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How to survive a toxic workplace and how to avoid creating one (timber.fm)
207 points by mooreds 45 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 202 comments



Imagine going into an environment suffering some serious performance issues adversely affecting the day-to-day operations of the business. From initial conversations it seems great. You're asked about how you'd handle, "difficult personalities" a fair bit, but aside from that, seems like you can add a ton of value.

In your first days, you exhaustively quantitatively measure the entire operating environment, prioritize a plan of attack based on the data, and go at it.

By the end of the week, you have many improvements testing successfully while still producing identical and correct results. In one instance, runtime reduced from 200 minutes ... to 1.2 seconds. You dutifully write up an explanation, articles, all the gory compiler knowledge, etc. Submit pull requests. Your team is chuffed.

Result? Someone on another team calls you into a meeting, to railroad and scream at you for, "making them look bad". I mean SCREAM. As if they're trying to kill you with words. You report the incident to who you are directed to report into and are told to, "man up."

-- -----

This is when you ensure the termination clause is airtight. You spend 5 minutes drafting a termination letter, print it, and hand it in. Drop the mic. Walk out. Good riddance.

-- -----

Scary thing? That's nothing. Ever get hired for performance tuning and then the DBA refuses to create your account, and cusses out the CTO when the CTO asks why? Ever see a developer get punched by someone? Have you been in an environment where there were actual cots set up for people who had to work through the night, because it happened that often?

I've. Seen. Things.


I had this happen to me. Walked out after 2 months before completing 3 month trial period.

I had a boss who said he is best developer in the world and he meant it.

He caused major outage when the code he developed and brought to the company as an asset failed. The code was to exchange SMS messages with an SMS gateway for Ukrainian operator. The messages were sent using mails. That was 15 years ago and not his fault, but his fault was that he received the XML messages and instead of using XML parser, he just parsed text by locating substring in a given line number from a given offset to a specified character.

So what happened is that they stopped pretty-printing XML messages in the responses.

When I pointed (with couple people around) that this is absolutely our fault (I did not say his, but everybody knew this), he started screaming at me that I am incompetent and that he was programming when I was shitting myself in a crib.

I left the same day.

I left companies suddenly on two more occasions:

- when working for a Swedish company, when they extended my contract and said they are very happy to have me but they can't pay me the same rate as my Swedish colleagues (I am Polish).

- when my boss charged at me to hit me after I refused to lie to management. He stopped himself with his fist 10cm from my face but that, for me, was game over.


> - when working for a Swedish company, when they extended my contract and said they are very happy to have me but they can't pay me the same rate as my Swedish colleagues (I am Polish).

As an immigrant in Sweden, this is one of the instances where I'd love a name-and-shame (but it's just wishful thinking, I don't expect or really want you public shaming companies). Simply because I've heard this happening to other colleagues, in different companies, and for some Swedes this sounds almost fabricated.

I didn't get that clear message about not raising salaries up to Swedish colleagues but I noticed at some point that I was severely underpaid given my experience and skills, even more after a couple of years and I started to hear from much more junior employees how much they were making.


I worked there on site for a 6 month (minus one day) contract as a developer with already couple of years of experience. But just before the end of my contract I have learned from couple of guys from support line that I am basically earning less than they earn manning the phone with no education, experience or technical knowledge.

So when the end of the contract came I met with my boss who also had ability to make sole decision and sign the contract. He explained that they would like to keep me and they will even give me raise.

But when I said the raise basically puts me on level with the phone desk and I suspect engineers earn a lot more he said that this is as much as I am going to get and I should be happy because as a Pole I am not going to get anything more than that. Those were his words.

I have not met any other form of discrimination from anybody in the company, peer or manager. It was fun working there and I befriended a lot of people, spent a lot of time being invited to parties, etc. But this one statement sealed it for me and I knew that I would never be happy there.

Now, I don't have time to make a shit storm out of this and I am too busy to have any publicity around me at the moment. So I am not going to name the company.

I am lucky to be a developer and basically be able to choose where and for whom I work, so this did not cost me a lot. But I understand most people are not so lucky and this amounts to exploitation.


It's incredibly common. I knew a great Indian developer with years of experience and a degree from a brand name American university. He was making bus driver money. :) Swedish companies are incredible cheapskates. Swedish engineers doesn't make that much money as it is, but it's still too much for them so they have to import engineers from the third world which they know they can pay peanuts. Wage discrimination is illegal and the unions take it very seriously, but for obvious reasons, not a lot of people want to litigate against their former employees.


One of my regrets was accidentally seeing the salary of my female Vietnamese coworker and not making a stink about it.

Her ESL was not that great but she would just go around fixing bugs. So. Many. Bugs. And in a place full of architectural astronauts, when I say I generally had no issues with the quality of the code in her fixes, that is saying something.

Turned out she was making about the same as our senior QA folks.

We really should just talk about salaries. But that is partly a zero sum game, which requires the people currently winning to take a hard look at rather they “need” that extra 10% or if it’s just going to make retirement easier or sooner.


Treatment of minorities in Sweden is no joke.


> they can't pay me the same rate as my Swedish colleagues

That's also very common in Switzerland. They know that for recent immigrants, the alternative is going back to their country with much smaller wages, so they can afford to propose less.


>- when working for a Swedish company, when they extended my contract and said they are very happy to have me but they can't pay me the same rate as my Swedish colleagues (I am Polish).

Were you living in Poland or Sweden ? I kinda get that they'd want to pay less if you were living in Poland, considering the cost of living, but in Sweden that'd be scummy as shit.


I moved to Stockholm for the duration of the contract.


> I kinda get that they'd want to pay less if you were living in Poland, considering the cost of living

Shouldn’t a company pay what a job is worth to them, not based upon what they think the employees costs are?

This gets complicated fast as remote work, work from home etc all changes the equation. Does the end customer get to pay a different amount based on their location? From my experience the remote customer usually pays more, not less.


> Shouldn’t a company pay what a job is worth to them

No, they pay just enough for you to accept working there. If your alternatives are worse than your colleagues because you don't have high-paying local options, you'll be paid less.


Imagine a country where most employers would agree that a black developer should be paid only 30% of what a white developer in the same position with the same skills would make. The black developers would have to accept such deal... because it would be the best option they would have.

Now somehow when you replace "black" with "Polish", it suddenly becomes ethically okay.


It becomes legally ok, which is all that matters to the company.


If companies paid what jobs are worth, they wouldn't make a profit.

The same applies to goods: If you are charged as much as a good is worth to you, why bother buying it?


