because they are understaffed that will lead to cash flow problems. The place might not be circling the drain AT THE MOMENT but the plug has been pulled and the water is rushing out.

      OP you need to be prepared that the company might go under. You need to protect yourself.

      1. Bryce with a Y*

        EPLawyer, you are spot on in your assessment. From the sound of things, it should not come as a surprise that this organization is not long for this world.

        One should be prepared to leave if for no other reason than that.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        This company is way, way too slow at recognizing problems. Next layer, this company is way too slow at remedying the problems. Next layer this company is afraid to lead people. And we see that because it does not seem that the company has made an announcement regarding unacceptable behaviors.

        It takes strength to lead an organization. Nice is not the same as strong. Also, “nice” and “strong” are not mutually exclusive. You can be a nice person and still be a strong leader, it takes time and commitment to figure out how to do that.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      Honestly even if it wasn’t based on protected class–photoshopped images and mocking songs rise well above the level of just “venting” and veers pretty firmly into full-on bullying territory. Bullying is not acceptable work behavior even if the people being bullied and mocked are total pieces of garbage.

      It sounds to me like the company was right to fire the venter, just wrong for not having also fired the other employees. Hopefully it’s a case of they learned their lesson after the other two and plan to be more decisive going forward, otherwise the company definitely needs to get it together!

      1. Kevin Sours*

        Venter1’s behavior absolutely supports a firing. The problem is that it can’t be taken in isolation. Failing to fire the other employees puts things in a different context: treating the inappropriate reaction to toxic behavior more harshly than the toxic behavior is its own problem. This is compounded by the lack of transparency. Venter1 was given warnings to stop and didn’t, it doesn’t appear that people are aware of that.

        If I had to clean this up I think I would have gone with a meeting with the chat room people along the lines of “We understand we didn’t handle the previous toxic behavior sufficiently but we can’t change that now. But this response is entirely inappropriate. Ordinarily we would take harsher action but under the circumstances we’re going to be lenient. But this stops now.”

        Then follow that up with a “This is the absolute last chance, if we even get a hint that this is continuing you’re gone” notice for the ring leaders. Then if you still have to fire them you, hopefully, have the credibility to say “look, we gave them all of the warnings we could but they persisted in unacceptable behavior” explanation.

        Now? I don’t know what you do to recover other than start apologizing, explaining what you did, why you did it, and how you intend to do better in the future. Without some kind of transparency you can’t build credibility and without that you can’t fix this.

  12. CrystalZelda*

    Everyone here behaved poorly, but I completely agree that I’d be tempted to quit if Venter 1 was fired on the spot after the chat was discovered whereas T1 and T2 where allowed to linger for YEARS before getting “pushed out”. Also, the fact that they were given the luxury to leave on their own terms is completely for the birds and deeply unfair. I would also be outraged. They might have been “pushed out” but were spared the indignity of a firing they richly deserved, and then when you compare it to the fact that Venter 1 was unceremoniously axed? Of course people feel this is completely unfair. It is!

    That’s not to say V1 shouldn’t have been fired, at this point yes, it’s proportional. But very interesting he wasn’t given dozens of chances and warnings and behind the scenes punishments like certain people… The people running this company may be nice but they’re not very good at managing people.

    1. Threeve*

      In this case, “pushed out” is basically the same as “protected.” Given the history, they should have been just as cautious and tactical about getting rid of V1.

      They’re in a hole they allowed T1 and T2 to dig; they have to carefully tunnel out, not climb.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        If they’re shedding high performers outraged about this, then I don’t think they learned an appropriate lesson from the first round.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Or maybe the company learned from its past mistake and decided not mess around this time?
          If they’re shedding high performers outraged about this, then I don’t think they learned an appropriate lesson from the first round.

          I would posit that the company did learn from the first time around, but the lesson was neither the correct one nor a comprehensive one.

          1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

            To paraphrase Samuel Clemens – They became like the cat who has sat upon a hot stove – never sitting on a hot one again is good, but they also are afraid to sit on a cold one as well.

      2. CrystalZelda*

        And in the process of doing that, made the situation even worse considering that multiple people have quit in protest of what they perceive to be unjust treatment.

        You can course correct, and you should. V1 deserves firing. But the issue here is that people felt T1 and T2 where protected and allowed to be awful to everyone for years and years and then allowed to leave – not even fired. So when V1 is fired for bullying people who 1. are already gone and 2. victimized the entire office for years, it’s gonna kinda feel like at best a victimless and crime and at worst the only “justice” employees feel they got from this issue.

        It creates the feeling that some people are allowed to commit murder and anyone who tries to stand up for themselves are they ones who get punished, rather than those who “started it”. Is this all super messed up and unhealthy? it sure is, but the company did NOTHING to heal the wounds from after T1 and T2 finally decided to waltz on out on their own time. They just assumed people would get over it and they were very wrong, so this is definitively their fault.

        1. Spencer Hastings*

          Yeah, somehow saying mean things *about* *former* personnel is worse than saying mean things *to* *current* personnel? That seems exactly backwards.

        2. Andy*

          Assuming what the CEO said is truth, there is senior management full of people who covered bullies. Who had hidden 80% of complains from CEO.

          V1, based on what CEO said, was fired for talking about toxic employees as being toxic. He was not fired for chat or humiliating poo pictures. He was fired, because someone somewhere learned about the toxic behavior.

          People here are not leaving just because of feeling and unfair perception of management. They are leaving because company won’t protect them when next bully come and will punish them for talking about it.

          If you read CEO explanations, that is what he is saying. To me, humiliating pics are toxic. But that is not why firing happened.

      3. kiki*

        I think this may have been part of the company’s thought process, but part of managing a company is knowing that your intentions may not translate. If I were giving the company the benefit of the doubt, I’d think the desire to turn over a new leaf was behind the disparity in actions for the venters and toxic duo, but the company has been so terrible about the toxic duo that few employees are realistically going to give the company the benefit of the doubt.

    2. Spencer Hastings*

      Yeah. This is a depressingly common pattern:

      Person A: *is a bully*
      Response: *crickets*
      Person B: I am angry about Person A’s bullying
      Response: How very dare you!

  13. KayEss*

    I feel like whenever a letter starts with “I work in a small tech company” you know things are about to get wild.

    1. Bryce with a Y*

      That’s the truth.

      Having worked in small tech companies, I am familiar with the experience, although thankfully nowhere near as bad as the one OP described.

      I think a lot of it is because the big shots may be good at the technology side, but not so much when it comes to running a company. For example, they may not realize that after they employ people in any significant numbers, they need to have people on board with a certain level of experience in HR and employee relations to at least be able to say, “what you’re doing is really not OK because it will make your employees mad at you, hurt our reputation as a place to work, and even lead to possible legal problems.”

      I also think a lot of it is because small tech companies the courage or at least tolerate brilliant jerks. Yes, Virginia, being a technological visionary is not an excuse to be a jerk, and your organization may even be better off without them.

