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Fear, bullying, gaslighting: the toxic workplaces today’s talent are walking away from

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the cracks in workplace culture: bullying bosses, micromanaging, presenteeism, and more. As the Great Resignation rolls on, workpin's Quit My Job report looks at the toxic cultures today’s talent are leaving behind.

 

We interviewed 13 people who either have, or are planning to, quit their jobs during this pandemic, and found 6 key themes in why they chose to walk. Each of our interviewees have given their stories anonymously, and all of the names in this piece have been changed.

Since returning to the office in July 2021, Hamza’s commute has stretched to over 80 minutes door-to-door. It’s a particularly nasty journey, involving multiple buses inching through heavily congested city streets. The daily stress of the journey affects his mental health to the point that he has trouble concentrating at work. 

 

Kindly and respectfully, Hamza recently emailed his boss and asked to work from home for two days per week — after all, his job can be done entirely online. 

 

“You are an inexperienced [team member] and the company’s view is that your performance and particularly your development are negatively impacted by not working in the office,” read the email reply. “While you have tried some things to improve your commute, as we discussed there are others you have not investigated such as e-bike, e-scooter, or even motorbike/scooter.”

 

This was enough for Hamza, and he is currently looking for a new job. 

 

Hamza is part of the Great Resignation, a global mass-quitting movement as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the cracks in our world of work. We now have proof that many jobs can be done just as well without needing to trudge into a grey office block five days a week; toxic cultures can no longer hide behind flashy in-office perks. 

 

What’s going to cut it in the future of work? We spoke with 13 professionals who quit during the pandemic or are currently planning to, about the workplaces and cultures they’ve leaving behind.

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BY MONICA KARPINSKI

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1. Micromanaging

Layla took on a job in customer service in 2020 that became unbearable due to intense micromanaging. She had been open with her employer about her mental health needs, and when on sick leave was made to attend virtual meetings and asked invasive questions — something she was told was simply standard procedure. 

“They said company policy is having these meetings, and basically delving into my personal business and making a log of every detail of my life: what I’m doing, what medication I’m taking, how often I see my counsellor, what my doctor tells me,” she says.

"I just had to quit, my brain and body no longer gave me a choice"

For Irina, micromanaging came in the form of extremely granular time tracking, beyond just billable hours. “We had to report and justify every single thing we were doing throughout the day, however small,” she says. It was the final straw for many in Irina’s already very stretched and stressed team. 

 

“I just had to quit, my brain and body no longer gave me a choice,” she says. 

 

Micromanaging is essentially a power grab that can chip away at a person’s self-worth. Without the freedom to make decisions and the confidence of their managers, talent can feel stifled and undervalued; that they can do no right and their ideas don’t matter. 

 

Layla knew that she had to quit when she realised that it was her output, rather than her worth and wellbeing, that the company cared about. “I knew I was just money to them, and they were not trying to help me, they just wanted me back at a desk for their own benefit,” she says.

2. Our health didn't matter

During the pandemic, many employers have not taken steps to assure workplaces are Covid-safe nor shown concern for their people’s health and wellbeing. 

 

“We had a 100-plus, in-person meeting indoors with no social distancing in which several people were coughing. I spoke out. Everyone was okay with the situation but me,” says Hulda. One day at work, her boss was coughing but didn’t go home, which was the final push for her to quit. 

"Our CEO thought that positioning himself as 'Not scared of Covid' would make us respect him more. We didn't"

A lack of protective measures saw Ray get Covid-19, and then long Covid, before she’d had enough and left. “Our CEO thought that positioning himself as ‘Not scared of Covid’ and demanding that we continue to travel into the office as normal would make us respect him more. We didn’t," she says. 

 

And then there’s the lack of accommodation and support as people weather the pandemic. Donnette’s CEO refused to let her use sick leave when her child was exposed to the virus at school and sent home, nor to switch her hours to cover childcare when daycare was shut down. Her CEO told her that she “Can’t just hide in the basement and live in fear” of the pandemic. 

 

When your people don’t feel safe and get the message that you don’t care about them — they’ll walk.

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3. Bullying

For some, abuse and bullying from leadership intensified during the pandemic. “The owner was known for leading by fear, which was extrapolated by the pandemic,” says Rhiannon. When team members raised concerns about returning to the office, the owner gave them the ultimatum of working from home at half pay or coming in to get full pay. 

