HER Side: Dealing With a Toxic Boss

Toxic bosses are unfortunately all too common in our daily lives. An uncomfortable comment here, a strange request there, and eventually things add up to where you no longer feel safe at work.


But what do you do when you realize you’re in a toxic work environment? Do you leave? Try to make things better? While there is no “right” answer for every person, we sat down with women in our community to learn their stories and their advice on what to do with a toxic boss.



How Do I Know if I Have a Toxic Boss?

“If you feel that you are dealing with a toxic boss, I would first suggest you review personality types between you and them. Is this simply a personality conflict? Or is it in fact pure toxicity? If it is personality, you may be able to look at their approach and determine that it is effective-gets the job done- but may not be as empathically conscious as you would prefer. In this situation, a direct private conversation voicing your concerns should allow this work relationship to evolve positively through mutual compromising. If this is not the case, you have a toxic boss – now what?”


“When it comes to “toxic workplaces,” the word TOXIC pretty much spells it out for you, right?  Common signs include bad communication, exclusionary practices, rapid turnover, poor/negligent/harmful/abusive leadership, feelings of distrust, lack of interest or motivation amongst co-workers, lack of investment towards employees, poor boundaries, and of course, your intuition telling you to GET the F* OUT!  Unfortunately, too many of us have had to experience what it is like to live through and work in a toxic work environment.”


“I knew it was toxic when coworkers had to teach me how to deal with my new boss. What to say, when to ask for certain things, things like that. It was super weird for me, but I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. I figured I would learn how to deal with him and completely blow him away with how I was able to adapt to this new job. Instead, I would always be told what was wrong with my work, hearing how [another woman] was doing my job better than I was, and constant questions on if I ‘knew what I was doing.’ It got so bad that he would refuse to talk to me, instead sending other coworkers to relay his messages.”


“I knew when I was waking up every morning with a stomach-ache. I hated the thought of going in to work. If he didn’t show up to work, I was relieved. Rulers would be pulled out to make sure designs were exactly center and he would often stand over my shoulder, making noises as I worked. I never knew what they meant, but he would make comments to my coworker about something I was doing, loud enough for me to hear but never said directly to me.”



What Should I do if I Realize I’m in a Toxic Environment?

“…I have to say that I embraced the Caitlin Moran philosophy when faced with a more recent experience of a toxic workplace, which is that ‘if you’re complaining about something for more than three minutes, two minutes ago you should have done something about it.’


Full transparency, it took longer than two minutes, but the ultimate result had a toxic leader removed.  I will tell you though, it was not a short process; patience was required.”


“While each situation is different, I have a few suggestions on what to do if you are dealing with a toxic boss. One very important thing I recommend in any difficult situation is to document everything – dates, time, location and potential witnesses. There are so many things that happen throughout any given day, so it can be difficult to reflect back from memory if these details are ever needed. It is in my observation as well that when dealing with toxic people in general, there are frequent highs and lows, making way for a rollercoaster of happenings (some good moments mixed in with the bad) the point in stating this is that it can cause confusion and constant state of wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt. So, document, document, document.”


“Document everything. Make a file on your work computer or write it in a notepad if you don’t trust your work computer. I wish I had written down more because I know that when I finally started documenting what was going on, I had missed out on so many passed offenses.”



Why were You Afraid to Speak Up?

“I was supporting my family financially at the time and couldn’t risk losing my job.”


“I had just been laid off and this was my first job after this happened. I didn’t want my family to have to go through that again, so I dealt with it as long as I could. I knew it was bad when [my spouse] told me it was ok to quit.”


“I guess I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. As a WOC, I felt that I needed to conform and deal with it as much as possible. I told myself that I had dealt with worse and this was nothing compared to the outright comments about my race or appearance.”


“I think I felt more betrayed that this was happening to me by a fellow woman. I wasn’t so much afraid as I was in shock. I tried to deny it for a long time.” 



How Did You Resolve the Issue?

“I went to HR. I had a few other coworkers who also talked to HR throughout the day and we all told our side of the story. There’s power in numbers. It’s hard to ignore a problem when 5 people go in saying variations of the same thing.”


“With more recent experiences, I learned that there were certain steps needed to professionally handle and deal with it. So I made sure first off that I was performing my job at the highest capacity, then documented episodes of toxicity against me or others, finally reported through the chain of command until the issue was resolved – either by way of changes made within or by removing myself from the company all together.”


“After I knew that things were bad and had experienced abuse firsthand, that’s when I took action.  I started out slow, like a curious detective: infrequent conversations with targeted open-ended questions for my co-workers, documenting my personal experiences of harassment/abuse, finding and securing corroborating witnesses for events in question, asking my co-workers if they’ve ever documented a negative experience with the abuser in question, reaching out to former employees about their experiences, covert meetings, and of course, the holy grail of recourse: the Formal Letter of Complaint.  After a while, it became something of a crusade for justice for myself and my abused colleagues – and believe me, the abuse was without a doubt real, toxic, and incredibly harmful.”


“I ended up going to my boss’ boss (we didn’t have HR) and let him know what was going on, with all my documentation. [My boss] did 3 months of trainings and check-ins and there wasn’t any improvement, so I quit. I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to do this.”



Is it Worth it to Speak Up? What Did You Learn from This Experience?

“I learned that everyone is struggling with their own issues and it is up to each of us individually to be true to ourselves. You cannot control others, but you can control how you react and what you will accept into your energy bubble. I am now compassionate with myself and I do not allow others to dictate how I feel or think about a situation. Instead, I look within and candidly analyze what’s really going on.”


“I learned what kind of a leader I do not want to be. And the importance of communicating with a team.”


“In the end I decided not to say anything. While I wouldn’t say I regret it, it was definitely a hard pill to swallow knowing that even if I said something, nothing would change. All the higher-ups were friends. I learned more about myself and my resilience. I also learned what my boundaries are.”


“I wouldn’t know. I ended up getting fired before I could say anything. During my exit interview, I mentioned some of the treatment I had received but I honestly don’t know if it made a difference. I do know that I am much happier now and don’t hate going in to work.”


“For me, it was worth it. But some of the other people I worked with couldn’t risk that. It’s a really vulnerable place to be when you realize your boss isn’t just being a hard ass, but straight up gaslighting you and making you feel less than.”


“An awesome part of this very challenging experience was supporting my coworkers, both current and former. One colleague and former employee related to me that writing her letter felt “cathartic” and that she had finally had the opportunity to “[say] what I needed to say.”  And that’s what pisses me off the most about toxic workplaces: the most heinous of humans will gaslight you till the cows come home and it becomes too difficult to know what’s up or down, much less the difference between professional displeasure and abuse.  Professional abuse is often subtle and disguised, especially when, much like in an abusive domestic relationship, professional abuse gathers speed and severity over time.”



We want to thank every one of these women who shared their stories. We’ve changed or removed any names, companies, or identifying information to keep their anonymity. Do you have other questions about being in a toxic work environment? Advice? Email us at info@herdacity.org and you could be featured in a blog post!


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