    2. LisaNeedsBraces*

      I went from working in academia to working at small tech companies. The things I’ve seen….the horror. The horror.

      1. KayEss*

        LMAO I worked for a while in a higher ed institution IT department, and definitely saw some wild interpersonal dynamics there.

  14. Don*

    The “you don’t really know the extent of what we did” is sort of boggling and darkly amusing. I’m not really surprised it’s in a tech company. My People have a deeply entrenched streak of believing that actual human communication cannot ever stand up against The Truth. We’ll just tell people the real facts and all those thoughts and feelings they had in reaction to, you know, all the stuff we publicly did and said and opted not to do – they’ll just melt away!

    If someone was regularly treating me like shit in public and management was addressing it purely behind closed doors for an extended period of time, no, I would not really be at all placated to find that out later. I’d still question why you allowed it to go on, why you never took a public stand about it, why you felt like that wasn’t something worth sharing with me as it happened. And while I totally understand and agree with the need to deal with toxic people and how harmful they can be to an organization, I absolutely would take a very not nice message from it if what they dealt with expediently was someone talking crap about a former veep, not the veep and their underling abusing others.

    Personally I think this company needs to have a public airing and an apology to all for how ham-handed they’ve been all this time. Absent that, I think it’s gonna take a lot longer for employee trust to be regained.

    1. Andy*

      The people saying those things are literally management and not tech people. The tech people were the fired ones and are the ones leaving.

        1. Andy*

          No. I am focusing on “these are stereotypical management and not stereotypical tech people”. Because that is what jumped to me from this comment.

    2. Hell in a Handbasket*

      Yeah, I’ve been trying to imagine what these secret consequences, which the CEO apparently felt were enough of a punishment, could have possibly been, given that they still had a job and a paycheck. Revoked usage of the executive bathroom? Removal of photocopying privileges? If preventing people from attending meetings is considered some big punishment, I’m not sure they know what effective discipline looks like.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Yep. Employee trust is pretty well shot/done. OP this is something you could point out to the person you spoke with.

  15. Midwestern Society*

    You can have transparency while maintaining privacy. The two are not mutually exclusive. If the C suite realized after the fact that they mishandled the discipline of the toxic duo, they should have (and apparently still need to) revamp their disciplinary procedures (which should be made public to all employees via an employment manual). This gives you the transparency you need to move forward. No need to call out specific people but can frame as a general policy change. Then when further toxic situations are uncovered, you have policies to implement that are equitable for all employees. No system is perfect but having a set procedure can alleviate the hard feelings about one situation being treated differently than another.

  16. Not A Manager*

    This seems like a good time for transparency about the *process* of disciplining and firing people. The PTB shouldn’t reveal specific details about what happened in these particular cases, but they can assure everyone that discipline is progressive, here’s what might occur behind the scenes, etc.

    They can also acknowledge that “mistakes were made” in the past regarding applying progressive discipline swiftly. This should be combined with an explanation of how they have improved their processes so that complaints can be escalated when appropriate, and acted on swiftly if necessary.

    But it also sounds like the company is in a real pickle right now, and given their inability to meet contractual requirements, you might want to start looking around.

  17. QKL*

    I can only speak as an employee who has been egregiously bullied in the past by a manager.

    There is an emotional component to having someone be so brazen with their abuse and never seeing justice for the behavior. Honestly, I wouldn’t accept the excuse that the higher ups didn’t know because there are always enough signs of the issue, I would view it as them choosing not to look. Another aspect, venter 1 may have been rallying the troops the entire time. Sure, it’s toxic, but it was a toxic place, this person was probably the only person in the company to validate their co-workers feelings and humiliation openly, that earns loyalty, and it’s not necessarily wrong. Brass tacks, the owners chose to punish a well loved employee who protected others, but not to punish abusive people who created a toxic environment, that’s a statement. When someone publicly bullies people and is given the grace to be handled privately, they’ve been given special treatment, that’s it. I would absolutely be loyal to the employee who protected me over the owners who pretended to be professional in an unprofessional environment they allowed to exist.

    Another thing, that manager of mine, she’s on my list of people I will absolutely screw over if I get the chance, though I won’t go out of my way. That’s a permanent wound there, there’s no, “just getting over it.” I had permanent medical issues as a result and I’m still just as angry. Bullying isn’t the same as being annoyed once or twice, it’s a personal and long lasting emotional battle. There needs to be better understanding for victims of it. It’s a permanent damage by a single person, most people I know carry that damage for the rest of their lives. The owners seem to be under the impression that the damage they allowed to fester should have disappeared after their passive pushout, nope.

    Again, I’m not a manager, this is from the perspective of a powerless employee who’s been in this situation before.

    1. Windchime*

      I co-sign all of this. I have also been this powerless employee who was being bullied by a manager and a director. And I absolutely know that the higher-ups knew about it, because I told them. I told the CIO and I told HR. Nobody cared, and I was disciplined and eventually forced out (but not before having a complete and total nervous breakdown). The manager was finally fired months later, but the director was allowed to leave because the department “had decided to go in a different direction”. So he was allowed to leave gracefully, and with no stain on his reputation, even though he allowed his underling to mercilessly bully half the team.

      I have zero tolerance for offices that are run this way. Zero.

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Another aspect, venter 1 may have been rallying the troops the entire time.

      It sure sounds like Venter #1 was using ridicule to cut the Toxic Duo down to size and water down their bullying, doesn’t it?

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Annddd, nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of strong leadership, venter took the helm. If a leader fails to lead other people can and WILL jump in. It appears to me that venter was the informal leader of this company.

        OP, I have nothing but contempt for what your management did here. I have seen it too much. It’s not okay. People’s health and mental well being have been ruined. For some people the entire course of their lives might be ruined. Your CEO has NO clue how much lasting damage has happened here.

    3. SAS*

      Yeah, had to scroll a while to find this but as someone who went through a horribly similar experience of two bullying managers poisoning our workplace for a year with blind eyes from management + a year of HR inquiry which ended with them “resigning” to seemingly no consequence, expecting “a comment here and there” a year later seems light.

      It was the worst professional experience in all of our lives and many of us sought psychological and medical help in the years following. Two years later, almost none of the original team remains, however you best believe we’re still venting when we catch up.

      1. BeenThere*

        I’ve been through the same. The manager slowly picked off each diverse person one after the other until the team was only populated with straight folks from their home country. You would think after a third of the team resign or asked to be transferred that they’d do something. Yet no, a friend nearly got fired for preventing this manager filibustering another meeting with drama. After that we were re-organized into a worse group with the same direct management for another 6 months of pain before I asked to get out. I thought I’d be protected because I was the highest performer and delivered a super difficult project. No, I got screwed on my review that year.

        I warn everyone away from that group and help people escape it.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        The unseen scars are real.

        Again I will mention that NO company or group seems interested in finding out how toxic work places drive up health care costs. But everyone is interested in complaining about insurance costs. The irony is not lost on me.
        We are all responsible for our words and actions and that responsibility comes back in so many ways I cannot count that high- insurance costs, crappy work product, lawsuits, health loss, and even loss of life, this list goes on.

