Over the course of a career it is possible that you will end up working for a bad employer, the kind that says they care about employee well being, and then asks you to do something unethical, or compromises your health by demanding excessive working hours and results. Or perhaps your employer was just fine, but you encountered a toxic boss who demeaned you and made you constantly feel like you were never performing well enough, always hanging the threat of being fired over your head. These are just a few examples (sadly there are many more) but you get the picture. Coming out of a bad employment situation is similar to putting yourself back together after any unhealthy relationship has ended. Here are a few things to consider if you’ve experienced an toxic working relationship (or are in one now).
Trust Yourself. So many of my clients come out of these difficult work experiences not knowing where the “fault line” lay. Following a bad experience, give yourself some time to clear your mind (a few days or even a few weeks) and if your instincts are telling you that you were not to blame for the relationship going sour, believe your gut. Allow this time to bring your instinctive insight to bear; there will always be things you regret or that you feel you mishandled in this relationship, but if in your heart you know that you were asked to do things that were not ethical (or possible) then be compassionate with yourself. And if you are having trouble shaking off the lingering effects of this toxic work experience don’t feel like you have to live with it all by yourself, consider getting help from a trusted resource (counsellor, therapist or a coach).
Know it was not your fault. Just because your employer may have approached things rationally and with forethought doesn’t mean what they were asking of you (or how they made you feel) was appropriate or warranted. Employers hold the power, and when that position (or your trust) is abused in a tangible (rather than an assumed) way, you as an employee have very few options. Never presume it was solely your fault, after all it takes two to foster conflict in any relationship. Even if you spent time researching this employer before accepting the position, know you could not have foreseen this circumstance. Many people will put a lot of time and emotional effort into making a bad employment relationship work (the alternative in Canada being to quit and pursue legal action… with no salary to support you in the mean time); it takes a toll on well being, leading to self-blame and diminished self worth and self confidence…and these feelings persist long after the employment relationship has ended. Healing starts when you can apply self-compassion; it was not your fault.
Separate past and present. Once bitten twice shy is a saying for a reason. It can be very difficult to put yourself back out there and trust that your current or future employment relationships will or can be healthier. Self-compassion is a first step, but the next one is self-awareness. If you approach employment distorted from previous negative experiences, you will not be able to accurately assess opportunities in the present, with the risk being you repeat a cycle of compromise in any employment relationship you hold. Give yourself the time and space to objectively and accurately assess where you are with respect to your ability to trust both yourself (to make a good decision about employment) and an employer (to uphold positive employment practices) going forward. The vulnerability and emotional hardship experienced after a toxic working relationship ends does not have to define you or your approach to your career. It is painful and may be for some time; but know your gifts, share them with discernment. Gently learn to trust again or you remain a victim, limiting your great potential.
Learn from your experience. One of my clients came to me after a bad work experience with the “rule” that she would never trust another employer again. She could be forgiven for not wanting to be vulnerable and open - a very human response to pain and betrayal. Know that this approach requires so much rigidity and compromise it will leave you as exhausted at the end of each working day as it did her. Negative working experiences are not pleasant (I wouldn’t wish one on my worst enemy), but they are informative (you may not be able to fix stupid, but you can document it). Objectively understanding the circumstances and context of what happened to you is key to being able to circumvent it from repeating in the future. You may never fully understand everything that lead to the severing of the working relationship (being let go as opposed to resigning), but you will be able to get a sense of what to watch out for in future employment relationships. Having a thriving career means you need to extend a measure of trust to your employer and others in your workplace, but only once they have earned it (just don’t make the criteria for earning your trust so impossible no one could ever gain it or you’ll find yourself job hopping).
Find understanding. After a toxic work experience (and only when you are ready) you may find genuine compassion for your previous employer/boss. This is not a place you arrive at quickly; it takes time and a process of grieving to get here. However, arriving here means you are able to accept what was and was not in your control in this relationship, to learn from it what you can and then move on wiser and with empathy for your previous employer. Employers who egregiously hurt employees (physically and emotionally) should be held morally and legally accountable for their actions. The majority of people are impacted by toxic working relationships because of misplaced organizational (or leadership) values and beliefs; chasing profit margins and financial outcomes that were never realistic, creating untenable performance requirements and harsh working conditions (like running on a treadmill at a speed you can’t control); while you got out, others are still in this place of toxicity. Compassion is strength, and when mixed with newfound wisdom it has the ability to push the edges of your potential into new places, taking you with it.
This blog was inspired by an article written by Miles Neale in the Winter 2017 issue of Tricycle magazine.