This isn’t right though. The worker produces something for their company. The company sells it and adds value as they do so. The company offers a track record, a method for getting the goods or services, a policy for returning or fixing the goods. They offer service when the employee is sick or on holiday - continuity. The company adds value to their worker’s work, and for this they can take a margin.


Without the worker, the company would be making a profit of n€. With them, it makes a profit of n+m€. So it gains m€ of value from hiring them. If they paid that money as their salary, hiring them would have been pointless.


Why would the cost of living factor in? If I move to a place that has a very high cost of living, then I don't get paid more. Why would the reverse be true?


Pay is loosely related to the value you provide, but also to the balance of supply and demand for a role and a place. You simply can't attract a person from a high cost-of-living place without paying them a higher salary.

Companies explicitly factor this into their salary mix, e.g. check Buffer's formula https://buffer.com/salaries

It's not necessarily how I'd wish things, but it seems to be the reality of the job market.


Do you work in Sillicon Valley? Do you think developers working there are just much better than anyone else and deserve earning 300K+ while the rest of us are on 100K if lucky?


How difficult would it be to do the following?

- rent the cheapest place (smallest, worst, etc.) somewhere on the edge of an expensive area = this will be your official address;

- buy or rent a nice large place in a cheap area = you will actually live here;

- work from home.

Bonus points if you share the cheap place in the expensive area with your friends (no problem, since no one is actually going to live there).


Both of those would have to be in the same state for it to work, due to the way taxes are withheld and paid. Otherwise, you're probably committing tax fraud.


> I had a boss who said he is best developer in the world and he meant it.

He was the best developer in his world.


My first day of work many many years ago I did the usual (for me at least) and stopped by each office (before open floorplans were widespread) to introduce myself. The very first office the door was cracked so I knocked and slowly opened it a bit more to give a friendly "hello" and the guy immediately grabbed his desktop inkjet printer (one of those old half dome Epsons) and hurled it at me, crashing at my feet due to cables holding it back... That was one hell of a start. A wild next couple months followed. This post/comment gave me a nice flashback to it! Ty :D


I once had a colleague throw his wireless mouse at me because of a windows automatic update during crunch time. Apparently did not expect me to throw it back. We're still friends.

------

Also reminds me of the day I picked up an xbox one for my team. We were traveling and it was cause for a little change of pace. We were going to play a zombie shoot em up game. They plugged it in, and first thing the damn thing did was run an update that took 30 minutes. We weren't on a great connection, even by 2014 standards.

They ran the game and it forced another update that wanted to download like 20gigs, even when I made a point to grab the disc. Couldn't cancel. I ripped the thing out so quick and launched it as hard as I could. The xbox smashed against the concrete floor and was in pieces. It caught everybody off guard, but it lead to pretty fun night, nonetheless. They had never seen me like that before, or since.

I got a nice plaque from the team a week or two later with the xbox decal and the message "I just want to shoot some fcking zombies!" :)


Yeah I think your anger with the game was justifiable

"Yes please let me download the whole game again because the developer is too cheap to use any kind of incremental upgrade and if you're buying an XBox you have the fastest internet connection available right? RIGHT?"


Started a new medication some time back, Plaqunial.

Turns out a very rare side effect is it makes you psychotic.

The kind where sweet old grandma would come at you with a kitchen knife and dance on your grave in glee.

Was extremely angry for months on it, but didn’t realize it was the medication.

Then since it was working so well on my condition, completely life changing. The doctor doubled it.

Was not a good week. Out of a job a few days later.

So not an excuse for tossing a printer, but on that med it was a constant battle to not explode.


Is this satire? Plaqunial is the infamous hydroxychloroquine...


Can anyone downvoting explain? Toyg appear to be correct on the drug naming and a known side effects include psychosis, hallucinations and paranoia and according to the wiki.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroxychloroquine


Anger and mood swings seem to be a reported side effect, based on a cursory search. https://duckduckgo.com/?q=Plaqunial+anger&t=iphone&ia=web


It is not. I started taking it before pandemic.

It’s an amazing drug. I was in bed 16 hours a day unable to get up. A fews months on it and I was kayaking multiple times per week.

Unfortunately side effects grew worse over time.


Earlier in my career: Some dude got up, smashed his keyboard on the side of his desktop causing a spray of key caps across the open plan office. Picked up his stuff and left. He was back the next day like nothing had happened.


This dude is my hero.


The guy has no self control and he is your hero? What are the chances that he will loose control and lash out when arguing with his girlfriend/wife? I would think pretty high. Self control requires a strong mind. He is clearly weak and the opposite of a hero.


Cool, have fun with that. I'm going to be over here eating bacon and not beating myself up for not being perfect.


> the guy immediately grabbed his desktop inkjet printer (one of those old half dome Epsons) and hurled it at me, crashing at my feet

Seems odd… what’s the rest of the story?


I shared it below in reply to another comment :)


I guess inkjet printers are good for something after all!

Was there any reason...why he did that?


Continued: (Was on-site earlier and didn't have time to type the rest as, crazy enough, this was just the beginning of what turned into years of encounters)

Before I could react to the printer landing at feet (I was frozen) he yelled almost exactly "Don't you ever fucking walk into my office like that again, G T F O" so I slowly stepped out and shut the door. As I said, it (door) was cracked open, and the entire front of the office was a large single pane of uncovered clear glass, so it's not like he was on the phone or I walked in on something.

For certain half the floor heard it, but not a sign of life in the hallway of about 12 other offices. I immediately walked straight to manager/CFO's area and rather calmly (in shock) explained what happened. It was short and sweet as was the experience. He apologized and said to please not worry about it or take it personally, that the person was simply/unfortunately "like that" and best to leave him alone and forget it ever happened, and that he would talk to the CEO about it to have him put in a word. I'm professional, I had worked Hollywood for long enough to know of his type (first time experiencing anything like that though) so I remained calm and treated this like a test and said "no problem, never happened."

The story made its way around the office and people simultaneously joked about it while saying they were sorry about the experience too, and echoed my manager's advice to leave him alone. Fast forward about a year and one day he was gone. No one talked about it. I'm guessing the company finally got enough on him to terminate without worry of blowback. He was a partner and probably had a decent contract in place.

