Professionals reveal the moment they knew their workplace was toxic

Photo: Bernard Spragg. NZ via Flickr

A healthy workplace fosters an environment where individuals and teams can thrive and bring their best selves to work. On the other hand, a toxic culture drags people down — and it can have devastating impacts on mental health way beyond office hours.

Life coach Lindsay Hanson recently took to TikTok and asked her followers to share the moment they realized their workplace was toxic. From problematic to downright criminal, the anecdotes professionals shared in the viral thread were telling.

Worried you just might be one of those people stuck in a toxic workplace? Yes, the job market is currently plagued by uncertainty. But that’s not a reason to tolerate conditions that are harmful to your health and safety.

If you think your organization is toxic, considering whether that’s the case and if there are any resources to address the situation is crucial. And if all else fails, no job is worth your sanity and happiness — you spend so much time at work, after all — and it’s absolutely possible to pull off a successful job switch during the pandemic.

Here are nine real-life, anonymous anecdotes about people realizing their workplace was dysfunctional. If you recognize yourself in any of those scenarios, it could be time to act.

Unempathetic response

“When I called to inform my boss that I was unable to come in due to my 4-month-old daughter being kidnapped, they threatened to fire me because it ‘sounded dramatic’.”

Why this is problematic: Not only did the boss demonstrate a complete lack of empathy for a personal emergency, but they also threatened retaliation while invalidating the distress of the employee.

No boundaries

“When I was giving birth, I got a call from my boss asking if I was gonna have my report turned in and if I was coming back the following day.”

Why this is problematic: The U.S. still has a lot of progress to make when it comes to maternity leave laws, but many workplaces go above and beyond to support pregnant employees and new parents. However, this boss did the exact opposite while showing a blatant lack of respect for boundaries.

Hustle culture

“I went to leave on time, and I was asked if I was working a half-day. My manager’s argument was that if I could leave on time, I clearly didn’t have enough work, and I should be working late every single night.”

Why this is problematic: If you care about your job, it’s only natural to stay a bit late sometimes when finishing an important project. But if there is a silent, unwritten expectation around staying late all the time or you are shamed for having a work-life balance, there is a problem.

Sexism

“My senior at my first assignment required the young female members of staff to give up half their lunch break for BIBLE STUDY so that we could ‘learn our place.’”

Why this is problematic: Does this even require an explanation? Gender discrimination and sexism at work can take more subtle forms, but this example is blatant.

Unsafe environment

“I was pregnant and working at Subway and my coworker had a heat stroke because they wouldn’t fix the air conditioning. I had to work around him passed out on the floor with EMTs trying to wake him up because the owner wouldn’t close the store. Instead of fixing the air for me to be safe with my unborn child, all the owner did was say, ‘Hey, good job getting through that.’”

Why this is problematic: You shouldn’t be required to work in unsafe conditions, nor expected to adjust to them.

Wedding plans

“I went to go tell my boss and said that I had finally planned my wedding and my honeymoon. She told me, ‘No, that’s not gonna work for us’ because it’s on a certain date that our magazine gets published — even though I had told her more than six months in advance. I was a salesperson, so my job was done by the time the magazine gets published.”

Why this is problematic: Companies are struggling to retain top talent and it’s almost guaranteed that trying to get someone to cancel their own wedding will backfire and cause the employee to leave.

Dangerous negligence

“When I worked at a daycare and a one-year-old was left outside in the cold FORGOTTEN for 30 minutes and his teachers weren’t reprimanded at all and the parents weren’t notified.

Or maybe when the teacher threw a water bottle at an infant in his crib because he woke up and she wasn’t ready to deal with him yet.”

Why this is problematic: Witnessing negligent, dangerous behaviors at work is a troubling experience as it puts your own integrity on the line.

Sexual harassment

“I had two bosses. One of them told me to my face during a company outing that I would never get the promotion I wanted unless I slept with one of them because ‘that’s how corporate works’ I told him that didn’t work for me, and later found out he and my other boss were sleeping with various other coworkers of mine.”

Why this is problematic: Sexual harassment.

Blurred lines

“We were at a company festival, and my then-boss had taken a bunch of drugs the night before, so I think he was still high the next morning. We were all chilling by the pool, and he shared with me that he was dying of cancer. I had a sister who had passed two years earlier, so being the sympathetic person I am, I started to give him advice. He then turned around and said, ‘I’m just f**king with you.’ I quit a month later.”

Why this is problematic: Some workplaces are more informal than others, but the lines can get blurred in dysfunctional ways when you’re partying with your boss. Plus, the cancer joke was super insensitive.