Work cultures the enable toxic employees are easy to spot
I should have known better. During the interview for a pizza delivery gig in university, the owner of the now-closed Cosmic Pizza in Tempe, Arizona, sighed and said, “Look, I’m gonna give you a shot.”
It was the tone. Something in me said, “He resents having to hire you.” I didn’t know why, didn’t know if it was me, or the process, or just the day. But it was clear that this was not how he wanted to spend his time. But I needed the job and didn’t really know much better.
But the guy was a toxic boss, and in that moment I knew it. I was an expendable burden to him. In a week, he proved it. When I got sick and called in, he told me it was my job to find a replacement for my shift. Not uncommon in Arizona, a right-to-work state that legally enables toxic bosses, but also not a reasonable ask. I doubt many of his customers wanted a sick person handling their food. But I also doubt he cared very much what his customers wanted once they’d handed over their money.
So when I couldn’t find anyone at that small shop to cover me, he demanded I come in. And when I didn’t, I got the sack. For a job that barely paid $6 an hour plus tips, it wasn’t much of a loss. But it held an important lesson: had I just read a bit more enough that tone of voice, I might well have avoided the entire affair.
I wish I could say I’ve taken that lesson to heart, but I’ve done a fine job of taking more than a few gigs where my initial red flags got overridden by a sense of misplaced optimism and intentional blinders. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, the stakes are higher, and the consequences greater, for failing to interpret the signs of a toxic work culture.
Nobody likes to be judged by first impressions. But many of us, including myself, overlook the red flags we see on the first day on a job. If we see a workplace argument, meet a snarky or unfriendly colleague, or even are on the receiving end of first-day negative feedback, many of us might shrug, say it’s a weird one-off, and hope that the job we just started isn’t nearly as bad as it feels.
First days are strange, after all. There’s a lot to take in. But if a red flag goes off that indicates a toxic employee or employees are about to be your colleague, it’s time to reevaluate if this is the right job.
First impressions are important, and both managers and employees should know that. If they don’t, it’s a much bigger warning than just a rude comment or bad first encounter.
That’s because if a toxic employee is able to get away with their behavior to a brand-new employee, it means they feel enabled, even emboldened, by a weak management structure and poor company culture. Their bad behavior is the face of the company because the company won’t do anything about it. That’s managerial and cultural cowardice and incompetence, and it’s a great reason to end the day with a quick notice that you won’t be back.
Telling yourself that it surely must be rare or just you misreading a situation because of first-day jitters sets yourself up for a lot of heartaches later. Not only have you seen the toxic behavior up front, by joining and sticking around you’re actively enabling it. You’re saying, “Yeah, they’re a nasty little thing, but I’ll work here anyway.”
Toxic employees by their very nature are self-interested and self-involved. They are not going to reflect later and improve unless they are externally managed, controlled, and penalized. While no organization can prevent such people from slipping in, all organizations are able to do something about them. Those that don’t aren’t worth working for.
More importantly, by sticking around, you make it much harder to extricate yourself. The faster you walk out, the less you need to put the experience down on the resume and use it as a means to find the next best thing. A first day walkout is ideal: it may as well have never happened. And while it’s painful to go through the job hunt again, it’s even more painful to get chained to a job with people you increasingly can’t work alongside.