Now, something like 5 years after that (I had moved on to greener pastures) I was out front of a community volunteer bike shop chatting with the team. They were sticking around after-hours to let a metal salvage person take away some old/rusted inventory. A beat up old van with metal junk piled on the roof parks nearby and who walks out and over to us?? It's the guy, I recognize him instantly and as his eyes meet mine I say with a big smile "firstname-Fuckin-lastname, how the hell are ya!" and this time he is frozen, turns right on a dime, and starts power walking back to the van. I follow saying something like hey hey, come back, no hard feelings, but he must be so embarrassed he runs the rest of the way and jumps in the van and peels off. I heard he never came back to that shop again. He went from partner at a well funded firm to east LA metal salvage work. It was such an amazing feeling. I do feel for him though. As someone pointed out in comments he very likely had a mental or drug related issue. What a wild world.

Signing off.


Why don't we mandate Huxley's Soma for everyone so all anger is suppressed at all times? Really, this obsessive hunting for displays of anger and ruining people's lives over it and the Schadenfreude makes me wonder who the actual psychopaths are.


The psychopath is the one who threw the printer. Someone who can't refrain from violent unprovoked outbursts is unstable. People shouldn't have to put up with threats and such because that's "just they way they are".


People definitely shouldn’t put up with threats. Period.

But psychopaths turn their emotions on and off. They would have a violent, unprovoked reaction if it fit some goal of theirs. Thats the opposite of someone who can’t contain a violent outburst. Just to go on a tangent.


> obsessive hunting for displays of anger and ruining people's lives over it

The man ruined his own life by being an absolute maniac. He has nobody to blame but himself, and to make it out to be a witch hunt is at minimum obtuse and at worst acting as an apologist for dangerous behavior. If throwing a printer at someone who's pleasantly introducing themself seems reasonable to you, please, I beg of you, never work anywhere. It's for everyone else's safety.


No one said that throwing printers at someone is reasonable.

However, I've seen many witch hunts that engage in libel, so the story might have been dramatized. How about:

Office worker X carried a printer when Y entered the office without knocking. X turned around, startled, and dropped the printer near Y's feet in surprise. X curses "Don't you ever effing sneak up on me like that".

I absolutely know psychopaths who'd turn that into a defamatory story, which is easy nowadays since everyone is searching for aggressions of all sorts.


> Why don't we mandate Huxley's Soma for everyone so all anger is suppressed at all times?

We tried that with oxycontin and alprazolam, didn't work out so well in the end.


Cool story, but why end it gloating over someone else's misery?


It's the feeling of vindication that perhaps there is some justice in the world.


Indeed, if you hurl printers at people, there is something so wrong with you mentally, the only fair response is compassion and pity in my view.


Really? You think the rational and common reaction is to express compassion and pity for the person throwing the printer?

I wouldn’t throw printers at people. For one thing, they might throw it back. For two, I don’t violently attack people…


Normal people don't throw printers at other people, because they're aware it's against social convention and liable to get them fired (or worse).


And because it might hurt somebody. Actually, that's the main reason people don't do it.


Don’t you understand how terrible things must be for you in your head to get to a point where you can’t resist throwing printers at people?


The rational and common reaction is to duck.


depends on the angle the object is coming at you. with a heavy object that's being hurled at your feet the chance that it flies high enough to pass over your head and back if you duck is low.


There are plenty of assholes who do shitty things because they're just entitled. There's no need to pathologize shitty people.


That's such a convenient and easy answer.


Shitty behavior is just evidence of shitty behavior. "Throwing things at coworkers" isn't a symptom of any mental illness, and without evidence of actual mental illness, pathologizing such behavior is conjecture at best.


That's such a convenient and easy answer.


That’s not gloating.


> He went from partner at a well funded firm to east LA metal salvage work. It was such an amazing feeling.

I read it as such. Any specific reason that you disagree?


It probably fits an exact definition of gloating “X experienced Y, and I felt amazed.” But it’s a pretty minimal statement. Gloating, real gloating, requires a bit more verbiage. OP just related what would have otherwise gone known by the reader but unsaid. No one should be held to pure stoicism - especially not when a printer is thrown at them.

OP even later expresses compassion for the person. That’s far from gloating. And before someone intones that that is itself gloating - again, you still need more.


It's hard not to gloat over the misery of someone who, guaranteed, caused at least as much misery to multiple other people.


This reminds me of the “chair incident” story I read a long time ago. Maybe someone will know what I’m talking about.

It was something in the game industry and I don’t remember the details but I know a chair was broken such that one of the legs was broken off to form a “shit your pants” style point and one person held it while two other guys held the uncooperative victim by the arms and leaned him right over it so that if they let go he’d fall and get stabbed.


Ah, good old Ballmer, I miss that guy...

Steve Ballmer, when CEO of Microsoft, was said to have thrown his chair at an employee announcing they would leave the company to work for Google back in the mid-2000s.

It is a bit of an urban legend. Ballmer himself denies that has ever happened (https://www.businessinsider.com/steve-ballmer-i-didnt-throw-...) - but he was eccentric enough (just google "developer dance") that people considered it plausible.


Well, he threw something else at somebody I know, so there's that.


dude.. what? that's freakin messed up! wow!


I've been in a position where my abilities vastly out stripped those of the rest of the team. I was insecurely seeking praise and adoration by fixing as many problems with the code as quickly as I could.

The mistake, in my opinion, that I made was that I did it alone.

I didn't communicate with team and work with them at their pace. I blasted ahead and did all the work myself. And it didn't win me any friends.

They were angry, very angry. They thought I made them look bad and I was being negatively critical of their work. They got defensive and stopped listening to the why and how of my changes.

When there's a huge skill impedence mismatch between you and the team of your peers you especially need to consider their feelings. Had I approached the situation by reaching out and explaining my ideas in a way that they understood and guided them along to the solution, I would have had a different outcome. They needed to be part of the solution even if I didn't agree with them completely.

I needed to accept and believe in myself and not go looking for praise from them. I needed to recognize that they spent their own time and effort on this work. Maybe they were lazy, maybe they didn't know better, or maybe they were too busy to write a performant solution, but the work was partly theirs and I needed to consider that. The best way to do that was to talk to them and listen.

More recently I have been more guiding and taken the team with me to a solution. I've had much better success with this. Sure it's slower. Sure I ended up with work that was good but not exactly how I wanted it. But I gained something I hadn't expected: a stronger bond with the team, knowing they would listen to me and I to them, and that we all respected each other. We also ended up producing better work as a team.

I'm not saying any of this to discredit toxic work environments. I've been on broken teams before where everyone is turned against each.

Part of the responsibility for this lies with the leadership individuals who matched someone with skills out pacing the rest of the team, placing them as a peer on the team. They should have considered the team dynamics they were creating.

