My most toxic job started at a dirty desk with drawers that still held the previous occupant’s unused disposable razors, random bits of foreign currency, and a few candy wrappers.
I briefly considered leaving and never coming back, but I wondered how that might look on my resume and how I would pay my exorbitant big city bills as a single woman without a trust fund or family safety net.
The messy desk was the first sign that something was amiss with my new work culture.
Within days, my boss mentioned my audacity to negotiate my salary during the hiring process. Within a couple of weeks, a team member left for a new job. I learned you could request that the office cleaning crew set up a workspace for a new hire, something I did for his replacement and saw others do for their new team members though no one had done it for me. Within a few months, I was being pressured to hire a direct report who had a reputation as a serial sexual harrasser, something I refused to do.
By the time I left that job about a year later, I had been cut out of key meetings, denied transparency into my direct reports’ salaries—which made raise and hiring conversations awkward—and forced to interview the job candidate I didn’t feel comfortable considering.
If I could go back, I would turn around on that first day and walk out the door. A company that doesn’t prepare for a new employee’s arrival is unlikely to set them up for success. And a company that isn’t welcoming isn’t a rewarding place to spend your time or professional energy. When I finally did leave, I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders as I began a path toward entrepreneurship that has been rewarding personally, professionally, and financially.
If you find yourself in a similar situation early in a new job, here’s some advice for making a quick and graceful exit.
Treat the first 90 days as a trial.
Companies tend to treat the first three months of a person’s employment as a trial period. New employees should do the same, says Arquella Hargrove, a consultant, coach, and author specializing in human resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Candidates who see signs of toxicity during that time—things like poor communication, unhappy coworkers, and standard operating practices in conflict with personal values—should feel empowered to walk away. “That’s a great time to go ahead and say, ‘You know what, this is not a place for me to be. It’s just not aligned with my core values,’” Hargrove says.
To explain a short stint to a future employer, Hargrove recommends keeping it short and to the point. One approach could be saying, “It just did not turn out to be a culture that I was going to be able to grow and thrive [in],” Hargrove says. Another could be: “It was just not for me. It did not align with what I was looking for.”
Create an exit plan.
If leaving immediately isn’t an option, create an exit plan. This could involve looking for a new job, going back to an old job, setting yourself up for an independent venture, or saving up some money to give yourself some paid time off.
Because actually walking out the door can be difficult, some people choose to give themselves a deadline by which time they’ll either choose among the jobs available to them or resign without another job lined up.
This period of hanging tight can be the hardest, making it especially important to find ways to separate your sense of self from your job. Schedule exercise as if it were a meeting you can’t miss. Carve out time for fun with the people you care about and use your health insurance to see a therapist as often as you need to.
This is also a good time to reach out to your professional network and ask for help. Let them in on what’s going on and what you’re planning. If you’re comfortable being 100% transparent, don’t be afraid to do it. These people can offer not only support but also an additional ear for new opportunities that may or may not be advertised, Hargrove says.
Remember the pandemic and Great Resignation changed mindsets about work and hiring—and use that to your advantage.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to rethink a lot of things, including how they work. People are more likely to leave jobs that keep them up at night or zap the joy from their lives. They’re more likely to prioritize their physical health and emotional well-being or their roles as caretakers than they might have been pre-pandemic. We’ve seen millions upon millions of employees quit their jobs as part of the Great Resignation.
Hiring managers have had to adapt. While they still look at how long a person held prior positions, they’re now more forgiving of employment gaps and shorter tenures, particularly for candidates with the skills and experience to do the many jobs they’re trying to fill.
“I always tell people to not stay in any situation that is going to be a detriment to your health and to your own welfare,” Hargrove says. “It is not worth it.”
A Swedish study of more than 3,000 people found those working for bad managers were at a significantly higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiac conditions. Meanwhile, a 2017 report on U.S. workers from Mental Health America, formerly the National Mental Health Association, showed that “unsupportive and unstable workplaces fostered psychological distress.” Other research has found that harassment, bullying, and ostracism found in toxic work environments made employees more susceptible to stress, burnout, depression, and anxiety.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is to run to the exit as fast as you can and chart a new path.
Author: Meena Thiruvengadam
Meena Thiruvengadam is a writer and media entrepreneur whose specialties include advising newsrooms on digital strategy and helping other journalists upgrade their skills. She is currently based in Chicago but has also lived in New York, Washington, DC, London, and several places in between. Over the years, Meena has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and Travel+Leisure. Nowadays, she writes mostly about travel, money, and career management for a variety of publications. She is the founder of Travel with Meena, a travel site working to center the stories of travelers of color. Meena has worked as an editor and newsroom leader for several major media companies and coaches women journalists through the Digital Women Leaders media coaching program.