  18. Chairman of the Bored*

    I suggest that the company was mistaken to punish the people on the chat. I don’t blame the employees who quit after Venter #1 was fired.

    I sure wouldn’t want to work someplace where I couldn’t complain to my colleagues about a crappy executive.

    People subject to unreasonable situations will often gripe to each other, sometimes at length and in ways that are not strictly professional.

    Were the comments on the chat racist? Sexist? Violent? Threatening? It doesn’t sound like it.

    If not, I’d be very inclined to not materially punish any of the Venters and chalk their behavior up to “people coping with an abusive environment that the company created and allowed to continue”.

    As an employee, I don’t care if you are doing something behind the scenes to curtail an abusive boss *unless it brings an end to the abusive behavior*. I’ll keep complaining until that boss either shapes up or leaves.

    1. KateM*

      Um, I think it’s akin of saying that having chats mocking other employees is totally fine. There have been letters on that topic before and I believe the asnwer has always been that it’s NOT fine.

      1. Heffalump*

        Past cases involved people maliciously mocking their peers, who hadn’t done anything wrong, because the mockers just didn’t like them.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I am amused by this whole concept of “don’t talk negatively about a boss”.

      Reality is that if a person is a bad boss people can and will talk about it. I live in a fairly rural area. People know most of the bosses around here who are jacka$$es, their reputation is discussed far and wide.

      I think it’s much better to say, “If you are a bad boss or if you are even an out of touch boss, people WILL discuss you AT LENGTH behind your back. They will mock you and laugh at you.” This is reality. Want proof? Look at the leaders around our country. ATM, I am thinking of a few business women who got barbequed in the media for their BS. But there are many many more examples for both men and women.

  19. ArtsyGirl*

    Never complain about the company or coworkers on company owned equipment and/or using company owned software. Thanks for attending my TED talk.

      1. ArtsyGirl*

        Absolutely- god knows venting seems to have been the sole recourse to the employees living under the toxic duos reign of terror but it was extremely short sighted of them to use company resources especially after bring warned to knock it off. My co-workers and I use alternative messaging services to complain and critique senior leadership just to be safe. If a company is looking for an excuse to fire someone, its never smart to give them ammunition.

        1. Texas*

          Yeah. Venting like this will never reflect positively on the person who does it (even when it is understandable, it’s still not the best look), so it’s always a better bet to not make it easy for an employer to find the venting.

    1. Threeve*

      I’ve switched to texting a coworker mid-chat for this reason. Work chats can certainly be casual, but Honest Opinion Time stays on personal devices.

    2. Foxy Hedgehog*

      There’s complaining and then there’s…whatever this was.

      OK: complaining on the chat about VP’s behavior in meetings (“Hey, that was a good idea you had in the meeting and I don’t think you deserved that treatment”). No reasonable company would have any issue with that at all.

      Not OK: A photoshop of the VP crying and crapping his pants.

      I’m not defending the company for not taking care of the VP and the other toxic employee, of course, but from the description this group chat was also quite toxic for morale and needed to be stopped.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Problem #237 found in this story line. There are so many things awry here, it’s almost like a case study.

  20. LizB*

    I am boggling at the idea of banning employees from attending meetings. That’s such a weird step to take. If someone can’t be trusted in any meetings at all… you should just fire them! Don’t keep someone on the payroll who can’t interact reasonably with others! Wild.

    1. Paris Geller*

      Right? Considering that the vast majority of people I know hate meetings, talk about rewarding bad behavior.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        Those two apparently derived perverse pleasure from running toxic meetings. While there is a tenuous logical connection between that and the sanction, it misses the point that these managers were supposed to be running productive meetings. Somebody missed the point that their failure to perform that function was an obstacle to productivity, and that continuing to pay them while “managing them out” was an unnecessary drag on productivity, on multiple levels.

        One can only hope the CEO and other senior managers are taking a hard look in the mirror, and making a real course correction.

  21. Purple Cat*

    This is wild.
    “We won’t fire 2 people for being toxic employees, but we will fire someone else for complaining about them”.
    Yikes on bikes.
    I don’t think there’s any saving this company. The rest of the C-Suite is not great for not catching on to what was going on and fixing things a long time ago.

    1. Lilo*

      Well, also, you fired a top performer in a small company. For complaining about people who didn’t work there anymore.

      Place sounds like a complete mess.

  22. Paris Geller*

    Yeah. . . after reading this my impression is the company did this to themselves. Like Alison said, lots of toxicity here. I definitely agree that the venting group chat sounds clique-ish and it should have been put to a stop, but by showing a stronger reaction to the venter than the original awful duo, the powers that be have probably lost any remaining goodwill from most of the employees.

  23. Falling Diphthong*

    I want to hold this letter up as an example for any future OPs tempted to write Alison “If I, a top performer, threaten to leave, then surely the company will realize the problem and fix the toxic manager and veep? Right?”

    Sure, once a dozen of you have quit they might start to think of maybe, possibly…. banning the terrible veep from attending any meetings.

    1. Egmont Apostrophe*

      I actually know one instance where a woman announced she was leaving, they had a meeting to ask why, she told them… and on Monday morning her boss was gone and she had her job.

      But against that, 1000s of instances of the good people leaving and the worst people hanging on forever.

  24. Andy*

    Time spent is red herring. If they spend too much time on that chat, then they could not been also the top performers. If they were actually top performers, they were not spending too much time slacking. Now they are away, which is exactly the time when it shows up whether someone was an actual top performer.

    This chat sounds wrong. But it was pretty clearly dealt with way more harshly, then the repeated aggression against current employees. Let’s be honest. Company mismanaged toxic employees and created toxic culture. The company is actually doing more to protect the original toxic people reputation then trying to build better culture.

    Imo, the company deserves good people leaving.

    1. CBB*

      If the departure of 6 venters has left the company understaffed to the point of falling behind on orders by $8 million, that’s a pretty good measure of how well they had been performing, despite all the time spent venting.

      Not surprising that most of them were apparently able to find other jobs within a month or two.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Some people derive energy from this type of stuff.
      I had a cohort who used to claim she NEEDED company gossip to energize her through her workday.
      I would guess that venting got their blood flowing so they could also hammer out a slew of work. It’s not that unusual.

      But it’s fake energy. Energy gained this way can cause major crash-and-burns. We have to be careful about where we get our energy from.

  25. Falling Diphthong*

    Re the C-suite, bit of a theme today: When you’re a manager, being a really lovely person isn’t enough.

  26. Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell*

    Obviously the group chat was terrible and needed to be stopped, but the company had previously shown that (to the employees) it was willing to ignore toxic behavior and wouldn’t do anything to stop it. It’s not really surprising to me that the response to that was a “well if they’re allowed to be a jerk, then so am I” mentality developing and turning the work environment toxic. I’m sorry your bosses have to deal with this and I’m sure they are good people, but I think their negligence did kind of bring this upon themselves.