You can help reduce the toxicity of your work environment by considering your impact on a team and how you work with them. Being "right" about the work is seldom the only factor to consider and does not absolve you of ignoring the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of others.


> I've been in a position where my abilities vastly out stripped those of the rest of the team. I was insecurely seeking praise and adoration by fixing as many problems with the code as quickly as I could.

To paraphrase someone else, you "disrupted the gentle surface tension of the market" by working at a difference pace than everyone else.

The team can be slow, or fast, or whatever, but if you're incongruous you're gonna have a bad time...


I've seen this scenario happen at other companies too.

I think this is where a code review process helps. You can submit changes, but you have to work with the team to review them. This way they have buy in on the changes that you make. You'll find developers can get upset if changes were made and they weren't aware of them. In addition to ensuring the code is of high quality, code review also acts as a medium to communicate changes within the team.


Code review is not enough. Especially when you're dealing with a culture of "rubber stamped reviews."

Good code reviews are a net positive but may not always be in place. Getting them on a team that isn't doing them is yet another point where you need to communicate with them.

You've got to talk, whiteboard, engage much sooner.


> You report the incident to who you are directed to report into and are told to, "man up."

Given that you also mention further down a dev getting punched, I think this statement was code for “if you don’t like what they’re saying, you should just shut them up.”

Machismo-driven cultures are confusing until you realize that everyone is just expecting you to literally physically assault your way to the top, and is just annoyed with you for seeking peaceful resolutions rather than immediately jumping to violence / intimidation. In such societies, (public) peaceful resolutions lower the social status of both parties making them!


Quitting and chosing a better place to work is a perfectly valid way to claw your way to the top. Your top. Not their top.

Changing a job is not easy; it requires strength too. It's not always the right thing to do, but it's not necessarily a sign of weakness; au contraire.


Certainly! I’m just making a statement about their expectations — not about the epistemological value of living up to them. (Probably negative.)

Still, if you’re born in a country with a machismo based culture, where “opting out” is much harder, it’s good to be aware of what game is being played!


How would one even figure out which countries, on average, would be more likely to have cultures like that? It's not like one can just Google "countries with machismo culture" and get meaningful results with studies that attempt to quantify it.


Not only countries, but also entire industries can be like that. As long as you work in a broadly similar industry, you're likely to quit a bad job only to land in an equally bad job.


> to literally physically assault your way to the top

I don't think that's the expectation. I think if the author would punch the lights out of the screamer, he wouldn't be congratulated and promoted, but probably fired on the spot and maybe also arrested and sued. In those kinds of companies, the shit usually flows only one way. Some people are "just this way" and you're expected to treat them specially, but you don't get to be "this way".


isn’t this the definition of toxic masculinity?


It has overlap, but it's not a 1:1 mapping. Genpop in most women's prisons has a machismo-driven culture, despite there being little masculinity involved.

Machismo is kind of just an expected output of certain game-theoretic conditions.

Street gangs, for example, are effectively corporation-like entities enacting machismo as an output of the organization — where the public face / "PR department" of the gang enacts domination/intimidation tactics upon symbolic representatives of other gangs in a way that can only be described as "machismo-driven." The same Nash equilibrium that gives rise to street gangs, also makes it so that it's [economically] Pareto-optimal for them to interact with each-other this way.

And this is despite no individual member of the gang necessarily being machismo-driven themselves. Gang members can "give rise to" corporate machismo entirely dispassionately, as an output of "just serving their role", in the same way that employees of a corporation can "give rise to" corporate profit-seeking entirely dispassionately, as an output of "just doing their job." No cog in the machine necessarily approves of what the machine as a whole is doing, but the machine does it all the same.


If it’s not it’s at least a functional basis one.


I was bitten on my chest by a male co-worker with enough force that if I had not been wearing a shirt he would have bitten a chunk out of my chest.

He was not fired or even reprimanded. Like literally bitten. This was while working for Brit Systems.

I was so shocked I just froze. I believe every word you wrote because I too have seen some things. That was the worst (and sadly not only) physical assault, some of the mind games and toxic personalities in this industry have to be seen to be believed. Don't even get me started on the founder that would try to break up his first employees marriages so they would move into his house and focus on work because the rest of their life just imploded (he then pulled some chicanery in regard to the stock options right before they vested, clawed most of them back and the people who sacrificed everything got nothing, HE however became a multi millionaire).


I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Developers on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched monitors glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to resign.


Yes, this is the problem. Unprofessional, low-quality employees think employment is "king of the hill," when really it's "tides lift all boats."

It only takes 1 person in a company of a hundred to completely destroy it. Allow one psychopath into your company and it'll go bankrupt or otherwise defunct within just a couple years.

These folks are afraid. They know their performance is substandard. They exist by hiding that low quality work from management.

When someone like you goes in there and makes a 3 hour report a real time dashboard, you can be sure management heard all manner of reasons why it took so long and that's just how things are and their expectations are unreasonable if they want it faster, they can try to hire someone, but there's no one who can do it better.

Until you. And then it's better and now their lives are worse, so you pay for it. You have to be gotten rid of because you are proof they their work isn't up to snuff. You came in and landed right on top of the hill. You were the king, so they had to knock you off.

Welcome to the war on competence.


This literally happened to me today. I left my shitshow of a job because I finally got fed up with the petty favoritism, backstabbing, inability to deal with conflict in a reasonable and adult manner, and just plain poor management.

And I legitimately felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.


congrats.


Second. My last project from hell was all "let's just get it done," with a deadline that shifted from January to May one month at a time. Eventually I pulled the pin. Pretty sure that subsequently there was a lot of "the last guy really caused us a lot of problems," gossip to the project managers but I don't care. Lots of the staff had terrible attitudes and the management cultivated such.


The "last guy" is the scapegoat. In toxic companies, deadlines are the date at which you get a new deadline. The effect is that people hustle to make the deadline, constantly having the rug pulled out from under them by the deadline, only to realize, they have to hustle for another month... and another month...

Because the project managers are cowards. Unwilling to tell management they have repeatedly set unrealistic expectations for them and of the staff.

Of course they blame the staff for be lazy or slacking. The reality is, they were never able to properly define and estimate the scope.

They are folks who never take accountability for their responsibilities. They blame others. Even after they did their best to fix the problems and then got blamed for them all after they left.


Your comment relates it all to bad performance. That doesn't cover the "brilliant asshole" problem though, do you think we should allow such behavior for people who show good (personal..) results?


