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Toxic Boss’ warning signals ignored

Dear Office-Politics,

A little over six months ago, I started a new position as an associate editor with a small publishing house. It was immediately apparently the company’s culture and dynamics were much different than in other offices. Everyone there cursed frequently and playfully joked with one another. At first, it was somewhat refreshing, but it wasn’t long before it was apparent that there was an underlying current of contempt amongst the staff and the “joking” frequently crossed the line of what I feel is appropriate for the work place.

The publisher (“Mark”) was the worst offender and clearly beyond narcissistic. Initially, his antics were annoying, but otherwise innocuous. He constantly vied for attention by dropping f-bombs frequently and loudly while employees were on the phone, interrupting business conversations, flying toy helicopters into everyone’s personal space and always assuming that someone was going to pick him up lunch.

But he became progressively worse. At lunch, he told “stories” about firing previous employees (which he seemed to take great pleasure in) and discussed race, religion, and sex regularly. He actually asked me within a month of working there what my religion was, which I found out was a regular occurrence there.

It was also obvious that his business ethics were shady, he lied consistently and frequently to potential advertisers and he didn’t like women, which was more and more obvious as his playful teasing became biting and belittling. After knowing me for barely a month, Mark looked at me and said to the other employees, “[She] looks like the kind of person who could become very bitter if broken.” I blew off the comment, but discussed his lack of tact with the Editor-in-Chief (“Mike”) in a closed-door meeting months later, noting that Mark recently said, “You are so f***king stupid,” to a female co-worker. I also discussed several other of my concerns with him, including the following:

    1. Another co-worker, an art director (“Jen”) was terminated about a month prior for approaching the “board” (which consists of a wealthy family, a Mother, Father and their 25 year old daughter) regarding her concerns about Mark and that her male counter-part, also an art director (“Bob”) received a significant raise, despite her repeated requests for a salary review. And that this same art director, maintains a personal friendship with the publisher outside of the office. (Bob’s also quite smug about his ability to “influence” the publisher.)

    2. An employee could be terminated for breaking a rule that they were never informed of. We were told that Jen’s reason for termination was “going over Mark’s head” and approaching any one of the board of directors, in this case, the daughter, however, such a policy is not stated on the company’s handbook (which is only 2 pages long, was only provided to us just before Jen was fired, and says nothing of value, other than this is at “at will” state).

    3. There is no Human Resources department to address any possible work-related issues. I felt this was a particular issue with regard to the fact that Mark’s behavior was consistently inappropriate and if it were in fact company policy that one would be terminated for “going over his head,” who could an employee turn to if they had an issue that would normally be considered a HR issue?

    4. I requested a six-month salary/performance review.

This closed door meeting came after a small confrontation with the art director, Bob. I basically called him out on some work that he was supposed to do, but did not. And , I maintained my professionalism, but he became angry and defensive, to which I replied “That’s very professional, Bob” and walked away. When I spoke to Mike, my supervisor, he was very understanding and supportive, and told me that Bob would be spoken to. He also promised that our conversation would be held in confidence and that he would see to it that my review would be done (I was extremely concerned about the security of my position because of the publisher’s personal friendship with Bob). But, instead, I was fired within two weeks – although no one made any further efforts to correct the situation and I had only been praised for my work prior to that. The reason I was given for termination was that “I was perceived as being unhappy.” (So much for trying to correct the situation.)

I’m incredibly disappointed about the outcome of this whole situation on many levels, particularly because the job itself was something that I really enjoyed… I just could not handle the hostile environment. By the way, in the 6 months that I worked there, at least 8 people, which makes up over half of the company’s staff, were fired.

So, I guess my questions are: Is this just a case of a dysfunctional work place? Should I just accept it, learn from it, and move on? Or is there legal ground to stand on here? Possibly due to wrongful termination or a hostile work environment?

Disappointed by dysfunction


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Disappointed by Dysfunction

You asked about legal options, whether it is just a dysfunctional workplace and should you learn from this experience.

Your legal recourse is something that we cannot advise you on because we are not lawyers. “Dysfunctional” is a word that we would use for much milder situations. The behavior you described we would label as “Toxic” and “Crazy Making.

What is the Learning Opportunity?
Which leads us to the Learning option, absolutely. We feel that you have a lot to extract about this because there were early signals that this was an unhealthy environment with little to no chance of changing. The publisher as you have described him demonstrates many of the classic traits of a sociopath.

Is your boss a Sociopath?
A sociopath is characterized by having no conscience, therefore very prone to lies, broken promises and doing what they perceive they can get away with. Not only do they have no empathy for their impact on others, some, like in your case, seem to enjoy having power over others and causing pain. Suffice it to say that if they have power to do it they will crush anyone who criticizes or threatens their position. This type of person is very resistant to therapy and almost never goes on their own but may be forced to by circumstances. They rarely benefit or change in any way from therapeutic interventions.

Do not ignore warning signals. Listen to your inner voice.
So what is the learning? To not ignore signals and your own inner voice. There were so many early warning signs about everything mentioned, including that people were fired for challenging him. You were told that he made derogatory and probably sadistic remarks about you. Fortunately you are no longer in this stressful situation but we wonder, did you ask yourself why you stayed so long, or did you at least start a serious search or seek legal counsel before they asked you to leave?

These are the questions that we feel could lead to you extracting important lessons about judgment, intuition and how you respond to how people treat you.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

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