    1. Grey Coder*

      This this this. I’ve seen exactly this pattern except (fortunately) instead of toxic management, it was lazy and barely competent management, who would cover up and blur their responsibilities so much that it was hard to pin down why nothing got done. Higher management eventually got rid of the worst offenders through a combination of “reorg” job losses and back channel encouragement to leave (like the Toxic Duo here). But everyone remaining knows that mediocrity was fine for years so it’s going to be hard to turn that culture around.

      The founders in this case had a company where toxic behaviour was allowed to continue for years. This taught everyone that those behaviours were fine (at least at this company). Culture change is possible but takes a lot of concerted effort. The founders need to acknowledge there was a problem and publicly lay out a path to a better place, and then keep following through.

  27. anonymous73*

    In addition to everything Alison said, I think the CEO needs to address the situation with the whole company. Admit that they messed up and while they don’t need to go into detail, they need to acknowledge that Venter #1 had been warned prior to them being fired. People may choose not to believe what they’re told, but they at least need to make an attempt to make it right with the remaining disgruntled employees or you’re going to be even more understaffed.

    1. Petty Patty*

      Actually, I don’t see anywhere where Venter #1 was warned prior to being terminated. It says he was fired when the group chat was discovered, and V2 and V3 were written up, and other Venters were verbally warned.

    2. dresscode*

      They should do a town hall and allow people to submit questions anonymously. The only way out is through with this kind of toxic stuff. They should be telling everyone what they told OP and allow people to ask questions and announce how they will be dealing with this and other issues in the future. They should also set up a way for people to make sure their issues are being addressed. Seems like they have done that, but being REALLY clear about expectations going forward would help. With a lot of the toxic folks gone, hopefully they can hire enough to fill that in and have a mini-refresh that won’t be swamped in the toxic drama.

  28. WellRed*

    I’m certainly in the minority here. I think the company should have dealt much more swiftly with the toxic duo but I’m having a hard time mustering sympathy for venter 1. As an aside, OP, despite the multiple drama, people and groups involved, I found this impressively easy to follow. Kudos!

    1. Threeve*

      V1 doesn’t sound like an angel or a good employee, but I do think his firing was a huge misstep by the company’s leadership.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        Right. It’s not that V1 had done no wrong. It’s that anyone with a modicum of awareness of the situation should have realized that firing him would lead to this exact scenario. It’s a mis-step not because V1 didn’t deserve to be fired, but because nobody at the decision making level realized that firing him would cause a lot of their staff to resign in protest.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I don’t disagree with you, but I think you have to navigate this stuff with a certain amount of nuance and it doesn’t sound like the company did that successfully.

  29. Andy*

    > Venter #1 wasn’t terminated as an impulsive decision. He had previously been warned for badmouthing those two employees in other venues.

    Venter 1 was fired to protect the reputation of bullies and to send the message that complaining about bullies will be punished.

    1. Andy*

      > A lot of their offenses were covered up by senior members of that department. The CEO claims that until very recently, he had only been made aware of less than 20% of incidents involving those two employees.

      And to protect enablers. Because the senior management who covered them until complains were insurmountable and allowed them to get away with murder is still there and as quilty.

      That people complaining about toxic ex employees were fired, but covering senior management is dealt with privately or not at all says all you need to know about company culture.

      The chat and mocking pictures sound inappropriate. But the management are not interested in creating healthy culture. They are interested in protecting bullies and their enablers.

    2. Petty Patty*

      Yep, and the C suite is now just SHOCKED, SHOCKED I tell you, that the ensuing events have not gone the way they expected.

    3. Little Lobster*

      100%. Had the company dealt with the bullies in the first place, Venter #1 wouldn’t have felt the need to create/participate in the chat.

  30. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    Were this a non-profit and there was only 1 toxic manager who remains in her job, I would think this was ToxicOldJob. My old manager, who still works there, has been:
    1. Forbidden from speaking to her staff without a higher management witness
    2. Is not allowed to attend any meetings with outside stakeholders
    3. Is not allowed to attend any meetings with internal stakeholders
    4. Is no longer allowed to do performance reviews
    5. Is no longer allowed to give references for former employees
    6. Can’t send e-mails without copying her bosses

    One might ask, “Why is she still employed?” and that is a very good question and a mystery all current and former staff cannot explain

    1. SomebodyElse*

      So what does your old manager do from day to day? Honestly the time spent babysitting this manager would be better spent finding the pictures she apparently has.

      This is absolutely crazy!

      To the OP; since you were pulled into this by the CEO I’m assuming there was a reason or they are at least willing to take feedback from you. In your shoes I would advise them to do the following…

      1. All hands to dispel rumors; quite frankly they’ve mishandled this so badly they might as well give the back story at this point (which is my suspicion they are trying to use you to do) and tell everyone more or less what they told you.
      2. Recruit recruit recruit they need new people to fill the void of all who have left, otherwise they linger like a specter and remain ‘alive’ so to speak. New people with no connection to the Toxic Duo and the Venter Club will soon make them less present. Not to mention the backlog of orders.
      3. Your C-suite needs a real open door policy and to reinforce it with action. Too much went under the radar for too long (and still is)
      4. Policies, codes of conduct, disciplinary actions documented and adhered to! In addition to clear standards of professionalism
      5. Probably a leadership post mortem into how this all got so out of hand and find any other other lessons learned or gaps + one with employees if they’re willing to be open.

      1. Coder von Frankenstein*

        I would do #5 before #1. Hold the post-mortem, really drill down into what happened and how this was allowed to continue. Figure out how to make sure it never happens again.

        *Then* have the all-hands and lay out the results for the staff… and the CEO needs to admit that this was a major failure and take responsibility for it, not hide behind disciplinary processes that clearly did not work.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      The lengths companies will go to in order to avoid firing people is absolutely astonishing to me.

    3. MuseumChick*

      Having worked in non-profits most of my life the two most common reasons are 1) The toxic person is well connected to one or more of the following: someone high up in the organization, high ranking donor(s), external stakeholders with good standing in the community. 2) They have gotten friends/family to volunteer with the organization and because many nfp depend heavily on volunteers if that person is let go the organization will lose those much-needed volunteers as well.

    4. College Career Counselor*

      “One might ask, “Why is she still employed?” and that is a very good question and a mystery all current and former staff cannot explain”

      A few possible reasons off the top of my head:
      1) If we fire her, she’ll SUE us!
      2) If we fire her, WE’LL look bad!
      3) She has incriminating pics/knows where the bodies are buried.
      4) She’s related to the Board Chair/they go way back.
      5) She has too much institutional knowledge to lose/we’ll never be able to replace her!

      1 and 2 are because of fear of what might happen, 3 and 4 are because of cronyism/corruption, and 5 is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. I’d put my money on a combo of 4 and 5.

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        Current and former employees have $$$ on 1 or 3, and we have had way too much fun speculating on what 3 might be!

    5. Berkeleyfarm*

      Hah, that is a lot of what my old job should have done with my Toxic Boss (over 100% turnover).