"Hey, you're great at what you do, but you're causing some strife on the team because ... to be honest, folks think you're a brilliant asshole. I know it might sound silly, but you hurt their feelings and it makes them not want to work with you. They need to be encouraged and supported more often than they need to be disrespected. Keep doing what you're doing, except for the asshole part. You're leading the pack right now, what we'd like to see is you help others succeed as well and that benefits all of us, including you, the most actually. There's a great place for you here if you can do that. Can you do that?"


Unprofessional, low-quality employees think employment is "king of the hill," when really it's "tides lift all boats."

Very few people believe teamwork is a rising tide because very few companies do.

A perf improvement that takes something from hundreds of minutes down to 1.2s does make the person who did the original implementation look bad. Questions will be asked why it was so much worse before, especially if those minutes came with an associated cost like build minutes or something, and doubly so if the original author has been claiming any improvement is impossible.

Those people may be concerned that they've been knocked down the hill, but they're also probably concerned they'll be seen as incompetent and a liability, and could be fired (rightly so in this case).

A company will often see an improvement a new hire makes less as making something better, and more as fixing the existing employees' mistakes, with absolutely no consideration given for why those mistakes were made.


> A perf improvement that takes something from hundreds of minutes down to 1.2s does make the person who did the original implementation look bad.

But does it have to? I've worked at both ends of the spectrum, from quick-to-pounce (what you describe) to mature assessments (e.g. "This product is important and makes us profitable, but there's still some rough edges. Glad you had the resources & capability to improve it!") Fortunately my present team & entire company is closer to the mature end.

I also agree that most teams in a large company will reflect company-wide values.


> A perf improvement that takes something from hundreds of minutes down to 1.2s does make the person who did the original implementation look bad.

Yes, it does. An adult in this situation says "dude, did I write a shitty code! Thanks for fixing it, good job!" A manipulator starts to refer to the code "the code I initiated with X's improvements" or just "our code". An idiot starts screaming so everybody remembers about his failure and tells about it to strangers years after. It's hard to be an idiot.


So then fire them. Not only did they mess up. They lied. They were too incompetent to know better, then they bullied the person who was.

Gone. Period. Zero tolerance policy on bullying and harassment.

It's never good. Ever.


I walked into a weird job environment not long ago.

First couple days were not that bad. Not particularly good, but nothing too bad. Like people weren't too friendly but neither too hostile.

There was, though, some casual heated discussion here and there. As I met some people more closely I began to see a trend: Everybody hated almost everybody else. One developer openly told me in our first conversation something like "You'll notice few people talk to me... Everyone hates me here.". Then somewhere else some shouting erupted for a few minutes, but nobody seemed to pay too much attention to it.

I saw someone get up from their desk, go to someone else and instead of normally asking whatever question they wanted to ask, start shouting their question. "How can it be that something something?!!! This is totally unacceptable!". Nobody even looked up from their screens or anything. It would turn out that was the way they always communicated.

We got a meeting with the whole team. Ah, no, not the whole team, just half of it. Why? - I asked. "Oh, we tried that but we can't have the whole team in one meeting because there are... conflicts and we end up not doing anything productive."

A few days later, I get called into a meeting with 6 other people, just to generally estimate a few tasks and discuss some of their details. After about two minutes or so, two people are arguing which ones are the tasks that we need to discuss. Things escalate and they are shouting while the rest watches calmly. I don't even know what to do or where to look because none seems to react at all to this. After some 15-20 minutes of this, the meeting is cancelled. People just stand up and return to their desks. I ask one of them if this is normal. "Yeah, pretty much."

I tried really hard and stayed there for more than 1 1/2 years. The only thing I have from all that is a lot of awful anecdotes about awful people.


Wow, 1.5 years of bearing such daily situations, that is something I find impressive given the anecdotes you described. I would probably not have lasted than long in such an environment.

Good for you to leave that place at last. Hope you found a much more better environment!


Thanks.

> Hope you found a much more better environment!

Ah, we'll see how that goes.


> I tried really hard and stayed there for more than 1 1/2 years

Was it worth it? Do you regret not quitting after the first 2 months?


It's kind of hard to tell, actually.

On the one hand I did need a job and I'm at that age where it's not always easy to find one. On the other, ah, maybe I regret it a little, but not too much.

I mean, I'm usually pretty calm myself and I have worked previously with difficult people, so while it was truly a horrible place, it didn't affect me too much[1]. And then again, I did achieve some things. It was a really old project with old code and people with little and outdated knowledge, and I managed to clean up large parts, teach some things to the two or three receptive developers there, and write detailed but practical documentation for all the things I did. So all in all, at some level I do feel like I accomplished something.

But then again... There were other, much larger problems with the team, the project, management, etc, which were just insane. I ended up quitting when, after meeting with management once more, they simply answered that they didn't care and they wouldn't change a single thing at all.

----

[1] I do confess there were days when I thought about quitting, and just this once, on my second-to-last day, I did get angry at someone.


This happens when a high performer enters an environment of low performers. They know there was a reason for you being hired and feel threatened.

In my experience, the best approach isn't to attempt to change the world immediately but to head straight for the most important decision maker and point out the problems with concrete solutions. If it doesn't work, resign. Eventually they will get the picture but a high performing new hire shouldn't have to suffer.


1-2 of these employees is enough to sink a department, or worse, an entire company.


no it is not, not managing them properly, is usually the indication of not experienced leadership...

bad employees (could be a decent person, but just a bad fit for the team), might affect a team, but they shouldn't affect a whole department if the management team knows what they are doing.


If physical assault doesn't lead to termination, you've gone beyond "poor management".


I've seen it too. Makes me happy that I'm in a business where it often is possible to quit and get a new job. Tons of people have suffered much worse but have to put up with it because for them getting a new job isn't so easy. People deserve to be treated as humans. There should be a law about it.


Damn I thought my last workplace was bad, but it was nothing compared to what you describe.

I did get told off by the boss for fixing someone's compilation errors(that they had force-pushed to master, deleting a week of my work) but he didn't scream at me.


1 File a written grievance against the other team member 2 File a written grievance against the guy you reported it too.

If its assault call the police and tell HR fire them and ill drop the charges "maybe"


Which country did this happen if I may ask ?


Been there, my friend. Been there.


I hope you have a safe job, now.


I'm sorry but I don't share your sentiment here. You were asked a fair bit about difficult personalities. That is you were warned as much as HR could warn you. And then you jump into the role totally oblivious to that aspect and you go about focusing only on engineering. I mean, and it's typical for engineers, there are _always_ way more moving parts in businesses than machines. But you always focus there and take pride of it. Yet, the most difficult challenges are people - not machines. So, you did effectively nothing to detect where the people problem lied and prepare the ground to deal with that as well. And when that blew in your face you just left and say the story like there was nothing you could do about it.


