In the past few months, I have seen post after post about toxic work environments: how to identify them, how to survive, how to prevent them from forming and how to leave them.
The last topic is probably the most valuable to anyone who has entered into a position at a place that leaves them feeling drained, stressed, unfulfilled or even so upset that they frequently find themselves hiding tears at their desk. Many of us spend most of our time at work, so the ability to find a position that makes you happy – or at least doesn’t make you want to rip your hair out – is valuable.
But how do you choose the time to leave? How do you find a new position when you’re already bogged down with endless tasks at an awful job? How do you manage to stay professional, even when you’re past your wits’ end?
For Kiah McBride, managing editor of XONecole, that decision came when she realized her previous position was stunting her creativity and preventing her from moving forward with her personal goals.
After graduating college, she completed a professional program at an advertising agency’s Atlanta office. When there was no room for her to work in the company’s public relations department, she left and began working as an editor at Black Web 2.0 and serving as an R&B artist’s assistant.
She enjoyed her work, but both positions were demanding and required her to basically be on-call at all times. She quit the job with the musician first and picked up some freelance work for Rolling Out to try to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to pay the bills. She wanted to freelance full-time and began to read up on it. The books advise prospective freelancers to build their savings before taking that leap, so she ended up putting her resume on Indeed and was randomly contacted by a company that specializes in distributing industrial supplies.
“[It was] really random and had nothing to do with what I wanted to do in life,” McBride said of the opportunity, “but I knew I didn’t want to stay there forever and I knew I didn’t want to start another career-like job knowing that I was going to get back into writing. Plus, I wasn’t finding any other jobs that I was interested in.”
The job also offered great benefits. In fact, they paid for her to go back to school and placed no stipulations upon what type of courses she took, so she was able to take some creative writing classes on the side.
But McBride said the company must have realized they needed to give people an extra incentive to work there in order to decrease turnover because the position was basically “glorified customer service.” Her job was to field emails from customers all day long. It was stressful because the company stressed efficiency to the point that they timed employees on everything. They also had regular evaluations and would issue stern warnings to anyone who did not meet their demanding standards. If they did not improve, they would be fired.
“There were people getting fired left and right, quitting left and right,” McBride said.
Every day, different people would complain about their jobs. By the time she hit her three-month mark, she could completely understand their frustrations. Not only were they timed and measured on speed and accuracy, but they were on a set schedule with a set lunch time and vacation days. They had to hope that the days they wanted were open. There were sick days, but it was common knowledge that too many absences might be held against you.
The company strictly forbade employees from taking work home, which McBride, who was accustomed to working on assignments at home due to her time in advertising, initially thought was “a win.”
“By the time I would get home, I was so mentally drained…it was hard for me to even keep going,” she said. She convinced herself to stay until the end of the year in order to get a bonus to pay off some of her debt. She wanted to leave and had started to blog more, but she wasn’t ready to freelance full-time and didn’t want to take on another job that she didn’t want.
She ultimately decided to leave Atlanta and return home to North Carolina so that she could “stop, breathe and figure out [her] next move.”
Not even a week after she returned home, she got an email from Necole Kane, founder of the now-defunct NecoleBitchie.com. McBride had written a piece for Kane two years prior. Kane was looking for a managing editor for her new site, XONecole, and McBride leapt at the opportunity.
“It was essentially my leap of faith that led me to that opportunity. If I hadn’t left Atlanta and that job, I wouldn’t have been presented with this opportunity. Just because of how it happened – it was such perfect timing,” McBride said. It was another situation in which she didn’t apply, but as fate would have it Kane remembered her.
McBride’s networking methods helped her to stay on Kane’s radar. Although she said she’s not exactly good at sending check-in emails — mostly because she likes to organically reconnect with people – she uses social media to keep in touch. In fact, tweeting a profile of Necole she’d written for Black Web is what likely put her back on the blogger’s radar.
In addition to keeping in touch with people whose work she enjoys, McBride did another important thing that could help to make transitioning out of a bad job less painful: she took the time to fully evaluate what was bothering her before making a change.
“Analyze why you’re unhappy. It might be because of an underlying issue,” said Sherry Sims, founder of Black Career Women’s Network. “If it is you, how can you change it? If it is work then you should think about what’s next.”
Sims is a career coach and speaker who formerly worked as a corporate recruiter and HR generalist for several major companies. She’s also had her own share of unfulfilling positions in the past.
During her last job in HR, she was burnt out from working 12-hour days and had “no work-life balance.” She wanted something different but wanted to make sure that feeling came from an “authentic place.”
“I needed to focus not on what I could lose, but what I could change.” So she took a pay cut to start coaching, and although the transition was scary, she feels that she set herself up for something bigger: the Black Career Women’s Network.
“I needed to see if it was me, the job or both. Sometimes we let making the money and the stability immobilizes us, but we always have opportunities to move forward,” Sims said.
In order to maintain professionalism while dealing with a toxic work environment, Sims stressed the importance of keeping emotions in check.
“Don’t think with your emotions. Think with your head. Follow the rules. Put in your two week’s notice. Finish any [outstanding] projects,” she said. “At the end of the day, if someone asks about your performance there, all they’re going to remember is how you left.”
Megan from BlackFreelance.com (who chooses not to share her last name) knew she needed to leave her last in-office position, but wanted to make her transition as smooth as possible.
Her last full-time job was in hospital consulting. The hours were good and she didn’t have to travel much for work, but traditional corporate culture didn’t suit her, at all.
“I’ve worked at a few companies and there are some abusive tendencies between managers,” she said. “I was experiencing little, weird racial microagressions from people making comments about tar babies to other more subtle things.
The company also had “that startup feel” and they expected employees to “give up everything to the company.” Within a single six-month period, several of her coworkers had to be hospitalized due to chest pains. A 30-something employee had a stroke on the job.
“They used to brag about who went to the hospital,” she said. “The general environment was just not healthy and it was expected for you to live like that. I just knew it wasn’t going to work for me. My health was deteriorating.”
She knew that she enjoyed writing and began to freelance for combat sports companies, managing their blogs. However, Megan said that the real first step to quitting her toxic job was to make the decision to detach yourself from your current position. She treated her freelance work like a part-time job and focused on building herself an online platform that lead to her full-fledged freelance career.
“If you say you’re going to leave, you have to be real about that. You have to back off a certain level and not get pulled into ‘Oh, well, maybe I’ll try a little harder for this promotion,’ or ‘maybe I’ll push a little further in this area,’ because any time that you’re pouring into that job, you’re not pouring into yourself. But if you want to freelance, you have to take a step back and figure out what you’re going to do,” she said.
Megan suggested aspiring freelancers network with people who know their industry and figure out how they can realistically work their way into a viable career.
Success stories from people who left terrible positions and were able to turn their careers around resonate with us for different reasons. Sims said it may be excitement, motivation or, sometimes, envy, but it’s important to keep all of those emotions in check.
“[People] don’t always look at what it took to get there. They’re not looking at the backend of what it really took to get there,” she said. “Pause for a moment and think ‘what did it really take for him or her to get there? What did it take for them to be successful?”