      (If you’d said “civil service” instead of non profit and “he” I might have wondered.)

      She must know where the bodies are buried.

  31. Melody*

    Yeah, this is definitely about the fact that they let those two awful people stay around and leave on their own time – even though they weren’t even welcome at meetings any more – but fairly quickly fired the person who had gotten too bitter about it.

    When you have that kind of disparity it’s going to tank morale.

    It doesn’t even have to be about firing. I worked for a company that let some people take off for a month to deal with a bereavement in their family – but I couldn’t even get 3 days. They also let one person take off 3 months for maternity leave, but after that refused to let anyone else have extra time off for it.

    I was pretty bitter by the time I left.

  32. DD*

    What was the CEO’s purpose in sharing this with you? Is he/she hoping you will try and smooth things over with the other employees or is he/she having 1:1 with everyone to explain what happened? If I were you I wouldn’t want to be put in the middle of this dumpster fire.

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, I’m wondering what OP’s perceived role in all of this is. She says she was close friends with everyone but not directly involved in any of the toxicity so I’d be really interested to know why the CEO chose her specifically to tell all this to and what, just like you say, the purpose of that conversation was. OP doesn’t state her title but the letter reads to me like she isn’t someone extremely high up (I could be wrong, of course; maybe she’s an influential manager).

      Is she particularly well-liked, personable, and someone people trust and the CEO wants her to spread the word, so to speak (surely she would’ve mentioned that, though?)? Does she have a specific role in relation to the CEO, like an assistant or right hand (again, doesn’t seem like it, but I could be wrong)? Has she been particularly critical-of-yet-highly-professional-regarding all of these shenanigans and the CEO felt like he owed her an explanation?

      I find this to be a particularly interesting letter – OP is like the protagonist of a novel who is observant and trustworthy and gets to tell the readers exactly what happened without the need for an omnipotent narrator. I certainly hope we get an update on how basically everything here played out.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      This was the last straw for me, assuming the OP was specially picked for this 1:1 session. The CEO goes to a person known to be *friends* with people involved to let them in on the dirt. Why? Why dump that on OP? It’s so grade school to go to the mutual friend and hope that they can make people like you again.

      Also, all the double secret probation punishment in the world doesn’t matter if what the rank and file thinks happened is high level jerks keep their jobs for years with very delayed repercussions that didn’t even include firing, and low level people are kicked out as a first response for complaining about it. I know that’s oversimplifying, but when nobody knows the nuances (or the nuances aren’t enough to offset the original message) it doesn’t really matter. None of the leadership was leading here and it shows in how that venting chat was able to persist for so long. And the fact that people never got bored of kicking the same rocks over and over makes it seem like they’re not likely to move on and the toxicity is going to persist.

  33. Delphine*

    Six years of abusive behavior was tolerated by the company but the unprofessional venter was terminated immediately? I’d be leaving too.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      The part of the letter that was the most infuriating to me was “they were actually disciplined in other ways that weren’t made known to everyone else, due to privacy reasons”. Must’ve been exceptionally strict discipline measures if Toxic Duo continued doing what they were doing for five years, before anyone started seeing any changes.

      We had our own Toxic Duo. They were only around for maybe two years at the most. It was pure misery and we lost quite a few people because of them. And they were not gently “pushed out”, they were laid off. (Not as good as fired would’ve been, but still, hearing of them being escorted out the door was immensely cathartic.) I don’t know how OP’s coworkers lasted five years. Two felt like 23 months too long.

  34. Annie J*

    As others have said, from the employee perspective, the only person who is standing up for you is the person who gets fired, whereas the two abusive individuals have been mollycoddled, protected and treated with kid gloves.
    While the group chat doesn’t sound particularly healthy, I think it’s important to realise that bullying has a very strong emotional component, particularly from a manager it can make someone feel worthless and really mess with self-esteem and if bullying behaviour is not stopped immediately, the scars can linger in unhealthy ways, and in this case the group chat itself doesn’t affect other employees whereas the behaviour of the two abusive individuals did, so I can certainly understand the loyalty and support shown to him.

  35. The Smiling Pug*

    Yikes. This letter is filled with dysfunction and toxicity all around. And I thought these were separate letters too…

  36. Florida Fan 15*

    “Until quite recently, there was no HR department, so little action was taken against them.”

    I want to push back just a bit against this sentiment (not at OP directly, more in a general way). A business isn’t required to have an HR department to deal with problems. What is required is to have leadership who a) pays enough attention to know there are problems, and b) has enough backbone to deal with them. It doesn’t sound like this place has either.

    I get that Toxic VP was covering for Toxic Manager. But Toxic VP reported to somebody (the President, I’d assume) and it was that person’s responsibility to know what VP was up to. The fact that he didn’t is a problem. That he didn’t know because other senior members hid it is a huge problem. None of this bodes well for things turning around.

    1. Hell in a Handbasket*

      I was wondering this too. Was whoever covered all this up fired or demoted? Doesn’t sound like it. Probably another reason for continuing resentment.

  37. UK girl*

    It looks to me like it was easier to fire the venter because they had put everything in writing on company property in company time. A lot of bullies have what they do down to a fine art where they are unpleasant with tone, attitude, and body language etc. This can make them harder to pin down than something in black and white, add to that the tendency in general to turn a blind eye to poor management behaviour. What surprises me here is that the attempts to pull the bullies in line had no effect, they must have felt safe to carry on. This makes me wonder if there were legal or other reasons that made these two hard to fire.

    1. Don*

      Maybe. Or maybe the venter got the ax not because of the use of company equipment & time but because this behavior was also implicitly slagging on management’s shitty handling of the situation. Abusing the peons is déclassé, maligning the gentry requires rapid response.

    2. Florida Fan 15*

      “A lot of bullies have what they do down to a fine art where they are unpleasant with tone, attitude, and body language etc. This can make them harder to pin down than something in black and white”

      We have a bully in our place and this is 100% spot on. Our woman could give a master class in How to Abuse Without Leaving Evidence. Add in people who absolutely won’t see abuse unless it’s them getting punched in the face and it’s no surprise that nothing is done.

      1. UK girl*

        They will come up with all sorts of stuff. Calling people out on minor errors, twisting stuff round, digs that are made out to be jokes etc. Someone raising their voice and f ing at people is much easier to deal with.

  38. LKW*

    Oh mylanta what a mess. Since it’s not possible to go back in time and boot the VP and Manager, yes the CEO can turn this around, but clearly they can’t do this alone and had best get someone in who specialises in organizational health. They can come up with a plan to retain employees and establish standards, practices and controls.

    Who sit/sat between the VP and the CEO? Anyone? Did they know about the nonsense? Why didn’t they say anything? Why did no one feel comfortable coming to the CEO if things were that bad? Someone could have had the CEO dial into a meeting surreptitiously to hear how the VP behaved. That lack of comfort is on the CEO. Also the lack of awareness and the lack of responsibility for reporting crappy behavior.

  39. Rusty Shackelford*

    Nearly everyone believes that the Toxic Duo got away with murder. However, they were actually disciplined in other ways that weren’t made known to everyone else, due to privacy reasons

    Yeah, they were “disciplined” in ways that didn’t actually prevent them from doing what they were doing. They just, what, couldn’t do it in meetings? Great job, upper management.

  40. Susanna*

    I get why the company was upset that venters were.. venting in a group chat (and that only matters if it was company software and on company time).

    But FIRING V1? And writing up others?

    LW, this is how it looks, from a bottom-line perspective: Two high-ranking people were serial abusers in the workplace. They survive, until they leave on their own terms. The people who complain about ether are fired or disciplined.

    Saying there was stuff done behind the scenes abasing Toxic Duo is laughable; it certainly wasn’t firing them, and it took a lot more (no bonuses! Poor babies!) to get them to leave.

    I wouldn’t work a a place like this. And I imagine they’ll lose more high-performers. And will dismiss that as the departure of the whiners.

    1. Colette*

      Well, no. It matters regardless of whether it was on company time/software or not, because they are creating a possibly illegal hostile workplace, and you don’t get to do that on your own time to escape consequences. (Specifically, I’m thinking of this “A photoshoppped picture of those two people crying or crapping their pants” – which could easily veer into ableist, homophobic, and sexist territory.)

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Oh, I think a photoshop of somebody soiling themselves could definitely get you fired where I work, and I don’t think my workplace is unfairly strict.

  41. MuseumChick*

    As Delphine says above, “Six years of abusive behavior was tolerated by the company but the unprofessional venter was terminated immediately? I’d be leaving too.” sums it up.

    Even if Venter 1 had been warned previously this still looks so bad from the outside. Did upper management ever communicate with employees about this? What I mean is, as an employee I would want to hear something to the effect of, “Behaviors like X and Y [behaviors of Toxic 1 and 2] will no longer be tolerated here. We dropped the ball in the past but that changes now. Going forward the expectations for all our employees is [insert whatever]. and we are going to hold everyone at every level to that standard. If you see or experience anything you think is problematic you can report it by [instructions].”

    Even after that, you have to give people time to get out of the toxic mentality that was created. And in this context when a beloved employee is fired you have GOT to communicate with staff. At an old job, a well-liked employee was let go. We literally had an emergency all-staff meeting that day where the CEO stood up and basically told us, “We cannot go into all the details due to privacy reasons. Just like with anyone here we cannot share certain information with the entire staff. What I can tell you is that a firing here, baring something very extreme, will never come as a surprise.”

  42. LDN Layabout*

    the three gentlemen who founded the company (they are the president, CTO, and COO) are some of the most wonderful, kind, and capable people I have ever worked with.

    The way senior management handled this entire fiasco is pretty much proof they’re the opposite of capable. At best you’re going to keep bleeding employees, at worst, you’re going to keep bleeding employees AND be unable to hire replacements because any kind of whisper network is going to come down hard on the sheer moronic behaviour of everyone with seniority in this company.

      1. Indy Dem*

        Wonderful and kind, except they allowed their employees be treated like …swear word… for years and did nothing.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      They may be capable of their tech work but they need to hire professional managers because they do not know how to manage.

      And just for the record it is NOT kind to ruin people’s health, well-being and possibly their lives. NO. These are not kind people. If you are a leader, keep your head in the sand means you have failed as a leader.
      “He’s a kind person except for the part where he keeps his dog in a 2×4 cage.” Yeah. Okay.

  43. Don*

    I feel like I need to point out that one does not have to reveal disciplinary actions to publicly condemn behavior and set professional boundaries. It would be entirely reasonable and not at all a violation of an employee’s privacy to stop someone from abusing a coworker, say “this isn’t an acceptable way to behave and it will not be allowed,” and then handle HR matters privately.

    Would a company-wide email talking about “recent events coming to light” and an admonition to all saying “xyz will not be tolerated” be COMPLETELY transparent about who the subject really was? YUP. But that’s not on HR, that’s on the bad actor who chose to do shit where everyone was aware of it.

  44. Annie J*

    I’ve just thought of something, although I’m sure it’s been mentioned in an earlier comment, but I wonder who was actually responsible for the decision to fire the venter, did the CEO come to that decision by himself or was see sweet involved, the same C suite that covered up and minimised the impact of the toxic duo.
    OP, I really recommend looking for another job at this point, it seems like the company is going to go down anyway and the best thing to do is to jump this sinking ship.

    1. Lab Boss*

      That’s a very, very good point. If it’s the CEO alone it sounds like an exec got so flustered that he started killing houseflies with hammers. If the rest of the C suite was involved then it sounds like someone(s) got mad that their bad management job in letting the Toxic Duo fester was being called out. Neither is a flattering image of management.

  45. MuseumChick*

    OP, one more thing. You say, ” I love my job and everyone in my department, and the three gentlemen who founded the company (they are the president, CTO, and COO) are some of the most wonderful, kind, and capable people I have ever worked with.”

    But that is not reflected in what we know. They allowed two extremely toxic employees to reign terror for SIX YEARS. How is it that in six years none of these three men knew what was going on? That the CEO only know about 20% of their behavior until recently? And, even if that is true is sounds like the 20% was more than enough to fire them. Why did they start with just warnings after uncovering the pattern of behavior? Why was there not more communication with employees about what to do if they saw or experience any of the toxic behavior they now knew was happening in their workplace? I could keep going but I think you get the point. This does not sound like capable, kind people.

  46. tamarack & fireweed*

    Oh, crap. I literally woke up this morning to an online forum collapsing because of the moderators mishandling an erupting conflict between two forum members. Poster 1 kept injecting weasly-worded COVID vaccine misinformation (off-topic for the forum to boot, which is about an artistic hobby) and Poster 2 expressed their displeasure with moderators letting it go on uninhibited. Poster 1 is also generally an ass and likes to talk disparaging about the artistic merits of other forum members; poster 2 is also generally very well liked and known as helpful and welcoming. Moderators banned poster 2 in the name of preserving freedom of expression. (I dunno what they did with poster 1, who I don’t care for.)

    I think it is understandable that the venters kept on venting as long as the trauma caused by the toxic employees wasn’t worked through. Apparently the prevailing feeling was that the company mishandled the toxic employees, and even the degree to which they handled it *less badly* than generally known has not been made public. At the same time the venters need to understand that venting on company time and equipment has to stop and a professional attitude has to return.

    On that point I tend to be outcome focussed, what I call a proof-in-the-pudding situation. As an organization the employer / HR department should have been cognizant that going head-on with the venters after not going head-on with the toxic employees is not likely to be the optimal course of action. OK, *maybe* the venters (1-3, who ultimately left) were so committed to feeling righteous that no amount of recognizing their point would have sufficed to turn them around, but it sounds like the company didn’t even seriously try.

