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How I Identified My First Job as a Toxic Work Environment & How I Dealt With It

This past year, I got my first big girl job. 

I landed a position with a start-up public relations firm in downtown Orlando, Florida. I’d worked part-time in retail and food service before, but this was my first job where I worked in an office, earned an annual salary, and could even wear a girl-boss pantsuit. 

As a junior in college, I did not expect to launch my career so quickly. My university had hosted a virtual career fair during the summer, where I spoke to a hiring manager from the firm and showed him my digital portfolio. A few days later, he reached out and asked if I wanted to interview for a full-time role with the company. I was totally shocked and couldn’t pass it up. We planned an online Zoom interview, and he offered me the job shortly after. 

I was over the moon. I still had another year until I received my Bachelor’s degree in Digital Media & Communications, yet I was already getting my feet wet in the industry. Since my education had gone entirely online due to the global pandemic, I figured I could balance being a full-time student with a full-time job. 

I signed my employment contract and bought tons of cute blazers and dress pants. As a precaution of COVID-19, the plan was to receive training in the downtown office for two weeks, then transition to work-from-home. I was super nervous on my first day, but pumped to get started. When I entered the office, I was greeted by the assistant manager and led to my desk. He briefly set up my computer, mentioned the software I’d need to use, then told me to “go ahead and get started on the first assignment.” I was instantly hit with some anxiety. I had definitely expected more hands-on training and guidance. Still feeling timid, I just smiled and nodded in response. For the remainder of the day, I wasn’t offered any training resources or even spoken to at all. I tried to learn the ropes myself, but still needed help. I often approached my managers with questions, which they answered with irritable, blunt tones. On my first day, I already felt completely lost and burdensome to my superiors. I had a bad feeling about the company, but figured I just needed time to adapt. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. 

What is a toxic workplace?

A toxic work environment is so much more than just not enjoying your job. Common signs of an unhealthy work environment include: 

  • Lack of communication and clarity
  • Gossipy, cliquey behaviors 
  • No work-life balance
  • Bad leadership
  • Quick work burnout
  • Stifled growth
  • Just gives you a bad gut feeling

According to my brief interview with career coach and counselor, Dr. Tega Edwin, a toxic workplace is created from a misalignment of values. “Something that you value is being violated in the workplace, and that’s why it begins to feel toxic, unsupportive, and unsafe,” Edwin says.

As I continued to work in the office, I picked up on many of these signs. There was a consistent lack of communication and instruction on assignments, and I always felt too bothersome to ask for clarification. In addition, the manager and assistant manager openly gossiped about my co-workers. While I was in clear earshot, they discussed how annoyed they were that certain employees weren’t adjusting well to the new work-from-home policy, and read their emails aloud to make fun of them. They even made fun of an employee's headshot that was posted on the company website. I felt so uncomfortable hearing my superiors mock and mimic the people they were supposed to be leading. 

“Leadership has the power to shift the culture in a space,” Edwin says.“If a work environment is toxic, that is because the leadership allowed it to be toxic by not creating a space where healthy communication and dialogue can happen.” 

After two weeks of working in the office, I finally transitioned to remote work. However, my relationship with the position didn’t get any better. My employment contract stated that my paid hours were from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Monday through Friday, but my managers didn’t follow that schedule. They consistently gave me assignments after my work hours with next-day deadlines and no offer to pay overtime. I sent many emails to my superiors with requests to discuss boundaries, but often received no response. I only received one response from my manager that insisted I should be passionate enough about the position to put in the extra personal hours. 

I quickly became consumed with my work. I struggled to balance my professional life with my personal life. Not only was I quickly burning out, but I felt like my employer was really taking advantage of me.

Working in an atmosphere that exhibits one or more of these toxic behaviors can be traumatic to employees, and have negative impacts on mental health such as depression, low self-esteem, and sleep disorders. As I continued to work for this firm, my emotional health definitely declined. After each workday ended, I climbed into bed and cried for an hour or so. I lost motivation for my personal interests, adopted an unhealthy diet, and neglected my university grades. My relationship with my job affected my relationship with everything else in my life.

A few methods for coping with a toxic workplace include:

  • Setting clear expectations with your employer
  • Creating a strong support system with co-workers
  • Avoiding sharing personal details at work or engaging in drama/gossip
  • Finding a healthy outlet or hobby outside of work

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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I decided to reach out to my co-workers for some support. I hosted a Zoom session for my fellow female co-workers to safely and openly discuss our concerns. Turns out, I was not the only one feeling overworked and neglected by the leadership team. Creating a space for respect and communication made me feel much less alone. I had started to feel like maybe I just wasn’t good enough for the position, but connecting with my co-workers reassured me that that wasn’t the case. 

My colleagues and I decided to work together and take action. We crafted a collective email to the management team with a request for a meeting. We hoped the meeting could be a space to create boundaries and discuss how we could feel more respected in our environment. Unfortunately, a week passed and we did not receive a response. Working from home prevented us from confronting our managers directly, so we felt pretty defeated. By then, I knew it was time for me to move on from the company. 

“The longer you are in a toxic workplace, the more it will start to affect your mental and physical health,” Edwin says. “It may be time to start making your exit plan, and pivot into a space that is more supportive.” 

That same week, I wrote and sent an honest, professional letter of resignation. Initially, I felt a lot of shame for leaving the job. I felt like a failure. However, I knew I had done the right thing for myself. Within days, my emotional health was rejuvenated. I began to feel proud of myself for walking away from an environment where I didn’t feel safe, respected, or happy. 

While the experience with my first job was disappointing, I learned a lot from it. I had to keep reminding myself that my work environment wasn’t a reflection of my capabilities or self-worth. I learned how to define the values that are important to me in a workplace, which boundaries I will need to create with future positions, and how to generally prioritize my own health and happiness. I am entitled to healthy communication and behaviors in my work atmosphere, and so are you.

Sarah Bradley is pursuing a B.S. in Digital Media & Communications from Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. She has completed various marketing and editorial internships with Glitter Magazine, 60 Seconds Magazine, and S&S Studios. In addition, she recently earned her Florida real estate license and is currently practicing with Luxe Real Estate Co. She loves cooking new recipes, drinking iced coffee, journaling, reading romance novels, and binge-watching bad reality television.
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