5 Signs You're Employed In A Toxic Workplace

It's easy to assume this is just the way it is.
5 Signs You're Employed In A Toxic Workplace

The hardest part of any toxic relationship is that it ruins your conception of what is and isn't normal. This is especially true of the long-term toxic relationship known as "employment." Most of us have only had a handful of jobs, and most of them were probably terrible, so when the boss screams, or lies, or asks you to work off the clock, it's easy to assume that's just the way it is. It doesn't have to be! Here are some red flags to look out for.

There's Emotional Manipulation ("We're Like A Family!")

Despite the fact that approximately every employee in a shop is there only because they need to put food on the table, bosses like to make it seem as if it's a dick move to acknowledge this. "How dare you make this treasured personal bond about money!"

Here's an example from my own life, and tell me if it sounds familiar. (To not name any names, let's just say I worked in, I don't know, a gluten-free bakery for gerbils.) Any talk about the business side -- career development, salary negotiations -- was often ignored or postponed indefinitely, like it was an awkward conversation they were putting off. Finally, right before I left, I asked for confirmation of vacation back pay and credit for a few assignments I'd completed. After ignoring the request for weeks, my boss finally took me aside and told me, practically in tears, that my request hurt her feelings.

This kind of emotional manipulation happened all the time at the bakery. To management, it was OK that people were quietly denied proper pay and advancement, because as they often told us, we were "treated just like family." You wouldn't ask your mom for pay or professional credit in a timely fashion, would you? I mean, you would if you were the world's most ungrateful kid.

This phrase -- "like family" -- turns up all the time in workplaces large and small, and it's always a red flag. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman called this the biggest lie employers tell employees, which is impressive in a system based almost entirely on lying to employees about what they're worth. Offshoots of this idea include asking workers to "volunteer" (that is, work unpaid) at some kind of feel-good events. You know, like families do!

Around Christmas last year, the airline Qantas asked staff to volunteer over the winter holidays without pay. When criticized for this move, Qantas said they were only trying to "spread Christmas cheer." So if you tried to argue, you were now on the anti side of Christmas cheer. See how that works?

Related: The 5 Most Useless Motivation Tactics Every Workplace Uses

Gratitude Is Expected From Employees

The bargain bad employers make with their workers is "We expect rock stars who'll give 110%, and in return we will give you so little that we're not totally sure this is even legal." The premise is that you as an employee are in no position to complain, since the company was gracious enough to give you a job.

Management loved telling us how lucky we were to be at the gerbil bagelry. Whenever an employee quit, or became disillusioned and unhappy, management would complain about their lack of gratitude. "Can you believe him?" they'd say. "After all we did for him." By "all we did," they basically just meant that they hired him. The message was clear: Even though employees were treated with little dignity on a day-to-day basis, we were still expected to show gratitude at all times.

To reinforce this, our boss would do tiny things for us on occasion, like buy birthday cakes or chips for the office. (Like a loving mom would do!) But it was difficult to enjoy unhealthy deliciousness when they were used as a substitute for mentorship, flexibility, career development, and fair wages. When employees had to absorb the jobs of former full-time staff members but weren't given raises or changes in title, we were still expected to thank our boss profusely for those "perks," because wouldn't you rather have chips than no chips?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying gratitude is a bad thing. It's a wonderful thing in a work environment ... when it goes both ways. In fact, it is a lack of appreciation, and not low pay, that is cited as being the most common reason why people quit jobs. In one poll, 79 percent of people revealed they quit jobs because of a lack of appreciation from a bad boss. 65 percent of North Americans said they weren't recognized once in the past year. To this, you can imagine every shitty boss in America saying, "'Recognized?' They'd starve without this paycheck! They should be thanking me!"

Related: The 6 Biggest Dick Moves People Pull In The Workplace

Bullying And Humiliation Are Considered Motivation Tactics

Have you ever felt the weight roll off your shoulders when you walked in to find out your boss was out of the office that day? It's the relief of knowing that you don't have to worry about this human landmine choosing to randomly explode at you, flying into a rage over some minor oversight or pending deadline.

Sometime in the parrot bagelry's development, management apparently sat down and watched The Devil Wears Prada together. But instead of learning "Oh, I guess sometimes successful people have to be tough to get where they are," they thought, "Oh, cool. I guess if I act like an asshole, it will automatically mean I'm good at my job."

So when a few employees once left a minute before 5 o'clock, one of the managers came out and had a temper tantrum. She berated us for being lazy and having a terrible work ethic, and told us that we ought to know that even if we had finished our work before 5, we had to keep sitting in our seats and "at least pretend to work." You know, the kind of things families say to each other.

