January 6, 2020

On toxic workplaces

I have suffered at too many workplaces that have either seemed great on the outset and have shown themselves over time as machines that churn through employees, or have had immediate cultural differences that were unable to be resolved via regular means. There's a number of ways to try to survive in these places while looking for a new position, and there's also a number of red flags to look out for before committing months or even years of your life in misery. Some of this may also require a lot of self-reflection to really know your worth and be steadfast in demanding the best for not only you, but also your colleagues in your team and beyond.

A word before moving on

First off, congrats on taking the first steps in trying to identify these sorts of issues: the world we live in is often unforgiving and we can lose sight on what it means to have a healthy work environment.

You should be unyielding to your own mental health and well-being, and you should also be unyielding to wanting the same for your colleagues: often, these cultural and systemic issues stem from the top of the organization, and you'd do well to recognize this fact earlier than later, else you will likely either replicate the same cultural issues or burnout in the name of survival. Do not fall for any management tricks with respects to feedback when there is zero precedence on behalf of management on taking employee’s grievances seriously.

What is a toxic work environment?

It's hard to define when the effects seem subjective (feeling dread before starting the day, having energy and any positive mindset sucked dry out of your body), but generally, they seem to line up with the following characteristics:

  • Management does not take any feedback
  • Employees and management actively talk gossip about other employees or managers
  • Your work is undervalued
  • Feedback is either ignored or used against you at a later date
  • Promotions or pay bumps are conferred not by ability, but by political motivation and how aligned the employee or manager is with upper management with respects to politics and clique instead of vision and competency
  • Gaslighting
  • Empathy is a resource sorely lacking

For software in particular, these other characteristics are endemic of toxic work environments as well:

  • Code reviews tend to be political: someone who's not favored ends up with a pile of nitpicks rather than actionable advice
  • Requirements change in a weekly or daily basis
  • Management throws employees under the bus regularly and does not claim ownership of any failures of the organization
  • Postmortems are filled with finger pointing
  • Technical debt only accumulates, and is never paid off

How do you survive a toxic work environment?

You don't. Or, I should say, you will likely burnout before realizing you need a new job as soon as possible. You will never be able to change what's ultimately an issue that stems from the top, unless you somehow convince your coworkers to rally in solidarity and proceed from there (this is easier said than done.)

Okay, okay, that may sound a bit grim, but you do need to seriously consider finding a new job before your current job eats your soul - while doing that, here's some tactics you can employ to weather the storm a bit:

  • Keep your head down, produce work consistently and only commit to 40 hours a week. You will need to ensure that they can't nail you for productivity reasons, since you're already getting your work done, but also, you need to ensure you keep your sanity and not work weekends nor nights.
  • Document, document, document. Keep a paper trail. A paper record of what someone says verbally to you is admissible as evidence for any legal issues or HR violation cases (I am not a lawyer however, please confer with a lawyer about this. But the point still stands: document interactions and keep a paper trail.)
  • Try not to get involved in office politics, unless it's to rally worker solidarity: some folks will say that you should avoid office politics period (and I agree to an extent), but a crucial exception is when the politics is around rallying worker solidarity. With things like Google hiring union busting firms and Amazon denying basic human rights to warehouse workers, leaning into any sort of discussion around worker solidarity is more crucial than ever especially in technology. Otherwise: do not buy into shit talking other people. Just stay neutral in those cases.
  • I can't emphasize enough the importance of keeping to a 40 hour work week and keeping a hard barrier between work and life: no company is worth devoting your entire waking life to. It is a dead-end to burn yourself out for ultimately the manager’s benefit.

Finally, give yourself some credit

A toxic work environment can completely shake your belief around your own competency and work ethic: a toxic company will undermine your self-worth and self-esteem, and they will assail your sense of proficiency while gaslighting you at every step of the way.

Let me just say this: you're worth every minute of your time that you give to any company, and you must work toward recognizing how much your contributions stack up for any company you work for, no matter how little experience you may have. I've personally burned myself giving my entire life away to several companies when I was just starting out, and those companies have long forgotten about my contributions despite working 60-80 hour work weeks. I have since realized that my contributions have made many companies successful without me benefitting in a significant way. This does not mean that I don't like what I do - I love writing software for a living - but recognizing the softer parts of your environment and your worth is incredibly important to temper your expectations of a company and to not burn yourself out unnecessarily.

I hope all of the above is helpful for at least one person out there who's struggling, and I hope that you all find a situation that works in concordance to your own values.