Surviving A Toxic Boss At Work

Photographed by Franey Miller.
After being yelled at loudly in front of everyone in the office, denied training and passed over for a bonus and promotion despite meeting all of her targets, Anita*, a regulatory reporting analyst at a large financial institution, cracked.
She'd had enough of the workplace abuse she experienced at the hands of a highly toxic boss. The last straw was being told to come into the office two days before Christmas, despite having no childcare available.
"After putting me through that pressure she laughed at me when she left after just two hours of being in the office. I cried as I had shelled out £60 for a full-day nanny, booked at the last minute," Edinburgh-based Anita recalls.
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"I lost my confidence and self-esteem. I was emotionally broken and I ended up being depressed."
For anyone reading this, alarm bells will ring. It would have been easier for Anita to quit sooner, for sure. But resignation wasn’t an option. The 34-year-old felt that maternity leave had already impacted her career and she needed her company’s visa sponsorship renewed in order to continue working in the UK. 
Shocking as it is to read, Anita’s situation is not unique. According to recent research, relationships between employees and their bosses have deteriorated over the past year, with less than half of non-managers feeling their relationship is good. This is 17 points lower than in 2020, according to a study of 14,800 office-based workers across 25 countries by world-leading talent solutions company Adecco.
According to employee data published in MIT’s Sloan School of Management Review, a toxic boss – usually a symptom of a toxic workplace culture where there is a failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, where workers feel disrespected and unethical behaviour occurs – is 10 times more likely to prompt someone to quit than any gripes about their salary. 
In 2022, with managers struggling to manage remote teams and keep up with the increasing support required around mental health and wellbeing due to the pandemic, toxic individuals and problematic workplace cultures are said to be one of the big drivers behind the 'Great Resignation', which saw a record 1 million Britons change jobs between July and September 2021.
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This idea of the toxic boss is further brought to life by a recent analysis from anonymous company review website Glassdoor. It revealed that use of the word 'gaslighting' as a search term on its website has doubled since last year as a growing number of user reviews call out "managers that pretend to care about their wellbeing and careers while secretly undermining both".
Gaslighting is one of the words that Jasmine*, a 35-year-old corporate lawyer living in London, uses to describe her toxic boss experience.
Jasmine thought she’d landed her ideal job as the lead legal counsel at a tech startup. Her soon-to-be boss was charming and charismatic, and Jasmine quickly bought into the exciting opportunity to grow her career as quickly as the company itself, which had just secured a significant amount of investment. Things looked promising so Jasmine enthusiastically accepted their job offer.
Within just a few weeks the seemingly perfect job unravelled. Jasmine found herself excluded from key conversations and blocked from crucial information, compromising her ability to do her job. She was confined to managing contracts – not what she’d signed up for or, indeed, what she was being paid to do.

The need for control or power is usually an insight into their own lack of confidence, which they mask through toxic and bullying behaviours.

Nicole Posner
Jasmine says that this was all because of one person: her problematic boss. 
"When people in the company would reach out and ask for legal advice, she would come in and say, 'No, Jasmine’s not doing that.' And then in our one-to-one meetings there were insinuations that I wasn't good enough, or I wasn't capable of doing the job, regardless of the fact that I had joined that company with six years' experience in doing this work and had done it successfully," Jasmine says.
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Jasmine gave her boss the benefit of the doubt and when she experienced a stressful personal situation, she thought it best to confide in her. Jasmine’s boss was supportive at first, then completely backtracked, blaming a project that ended badly on Jasmine for being distracted. 
"I just couldn’t believe it. She’d thrown me under the bus in front of the founders," Jasmine says. "I felt gaslit the entire time. I kind of laugh about it now but at the time it made me so miserable." 
The icing on the cake was discovering that a new hire at Jasmine’s level – a former colleague of her boss – was being paid £20,000 (approx. $35,856 AUD) more than she was. Jasmine and at least four other employees at the company complained to the founders about this woman’s behaviour, which included excessive micromanagement which impacted team members’ mental health. 
Jasmine’s toxic boss was eventually fired but it was too late – the damage had already been done. Exhausted and demoralised, Jasmine and her fellow complainants resigned.
"What really upset me about the whole scenario was that the founders were obviously aware of this person being extremely toxic but didn't do anything about it," Jasmine adds.
"I felt they were complicit. I think there was a fear of what would happen if they fired a woman in leadership."
These stories of being sold a dream job only to be undermined and gaslit by a toxic boss hit very close to home for me, even 10 years after my own difficult workplace experience. 
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My toxic boss was the founder of a startup luxury magazine. I was recruited as features editor, accepting a pay cut for the chance to shape what they described as "a new model of journalism". The reality was spending hours on the phone to PRs, requesting products already featured in magazines that my boss had circled and left in a huge pile on my desk with only cryptic notes to serve as guidance until she’d show up after lunch with the small dog in tow that I would have to walk and clean up after while she took calls and meetings.

They may fear losing control, appearing weak or incompetent, or have a fear of judgement. So the toxic behaviour is their 'armour plating'. 

NICOLE POSNER
At the time I joked to friends that it was like working in The Devil Wears Prada meets The Office, except it wasn't remotely funny. When the venture ultimately failed, costing me two months' salary plus my sanity and my dignity, I was so traumatised that I left the magazine industry entirely. 
The impact of an encounter with a toxic boss cannot be overstated. 
Workplace mediator and conflict specialist Nicole Posner observes that her experience of counselling people affected by toxic bosses as well as toxic bosses who want to change is disproportionately women-oriented. 
What causes these situations to occur in what ought to be a professional environment? In Posner's view, the behaviour of a toxic boss often boils down to their own deeply rooted insecurities. 
"The need for control or power is usually an insight into their own lack of confidence, which they mask through toxic and bullying behaviours. They may well have been bullied themselves or had an abusive relationship," Posner explains.
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"They may fear losing control, appearing weak or incompetent, or have a fear of judgement. So the toxic behaviour is their 'armour plating'." 
The best strategy for fighting a toxic boss, then, is simply to get out, advises Olivia James, a workplace confidence coach.
"HR are meant to be there for that kind of thing but, ultimately, HR work for the management so a lot of people feel a sense of powerlessness – that you really can't win. You just need to save yourself and get out, unfortunately," James recommends.
Happily, Anita, Jasmine and I each had a happy ending. Anita was able to transfer to another team in another office. Jasmine moved straight into a new role with a well-known fintech company, securing an immediate £20k pay rise. I’ve been able to reinvent myself as a freelance journalist, being selective about who I work with.
Even so, the experience of having a problematic boss has stayed with me and with those I interviewed. Anita says she regrets not standing up for herself while Jasmine tells me that she is still in therapy nearly a year later, and keeps all her managers at arm’s length to protect herself.
"I moved into that role feeling I wanted to do my best. Now whenever I approach a role, I just feel, regardless of what happens, they're not going to look after me," Jasmine concludes. "So why should I care about them?" 
*Name changed to protect identity

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