Knowing When Your Work Environment is Toxic - And How to Leave It
A few years ago, I was fresh out of grad school and interviewing for my first position at a few different ad agencies. Living in Virginia at the time, and having spent the entirety of my life to that point on the east coast, I was ready for a big change. I narrowed my search down to 3 west coast cities and trusted that I would know when I found the “right fit”.
After 3 rounds of phone and video interviews, one agency I was speaking with offered to fly me out to their office in Portland, Oregon to meet their team. Everyone was warm and friendly. They set me up in a beautiful boutique hotel, gave me a tour of the office neighborhood, and took me to their favorite coffee spots. At the end of the day, I received a job offer. I was ecstatic! This company made it clear they wanted to invest in me, and all signs pointed to “right fit”. I accepted the position before I even flew out of Portland the next day.
Fast forward 2 months: I had moved across the country, started work, and was beginning to settle in to a new life in Portland. My coworkers were becoming my friends and I was feeling pretty good. Until, one day out of the blue, the department head of my team at work suddenly called all of us into a meeting and announced one of our team members had been let go. She was simply “no longer working” at our company. I was shocked and felt on edge, but tried to brush it off as a one-time hiring misstep.
Until the same scenario began to replay itself, week after week. Employees across departments were suddenly terminated, with no explanation or premise. As a recent graduate deep in student loans with $0 in savings, my slight edge feeling shifted into full-blown panic. What if I was next? “That’s silly, I didn’t do anything wrong,” my rational side would counter. “But neither did anyone else who worked here…” the other side of my brain would remind me.
I can remember one particular meeting, a brainstorm session, that I was excited to be a part of. We had a new client and the brainstorm, I thought, was an opportunity for everyone to come to the table with an open collaborative mind to share ideas - so that’s what I did. I felt the meeting went well, but as we walked out, my department head called me into a side room where she informed me I was invited to meetings to “listen, not speak” and that I had to “read the room.” Once again, I was shocked. I didn’t know it at the time, but this incident was the first in a chain that sparked my descent into self-doubt and high anxiety at work.
After a few more months walking on eggshells, I started weighing the real pros and cons of how I was feeling at work. Sure - I had great friends in the office, I liked the free snacks, and the clients looked good on a resume… but I was MISERABLE. I lost the self-confidence I spent two years building in grad school, I was constantly paranoid about being fired, and I was afraid to speak up about anything. I started realizing I was in a truly toxic work environment that was damaging my mental health - and nothing is ever worth that.
Once I had my annual review and hit my mandatory one-year relocation agreement, I decided to pour myself into job searching. I could’t wait to get out, and I knew, as the saying goes: “the only way out is through.” I dedicated myself to pushing through. I liked Portland and wanted to stay in town, so I welcomed any connections that came my way. I set up coffee dates, even when companies weren’t hiring. I asked to come in for office tours, just to see the space and introduce myself. I spoke with companies about freelance opportunities, even though I knew I needed full-time employment.
But allowing that flexibility into my job search really paid off. One company that initially reached out to me for a freelance opportunity DID give me a full-time job offer. They saw my value and decided to find permanent space for me on their team. (That was 13 months ago, and I’m happy to say I’m still at this company today… and enjoying it!)
When I reflect on this experience, and the anxiety and self-doubt I went through while in it, I can think of a few things that helped me along the way. If you find yourself in a toxic work environment, I think these takeaways are great for anyone to consider:
Check in with yourself. As soon as I started feeling “off” at work, I questioned it. I didn’t bury it. I weighed my pros and my cons and reminded myself nothing has to be permanent.
Build yourself a safety net. A lot of my anxiety was finance related. Once I started saving a little bit of my paycheck each week, I was able to relax knowing I had a safety net even in the event I DID get fired. This safety net also would have allowed me to quit and job search while unemployed, if it ever came to that.
Prioritize mental health. A job is important, but a healthy sense of self is vital. If your job compromises this, it is not worth it.
Dedicate yourself 100% to the job search. Not 80%. Not for a couple weeks until you get discouraged. Go into it accepting it will take time. Don’t give up. Keep looking and keep trying, because it’s your way out and into something better.
Be OPEN. (This was maybe the most important thing for me.) Don’t turn down networking opportunities just because a company isn’t currently hiring… or for any other reason. Put yourself out there as much as you can, and meet as many people as you can.
Fake it til you make it. As I mentioned, self-doubt was running high towards the end of my time at my last job. But I couldn’t let that show through when interviewing. Simply pretend to be confident if you have to, and real confidence will eventually follow when you’re settled into a place that does value you!
Release bitterness and look back on what you GAINED from the experience. This can be difficult, but being in and leaving a toxic work environment is a huge learning opportunity. For me, I learned which frustrations are worth putting up with at work, and which ones are worth leaving over. I learned the qualities to avoid in a boss. I learned how to pick myself up again when I felt pretty low. Best of all, I realized that that job - despite making me miserable - is the sole reason I found my current job and my home in Portland. For that, I choose to be grateful. I found the silver living - and I moved forward.