After surviving a significant life threatening and life altering experience, my eyes have been widened and mind opened to the true challenges facing passionate individuals like myself who are dedicated, have strong work ethic, high moral standards and a drive to succeed. The byproduct of a toxic workplace is very stressful, and can often be insurmountable. Although we experience stress, we may not always take the time to understand the drivers and how to best take control over it. Find a solution for others combating similar environments, I have made it a mission to research various other works to not only broaden my knowledge but learn the appropriate words to apply in those very real experiences which occur every day in the workplace.
For this reason, I chose to share, although extreme, a personal story demonstrating the extent to which stress can play a toll on our personal and professional lives.
Enough time has lapsed for me to feel comfortable talking about my departure from the most psychologically abusive workplace I have encountered throughout my professional career. I climbed on board what I thought would be the long haul when I started with a global organization touting stability, an opportunity for leadership and innovation, strong diversity, inclusion support, and the promise of advancement. I never would have suspected what started so great would end miserably, after only a few short years.
Not to sound cliché but identifying with an organization that I had shared similar values with was at the pinnacle of my wish list in prospective employers. Equipped with what McShane and Von Glinow (2015) refer to as an intense persistence, my motivation to succeed was shown in the positive attitude, high work ethic, and unparalleled loyalty that I poured into the company on a daily basis.
With a promise of an environment open to change, high willingness to accept creativity into the process, and supporting a transformational leadership style, imagine my disappointment when discovering a stagnant culture laden with old methods, workplace discrimination, and a “crotchety boys club”.
An amazing first year, with strong performance appraisals and 360 evaluations of my work was handsomely rewarded. However, no incentives would have ever prepared me for the psychological harassment that would ensue leading up to and following my return from extended maternity leave. Although the company self-proclaimed to be one of the best places for working moms and supported work-life balance, almost immediately after my return, I experienced deterioration of job duties leading to low task variety and significance ultimately diminishing the level of importance in work I was responsible for. I was placated when told I’d have a few weeks ramp-up period to re-assimilate. A few weeks turned into months with an increasing lack of autonomy, empowerment, and dissatisfaction as I was not only overloaded with “special projects” which I was no longer allowed to delegate or request support while being given unrealistic requirements with an even more unrealistic deadline.
When I realized the significant changes made unilaterally by management to my once autonomous role full of influence were permanent, I grew increasingly troubled over my longevity within the company. Growing concerns consumed me, driving me to confide in the one group that Shapiro (2005) says we shouldn’t, Human Resources (HR). In her book, Corporate Confidential, Shapiro (2005) insists representatives of HR are on the side of the company, not to be trusted, and are certainly not your friend. While many have the misconception that HR are representatives of an employees’ rights, my experienced proved they are far from it and will do whatever it takes to protect the company and by extension, themselves. (I have a TON of friends in HR who DO the field justice, my experience was just bad!)
Initial conversations with HR were shocking when I was asked if I thought my manager had a problem with women before I could even get to the crux of my own issue. This type of leading question made me to believe complaints like mine were common. After hearing someone within the “employee advocate” group, asking such inflamed questions, I became overwhelmed with moral and ethical mindfulness which made me question their motives.
Before my leave and after my return, I was barraged by insulting and condescending remarks. Will you be returning after maternity leave? We did fine while you were out and we’ll continue to be. You don’t even know or understand your own team and what they do. Have your peer redo it, they understand what I want. At the time, I thought the comments were just mean and distasteful but they persisted for months, and over time wore me down. Perhaps I was naïve in wanting to believe what was happening was just temporary, but I had become the center of mental abuse with continual negative comments and actions which were detrimental to my career, turning a once pleasant office into a hostile work environment. Although previously undefined for me, McShane and Von Glinow (2015) have named this behavior as psychological harassment.
