OPINION: Why Toxic Workplace Whistleblowers Should Be Applauded
Reflections on my "15-year lunch break" after working for an abusive boss
Last summer, when Ellen DeGeneres was outed by employees for cultivating an abusive work environment that ran counter to the "Be Kind" façade that has long animated her TV talk show and public persona, she responded to the allegations in a way that seemed to at least meet the basic tenets of sincerity. (Her show has lost a million viewers after the apology.) But I am far more interested in the courage of the whistleblowing colleagues at the show and elsewhere who have decided that enough was enough.
Public celebrity reckonings are affirming for those of us silently doing battle with micro-aggressions, exploitations and power-hungry colleagues in real time.
I lasted four months under Karen's regime, deciding during a lunch break that I couldn't sustain any more of her abuse.
My first encounter with a toxic work environment occurred soon after I graduated from college. I was an administrative assistant at a small software marketing firm near New York City. My boss, Karen (a pseudonym), seemed kind and driven, and appeared like a good fit when we met. But soon after I was hired, odd and bewildering experiences began to accumulate.
She'd fail to communicate her expectations and then become incredulous when I failed to meet them. During meetings, she'd belittle me in front of our colleagues. Karen would also establish unsustainable deadlines and interpret my questions as weakness.
I was confused.
Karen's immediate bosses were kind and often invited my questions and input; one even gave me advice about law school upon learning of my interests. But I didn't dare tell them about my experiences with Karen. I was young, new and couldn't bear the thought of screwing up my first professional experience with ambiguous, unprovable complaints that might be construed as gossip.
My Toxic Boss
If I'd hoped to do well in my new position (and I did), it was up to me — and only me — to figure out how to succeed as Karen's assistant. I soon began to wonder whether I was a defiant toddler in need of a time out and not a career-minded college grad eager to put my hard-earned degree to good use.
I lasted four months under Karen's regime, deciding during a lunch break that I couldn't sustain any more of her abuse. Later, I learned that I was her third administrative assistant in under a year. I also learned that her problematic management style was a widely known — but little-discussed — office problem.
More than 15 years later, I have yet to return from that lunch break.
Since my time with Karen, I've found that workplace toxicity is not always overt and it's not always a top-down issue. Abusive behavior can also play out in more subtle ways and across lower-level coworkers: such as the colleague who publicly invalidates and dismisses ideas without providing alternatives while taking credit for work he didn't perform.
As I approach middle age, I am more confidently able to handle toxic workplaces. I suppose I can thank age, experience and chronic bouts of insomnia for my ever-decreasing desire to silently suffer fools.
Demanding Workplace Dignity
These days, I'm very interested in what it takes to demand workplace dignity (particularly in middle age), ideally before making frenzied calls to recruiters and tearfully scrolling through career websites or even making the painful decision to retire early because of unchecked toxicity.
Hannah Alejandro, a Washington, D.C. attorney who advocates for the rights of individuals in the workplace, has written that "whistleblowers are often motivated by their own personal sense of integrity and a genuine desire to protect the public."
There also can be a deeply personal component that could act as a catalyst. As Alejandro wrote: "No matter where you're employed, what happens at work has a huge effect on your overall well-being — it shapes your financial situation, your health, your relationship to family and friends."
In reflecting on my time with Karen all those years ago, I can readily see how her toxicity affected my well-being and relationships. And while I was too young and inexperienced to make much sense of the chaos around me and far too fearful to hold Karen to account, I can now also see how my own lack of boundaries enabled her bad behavior.
As a result of this experience, I wound up changing careers. I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if Karen had introduced a little humanity to the equation or if I'd had the guts to share my experiences with those in a position to correct course.
"Learn when to say no, how to say no and how to not turn back."
I asked Scottsdale, Ariz. naturopathic doctor and consultant Nicole Cain what she thought was behind the courage to raise allegations of workplace abuse.
What to Do in a Toxic Workplace
To Cain, a strong sense of professional boundaries is key. Her advice if you're being subjected to toxic behavior by a boss: "Know where you draw the line and do not compromise yourself. Learn when to say no, how to say no and how to not turn back."
Cain also believes it's important to be clear what you expect from colleagues and what they can expect from you. "Clarifying boundaries and expectations," she said, "will help keep things objective and less emotional."
What workplace whistleblowers seem to understand (but I didn't at the start of my 15-year lunch break) is that a psychologically stable workplace is — and should be — a basic professional dignity. It took me nearly two decades of work experience to come to this conclusion, thanks in no small part to Ellen DeGeneres' high-profile reckoning.
If I were to cross paths with a toxic colleague now, I would clarify my boundaries and recognize my right to expect humane workplace behavior. I'd push back against aggressive and exploitative bosses, confident in the knowledge that there is public precedent for holding them accountable.
Perhaps this sounds easier said than done. But humane treatment in the workplace must be a baseline requirement. And those who fail at meeting it — no matter their position, age, experience or professional reputation — should be held to account.
In the words of motivational speaker Tony Gaskin: "You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop and what you reinforce."
Workplace abuse and toxicity is a societal problem and it shouldn't take negative publicity, as happened with DeGeneres, to enact change and improve lives.
That's why I'm in awe of colleagues who expose workplace abusers. They show the rest of us what it looks like to know your worth.
For the first time in 15 years, I don't feel so badly about my protracted lunch break. In fact, it's become my favorite work-related horror story.