In today’s cutthroat job market, employees are increasingly finding themselves leaving positions due to the toxic work environments they encounter—that’s according to a report from MIT Sloan Management Review. If you’re reading this, you may have experienced a toxic boss firsthand. Perhaps they made you feel small, or maybe your workplace was plagued by disorganization and unprofessionalism, leaving you underappreciated and undervalued. Whatever form it takes, toxic management can impact us far more and far deeper than we can imagine, both professionally and personally.
But don’t worry, we’re not here to scare you! On the contrary. Together with our experts Chanin Zellner, Intuitive Healer & Mindfulness Coach, and Dr. Candice Schaefer, Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Burnout Coach, our aim is to help you learn from this experience as much as possible and support you as you navigate your way toward a new job—one that will truly serve you better.
What constitutes a toxic boss?
Identifying a toxic boss can be challenging, as there’s no universal definition of one. “Everyone will have a different experience,” says Schaefer. “But from my perspective, a toxic boss leaves you with strong emotions after an interaction, without a clear understanding of why—just a sense that something is not right.” Some may say a toxic boss is an insecure boss, or even that they take credit for your work. However, sometimes (maybe even the worst of times) the toxicity can be so nuanced that others don’t see it.
Matthew*, who now works in administration in the public sector, recounts his first-hand experience of working under a toxic boss, which happened in his first place of work. “It was my first proper work experience as a journalist, something I wanted to do for a long time,” he says. “Throughout my initial month, my boss was on vacation, and I was placed under the guidance of someone else. My interim boss was great, and all my colleagues were very supportive. However, when my designated boss returned from his holiday, the entire atmosphere of the newsroom changed completely.”
Matthew remembers his boss as unfavorable and of heavily critical demeanor, dismissing his hard work, and disrespecting his space. “I would often receive late-night calls from him about his sudden bursts of inspiration for a story that he wanted to see covered the next morning—he expected me to start brainstorming right away. And then, very early in the day, my personal phone would ring, and he would question why I hadn’t arrived at the office yet, insisting that I be there immediately. It felt like he had little to no regard and respect for my personal life, or that of my colleagues.”
Isabella*, now a marketing executive working in the beauty industry, had a similar experience with her toxic boss, which occurred in her last workplace. “Initially, everything seemed amazing, I enjoyed the work and the environment. But the more I worked with my main boss, the more red flags I noticed,” she says. Some of the signs of unprofessionalism that Isabella recalls are regularly diverting professional discussions to personal topics, openly gossiping about other employees, and fixating on her own vision rather than acknowledging the achievements and aspirations of others.
“My boss treated everyone the same way and this made the work environment disorganized, chaotic, and very stressful,” Isabella explains. “We were constantly overworked because she was frequently absent from the company. We were left to figure things out on our own, and when she returned, she would usually express dissatisfaction because things weren’t done her way. There was also lots of tension and disputes among colleagues because of this.”
Schaefer explains that toxic bosses indeed often lack clear expectations and support, offering directive commands instead of guidance. “They tend to be directive rather than coaching or providing guidance, which can be especially difficult for those just starting in the workplace or seeking career advancement.”
“The lack of guidance from my boss limited my progress and made me very unsure of myself as an employee.”
How toxicity might affect you
The impact of a toxic environment can extend far beyond how you view the workplace, permeating into both the professional and personal realms of your life. “Experiencing a toxic boss can have a significant impact on aspects such as self-esteem and confidence in one’s abilities to perform the job,” says Schaefer. And research confirms it—the detrimental impact of toxic work environments has become evident through various studies looking at mental health and self-esteem, relationships with coworkers, and professional drive.
Isabella admits that her experience indeed affected her professionally and personally. “The lack of guidance from my boss limited my progress and made me very unsure of myself as an employee. I found myself trying to meet her expectations rather than following my own instincts,” she reflects. “And my self-esteem suffered a lot. I was a complete people pleaser during my time at this company and I would always adapt my behavior to my boss’ mood that day, all to ensure a good relationship with her. I never really showed who I truly was.”
Similarly, Matthew had become used to receiving criticism and negative feedback to such an extent that he found himself at a loss when his boss offered a compliment one time throughout his three months at the workplace. “Honestly, I couldn’t fully grasp it and my mind kept questioning if there was something I had done wrong that I wasn’t aware of,” he reflects.
In such toxic situations, it’s common for us to internalize the voice of authority figures, which can then influence our perception of our own capabilities, our experts explain. “In any relationship where the other person is abusive or toxic, the victim might internalize the belief that they deserve such treatment,” says Zellner. Schaefer adds that it’s crucial to differentiate between the voice, opinions, and thoughts of your toxic boss, and your own knowledge of yourself. “Despite working under their influence, it’s important to recognize when their perspective seems to overshadow your own.”
Both Matthew and Isabella ultimately made the decision to leave their toxic workplaces behind, recognizing the toll it had taken on their well-being and professional growth. Isabella handed in her notice a few weeks after her family helped her realize the severity of the situation, and Matthew once his probation period came to an end. Neither of them chose to disclose the reasons why they decided to leave to their bosses or colleagues, which is quite common, as our experts explain. “It all comes down to assessing the situation and whether it’s worth being honest or not,” says Schaefer.