I recall a meeting with a room full of colleagues when my boss disgustedly called my presentation “garbage” and like a martyr, insisted he would have to work over the weekend to rectify it. Over that same weekend, I was contacted by a peer (male counterpart) who was assigned the task of reproducing a presentation which rivaled that of my own, however, was accepted with praise the following Monday. It was through these ongoing encounters with my boss that I realized the control he had taken over my life and well-being.
The leadership my boss exhibited was prevalent throughout the organization and embedded in what McShane and Von Glinow (2015) refer to as the dominant culture. The values, beliefs, and assumptions ultimately defining the culture of this organization were tainted. Leadership was plagued with desires for personalized power driving individual gains rather than serving the greater good. Due to the “self-serving” tendencies that existed with senior leadership, integrity or the lack thereof remained a prevalent topic of secret conversations for those outside the management tribe. (McShane and Von Glinow, 2015)
With the significant reduction to my independence, freedom and complete lack of empowerment, I became overwhelmed with disbelief and ultimately grief over my loss. The growing lack of work-life balance and distress weighed me down both physically and psychologically as my self-concept and esteem plummeted. The anticipation of conflict brought with it anxiety which plagued me leading up to each expected encounter with my boss or other leaders that I knew he interacted with on a regular basis, including my own staff.
After enduring months of daily torment and mental anguish, I again turned to the support of HR in hopes to find a way out. What I didn’t realize until a month after engaging HR in a complaint of workplace discrimination was that our conversations were not privileged and were being shared, maybe not in their entirety but at least in part. Perhaps this is where I should have listened to Shapiro (2005) when she expressed that no matter the reason, valid or not, when contradicting your boss, you have already lost. I accepted that defeat when the stress of continual threats became too much for my body to handle. Mid-afternoon, I collapsed at the office and was carried out on a stretcher with blood pressure so high that it still gives me chills to think about. I don’t recall much from that day other than fragments of residual pain remaining in my left arm and what my husband and colleagues shared with me, but I ended up suffering what experts refer to as a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) or what the layman may know as a “mini-stroke”. My life at this moment with potential cardiac arrest looming and my children uncertain if mommy was going to come home, it was clear, life as I knew it had to change.
Although it took a tragic medical event to remove me from such a toxic work environment, I could not be more thankful given the rebound I’ve experienced in personal and emotional growth, improved self-concept and the amount of confidence regained. I suppose in a way, I have been counting, as every day that passes is another day of success in the rebuilding of “me”. Although suffering a significant amount of pain and personal sacrifice, I have a new appreciation for the values placed on organizational culture prior to jumping into a new corporate work relationship in the future.
Although not an expert, I don’t believe it takes one to truly understand the areas in which an organization like this needs to focus their energy and make solid advances in improving the dominant culture that presides over the present leadership. Like most changes, the entity and those within that are in a position to drive change must accept there are issues that need to be addressed. It may not be realistic to turn over an entire executive suite which presides over a global entity, and start from scratch, however, believe value can be derived and positive change instilled in leadership given a training emphasis on the people rather than a continued focus on technical skills which may or may not get used.
When HR recognized the emotional dissonance in the relationship with my boss, why didn’t they follow through with training in emotional intelligence? Although training on the ability to recognize emotions while also managing them is essential, without a willingness or desire to change, an organization riddled with senior leadership challenges such as this will suffer over time.
The organization’s inability to propagate emotional intelligence and empathy while striking a balance that goes beyond lip service will begin to suffocate with the heightened reputational risk significantly impacting talent acquisition which is the inevitable byproduct of a revolving door due to tyrannical and coercive leadership methods.
If you halfway enjoyed this read, I’d appreciate a like and a share, but I would also love to hear from you! It is through the sharing of experience that we as individuals can grow ourselves and would be excited to hear your story!
Credit where it’s due!
Humasek, (2014). [CC0 Image] Retrieved from URL https://pixabay.com/en/broken-glass-sun-clouds-shattered-549087/
McShane, S.L., & Von Glinow, M.A. (2015). Organizational behavior, 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education
Shapiro, C. (2005). Corporate confidential: 50 secrets your company doesn’t want you to know — and what to do about them. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin