Remember your first job? Your wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm ready to change the world, make your mark, and start your first real employment entry on your resume? How soon did your missionary zeal meet with the eventual and predictable disappointment, shock and sadness of the real world? Did you stand in shock, cry silently outside or in a bathroom stall, or scream in your car? Maybe all three.
Were you outraged, disillusioned and so angry you wanted to sue them? Did you confront the boss or co-worker diplomatically but firmly? Ask for a private meeting with HR? Or did you say nothing for fear of being fired? What were the warning signs when you started at your company? Has it gotten worse? Maybe you're a newbie asking yourself if you should leave now.
In my experience as a business consultant, any sexual harassment, discrimination, physical abuse, yelling, screaming and throwing things only gets worse. So you need to wake up to those red flags. Quit or start looking for a new job immediately.
Beware of people who may set you up to take the blame for their errors. Assistants usually fall prey to this, so document everything and keep copies of records, documents, and emails at home or in a bank safe deposit box, not at the office. And cover yourself by "cc'ing" people in your correspondence who are in power – above and below you in the ranks and to HR - with a "bcc" to your attorney for protection.
Realize that no job is perfect and people are flawed, including, of course, ourselves. Build in a margin of error and acceptance of human frailty in any position. Apologizing, clarifying, communicating about what went wrong, and correcting it are keys to continued good will, cooperation, high morale, and teamwork in a workplace.
But when the toxicity outweighs the good, then it's time to leave. But what tips the scale for you? Take a moment and ask yourself, "What would make me quit?" Write down your list and make a second one by itemizing the toxicity that you have already put up.
Did you have to work in unsafe conditions? Were you discriminated against or harassed? Were you the victim of bullies and verbal abuse? The list may shock you, especially if you think you're an assertive person. So is it time to leave?
Stress and negative people can affect your mental, physical, and spiritual health. Remember this classic example. If you put a frog in a large pot of boiling water, he will jump out quickly. But if you put a frog in a large pot of water and then turn the heat up gradually, he will acclimate to the rise in temperature and stay in the bubbling pot until he boils to death. Don't be the frog that dies.
Each person's "breaking point" for toxicity is different and depends on many factors. Do you have any savings? A solid wage earning mate? Kids in college? Mortgage and car payments? An aging parent? Physical ailments that require the company's health insurance? In a difficult economy, more people tolerate a toxic workplace. The question is how much do you put up with for how long and when do you quit?
People cope with toxicity in various ways. They compartmentalize, make excuses, avoid, and kick into denial. I'm always amazed how people rationalize and justify domestic violence or verbal and emotional abuse. They use financial reasons to stay married, to keep the family "together," and to pay their bills. They become detached, leaden zombies, and lose their humanity hiding behind excuses like, "I'm doing it for the children," or "My religion says marriage is forever," or "I don't want to end up homeless." Excuses about your job can be similar.
It's easy for people to get paralyzed by fear, feel they are trapped without options and not be able to see alternatives. Here's an exercise I ask my clients do. I say, "Close your eyes and pretend you have a magic wand that can create your perfect job. Describe it in great detail." I furiously write everything they say, give them a copy, and instruct them to make it happen.
This empowers people to get out of their ruts, see that there are endless possibilities, and that they can make change happen. They stop whining and feeling depressed. Their hope has been restored. It may take a while, but with enough heart, visualization, and networking, anything and everything can be possible. And with all the Internet websites and online career services out there, it is easier than ever to post your resume where millions of people and companies can see it in seconds.
You can find a job that suits you, your skills and your ethics. Or start a company with friends. Don't end up like Faust and sell your soul for money, fame, and job security by sacrificing your health, ethics, conscience and soul by tolerating toxicity. It's just not worth it.
As rock legend Janis Joplin remarked, "Don't compromise yourself. It's all you've got."