    What I tend to think would have had the best chance of evacuating the bad stuff would have involved:
    * An apology from leadership. According to the rules of a good apology – recognizing that harm happened, accepting the responsibility for it, committing to doing better. No ifs and buts.
    * Transparency to the extent allowable about the process that *was* applied to the toxic employees. Plus a note on how they would go about dealing more swiftly with situations like these in the future.
    * One-on-ones with the venters recognizing their points and at the same time making it clear that going forward the disparaging venting needed to stop. The tone should be honesty and concern about getting the culture onto beneficial rails. The example it sets to new people, the unhealthy re-hashing, … There has to be a workable and realistic process in place for any further situations of this type, and the venters should be invited to come around to it. The MS Teams forum is to be disbanded.
    * Transparency about these expectations. (They should be communicated after people had a little time to cool off from the first set of information.)

    If all of this is not enough to bring the venters around, too bad – further damage to the company (in terms of losing key people) may have to happen to evacuate the dysfunction. But it sounds like HR was not clear that this was the likely outcome of the way they took on the venters.

    Good luck – in the cases I’ve seen recovery from catastrophic loss of key contributers (after a badly handled acquisition in the case I know of) took a few years.

    1. MuseumChick*

      Love this comment. Honestly, a lot of this could have been mitigated with communication, transparency, and empathy.

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      Tamarack and Fireweed,

      Did I follow your first paragraph correctly. The moderators banned the complainer, but you don’t know what happened to the person who was posting things inappropriate for the forum.

      Thank you,

      1. tamarack & fireweed*

        This is why the forum collapsed for the moment. Maybe they also banned the other poster – no one I know cares about them. People who moderate forums tend to be highly wedded to the principles of freedom of speec – which is a good thing! But they are less clear about what policies should inform moderation. So when someone says something that comes around as “please censor this other person” it’s easy to think they have found the bad guy. Plus, some feel really virtuous if they punish someone who is generally highly valued and are generous to the person who is generally disliked…

        (Also I have the personal feeling that one of the moderators is not very happy with anti-COVID measures and has strong feelings against vaccine mandates – even though they haven’t said anything in public about this in a year.)

        1. Boof*

          ” People who moderate forums tend to be highly wedded to the principles of freedom of speech”
          I would say GOOD moderators actually know when to moderate rather than to try to “preserve freedom” by… banning those who complain. What about their freedom to complain?
          I’ve seen at least one other forum collapse because folks didn’t want to be associated with [all manner of extremely bigoted talk and memes] but the “freedom of expression” contingent wanted them to have “some place to get it out of their system” (and nevermind that that is… not how that works).
          TL/DR: freedom of speech seems to be an excuse to be an ineffective mod

          1. tamarack & fireweed*

            Having been a mod, I agree. And now I have to write to *those* mods after my work is over – and not even in English… sigh…

        2. Spencer Hastings*

          Also, to be fair, backseat moderation is extremely annoying.

          That said, I’ve seen it taken way too far: I used to belong to a forum where there was a rule against backseat modding, but in practice it ended up something like this:

          Person A: “X is true.”
          Person B: “X is false, you idiot.”
          Person A: “Hey, don’t call me an idiot.”
          Mod: “Person A was banned for three days for backseat moderating.”

          1. tamarack & fireweed*

            Well, you can do this if you have an effective means of providing input to the moderators. Such as here and some FB groups I know of.

            But TBH if I get to decide (and the forum isn’t too big, say, up to a few dozen posts/day and no more) then I prefer the community discussing and deciding on moderation policy and its changes through a rough consensus process.

  47. Lobsterman*

    OP: This place is terrible, and you should move on. They are doing a self-immolate, and there’s no reason to ride this flaming train all the way over the cliff.

  48. SentientAmoeba*

    Venter #1 was wrong and probably kept stirring the pot but if I would have quit too. You let two employees drag down the business for years, create a hugely toxic environment that affected everyone and managed them out rather than firing them, then let go of another employee , claiming they were creating a toxic environment. Ironically, the two original employees are at the core of the current problems, further proof that not nipping this in the bud early can have far reaching effects.

  49. First time listener, long time caller*

    It is REALLY not clear that the way the company handled the Toxic Duo was mismanagement. In a non-start-up context, I’d agree 100%. But in the startup context, we’d need to know a lot more about the company, it’s ecosystem and the importance in the industry of Toxic VP. While there have certainly been some serious consequences to the path they took, it’s very possible that firing the VP would have been even more problematic.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Seriously? This comes across like you’re saying you’d allow a VP to abuse staff for years if they were “important in the industry.” Do you know how gross that sounds?

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Uh. That’s called “managing”.
      If you have a problematic employee it is up to you to figure out how to discipline/retrain/remove the employee as appropriate.

      If you have a cesspool of an employee that you cannot let go of, your business is over anyway. Might as well shutter up the building now.

      Everyone is replaceable. Everyone.

  50. Lab Boss*

    Firing Venter #1 might have been appropriate in a vacuum, I suppose- but it really looks like management decided they screwed up the way they handled the Toxic Duo, and overcorrected to come down hard on the next offender to show how serious they are. As an employee I’d now be worried about what other “mistakes” management was making, and if something I did would suddenly put me on the chopping block when they decided to show they meant business.

  51. Dust Bunny*

    Until quite recently, there was no HR department, so little action was taken against them.

    Does it seem like the timeline here is more or less that while the company had no HR the Toxic Duo got away with everything, but the Venters were fired/disciplined after an HR had been instituted and cut its teeth? Because if that’s the case it would explain a lot about why nobody dealt with the Toxic Duo but then the Venters got their knuckles rapped pretty decisively–the CEOs thought it was their job to develop product, not babysit, until it became overly clear that there was a need for babysitters.

  52. Boof*

    OP, this is not on you to fix, but the top brass are going to need to do a lot more than a few 1:1s if they hope to salvage this. I’d say they need to come out with an apology for 1) mishandling toxic duo 2) clear plan of how they’re correcting that and 3) spell out how not allowing ongoing toxicity is part of that plan, acknowledging that this is a change from before but they hope everyone can see needs to happen. Also reassure that everyone will be dealt with the same including higher ups if that happens. (and actually follow through on it)

    1. LKW*

      100% . Also, defining toxic behaviors. Speaking down to people. Being condescending. Inappropriate discussion topics. Questioning their intelligence, parentage, whatever.

  53. Falling Diphthong*

    “If you are considering banning a toxic employee from attending meetings, you should skip that step and just fire them.”

    Doesn’t quite fit on an AAM throw pillow, but wise advice. Also:

    “No one cares about your behind the scenes moves unless they produce before the scenes results.”

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Your second point is perfectly worded. It’s just not possible to have total transparency in HR issues, but if people can SEE that some kind of action has been taken, the lack of transparency is less important.

  54. CW*

    OP, it sounds like this place is very dysfunctional, and you should plan to leave whenever you can. It just goes to show you all it takes is one (or in this case, tw0) bad employee to make a workplace a bad one. And this is a perfect example of how it can cause a domino effect afterwards. Sadly, many companies handle this very wrong, and this is one such example.

