How my Grandma helped me escape a toxic work environment and taught me to love myself again
I was in my car, driving around Richmond, Virginia for over an hour as I spoke to my Grandma Sandy (aka Glam-ma) on the phone.
That’s what we would do. I would call her anytime I was on the road longer than 20 minutes, because that woman could talk my ear off and had the gift of being a great listener.
I had begun a new job that I was so hopeful and optimistic about. But it turned into just another toxic work environment for me. It was happening again. I was devastated. There I was in a role that was meant for me, at an organization I believe in, but it has horrible leadership.
I called Glam-ma because she was a constant source of love, support, and most importantly, advice. That day was tough. I kept saying, “I just don’t understand. I’m giving [organization] my all.”
This organization was toxic from the start.
Why didn’t I see that? During my final interview with the president, I was told that he needed to understand “the risk factor.” He was referring to me being gay while pointing at The Gay Catholic on my resume, which landed me an invitation to the White House to welcome Pope Francis to the United States.
I should have declined the part-time job offer, but I wanted the opportunity to forward the mission of the organization.
In the months that followed, I was kept hidden. I wasn’t made an employee, but rather a contractor. I wasn’t given an email with my name like everyone else. I wasn’t allowed to be a real part of the community. I was spoken to in a demeaning way. For example, I was told to, “reel it in” — “stick to what’s in your job description only”. The worst for me is when I was told I needed to be more available. That was in regards to a last minute request that came in the night before I was traveling to see my Grandma after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I was constantly being bullied. As an adult. By other adults.
There I was again, in a toxic work environment.
The first toxic work environment degraded my work, based on a geriatric tyrant’s opinion versus the tens of thousands of people who loved engaging with it.
The CEO is a marching ant, following that tyrant’s money rather than believing in the people who made the organization thrive.
From disrespecting work-life balance and setting up employees for failure to telling them to, “Focus on the things you can change, like yourself,” this leader built an environment dozens have abandoned as soon as a new opportunity became available.
I had become depressed, in therapy multiple times a month, gaining weight and hating my passion for visual storytelling. When I finally left, I spent months at home, unable to get out of bed before 11 a.m., crying and struggling to love myself. I was afraid I was going back to that same darkness.
Then Grandma Sandy changed my life… again.
When I finally got everything off my chest, Glam-ma gave me the best advice of my life,
“We teach others how to treat us.”
She went on to explain how when we see injustices, are treated with disrespect, or are abused by others, we need to stand up for ourselves.
“Aaron, if you remain silent, then nothing will ever change. You are teaching them that what they are doing is okay, and we both know it is not okay.”
After weeks of direct conversations and calling out inappropriate treatment, I left that organization.
Never before had I felt so in charge of my career before. Glam-ma rekindled the fire within me. For the first time in nearly three years, I felt free. Free of abuse, degrading leaders, and limits. Because you see, I had been in two toxic work environments because I allowed it. Because I couldn’t see it. Glam-ma made me see.
My advice to other victims of toxic work environments.
- Remember, it’s just a job. Nothing is more important than your mental + physical health, family and dignity.
- Know your worth. Do not let someone else tell you what you are worth. Respect your work and know the value it brings to an organization.
- Follow the numbers. Staff retention rates are eye-opening to whether a job has quick turnover and/or comes with issues worth leaving.
- Keep your receipts. Save every positive and negative feedback you receive. You may see a trend or contradictions, which is worth knowing.
- Be mindful. If you don’t wake up looking forward to work, then you may need to find a different job. Life is too short to not be happy.
- Love yourself. You are talented. You bring value to the workplace. And, you deserve so much more.
Dedicated to my dear Glam-ma Sandy, who passed away on June 22, 2020.