“Toxic work environments can sometimes stem from a misalignment of values.”
How to bounce back
Confronting toxic workplace trauma, let alone contemplating getting back on the job hunt, may seem overwhelming. The truth is, it’s a complex journey that takes time—but it is far from impossible! To explain the process of healing from toxic workplace trauma, Schaefer uses an analogy of being burned by a stove: “Getting burned teaches us to approach the stove with caution, for example, checking if it’s warm before touching it again. So think about navigating work trauma and going back into the job search in the same way.”
You can do this in a few simple steps, as recommended by our experts.
1. Take care of yourself
“Self-reflection and self-development are key to gaining back confidence,” says Zellner. Self-care might look differently for everyone, whether it’s meditation, journaling, digital detox, chats with a friend, or therapy. The importance here lies in taking the time to do the things that make you feel most like your true self. “When we start to feel better about ourselves, we start to attract better things. But when we believe that we aren’t worthy of a good job or that we deserve mistreatment, we won’t be confident enough to attract what will actually work for us.”
2. Set your boundaries
If you’ve worked under a toxic boss, chances are you might need to reconnect with your values and re-establish your boundaries—or maybe even add in some new ones. As explained by Schaefer, “Toxic work environments can sometimes stem from a misalignment of values between the employee and the organization or the person they work for.”
“It’s essential to identify what you are willing to tolerate and what is completely unacceptable for you to be able to engage in new professional experiences,” adds Zellner. To make the boundary-setting process easier, you can start with those close to you, for instance, your spouse, friend, or children, and try to define which behaviors are unacceptable. Then, gradually, you can implement these newly acquired boundaries at work.
Though it’s easy to tell someone to only apply for jobs that align with all of their values and priorities, the reality is that people need money—and not everyone can be critical and patient while in between jobs. That’s why it’s crucial to identify your deal breakers and non-negotiables, as Schaefer explains. “Jobs have become much shorter recently, so think about how long you can tolerate certain aspects of a job before expecting to move on to a different role.” Understanding your own expectations and potential career trajectory will help guide your decision-making process.
3. Be proactive and ask questions
Once you establish your boundaries and workplace priorities, it’s time for you to focus on proactively looking for opportunities that will correspond to them. This will ensure you protect yourself and your well-being from the start.
Both Schaefer and Zellner recommend doing this through research and networking—either approaching people you know about their experiences with their employers or connecting with employees from companies you’re interested in. “Building a knowledge library based on others’ experiences in different companies can help inform your decision-making process, as each organization may have a distinct management and leadership style,” explains Schaefer.
When you reach the job interview stage, keep being proactive and clearly communicate what’s important for you. “Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions to hiring managers,” says Zellner. “Ask about their experiences of working there, about the turnover rate, and everything else you’d like to find out.”
Schaefer also recommends requesting to speak with employees who work closely with your potential manager and with the manager themself. “This will allow you to gain insights into what it’s like to work for and with that person.”
4. Prepare to answer the dreaded interview question
It’s possible that an interviewer will ask you about your reasons for leaving your last job. What do you do then? Should you be open about how toxic the workplace was, or should you not say anything and come up with a different reason?
“I would recommend staying professional and keeping the real reason to yourself,” says Zellner. “I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years and if someone said to me that they left their previous job because the environment was toxic, I would presume that this person has some issues internally.” Instead, she recommends coming up with a professional way to talk about it. For example, saying that you did not see the growth opportunities you wanted.
“At the end of the day, it depends on how honest and how vulnerable you’re willing to be,” adds Schaefer. “I myself have burned out several times in different roles, so personally, I would be very upfront and communicate my need to be in a supportive and nurturing environment. I believe that this transparency can help you find a better match in terms of a suitable work environment for you.”
5. Remember to be mindful of what you went through
Have you succeeded in your search and are about to start your new job soon? “Remember that after experiencing work trauma you will need to approach every new work environment with mindfulness,” says Schaefer. “Acknowledge any anxiety or negative feelings that arise, but remind yourself that this is a different environment. Avoid seeking out or expecting similar negative experiences and focus on the present.”
Lifelong lessons learned
For both Isabella and Matthew, their experience working under a toxic boss served as a transformative learning journey, offering valuable insights as they reflect over time. For Isabella, it was understanding the importance of work-life balance, and for Matthew, establishing strong professional boundaries.
“I used to prioritize work above all else for a long time but now I understand that work really isn’t worth sacrificing my well-being. I would rather pursue something that brings me fulfillment, a sense of reward, and allows me to create a meaningful life beyond work,” says Isabella.
“I am now a lot more aware of what constitutes a toxic boss and how I allow my manager to treat me. I know my boundaries but I also know that, at the end of the day, you can’t just change people,” Matthew adds.
Both of them also decided to change industries, seeking environments that align better with their personal and professional growth. Using a negative experience to shape a positive opportunity can be the key to recovering from a toxic boss. And if you look at the silver lining, at least going forward in the job hunt you’ll be able to spot toxic management a mile away.
*Names have been changed for anonymity
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