Spiraling: My experience with toxic culture in the workplace

Spiraling: My experience with toxic culture in the workplace

I am currently writing a section in our new Organizational Culture, Diversity and Inclusions course about toxic culture and I couldn’t avoid this story.

Sit back…this is a long one.

They approached me online. I hadn’t applied for the role but it had popped-up on my LinkedIn feed and I had “Liked” the post. It looked like a dream job, supporting an inspiring leader.

It intrigued me but I had a great job. I was working part-time as a private household assistant, my principal didn’t even live in the country full-time and though I worked 5 days a week I was remote for three of those days and the other two days I worked from a gorgeous home in Belgravia (a swanky part of London).

They reached out to me. I met with the CEO – smart, energetic, female.

I thought, “OMG! This is incredible. We are going to be a dream team. I am going to help get her aligned, productive, and support her to reach exponential growth. Female empowerment!”

There were red flags:

  • I came in for a data dump day while still employed at my original role and I was told when I got there they wouldn’t be paying me for that day.
  • I found out on my first day that the hours were long, 8-6pm.
  • They had several websites and company names, none of which had good reviews on Glassdoor.
  • They were clearly money-focused first. In their industry, it’s the norm. 

Culture shock

What I encountered in the first two weeks was shocking to me, a workplace culture that you see in 80s movies set in a seedy New York City. There was sexism, crude jokes, racist jokes, drugs, people sleeping with each other despite being in long term relationships with others (the stories…), immaturity was rampant, as was a toxic sense of loyalty, hazing, and harassment.

Bottles of hot sauce and cinnamon were all over the office meant for new sales members to swallow by the spoonful when they had underperformed. It was a mess inside.

They were also defiantly opposed to any progression that wasn’t directly related to earning money. They had archaic technology despite calling themselves a “tech business”.  Their CRM application alone was nearly unusable. The offices were lined with large black screen TVs, none of which worked. They had numerous GDPR complaints because their system only allowed for manual removal of email addresses. There were thousands. I could go on.

This place was not for me and I knew it in my bones. I was going to have to travel quite a bit for this job and unless I loved it and could stand behind the company… it wasn’t worth the investment from me.

I quit two weeks into the role. I thanked them for the opportunity but explained this environment was not for me and gave the above examples. I was told every complaint I had was accurate and they were aware of these issues. I was begged to stay. They said they needed me to hold them accountable so positive changes could be made. I was also aware the CEO was going on an extended holiday in a few weeks and was hoping I would hold down the fort while she was away.

So I stayed. Two weeks later I was sexually assaulted by a director of the company. 

The incident

We were at a planning retreat for directors and we were there for several nights. The final night there was a pre-dinner party with drinks and then a lovely holiday dinner. By the end of dinner however, many of the directors were past the tipping point. Shaking bottles of prosecco and spraying it all over each other and the dining hall. At some point, they found a piano and several directors decided this was a good time to remove their shirts and start singing along while one of them played. Then they started smashing their glasses.

I ran around trying to clean everything. I was so embarrassed by the way they were treating the manor house. I started working my way down the staircase that they had all thrown their shirts down to pick them all up.

I placed all of the shirts down on the back of a sofa at the bottom of the stairs. No one was there except me but when I turned around one of the directors was there. He was very drunk, shirtless, dripping with gin, and twice my size.

He walked up to me, wrapped his arms around mine in a bear hug so they were pinned to my sides and said “Give us a kiss”. I was unable to lift my arms. I could only try to strain my face away from his to stop his advances. Luckily he had grabbed me at a bit of an angle and not head-on so I was able to turn my face away more. Pure panic. Sadly, like almost every woman I know…I’d been in situations like this before. I froze. My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest.

What was he trying to do?
Why was he doing this?
Do I yell?
Will I get fired?
Do I knee him?
Isn’t he married?
What will my husband think?
Move damn it! Yell at him.