Oh man, the worst are those that pretend to be benevolent but end up firing you after a vacation. The one who writes memory-bloated code, who keeps state around, that loves to cross types has the gaul to do a single performance review after 8 months to criticize your code quality and fire you. (Recent experience)

Or how about the one guy that shouts at people when they ask ANY question on why things work that way, responding with things like "NO!! It's not how we do it" and berating newer employees with their lack of legacy knowledge.

I've seen a grown man, extremely well educated, data scientist make a fellow data scientist cry. I've. Seen. Things.

I also made a conscience decision to focus on people, co-workers, and foster those relationships where I can. Sometimes I have to leave those behind when drastic life changes happen, but ultimately I'll always be there should they need me. Kudos to the OP for including the Sinek clip, love that guy.


I am very much working class / (blue collar) in my upbringing. Raised by single parent in a very run down area with a fair amount of poverty. I luckily found an early love and curiosity for computers and eventually found my way into software engineering. If this had not have happened god knows where I would be, when I look at where my friends have ended up. I learned quite early in my life, that if someone picks you out , then you need to immediately front up to it or it will just escalate from there and you're in for a bucket load of torment and bullying. I am not presenting this as any sort of solution , it's far from ideal. I can misread situations / emails and feel fight or flight come on (and my ego insists it needs to be fight 'don't let them walk all over you'). This means i ALWAYS I clash with the arseholes whenever our paths cross. It's made me quite popular with co-workers as I confront them everytime, but I don't think its doing my career any favours.


Dad? lol, you basically describe myself as well. I have zero tolerance for brilliant jerks or arrogant assholes when all I want is to solve a problem. Like you I came from a very blue collar upbringing and I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my complete and utter obsession with computers in the early 90s. Confrontation doesn't have to be destructive. It's also a great way to gauge another person's motivations and desires. Just remember to treat everyone (even your enemies) with respect.


You are right that it’s always good to discuss these feelings and events immediately. Try out the book ”Nonviolent Communication” if you haven’t.


Meh, it depends. If you’re in the right then responding to assholes in this way is acceptable, at least in the UK. I’ve found this doesn’t translate to German companies tho which have a kind of “the emperor is always right” attitude. ;)


I actually had my friendships with the folks there used against me. If I thought something was wrong or shouldn't be done, my boss would say, "You like your friends here, don't you?"

W.T.F.??

There's really no correct thing to do. I lost so much sleep just trying to come up with something that wouldn't be turned against me.

It's a form of learned helplessness. They force you into a no-win situation, so you'll stop winning. They can't win on merit or competence, so they force you into no-wins. Impossible deadlines. etc. etc.

It's the opposite of "Hire people smarter than you and get out of their way." Their strategy is more like... "Hire people smarter than you, get them to do your job, make their life hell, so they quit, then take all the credit."

Psychos.


Yeah if your team/org is forcing you into no-win situations, my advice is to update the resume and find a place that treats you better. Teams that treat ppl like that don't deserve the staff they have. Your life will be so much better not dealing with that BS.


I know the situation you describe. It’s debunking when they say they only hire competent people (make the incompetent people feel competent). I mean it’s true that they prefer competent people but they will destroy their mental health, make them quit and then, as you say, take all the credit.


>I've seen a grown man, extremely well educated, data scientist make a fellow data scientist cry. I've. Seen. Things.

Data scientists seem to be on a level of their own when it comes to disrespecting colleagues. I've been surprised by this recently.


Data scientists seem to be on a level of their own when it comes to disrespecting colleagues. I've been surprised by this recently.

Pretty much every developer, when brought in as a replacement, will bad-mouth their predecessor, say their code is junk and needs to be totally rewritten, etc. Managers love it and encourage it, to them it's a divide and conquer tactic. Data scientists just take it to the next level, that's all.


I call it The Eternal Refactor. Gets completely absurd if you're at the same company over 5 years or so and have seen 3 or more groups of devs blame all the issues of the software on the previous tech choices and their preference will solve all the issues and a rewrite is the only way forward yet every time when the rewrite is done and the thing is maybe 10% better at best but has new issues from the rewrite the team begins to cycle out and the process begins again.


I do that too, but the code I work with is objectively shit - I can provide the daily WTF with months of wtfs. Maybe I should, but if the previous guy finds it I may be in trouble (I think he's still a shareholder?).

The first thing my colleagues did after he left was replace all the code he wrote in the C codebase (I work on the front-end, there's a few years worth of work yet to rebuild it).

I'm talking stuff like 15K LOC files with 4-5 times nested switch/case/if/else blocks; string concatenating XML to a global variable, then at the end converting it to JSON; string concatenating HTML with embedded JS and CSS in a JS function inside of a PHP file; using a semicolon-separated value in a database column instead of a simple foreign key (more fun when there's an extra value attached to it, separated with a colon).

It's already not an easy domain or a simple application (thousands of fields across dozens of models), but the lack of coding practices only made it worse.


My eyes! Kudos for sticking with it that sounds like a write off heh


For swe, I've rarely seen it happen except with junior engineers and end-of-career engineers.


> are those that pretend to be benevolent but end up firing you after a vacation.

This happened to a close friend of mine relatively recently, both the "benevolent" and the "firing after the vacation part". I cannot understand such tactics.

In the end it was much better for said friend the way things turned out for him, but right when it happened it was a shitty situation to be in, because you just don't understand why that is happening to you.


What's with the firing after vacation thing? Always puzzled me.


You can see each vacation is like a trial firing, if they miss you then you get to come back.


Still puzzles me. Businesses are all about relationships. Building a business based on this level of hostility must be exhausting. The level of staff turnover and overall churn due to trust issues must be huge and they must haemorrage employees continuously. So much bad will being created for short term gains. They then complain when they get bad employees or can't find good ones.

So strange. But not unexpected. Its obviously profitable, right?


Conditioning. The US job market is conditioned to fear vacations.


> how to survive a toxic workplace

Don't! Cut your losses and move on. Life is too short to spend any significant amounts of time around toxic people, no matter the context.


You won’t always have that option. In ‘02 I ended up taking a job as I had been out of work for 9 mos, it paid 1/2 of what I was earning previously, and that was just the start.

But, I had no other options at the time. It took 2 years to gtfo, and the next place was minimally better (I got ptsd from pager noises there).

