In this blog, I will outline four ways to know when it’s time to leave a culturally toxic workplace and three questions to ask yourself when you think it might be time to GO!
I recently had a leadership coaching client ask me when the right time is to leave a job. This client had been in this work environment for a few years and had invested a significant amount of her creative energy to build out the programming offered at her job. She loved the work she was doing but had trouble with the people with whom she was working. She sought coaching to figure out how to work with her co-workers more effectively, and to identify ways to strategically manage culturally sensitive issues that were coming up. Upon further assessment, it was clear that this person was experiencing psychological warfare in the workplace. She had been in a racially toxic work environment for years and felt torn about the thought of leaving.
This happens all too often with people who are marginalized. Marginalized individuals stay at companies too long; give too much and are tragically underappreciated for all the work that is done. People of Color, Women, Gender Non-Conforming Individuals, and the LGBTQ+ communities often end up questioning if it’s time to leave or if it is a personal limitation.
Is it overreacting? Is there something that should be done differently? What needs to be done to make the situation feel more congruent with intentions?
Marginalized individuals are always looking inward, trying to work on the self, and questioning if the “problem” is personal. Truthfully, this happens in part because marginalized individuals are not equitably represented in the leadership or executive spaces. The Employment Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report notes that in 2020, there were roughly 50% more executives, senior officials, and managers who identified as white compared to all other races and ethnicities combined. Marginalized individuals have historically not been seen in these spaces consistently, so when those spaces are occupied by marginalized individuals, often imposter syndrome and self-doubt become more prevalent. These feelings are exacerbated in culturally toxic environments. These environments may be explicitly toxic or subtly toxic. An explicitly toxic environment involves macro-aggressions, macro-assaults, and disproportionate treatment based on aspects of one’s stated or interpreted identity. A subtly toxic work environment involves gaslighting, microaggressions, and inflexibility within the system. Unfortunately, even explicitly toxic work environments are often not enough for leaders who identify with marginalized populations to recognize they are NOT the problem.
Here are the four ways to know when it’s time to leave a culturally toxic workplace and three questions to ask yourself when you think it might be time to GO!
1. You’re staying because you are afraid to leave
This is probably the most common reason people stay at jobs longer than they should. Fear is powerful and it is real. Fear is even more salient when someone from a marginalized community is considering leaving their job. There is fear that there won’t be another leadership role or opportunity. Time and energy have been invested to get to this point and leaving feels like starting over. You have a “good thing going” and you don’t want to mess it up. It doesn’t feel possible because of the financial security the current job provides, and the benefits! These are all real fears; however, they do not have to dictate whether to stay or leave a toxic workplace. First, nothing is worth having to experience racism, sexism, ageism, or any other “-ism” that is occurring in the workplace. Additionally, with the great resignation of 2021, people are continuing to step out, start on their own, and see that their talents are appreciated in
other, more equitable workplaces. The fear is in the unknown, and often, it is unknown because it is not sought out. Leaving a job is generally challenging and time-consuming but consider the time it takes to relax every day after being triggered by something toxic at work. Every. Single. Day. I would venture to guess that the benefits of putting time into finding a more equitable workplace outweigh the costs in the long run.
2. You are questioning your abilities and competence
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. This concept is when someone subtly, consciously, or subconsciously, facilitates doubt or confusion in someone else’s mind. Gaslighting causes people to question their own abilities and competence in professional settings and is often experienced when leaders of marginalized groups are in toxic work environments. This may look like a woman in a meeting making a comment that is ignored by the group followed by a man making the same comment to much praise. The woman might question if she has stated something incorrectly on her part, reviewing her comment for errors and areas of growth. It may look like you are being mistaken for the other person of color in your office, but you have been with the company for 15 years and are in senior leadership and the person you were mistaken for has been at the company for 2 years and works in a completely different department. In this example, an equitable work environment would promote a micro-intervention such as a colleague correcting the individual who made the mistake in a helpful manner (Sue, 2019). If this resonates, it may be time to consider another job. In an equitable work environment, work is appreciated across diverse backgrounds, and all voices are recognized by the company.
3. Your physical health is suffering
Have you noticed an increase in migraines? Does your heart start racing every time you think about interacting with people in your company due to fear of what racist or sexist statement they might make? Have the “Sunday Scaries” turned into the “Daily Dooms?” Sometimes physical health symptoms are easy to dismiss or attribute to something outside of work, but it may be time to think critically about if work is taking a toll on your physical health. If it has, the question to be asked is “how far will this go?”. It is well documented that minoritized communities are already disproportionately affected by health disparities. An unhealthy work culture plays a role in this imbalance as well. Being in an equitable work environment is good for your health, and further, improves mental health and well-being.
4. You feel like you are the only one “fighting” for your community
This is probably the most nuanced of the four reasons to consider leaving your toxic workplace, because you climbed the ladder to lift others, right? You are the voice at the top and you are fighting to ensure equity in your workplace. Unfortunately, if you are the lone wolf at the top and you feel like you must fight for your colleagues to recognize the need for equity in your workplace, equity is not a priority for them, and you are taking years from your life trying to change that on your own. To clarify, if your workplace is not where they need to be in the context of belonging, justice, equity, diversity, & inclusion, they are not alone. The issue lies in what your workplace IS or IS NOT doing to change that. If you do not see the pairing of words with actions in your workplace, it may be a sign that your skills and efforts would be better utilized elsewhere.
Questions to ask yourself when you think it might be time to GO!
1: What brings you joy?
2: How do you want to leave?
3: What type of support do you need to be reminded that you deserve better?
The COVID-19 endemic and the racial epidemic have unearthed much of what minoritized communities have known for a long time. The workplace can be unsafe and toxic for historically marginalized groups and there needs to be investment from leadership to improve equity and workplace culture to change the lack of safety and prevalence of toxicity. There are companies that are making these efforts by hiring BJED&I consultants, putting financial resources toward BJED&I initiatives, and seeking input from the communities that need to be represented in their organizations. If you are in leadership and want to put words into action, reach out to Steady for more information about BJED&I executive coaching and consulting services.
Keeves, G. D., & Westphal, J. D. (2021). From help to harm: Increases in status, perceived underreciprocation, and the consequences for access to strategic help and social undermining among female, racial minority, and white male top managers. Organization Science, 32(4), 1120–1148. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2020.1422
Matsuno, E., Bricker, N. L., Savarese, E., Mohr, R., Jr., & Balsam, K. F. (2022). “The default is just going to be getting misgendered”: Minority stress experiences among nonbinary adults. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/sgd0000607
Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128–142. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296