 

“Employees had to choose between paying rent and getting groceries and their health and safety,” she says. “Conversations were had about how we should be ‘lucky to have a job right now’.”

"She had all the textbook behaviours of an emotional abuser "

Anna also left her company, a femcare startup, due to an emotionally abusive founder. After the founder was investigated internally for pregnancy discrimination against one of Anna’s colleagues, and then a second time for bullying and harrassment, people started resigning “left, right, and centre”. 

 

In one incident, Anna and a colleague were taken to a cafe by the founder, where she started screaming and crying, threatening to fire them if they “didn’t start being nicer to her”. “She had all the textbook behaviours of an emotional abuser,” says Anna. “She would routinely pick on you and be extremely curt and cold, and then lovebomb you so you wouldn’t resign.” 

 

Similar experiences are echoed by Frankie and Lonna, who both left their respective jobs because of a bullying boss. “It was scary and a toxic place for me and many of us [to be] around,” says Lonna. 

 

“My former boss made the environment quite toxic with his fears and micromanagement”, says Frankie.

4. No leadership

When digital marketing professional Oliver came in for his first day at a new company, no-one in the team had been told he was coming. “There were no instructions, there was no meeting set up with leadership teams or departments. It was just: off you go,” he says.

"You have no direction, no vision, low support...there's no point"

He was then given a technical task beyond his skill set and outside of the role he’d accepted. A few months were all it took for him to decide to leave. “You have no direction, no vision, low support,” he says. “There’s no point in being [there].” 

 

Giving your people freedom and flexibility is one thing, but leaving them entirely to their own devices is another. It’s a manager’s responsibility to make sure their people know what’s expected of them and are supported in doing it. 

 

Celeste is also planning to leave her job because of an absent manager. “He just sits around all day while assigning me all of the work for our two-person team,” she says. “This has been exacerbated by Covid and hybrid work because he’ll disappear for hours at a time and tell me he’s ‘tied up with something’.”

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5. Unreasonable demands

There’s a fine line between being ambitious and unrealistic, and when you’re working for a company that crosses it, this often means that you’re made to shoulder an impossible workload. 

 

At Anna’s previous workplace, this all happened in the name of hustle culture.

"You were forced to take on responsibilities completely outside of your job role...all under the guise of 'startup culture'"

“Everyone in the company was doing the job of three people,” she says. “You were forced to take on responsibilities completely outside of your job role and then scolded when those tasks weren’t performed perfectly. All under the guise of ‘startup culture’. 

 

“Because everyone kept quitting, junior team members were promoted to senior roles with no training (and a very little raise) so no one had proper management. I went two years without having a manager or ever having a performance review,” she adds. 

 

For Rhiannon, this instead came in the form of a 50% pay cut while still being expected to work full time during the pandemic. “People from managers to VPs were stripped of their titles so that their pay could be cut by 50%, leaving many people working overtime and making less money than those furloughed at home,” she says. 

 

Everyone has a breaking point and if you push your people towards theirs, you’ll lose them. It’s what tends to happen when talent are treated like productivity machines rather than people. 

6. Forcing people to come in

Stephanie works in marketing, and during lockdown worked for three months remotely without an issue. Once restrictions were lifted, her employer forced the whole team to come into the office — but because Stephanie’s local bus timetable was still running on a limited schedule, she was told to take a bus to the train station where one of her colleagues was paid to pick her up and drive her in. 

"The nail in the coffin was making someone else pick me up just so I could be a butt in a seat '"

“I was completely reliant on the other person’s schedule and the job gave me little flexibility unless that person didn’t come in,” she says. “The CEOs came and went as they pleased, often not coming in at all throughout the week. 

 

“The nail in the coffin really was making someone else pick me up just so I could be a butt in a seat.” 

 

This echoes Hamza's experience, who was told to get a motorbike when he explained that his commute is long and stressful. “Ultimately, it is your responsibility to live in a commutable location for whatever method of travel you choose,” read an email from his boss.

Treat your people with trust and respect

Quite simply, today’s talent are walking away from employers that don’t treat them with trust and respect. Whether that’s a lack of respect for their time, making unreasonable demands, or straight-up bullying, the pandemic has exposed these toxic cultures for what they are. 
 

How can you win the war for talent while everyone is quitting their jobs? Build a culture that puts people first, and understand that this is the best path to business success. 

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