I WORKED FOR A CULT BECAUSE I IGNORED THESE 5 RED FLAGS
First, I know what you are thinking — How did this woman NOT know she was in a cult? Let me explain. Most think that cults are strictly based on religion. This is not the case. When the culture within a company becomes all-encompassing, they are considered to be a corporate cult or cult company. The “startup culture” is a major player in this trend. Similarly, to religious cults, these companies feature an unquestionable devotion to their one leader, possess an “us versus them” attitude, guilt and shame abuse cycles, and cutting off people that leave.
When I started working for a cult company, I was blinded by excitement. I dove right in but soon I found myself ignoring my intuition and the following red flags during my tenure at the company:
1) “THE MISSION” IS PUT ABOVE ALL ELSE
From day one, the mission was ingrained. I was groomed to believe only our company could complete the mission. Others just did not understand what we were building, just how the world would change because of us. As someone that takes pride in helping others, this idea was intoxicating to me. I longed to make a difference in people’s lives and grew to believe this was the ONLY way to do that.
The Leader was able to validate the importance of the mission through constant remarks reminding us about the millions of dollars that he was raising from investors, sharing how celebrities wanted to take part in the mission, and explaining that other industry leaders were “terrified” of the mission.
It is typical for companies to have a mission statement and goals that the entire staff works towards. Where this gets unhealthy is when it becomes all-consuming. Nothing else mattered — not my pay, my health, or even my own thoughts and ideas.
2) THE LEADER REQUIRES BLIND ALLEGIANCE
Describing the Leader is a complex undertaking. While I now just see him as a con, cheat, and coward, that is not the persona that greets you. When you first get to know him, he comes off as extremely charismatic, successful, and intelligent (he will let you know he is the smartest in any room).
During the interview process, other employees shared their admiration for the Leader. They revered him, soon I did too. My first face-to-face interaction with him left me in awe. In that meeting, he spontaneously announced that he was giving me an immediate raise because of the expertise I brought to the table. I thought, “Wow! What an incredible Leader and company!”
The feeling of finding my people, my work home was so incredibly powerful. It was like an answer to many hopes and prayers. Quickly, I fell in line by doing whatever was asked without questioning — you learn very fast that questioning is a big no-no.
3) FREQUENT TESTS OF LOYALTY
Like any cult, the grooming process is essential for cult companies. Within a couple of months, it was time for my first test — firing an employee, when I had no hiring/firing authority. At the direction of the Leader, I retrieved company materials and property from the employee. At the time, I thought nothing of this. The Leader said this employee was a danger to the mission and to him, they had to go.
Shortly after that, the Leader decided a different employee needed to go away. As he did with me, he asked a fellow employee to handle the situation. More tenured employees joked that this was an initiation. I am disappointed to say, I passed this test.
There were other, more minor, tests that came my way daily. The Leader would constantly talk about sex, strip clubs, and drugs. I did not ever ask him to stop. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I rationalized it as an industry norm or even that he was talking to me like an equal, like a friend.
4) THE LEADER CONTROLS THE PHYSICAL, MENTAL & FINANCIAL HEALTH OF EMPLOYEES
Within months of joining the company, I was fully immersed. I had displayed my loyalty by firing an employee, bowing down to the Leader, and showing my devotion to the mission, so when I did not receive a paycheck for the first time, I did not think anything of it. I rationalized it by telling myself, “He [the Leader] is so busy, he just forgot to send payroll.” Soon missing paychecks were the norm — four, five, six weeks would go by without pay.
It was an unwritten rule that you did not ask the Leader when you were to be paid. Simply asking for your earned pay was looked at as a weakness, disloyalty to him and the mission. Anyone questioning him was shamed and guilted back into submission by the entire team, not just the Leader. On the other hand, those who willingly worked without pay were praised companywide since they were giving their full selves to the mission.
Before I knew it, my medical insurance was cut off without warning, I was weeks late on receiving pay, yet I was still willing to work long hours into the nights and weekends. I once worked 28-hours straight on a project because I was told the project would ensure paychecks for my team.
