Welcome to “Dear Dana”, our weekly column to give you career and workplace advice/coaching. Please write in and tell me about a career challenge or frustration you’re facing at the office! – Dana Theus
[Note is abbreviated-ed.]
Quite complicated and online advice is scant. I would love to get your advice on the following: A few years ago I joined a well-known organization as a manager. The role requires a specialist and generalist combination of skills, knowledge as well as experience that is unusual and difficult to source. The place has a toxic corporate culture. Many of my staff were long-time, unionized employees who were expecting to be promoted into that position. Naturally, they were very bitter about an outsider coming in above them. Despite my best and extended long-term efforts, only some of them ever really came around about me. As a clique they resorted to workplace sabotage, lies, harassment and so forth in an effort to turn people against me and ultimately to drive me away so that one of them might eventually gain the promotion they were anticipating. (Other than my cutthroat staff, everyone else liked me.)
Due to one of their schemes finally succeeding, I left the organization. The clique started a rumor and manufactured “proof” that I was planning to resign to take another job elsewhere. Executive management believed it, did not bother to check with me about this rumor (this was largely due to the CEO being so strongly turned against me by the clique’s lies) and sent me packing. When the truth came out, executive management was very embarrassed and corporate HQ was abuzz about this for quite some time.
Since my leaving, executive management eliminated some but not all of the nasty players from the organization. The CEO hired external consultants to spread false negative information about me to other potential employers which have cost me several great job offers, as well as to do extensive research into my personal and professional past. Many reliable contacts have indicated to me that these ex-employers want me to return.
[I may have the opportunity to return to the company and the CEO who fired me is now out; there is another executive who is currently in the CEO slot who likes me better. If I go back and this second CEO is in place it could mean an upgraded position, though this is not guaranteed. It’s also not clear that this CEO will stay in place, and the original CEO may even return.]
The organizational climate is toxic. There is a high rate of turnover in senior and middle management. The old position was inadequately resourced in terms of tools, equipment, resources, personnel. The work has not progressed much since my departure, so there is additional time pressure. Executive management has a habit of stringing people along with empty promises (raises, promotions, opportunities). It was a hellish experience to work there last time. If I decline to return, I cannot be sure this ex-employer will stop interfering with my professional life.
My questions are:
- When is it a good idea to go back to a bad employer with a toxic corporate culture? Never?
- If I am contacted about a possible position, what should my strategy be?
- Any advice on negotiating the position to maximize the likelihood that things will work well (my value, leverage, the role, reporting structure, compensation, title, termination clause, etc)?
- Would you recommend going back or staying away? Why?
- What would be red flags warning me to avoid this ex-employer?
- Conversely, what would be positive signs that the ex-employer genuinely intends to make things better?
- If things go bad again, how might this be explained to a future potential employer?
- If I decide to walk away, what can I do to ensure they leave me be?
I really hope you reply and post it so that readers can get something out of this as well. There is nothing else quite like this situation so available advice is almost completely lacking.
Thanks in advance. Have a great day! – Reluctant Boomerang in ???
Dear Potential Boomerang,
That’s quite a story! Rather than address each question separately, I’ll respond more generally.
First of all, on reading and rereading your note, it seems clear to me that at some level you’re ok with a toxic corporate culture. I say this because the fact that you’re considering going back to what you recognize is still (even under a new CEO) a toxic, “hellish” place to work means that you are open to it. I say this with empathy. I’ve done that before. I have worked for the same toxic boss three times in my earlier career because I (pick a reason) thought he would change, thought the opportunity was so great it didn’t matter, thought this time I could handle it better, thought the money was too good to refuse, thought what I needed to think because I needed to think it to justify my actions. After the third time, I realized that although the money was good and some of the opportunities were good, the price I had to pay to my own sense of self-worth was simply too high in the toxic climate he manufactured around him. So, I quit and have never gone back.
It felt like I had stopped banging my head against a wall. My next company was slightly less toxic, and then less toxic until I finally worked my way into a situation where I don’t work in toxic corporate cultures anymore. It’s very refreshing. At some point, any organization has some levels of dysfunction in them by being compiled of humans. But still there’s a difference between dysfunction and toxicity. The former is frustrating whereas the latter is degrading.
So the first question to ask yourself is what level of toxicity you are willing to put up with, and own the decision you make. Your eyes are open now about what might happen if you return. If you go back, you can’t blame anyone but yourself for any unhappiness you’re going to have with whatever toxicity you experience.
Second, you must be honest with yourself about the degree to which you contribute to any toxicity you experience. This isn’t said to blame you for what happened before, but to point out that to the extent you’re unaware of your role in creating the mess you came out of, you’re destined to repeat it in the future, whether you return to this company or go to another. Again, I have empathy for you here. When you’re in a truly toxic corporate culture, it’s hard not to contribute. That’s the nature of a human system. My first management experience (for the toxic boss mentioned above) was an abject failure because I took the bait from my team members who, like yours, were successfully undermining me with Mr. Toxic. In your situation, the fact that you were unable to co-opt your staff into working as a team means that you played a role in their bad behavior. I’m not saying they didn’t victimize you, but one of the toughest jobs of leadership no matter how antagonistic the people around you are, is to engage people to the point they don’t undermine you, the team, the company, the mission. So, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you’re willing to work harder and smarter this time, turn your team into a team, gain their loyalty and focus them on putting out a great work product. That will be a challenge you face whether you return or not.
So should you return? I’d say no. You didn’t list any reasons for returning that didn’t seem possible elsewhere, so why not start fresh? If you go back into the lion’s den still smelling of fresh blood, you’re more likely to get eaten, so you need to wash off the blood, let go of the bitterness and move on. This will be easier in a new company. Given that this drama is still playing out, the only way you “win” is if the politics happen to go your way, and that’s so far out of your control you’re leaving yourself wide open. You say you have other employers who are interested, so go where there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll be more appreciated. Make a commitment not to repeat whatever errors you made in this last situation that made you vulnerable to a vicious, toxic corporate culture. It will be easier for you to step out of victimhood and into rallying a team to work together in a new environment.
You ask about red flags. I’m guessing that your gut is very educated on how to pick up signs of a toxic corporate culture. If you look you’ll see the signs. You seem to know people in the industry. Take them out for meals and ask them to talk about what frustrates them and what they enjoy about working with various companies. As I said, every human system has levels of dysfunction so you have to decide which kind you are most willing to accept in a new job. Do your homework.
What can you do to make sure you’re no longer facing gossip and undermining? Nothing. There’s nothing you can do to stop other people from acting without integrity. What you can do is live your life to a standard of integrity that anyone who knows you won’t question and build your reputation on that. As I said above, you’ve contributed to some extent to the situation you’re in and you’re better off focusing on improving yourself than worrying about others. Right now you have people “on your side” or “against you” and you want to move to a situation where people want to support you because you’re effective, reliable, trustworthy and inclusive, not because you’re on the right “side.” If you’re thinking of how to be on the right side, you’re contributing to a level of toxicity that is guaranteed to make you a loser on and off as the “sides” thrust and parry. If you’re thinking about how to be the best you possible, you create the possibility of winning every time you accomplish something meaningful, regardless of which side is up in the moment.
I don’t know if this is the advice you hoped to get from me, but I really want you to understand that your choice is to keep playing in the toxic game (no matter who you work for) by letting it dictate what you do and why you do it, or rise above it to focus on rising to your own professional potential. Fundamentally, this choice isn’t about who you work for, but who you choose to be.
P.S. – Have a question you’d like anonymous support on? Write me!
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