I’m a director of development at a top creative agency. During my five and a half year tenure with my previous company, I tripled our team in size and successfully generated more than 50% of the company’s total revenue. During this time, I created a network of positive client relationships, assembled an incredible team, and substantially expanded our company’s capabilities. But it wasn’t long before things took a turn for the worse. While I wasn’t sexually harassed, it doesn’t take an incident of sexual harassment to turn your top performers away.
When I first joined the company, I felt as if I had won the lottery. I couldn’t believe I found what I believed to be the perfect environment for me—an unconventional, high performing creative workplace, with a tight-knit team and a start-up mentality free of the corporate red tape and play-nice politics that had constricted me in other environments. With ambitions of success for not only myself as a salesperson, but for the business as a whole, I was excited about growing the company’s revenue and making a direct impact on the lives of the people around me.
The new role started out great. I was given leeway that I never thought a “traditional” office environment would allow—for example, I was granted the ability to paint my entire office pink based on sheer personal preference. We’d be taken out to dinners and given gifts on birthdays, and from the outside looking in, it seemed like a dream job at this stage of my career. My manager seemed to beam with pride in grooming me to be his star pupil, and I couldn’t have been more excited to grow and contribute in the role.
But from the start, I noticed my CEO behaving in ways that were concerning at best. He’d gossip about other employees and give one department an easy pass while holding an impossibly high bar over another. He’d gripe about certain employees or blatantly ignore them, based on whether he liked them personally or not. Initially, I overlooked these behaviors, convincing myself they were for good reason. But I quickly noticed how his behaviors colored my interactions with coworkers, and impacted our interpersonal dynamic as well.
My manager and I had many “come to Jesus” moments. Each time that happened, I was granted a new stash of hope that something would change. But time and time again I’d be let down, thinking to myself, “actions speak louder than words.” If he truly wanted to change, he’d take action instead of simply offering lip service to get out of hot water.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation. On some days, we were peas in a pod, talking about the future of the business and laughing over shared interests or moments at work. On other days, we were oil and water. We’d raise our voices, cursing at one another and often giving each other the silent treatment for days. Though I was exceeding quota, I’d also spend most of my day thinking about how to not upset my CEO. I’d lay awake at night thinking of ways to restructure our company, and even though I was doing well professionally, the stress of my office environment weighed heavily on me at all times.
I danced this dance for years, confident that things would get better while wondering if things would get better at all. My manager and I had many “come to Jesus” moments where we would have a ‘heart-to-heart’ and speak candidly about the things that were bothering me and vice versa. I even convinced him to bring in a consultant to help us wade through the culture issues in our company. Each time that happened, I was granted a new stash of hope that something would change – that he would change, and wanted to change. But time and time again I’d be let down, and I’d be left thinking to myself, “actions speak louder than words.” If he truly wanted to change, he’d take action instead of simply offering lip service to get out of hot water.
I didn’t like the person I was becoming, or the strain the work environment was putting on my personal relationships. So after finding some professional development opportunities in another part of the country, I approached the company about taking a leave of absence. Optimistic about my work situation eventually changing, I also proposed opening a new branch of our office in the city I was moving to. My request was met with acceptance and excitement. This was it! I had found a solution that made the best out of a rocky situation – giving my CEO and I enough space from one another, while also allowing us to continue on the path of mutual success.
So I made the move. By then, I had a contract dictated by our CFO that was ready to be signed, and was told it would be reviewed immediately. But the CEO continued to go about his business, leaving me in the dark about what his intentions were for me and for the company, as I ventured out on my own for months of unpaid leave. When the CEO’s response finally came months into my sabbatical, I realized that I was optimistically naïve.
“Hey! Any feedback on the contract?”
“Look, this is a marathon, not a sprint. I was not at all pleased about how fast these talks were being pushed. In order for this to work, there are a ton of details that need to be worked out.”
“This is the first time I’m hearing about your uneasiness, but okay. How much more time do you need?”
“Give me until March 1st to get a final contract in your hand.”
“March 1st? Okay.”
Three months went by, and there was not a peep from the CEO regarding my contract. On the date I was promised to have a contract in hand, I sent in my formal resignation letter. In the CEO’s response, he coldly acknowledged receipt of my letter and included no more than a cryptic message about “having so much to say” to me but needing more time to gather his thoughts. To this day, there’s been no contact, aside from a rogue text about ‘finding happiness.’
I wish I could say that a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders; in actuality, I’d never felt more used. The ease with which my CEO accepted my resignation without so much as a phone call after five and a half years of working together hurt me to my core. Either way, I finally decided to walk away from the empty promises and dishonest behavior in search of a new and welcoming work environment. No amount of money, leadership or professional success will allow me to let a toxic individual negatively impact both my professional and personal life.
Since joining a new company, I’ve been told by my new colleagues that the positive energy and excitement I bring into the office is a breath of fresh air. While I’m not certain what things look like for my former company these days, my ability to continue building my book of business and inspire others drives me to keep going, and it feels wonderful to not have that clouded by the weight of someone else’s unprofessional behavior.
Fama’s “Help! My Workplace Is Toxic” series aims to elevate the voices of the employees who help take companies from good to great, from the junior-level recruit to the seasoned executive. We take anonymous submissions about your experiences and share them with the world’s leading employment and culture experts to help them make positive change in their organizations. Want to submit your story? Get in touch with our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.