Quit the lousy job or the bad boss and steer your own career.
From the inside, toxic work environments rarely realize that they are toxic.
There is a pervasive message that “everything is fine” or, worse, that you are the problem.
From tyrant managers to unreasonable or unclear expectations, there are a lot of crappy companies out there. And for a long time, this was tolerated. Understandably so: The Great Recession in the late 2000s brought a lot of stress to a lot of people, from the collapse of the housing market to high unemployment. People felt like they needed to toe the line and keep their mouths shut or risk losing their jobs.
I’ve been there. My company laid off 30% of its workforce at that time — a necessary measure to stay in business. I survived the layoff, but it scared me into submission for a long, long time. Dedicated, hardworking employees were let go, which made me believe that no one was safe.
Fast-forward more than a decade, and employees have realized that they are in the driver’s seat. They don’t need to put up with toxic work environments anymore because many, many other companies will gladly appreciate their talents. Research data shows that a toxic corporate culture is 10x more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition.
Enter: The Great Resignation for millions of people (myself included). The movement has been about taking control and, sometimes, leaving corporate life altogether.
If you haven’t made a change yet but are thinking about it, there are ways you can reduce the stress of a job change. Even if you’ve already left your crappy job, you should always be thinking about the next time you may want to make a move.
Recognize that your work culture is bad
People rarely leave jobs they love (unless some amazing opportunity presents itself). They leave because they’re frustrated with some aspect of the job and look for something better.
There’s a difference between a “mediocre job” — one where maybe the people are nice, but you don’t feel challenged — and a toxic job. You should learn to recognize the signs of a toxic work environment so that you can GTFO.
Some signs of a toxic environment include:
- The culture is dominated by conflict, bad attitudes, or bad behaviors, including racism and/or sexism.
- In reverse, negative thoughts are quashed or seen as “not a team player” (also known as toxic positivity).
- The company fails to distinguish high performers, either by keeping everyone down or rewarding people who don’t deserve it.
- The environment is fueled by high stress, unrealistic expectations, or confusing communication.
Any of these can be detrimental to your mental health and wellbeing.
Plan your escape
If your workplace has any characteristics of a toxic environment, you should break free.
This can be scary. After all, what if you move from one toxic environment to another? Some companies can masterfully craft job postings or the “Join Us!” page on their websites to make it seem like they’re a fantastic place to work. It could be a smokescreen.
How can you protect yourself from getting into another bad situation?
Decide your criteria for a new job
First and foremost, figure out what you want to do. This often comes down to your reasons for leaving your current job.
Do you feel undervalued? Are you looking for a better team? Do you prioritize remote work or flexible work?
Take your time
Unless you are desperate, don’t rush your job search.
You can usually learn a lot about companies from public sources. Take a look at LinkedIn and the tenure of current employees. Is there a lot of turnover? You can also use Glassdoor to research work environments before applying for a job.
Trust your gut
Ask questions during the interview process. You’re interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you. Try to get a sense of your direct manager’s personality, team cohesion, and the company as a whole.
If there are any red flags, withdraw your application.
Put yourself in the driver’s seat
Above all, you want to be in control of the outcome.
Sometimes, this may mean that you leave traditional employment altogether. After all, there’s only so much you can do. There are certainly instances where companies start out great but deteriorate over time. This could be due to bad management, lack of focus, or getting “too big too fast.”
The Great Resignation has seen a boom in the creator and gig economies. Many people have realized that opportunities exist far beyond both brick-and-mortar and virtual offices.
If you’re not ready to strike out on your own, it’s fine. There are a lot of things you can do to prepare for a future leap.
Build your personal brand
I know — a lot of people shudder at the words “personal brand.” It sounds overly promotional or self-important.
But the truth is that establishing who you are with an online presence will help you in any career path: whether you strike out on your own or continue to apply for traditional jobs.
I wanted to set myself up to be in a better position of power… My goal became, “How can I never have to do a traditional job hunt again?”
If you think about how to avoid the traditional job hunt, you start to think about things like, “How can I better connect with people? How can I find more people in my professional network? How can I learn from my industry peers or my industry heroes?”
Think about additional revenue streams
You can avoid feeling like you are “stuck” in your current, toxic job is to build yourself a safety net.
Savings is one way to accomplish this, but added income from an outside source is another. Whether you build an online course, sell artwork, or make money through a side hustle, this creates a cushion that allows you to walk away more easily. And, of course, a personal brand will only strengthen your ability to reach people who may be interested in your work.
Maintain your connections
Your professional network is not only there when you need to make a job switch. You should actively work to stay connected with current and former colleagues, other people in your industry, and any followers you have on social media.
If you disappear from sight, people will forget about you. You won’t come to mind when a new opportunity arises. LinkedIn is the best way for most people— even those in the creator or gig economy — because of its singular focus on professional life. Post or comment on LinkedIn regularly.
Don’t forget to reciprocate. Be on the lookout for introductions you can make when you know someone looking to make a career change.
When you’re in a toxic work environment, the last thing you want to do is add more stress. Unfortunately, a job search or making a switch to full-time self-employment can often do just that.
It’s ok to push yourself to get what you want, especially if you know it’s temporary. But by focusing on your personal brand, additional revenue streams, and your connections, you may avoid some of that stress in the future.
After all, the more you can rely on yourself for your career’s direction, the more satisfying the results.