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How to recognise a toxic workplace and what to do about it

How to recognise a toxic workplace and what to do about it

How to recognise a toxic workplace and what to do about it 2500 1309 Notable Communications

I’m starting this post with a dangerous, and seldom-realised fact: There is no such thing as a work-life balance. Work is part of your life – a significant part – but it certainly is not a separate entity. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, you seriously need to consider their motives.

In order to escape what some people think are ills associated with large companies they take refuge in smaller ones. Sadly, toxic work environments permeate small businesses as much as they do large ones. Sometimes that toxicity may not be as obvious, though. In fact, it is often buried beneath a façade of ‘flexibility’, the after work get together at the end of the week, and coffee time chit chats. Burnout may sneak up on you without you even realising it.

People tend to be willing to sacrifice a lot for an environment which is more pleasant to work in. You’re prepared to give up some perks in order to gain new experiences, develop latent skills and talents, or even just escape a claustrophobic, chaotic atmosphere. Enter the small business with a position you have been looking for for years: Flexible hours, close to home, remote work allowed, no bureaucratic red tape. Sound too good to be true? It probably is!

I’m not saying that all small businesses are honey traps, nor am I saying that you can’t be perfectly happy and fulfilled in a large organisation. What I am saying is that you need to carefully consider any career move, especially when it involves a radically different ‘culture’ or ethos.

Want to work for a start up? Great – how much research have you done on them, and how much of that research has been country-specific? Want to work for a large corporate all your friends have been raving about? Great – what do the other employees (who aren’t your friends) have to say about it? No matter how enticing an offer, think about what you really want before you make the leap.

If you already work for a small company and aren’t sure whether or not it’s toxic, here are some tell-tale warning signs:

  1. You tend to work longer hours, or take work home with you. While it’s true that this happens in large companies too, it is perhaps less obvious in smaller organisations. Your workload increases incrementally until you feel pressured to take on more because the company is chronically understaffed.
  2. Rules apply to some people, but not to others. If this is happening, get out as fast as you possibly can. No matter what you are being told, you are just there to fulfil a purpose. You’re a human resource in the truest sense, and you’re assumed to be too stupid to know it.
  3. The ‘be grateful you have a job’ mantra. This is a company-wide refrain used to shut you up. Burning out? Be grateful you have a job. Not getting an increase because sales are poor? Be grateful you have a job. Can’t take time off? Be grateful you have a job. You get the point. Gratitude is not a means to exploit people. You shouldn’t be used to achieve other people’s goals at the expense of your own.
  4. Time slips away from you without you even knowing it. Stuck in endless, pointless meetings? Do you have incessant email and DM pop up notifications? Is everything urgent? These are all signs of dysfunctional, unstructured, and poorly organised company systems. Oh, and let’s talk about the after-work get together tactic: This is a bribe which is costing you more time away from your family, and is meant to distract you from feeling burnt out.   
  5. Your boss or manager doesn’t give you the time of day. Not only should you be grateful that they ‘gave’ you the job in the first place, but you should also be grateful that they are steering you along. They “pretend to care about employees” – and this is an actual phrase I heard coming out of a business owner’s mouth – but don’t do a thing to support you, and/or are completely dismissive of your ideas.
  6. Nepotism is a thing. You have just been told that you cannot be promoted to a position with no real, feasible explanation given (and sometimes, just for their own amusement, your employer may use this opportunity to berate you). Two weeks later you find out your boss’s best friend has been appointed instead (she has never worked for the company, and has no experience for that particular position – but hey, you aren’t paid to think, so put your head down and get back to work).  

If you work in a toxic company, get out fast. In smaller companies an exit interview is sometimes overlooked, and, while unfortunate, it is not your responsibility to try and convince management that they are treating their staff poorly. If they didn’t listen to your concerns while you were in their employ, they are unlikely to listen to them when you leave. You might just want to tell them to shut their front door before you go, though.

Want to leave a toxic workplace behind you? Let me draft you a resignation letter.

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