So, yeah, learning to survive a toxic work place is a good thing.

I have some health problems now that I blame on the stress.


I did the same thing. During the ‘08 to ‘10 recession, took a job that I probably shouldn’t have, but had to because I was financially at the end of the rope. At least I identified it as toxic pretty quickly and took the first life raft a recruiter threw to me once hiring picked back up!


I think there is still value in developing a coping mechanism, or the few days spent in this culture will change your worldview for the worse, even if it’s just a bit.

I spent years in a toxic primary school - things were tried to improve it, but some kids were still being bullied constantly. Back then, private schools in my area were hardly an option, and other schools were a legal hassle to switch to. Sometimes you need to learn to cope.


Ironic that you write that a few days after Montana announced that it is cancelling unemployment benefit to force people into jobs.

Few people have the luxury of SV-style job agility, so having a basic survival guide is useful. It might just keep them sane until they can make a change for the better.


Most foreigners have visas that require them to continue working for the same company, or leave the country.

Even if the problem isn't immediate deportation, changing jobs might reset a time counter which is needed for other visas. There's often a requirement of 2 to 5 years continuous relevant work experience. In such circumstances, the only remaining option is to shut up, sit tight, and turn the other cheek.


If you advance in your career steadily, at some point you will be at a place where you are responsible of fixing toxicity if it exists/appears.


I headbutted a PM once, after a meeting it was just me and him in a room and he got right into my face over some comment I had made (presumably about how poorly everything was going) and he pushed me back against the wall with both hands, quite a lot of force abd looked like he was gonna swing, so I broke his nose and walked out.

10 minutes later get a call from the agency saying my services are no longer required, get off the tube and get a call if I’m free for and interview and the next day started a new job ;)

It’s sometimes the right thing to tell a bully to fuck off, and if you’re being threatened physically to use proportional force in self defense, I did end up hurting someone and I don’t feel at all bad for it as it goes.


I wish I could upvote your comment more than once. Bullies get away with it when people don’t stand up for themselves.


My boss once tried to reason his way out of a contract with me. When he couldn't, he simply said he just wasn't going to honour that clause in the contract.

It's amazing how you can annihilate years of built up trust in 3 seconds, by uttering that phrase, "I'm not going to honor it".

A week later he wanted to make an unrelated deal with me. I had of course decided to leave the company.

He was flabbergasted when I asked him if he would honour this new deal that he was offering.


I worked in a small startup company (~20) with a horrible founder. As a lead, she would ask me why some people are taking their lunch time after 2pm. I didn't know how to answer. Our standup would last 45 minutes where she would interrogate each person. As a lead, I didn't have the guts to fix it. I stayed for a year. There are many things I should've done and I could've done. That was a truly toxic place.


At my place of employment we do standups on a per project basis. There are 2-5 projects in flight at any given time and this has created an environment where we are attending 2-5 daily standups to read tickets out of Jira and discuss the status of each ticket.


I really like this emphasis on trust. I have worked on “superstar” teams where people sabotaged each other at every turn. I have seen teams with a real mix of talent, sometimes pretty mediocre honestly, achieve amazing things because everyone just rows in the same direction.


My experience as well. The adage of the team working together being better than the sum of its parts is very true in my career.

I've worked in teams with absolutely no superstar, just very decent engineers that cared about delivery, the customer and code quality. We achieve a lot in very short time, very little friction, everyone respected everyone and, more than that, trusted each other to be doing their best on their parts. We communicated well, we had really good pairing and mob programming sessions and we discovered, defined and delivered a product together.

On the other hand I've worked in a few places with the kind of developer that could be considered the mythical "10x engineer", they could really deliver a lot by themselves but had no sense of team spirit, poor communication and availability to help others. Found parts of the process boring and would refuse to participate. Not extremely toxic but definitely not part of the "whole" and after a year or two of this they are much more of a drag to any product than an asset.

Once I worked with probably the smartest guy I've ever worked, who really cared about lifting others around him so he could work, in his words, for "his own obsolescence" in every project. He helped a whole company improve processes, ways of working and code quality, I do think that his contributions alone made the company at least twice as valuable after a year. And he didn't really care about that, he wanted to see people working happily, with as less obstacles as possible, and together. I miss him a lot.


I try to be that guy at my job.

I have no technical background, I'm a lawyer but I like the the IT sector and its people a lot.

Last year, due to Covid, I got fired from my corporate legal job and got the opportunity to become the head of a department in the biggest IT company for legal management software in my country.

My department has the biggest workload in the he company and people work there ranging from5 to 20 years. They are amazing people and professionals but every two months the staff get shuffled around into different departments like it's a shell game.

Some got used to it over time and developed kind of detachment that penetrated the personality. You just see thousands yards stares by sole Individuums in their cubicles.

Upper management is a joke. They never left us alone to show real long-term results. I spend more time building a team than improving people's performances. Sometimes old team members call me up for advice and when they get reshuffled into my apartment again, they glow with energy again.

Managers told me some of my team mates were unmanageable and I couldn't figure out why because if I ask them to do something they'll always comply.

I could tell you more detailed stories about my workplace but it would probably bore you.

Anyways, I hope there is a place for me in this IT world. A company that values the impact a non-tech guy can have on the culture and wiling to learn. I want to build a team that has each other's backs, where you can be personal with your supervisor steam and solve problems in a professional way.

My outcome with that particular company was that I quit three weeks ago. I have no knew job lining up and I'll miss my people a lot but I don't want to become numb and burned out by being a sisyphos.


I have been one of the toxic persons in a workplace. I was young and immature and an ungrateful arrogant prick. Not saying I'm totally reformed now (I still have my moments!). But every so often I see a little former-me running around. After a certain point I stop them and ask them to please calm the fuck down, because they are acting fucking nuts. That can sometimes result in a 180-degree behavior change (especially after a manager has already talked to them) because they usually don't want to get fired. I can't "fix" them, but I can give them the benefit of the doubt that they may want to be better, and may just need a nudge now and then to re-adjust.


Sometimes the people aren't toxic, they're just encouraged to be that way by the management and company culture. Lots of younger engineers have only worked at a single company and don't have the benefit of experience. Always good to assume the best, even with a highly toxic person.

At my current company there really isn't a technical promotion track. You either get into management or stagnate. That's created some unfortunate situations where excellent technical contributors with poor personalities keep slamming up against the invisible wall preventing advancement instead of being encouraged to stay technical. Also, weak management allows minor technical disputes to turn into all out wars. Pretty sad. Good for me I guess, as my aging brain's best contribution seems to have been in moderating the conflicts.