    But the damage has been done, and this turnover is a perfect example of how it can cause the company to lose money. In this case, it is a whopping $8 million that can potentially be lost. I wouldn’t stay. Please start job searching and get out while you still can.

  55. Falling Diphthong*

    I suspect and hope that Venter 1, Venters 2 and 3, and those who quit in their venter wake are happier now at different jobs. It’s like they got stuck in a pattern and had to keep stewing in the toxicity of the Bad People even if those people had left. A pattern that needed to break somehow, and the company hit on an incredibly bad way to accomplish that.

  56. EmKay*

    They were “disciplined” my lily-white behind. And why is the CEO telling you this? What does he expect to happen now?

    He wants you to smooth things over with your remaining colleagues, bet.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Right on. OP do not fall into this trap. Do not be the messenger here. It’s up to the CEO to deliver this message not you. You do not have to be his clean-up crew, honest.
      This nice person is setting you up to do his clean up, that is how it appears to me.

  57. Frances*

    Maybe I have the timeline wrong, but what if one of the reasons it took so long to get rid of the original toxic duo was because there wasn’t an HR until only recently? Then, once a proper HR department was in place, discipline started happening. Either way, the CEO should explain to the remaining employees something about the decisions or the rumor mill is going to keep going.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      Maybe. But that’s still a management fail. The main problem is a complete lack of transparency. If HR is going to come in with a broom that needs to be communicated. The previous management failures need to be acknowledged. And some of the issues that happened/started prior to the cleaning need to handled with an understanding of the situation that existed at the time.

      Because you can’t come down harder on the inappropriate reaction to toxic behavior than you did on the toxic behavior itself. Even if you weren’t the one to actually drop the ball.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      I do wonder if the nascent HR pushed and pushed to get rid of the toxic duo, and having finally done that looks around and discovers a remaining pool of their toxicity and insists to the CEO “We need to excise this! Be firm with toxic employees!” and did not at all realize how the abrupt swing in consequences was going to land for the other employees, who are making their opinion known with their feet.

  58. BayCay*

    I came from a situation like this one but not as bad; there wasn’t a group chat but there was one highly toxic bully and people would talk behind her back, like, “Are you having these issues too, why does she behave like that,” etc.

    She was formally disciplined after MONTHS of bad behavior but it did not get much better and the message sent seemed to be, “She;s too valuable an employee to fire so deal with it.” My ex-manager literally told me that if I had any more issues with her, I’d need to ‘sort things out myself.’ The bully was a large part of why I (along with a few other employees) left soon after, and ironically, she quit herself a few months later.

    It always bothered me that, had they taken her bullying seriously and fired her, they might have retained more people in that office. Instead, the boss let everybody suffer to keep her, and she ended up leaving anyway.

  59. Policy Wonk*

    I’m guessing that once they got an HR, they consulted a lawyer. At that point while they had complaints, they didn’t have enough on paper to fire the toxic duo without opening themselves up to a lawsuit, so they pushed them out. But they learned their lesson, documented on Venter #1, and had the appropriate paper trail to fire him. If they haven’t already issued new guidelines or a new personnel handbook, look for that next.

  60. Coder von Frankenstein*

    I think the CEO needs, first, to take responsibility and apologize to the remaining staff for taking so long to get rid of the Toxic Duo. It sounds like he’s trying to justify or minimize that failure, and that won’t fly. Explain how the failure happened and what steps are being taken to ensure it won’t happen again. And actually, you know, take those steps.

    Then he needs to address the firing of Venter #1. The challenge here is a) making a strong case that the firing was justified or at least reasonable, b) without airing all of Venter #1’s dirty laundry, and c) reassuring the remaining staff that their heads are not going to be next on the block. This is a pretty tall order.

    And finally, ramp up hiring fast, because you’re probably going to lose more staff anyway, and there is a tipping point where these things cascade. I still remember the startup company I worked at where the entire dev team (I was one of them) quit within a six-month period, taking a vast amount of institutional knowledge with us. The company muddled through in the end, but the CIO who was the reason for us quitting did not, and the CEO who’d hired him didn’t last long either.

  61. YL*

    How a company disciplines employees for bad behavior is a big indicator of the overall culture.

    At my last job, there was a massive reorganization after we had been acquired. After most other teams had been laid off and replaced, I noticed a big culture shift. A lot of new hires in management or higher level roles were jerks. I asked HR for help with filling out an online tax form because I was unable to edit any of the answers. They told me to not fill it out if it didn’t apply to me. The form did apply to me. I witnessed a VP make a joke in a group chat about “hazing the new guy.” The group chat was for a training session we were all taking.

    The last straw was a Director had made flippant remarks about me “questioning the request” when I brought up legitimate concerns about a request. Director also tried to accuse me of fulfilling the request wrong. I filled the request according to how she specified and it wasn’t my fault that she didn’t take my question seriously. I complained about the “questioning the request” remark, which was actually a written comment that the C-suite for my department had seen. My direct manager agreed the Director was unprofessional. The C-suite made a lot of talk about how the Director was only trying to do her best. I knew I would not win. I wasn’t expecting the Director to be written up. At the very least, she should have been spoken to about it. I think because I was next on the layoff slate, they didn’t care about being civil to me.

    Luckily I did get another job offer a few days later. I ended leaving that company when they could have really needed my labor.

  62. Soup of the Day*

    While I’m absolutely sympathetic to the venters, I think it takes a serious lack of judgement to make an unflattering Photoshop of your coworkers, on a company computer, on company time. I’m not surprised the venter got fired.

    I fully feel that the venters should be cut a little slack because they had to put up with the crappy coworkers for so long. But it’s not okay to have a group chat dedicated to making personal attacks on your coworkers for a year on company time and equipment. It doesn’t matter how awful they are. You just can’t Photoshop your coworkers soiling themselves at work. I think that’s where it crosses the line from documenting the coworker’s abusive behavior and being a distraction.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Well, with the abuse the toxic ones did, the employees received the message that “Anything goes and it’s okay”, thus the photoshopping began.

      I am not saying it’s right. I am saying this type of thing is to be expected given the anything goes culture that is in place. Of everything here, I find the photoshopping the least of the worries. It’s more concerning that the abuse was so severe a year later the employees are still talking about the abuse they endured.
      You know we send crime victims to therapy. We send abused employees back to work.
      What is wrong with this picture.

  63. Rav*

    The management painted themselves in the corner, took of their shoes, and slide all over the floor.

    I agree with Alison’s analysis and conclusion. I do have to wonder what did the company do after the Toxic Duo resigned. Was there any type of healing process? New clearly expressed guidelines? Because it feels like the upper management is trying to quietly forget what led to the TD’s reign of terror, and rewrite history to look better, without dealing with the underlying issues.

    Firing Venter 1 might have been the right thing to do, but it was badly. TD might have left, but they left a mess that needs to be handled directly, not by putting a cheap rug over it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yep. OP get out while you still have come recollection of what normal and proper behavior should be.

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