As my tenure continued, I saw more and more paranoia from the Leader as he believed everyone was out to get him. At one point, the Leader downloaded all messages from Slack to see how employees were talking about him. But when he took it a step further by suggesting he hacked into our personal cell phones to read messages, I felt completely violated. It was at that moment, I knew he had gained complete control of my life. This was a terrifying realization.
5) FORMER EMPLOYEES ARE EX-COMMUNICATED
When an employee left, they became the enemy. We were instructed to cut them out of our lives and never speak to them again. This was not a simple request from the Leader but a legal demand on the company’s part. Speaking to former employees would cause the Leader to take legal action against us. The Leader explained this away by stating that all former employees were against us — against the mission, but most importantly, against him. They all wished him ill will and were spreading lies about him and his leadership. While I genuinely cared about the people I worked with, once they moved onto new opportunities, I felt an immediate disconnect.
A former coworker tried to warn me about the situation. She wanted to open my eyes; help bring me to that a-ha moment. What did I do? I forwarded her messages to the Leader. Being rewarded for my loyalty just got me to dive deeper into the cult culture.
In the beginning, it was hard to move on from the company — mainly my coworkers. I had invested my entire life into the job, the people, and the mission. The realization that I was now the enemy and would not be able to talk to coworkers that I cared about was heartbreaking. It still makes me sad to think about.
Healing takes time and while it has been a fair amount of time, I still find myself falling into old habits, like defending the Leader and his actions. One afternoon I received a call from one of the company’s investors, another former employee had reached out to them to let them know about the company’s wrongdoings. When they called to hear my side, I found myself protecting the Leader and company. During that call, I completely rationalized their actions because that was how I had operated for so long. I also had to make amends with people I hurt while I was in the cult company. I am grateful that those I hurt understood my situation and were able to forgive me for my actions.
The emotional and mental healing was a process, but the financial healing was next level. When I applied for unemployment benefits, I found that the Leader had not reported my income. This opened a whole new can of worms, then I had questions about taxes and backpay. I was positioned as the villain for requesting this information from the Leader.
Now that I am on the other and am seeing how a healthy workplace culture operates, I am thankful for the journey I took to get to this point. While I have been able to move on successfully, I still have concerns for those on the inside — do they understand this is not a normal work environment? Will they be able to get out safely or will they be threatened like me? I know the Leader will never stop even if investors stop giving or the law comes knocking because everyone at the cult company believes the Leader is above the law. All his loyalists will have to disavow him in order to truly take his power away.
DON’T MAKE MY MISTAKE
I cannot stress the importance of researching and interview any potential company. If I had researched the company and the Leader thoroughly, I would never ended up working for a cult. If I had done any one of the following steps, I would have avoided this entire situation:
1) SPEAK TO FORMER EMPLOYEES
It’s not unusual for people to move onto new opportunities. If I had reached out to a few former employees on LinkedIn or at networking events, it would have told me everything I needed to know. In fact, a friend of a friend worked for the company a year prior and was not paid for her time. That information would have caused me to walk away before I even stepped into their offices.
2) ASK CURRENT EMPLOYEES ABOUT FORMER EMPLOYEES
During the interview process, I believe one simple question would have saved me so much hassle: ‘Can you tell me about the person that held this position prior?’ I would bet my bottom dollar that individual would have been described similarly to a crazy ex-girlfriend you find in a Lifetime movie.
3) TALK TO PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY
As the classic song states, “it’s a small, small world.” I would recommend asking around to get a firm understanding of how the company and leadership are viewed within their own industry. In this situation, the music industry, the fact that people either didn’t know the Leader or thought he couldn’t “play by the rules,” would have set off immediate warning lights.
4) CHECK PUBLIC RECORDS
Sounds extreme, right? I disagree. Public records are available for a reason — they contain vital information for everyone. Had I looked deeper, I would have found a trail of lawsuits involving former employees and financial dealings, as well as, revoked business credentials. Seeing any one of those things, would have me run (not walked) away.