We watched our fellow employees get yelled at, and we listened to contractors get bullied over the phone. We even went to work dinners and witnessed wait staff being condescended to and pushed around. Even then, we worried that maybe we were just too sensitive, that we were just millennial snowflakes with an unrealistic expectation that we'd be treated with some level of basic human dignity.

There has actually been a lot of debate about whether harassment and humiliation of employees is a valid management style (corporate legends like Steve Jobs were infamously abusive). Aside from the basic fact that it's morally wrong to treat humans that way, there's no evidence it actually works, and plenty that indicates it doesn't. Bosses who are perceived as bullies don't actually improve employee performance, and it's counterproductive in general. It may even turn employees into terrible people themselves, passing on the lessons of their awful mentors.

Don't confuse these behaviors with merely being a "tough boss," having high expectations, and holding employees accountable for meeting them. What we often see is just plain bullying -- bosses who scream, get overemotional, and humiliate people when others disagree with them or when they don't get their way. They're not using some advanced motivation tactic; they're just losing control. Oh, and if a subordinate ever used the same tone back to them, they'd be gone in an instant. Because then it's unprofessional.

Related: 6 Ways Your Office Is Literally Killing You

Public Reception Is More Important Than Fixing Problems

At the parrot spa, management was obsessed with their negative Glassdoor presence. This itself wasn't unusual. If you're not familiar, Glassdoor is a crowdsourced site for job seekers to research companies, and according to employer branding statistics, only 21 percent of candidates say they would apply to a company that has a one-star rating there.

The problem is that their reaction to the bad rating was exactly what some of you have seen where you work: Stop those mean people from making us look bad. Actually fixing policy and company culture is hard, and why do that when you can just spam fake positive reviews?

In order to protect anonymity, Glassdoor has no verification system for employees submitting those ratings. That means anyone, including management, can post a review, and while Glassdoor's website says that they take it "very seriously" if they find out that reviews are fake or that employees were offered incentives to write good reviews, you can imagine how hard that is to prove.

That's why staff had to stop everything we were doing to have meetings with our extremely emotional boss in which we were "strongly encouraged" to write positive reviews. On multiple occasions, we were told if we didn't want to write a good one, we should either not work there or at least keep our bad opinions to ourselves. Our boss claimed that if we did have negative feedback, we could tell her in person (you know, the way a family would). Whenever we tried to give honest feedback, of course, our words fell on deaf ears. ("Where's the gratitude?!")

This is all shockingly common, including the fake ratings. A recent investigation by The Wall Street Journal found Glassdoor can easily be manipulated by employers. When mortgage broker company Guaranteed Rate found their ratings to be too negative, they allegedly had employees flood the site with enough reviews to bump the company's rating from a 2.6 to a 4.1. That kind of sudden, out-of-nowhere spike in score happens all the time, and it's not because companies suddenly start learning how to respect their workers overnight.

Related: 28 Nightmare Stories From Your Workplace

There Is No Communication

Rumors. Gossip. Informal back channels. Vague memos. Abrupt changes that seem to come out of the blue. That's life in an office where they've decided even innocuous information is only to be shared on a need-to-know basis. When employees try to report anything up the chain of command, it's treated like it's an act of rudeness. There's a pervasive feeling that all information can and will be weaponized, so it's best to keep everyone in a fog of ignorance.

At the ferret university, for example, there were people who were personally close to the boss on the payroll. This meant that not only were those people not held accountable for their work, but also that staff couldn't critique anything related to them without the boss taking it personally.

Oh sure, they liked to claim they had an "open-door policy" (probably every company says this), but it was a policy in name only. Employee reviews were postponed for months (meaning there was no opportunity to voice concerns), then management became upset or irritated when they finally occurred. They wouldn't implement changes anyway, so the general message was that honesty was pointless.

According to a global survey, less than half of professionals actually trust their employer, and a lack of transparency was listed as a major factor when determining trust. A lack of open and honest communication means rumors fill in the blanks, and that means workplace drama.

It's also just hard to do a good job when you have no context for what you're actually trying to accomplish. One survey found that 92 percent of workers would work harder if there was better transparency. What are my goals? What's my place in the organization? Am I in trouble? Is the company about to go under? Why did you take away the vending machine? Why were half of the employees called into a secret meeting yesterday? Of course, this is assuming that the bosses themselves know the answer to all of those questions, and let's be honest, there's a solid chance that they just don't.

For more, check out When Workplace Fights Get Out Of Control - Internet Content: Episode 3:

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