Picture this: you’re a doe-eyed fresh grad entering the giddy world of startups. You’re lured by the façade of a shiny dream job complete with a fun job title like ‘marketing ninja’, a sick office and free branded merch. Sounds great, right?
The truth is that in the race for success, startups may cut corners; after all, these cash-strapped baby brands are often trying to make it big in a short amount of time. Startups — young businesses in their first few years of trading and usually financed by their entrepreneurial founders — are a different beast from your typical suit-wearing, cubicle-dwelling 9-5 gig. The buzz of creating innovative products sees a very unique breed of culture thrive. But this high-stakes, high-pressure culture also has the unique ability to breed toxicity. Trying to squeeze as much productivity from employees often leaves workers overworked and burnt out.
Toxic startups come in all forms, from the quintessential tech bro businesses where cryptocurrency takes over every water cooler chat, to the pink-washed, #girlboss companies built on passive-aggressive emojis. The line between passion and exploitation can be thin at times, but if you find yourself nodding along to this list, it might be a good idea to listen to the warning bells.
1. Job Descriptions Are Vague
“Make this job your own!”, “you’ll be a jack of all trades!”, “must be adaptive!”. Translation: your role hasn’t been fleshed out and you don't have clear responsibilities, which means you'll end up 'hustling' all the time without actually getting anywhere.
Sarah* tells me that she was hired as the marketing manager of a startup at 21, but her supposed freedom and authority were overshadowed by a lack of direction and clear expectations. “[I] was given so much freedom that I had literally no idea what I was supposed to be doing.”
2. Freebies Instead Of Payment
Free breakfasts, pizza Fridays, and table tennis tables are par for the course at many startups. As enticing as they are, however, when freebies are offered in lieu of actual financial compensation, it’s time to run. Not paying, or viciously underpaying, workers is a dead giveaway of an employer's lack of respect for its employees.
I chatted to a number of women about their experience at various startups and saw an unexpected streak of employers trying to give employees free clothes in place of career advancement or fair wages. Sometimes, those clothes were hand-me-downs.
“I worked for a start-up where the owner tried to use free clothes as a way to compensate for underpaying me,” Amy* tells me.
Phoebe* shares a similar story: “The founder [brought] in bags of their old clothes to give to employees for working really hard instead of y'know, chats about career development [or] pay rises or even just paying for a team lunch".
3. Say Goodbye To Boundaries
I once worked at a startup where the founders made us install a program on our personal laptops that would record our screens at work. Code red, Big Brother.
When Miranda Priestly starts looking like the employer-next-door, it's time to reassess your boundaries. Are you expected to pick up your boss' dry cleaning? Babysit their kid on a Saturday? Expected to work late into the night on the regular (and send Slack selfies of you working at 1am)? Are you on the receiving end of awkward and uncomfortable personal life overshares? That's when you know that professional boundaries have well and truly been crossed, my friend.
“I was on a video chat with one of my bosses and he took the laptop with him to the toilet while he took a mad dump,” Chloe* tells me. Yikes.
4. Look Around You
Take a look around your office (past the free muesli bar station). Who are your coworkers? If you’re surrounded by interns slogging away for free or new grads who are being paid a very low wage, it's a sign that management undervalues people.
Similarly, if you find yourself unable to place any names or faces, it might be a sign of high staff turnover. Pay close attention to senior roles in particular — if there’s a new senior team each year, they’ve probably smelled what was in the water and bolted.
5. They Say You're Family
Even if you love your job, your coworkers are not your family. Yes, work friendships are important, but conflating a work environment with loyalty and unconditional love family can become harmful, and be weaponised. A 2020 Harvard Business Review study found that people were less likely to report their coworkers’ wrongdoings if their workplace facilitated a tight-knit family culture.
While companies with a family-like culture can see an increase in productivity, the reasoning behind cultivating that culture can sometimes be sinister. Businesses can harness emotional attachments to the brand and induce guilt from their workers by distorting values like identity, worth, and love, with productivity.
And let me tell you, table tennis tables are overrated anyway. If you're in startup hell, it's never too late to start again and find a job that treats you right.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.