As I strained my neck away I kept saying, “Uhhh…no no.” And when that didn’t work, “On the cheek! On the cheek!” He got the corner of my mouth. And then another shirtless director walked in, he let me go and I cut away. It was likely a 30-second encounter but one I have replayed many times.

It shocked me. It triggered me…the extent of which I wasn’t aware of yet. I immediately told the CEO and the Head of HR, both women in their early 30s. I was told, “Oh yeah. He does that sometimes. But he does it to guys too.” The CEO would later tell me she doesn’t remember me telling her this.

I was furious. I spent an hour cleaning the dining hall that the employees had drunkenly trashed because I felt so bad for the staff and then I trudged off to bed. The rest stayed up all night, some until 6 am when we had an 8am start. Normally I would have stayed up to make sure everyone got back to their rooms okay. But I was done. I wanted to go home.

Triggered

It was clear when we got back to the office no one was concerned about what happened. There was no follow up from HR nor the CEO. Luckily he worked at HQ where I never really saw him. 

But I was triggered. Every single day I walked back in there and started spiraling. I thought about every man who had pressured me to do something I didn’t want to do or did something inappropriate to me. It had lasting damage.

I was mad but felt defeated. It was hard to not feel wrong for being so upset though I knew I had every right to be. 

Attempting to turn the ship

I stayed because I felt it was my duty to help the CEO change this culture. This allowance of the most base behavior that marginalized and intimidated employees. 

However, I was completely unmotivated. I didn’t believe in the company. Even when I wanted to do my job I was so consumed by the poor actions of everyone around me that it was hard to actually concentrate. I was resentful. 

Shortly after my incident, several women quit at once and some cited bullying. I also found out that the same director who tried to kiss me had done the same to several women at the holiday party. 

This caught management’s attention so I took it as an opening to address what happened to me again. I was taken more seriously. I also spoke with the CEO again. 

There was a meeting about bullying in an attempt to get the male directors to knock it off. 

The director was made to apologize to me and the other women. 

And so I stayed and tried to give this job a chance. I still wanted to believe that the CEO was trying to do the right thing. 

However, I watched the same behaviors continue and eventually hit a breaking point and quit. 

Culture has power

Culture gives permission. It tells employees what to value and how they are expected to act. The toxic culture there took good people and allowed them, sometimes encouraged them, to make bad decisions.

This company valued money above all. Above staff, employees, and ultimately it’s own growth as it would not invest in applications that would empower its employees to do their jobs.

I am not motivated by money. I value community, innovation, trust and service. My values in no way aligned with the values of this company.

Thankfully, I am lucky enough to know what it feels like when your values align with your company.

I’ve worked for a company where the culture was extremely positive and supportive of staff. The culture gave us permission to innovate, to rest when needed, and to collaborate. We were engaged and happy to spend long hours there out of choice. 

It gave us permission to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and we were happy to do so. We had a purpose that united us.  

Seeing the light

While the situation and culture I describe above are truly abhorrent, leaving that company motivated me to build The Officials HQ platform. I am also now able to use that situation to help educate others on the importance of determining if your values align with your company’s and the potential extent to which toxic culture can affect a workforce.

Luckily, there are companies that fully commit to positive culture. In the next blog, we will explore the power of positive culture and how it improves engagement, retention and productivity.

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Lastly, please know that The Officials is a safe space. If you ever want to talk, vent, or commiserate please feel free to reach out to me. My door is open at lauren@jointheofficials.com.

2 Comments

    Sham

    Just WOW, well done on your perseverance. I don’t think I would’ve had the strength to Carry on with the role.

      Lauren Bradley - Founder

      To be honest, I felt like a failure. I wanted to help change it all but I was not equipped nor did they really believe anything needed to change.

      It’s the curse of being an assistant, to want to solve all the problems and feel that if you haven’t then you failed. Even problems that weren’t yours to solve. I’m working on that part of myself. I stayed because I didn’t want to leave other women there alone and I wanted to believe they wanted to change…they did not.

      Thank you for your kind words.

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