Hey, thank you so much for having the self-reflection to be aware of this, and even more thanks for the courage to bring it out publicly like this.

We all have "our moments".


I don't understand why the author casually says Basecamp "burned it all down". Basecamp took action to set a culture they believed would help them succeed long term. Is having a tough conversation with employees that risks offending some of them burning it all down?


Basecamp/37Signals was by most accounts a profitable and great place to work for at least 20 years. Most orgs would do well to get to that situation in the first place. Few companies get to fall from that perch. Folks whose only takeaway from Basecamp is a warning story missed 90% of the lessons.


For people that aren’t good socially (especially those that don’t fit it in the culture quickly) having a group of people that you try to work with is sorta useless advice.

Speaking anecdotally: It took me a long time to understand how to be a good listener and pick on social cues and not be constantly worried about appearing like an idiot. While I was cordial with coworkers I tried not to engage with them after work: I’ve always wanted to keep those 2 worlds separated. I do hang out with coworkers when eg it’s crunch time, or in celebrating a successful launch. But that’s it.


Early in my career, I was unlucky to work at several toxic workplaces. After a while I learned to quickly exercise my rights and quickly cut all ties with the company when I observe some red flags. Slavery is not a thing anymore, job mobility is.


I was in a very toxic workplace for the last ~18 years. It's hard not to appropriate bad behavior. It definitely comes from the top.

From people yelling at you in front of your peers, to the not-so-subtle threats. Purposely sabotaging projects you're on. Not providing access or computers when needed. Being yelled at when going to take your newborn baby to a doctor appointment (pre-scheduled).

It's not worth it. Just find a better place to work.


> How to survive a toxic workplace

One piece of advice I was given early on in my career: "If you can't change the people, then change the people".

Working with people you get along with not only helps keep your mental state healthy, but it also makes one more productive.


I feel like I didn't get anything out that as far as the title goes.

I just got a lot of "be loyal to each other before being loyal to Kelsus" and "Kelsus" and that's kinda empty.

Being "loyal" to your friends can be just as much a recipe for bad choices as good as far as I read it...


Also known as "empire building." And also toxic.


Toxic workplaces are enabled by everyone, not just a few people. When something unacceptable happens, make a decision that even though it didn’t happen to you this time, that’s not the kind of place you want to work. Don’t make other peoples problems your own, but stand up for them.

And most importantly, realize that if you can’t quit a job for reasons even if you witness something terrible happen, you’re not an employee, you’re a slave. Cultivate the resources and make life decisions so that no job is too good to quit, no income stream too important to lose.

And from time to time, when it’s necessary, use that wealth to protect yourself and people around you. Be able to go to your boss or your CEO or your HR department and be able to say “this is unacceptable, fix it or accept my resignation”.

A lot of bad things still happen to people (women, minorities, people who are really invested in their career, and more) in part because there isn’t that feedback of people standing up and walking out... too many people are too afraid of standing up for what’s right or losing income.


If only things were as easy as you stated. I don't mind the ideals, but for many, life realities are far from the ideals. And ideals remain just that for many.


It’s not really idealism.

It isn’t easy to make major life decisions like where to live or which job to take or buying used instead of new... etc... but so many people keep acting like they were forced into this kind of slavery when they really weren’t... they just chose X instead of financial freedom and flexibility.


Why would you waste time trying to "survive" a toxic workplace ? Just leave. Seriously, there's virtually nobody in tech that can't afford to move on.


Can someone name companies that aren't like this? I've worked at 3 places and feel like I'm doomed.


I've worked at a few different teams between some startups and Target, and I can tell you that the variance team-to-team is massive. I've been lucky to avoid anywhere that's been truly toxic, but even just at Target there's been a big gap between one team that was basically perfect and I enjoyed both work and life immensely and a different team that, while not awful, has definite problems and resulted in unnecessary stress.

So not much concrete to say except that great teams do exist, might come up in surprising places (I never expected to find one at Target!) and that team-to-team variance swamps company-to-company variance. It's a complicated function of your immediate team and manager as well as upper management and broader company culture.


People can be legitimately afraid of revenge by a company or specific people.

Certainly met a few characters that enjoy going out of their way to hurt others.


Yes, huge tech companies have lots of orgs and teams, which means there won't be one singular culture. Some teams will be toxic, some won't, some will be in between. Certain huge companies will have more "good" teams than "bad" ones. Then you have places like Amazon, where bad teams are the norm, and good ones are exceptions.


I'm not going to name names, but companies like this that normalise bullying and overwork to the point of staff breaking are not the norm.

Thinking about my own experience and the people I know, this would describe at most 25% of jobs (most of that being overwork).


Unfortunately for some of us, it seems like every place we go is toxic. I've had nothing but terrible experiences every place I have worked as a programmer. I've been out of the game for a bit because of health issues, but I do not look forward to trying to find work again. To be honest, I feel like that person who has been in so many abusive relationships that they give up on dating all together.


Man, that's so sad. I don't even know what to say, but hope you can find happiness somewhere.


What places did you work?


Orbcomm, ECS (Police work), and a nameless "startup" that made police software.

I don't have an interest in the police or DoD btw. I just pick positions looking for a .NET role.


There is nothing like "surviving a toxic workplace". I have been there, and it was a nightmare.


You have been there, and you're still around. I would call it "surviving." There are people who fare much worse.


Please share your experiences, also, how do you think(/know) it all started?


My anecdote is that it's all employee #1: the fish rots from the head.

The gist of it is that one guy founded a company, company A, bootstrapped it, then disappeared to found another company (company B) and was busy with it for about a decade. In the meantime, company A had a non-owner CEO and went from 10ish people to 60ish and grew revenues many, many times over.

Meanwhile company B got huge (though never really got anywhere close to the $-per-headcount that company A did), got a real board, went public, and eventually the board forced the owner out of the company completely. He then came back to company A.

Mind you, we didn't know he was forced out of B. He came back complaining that he was tired of board meetings and corporate stuff. Fair enough, we thought. But a few people were still left from that original 10-ish and went: "uh oh".

Turns out the owner is a grandiose narcissist, and highly racist and sexist. Just an amazing mix. Over the next two years, he managed to turn over 70% of the existing staff and YoY turnover went from exactly 10% (they would do a stack-rank 10% cut to reach the target turnover each year) to 30-50% depending on the year. Incoming hires were suddenly a revolving door (2 batches of 20 were hired twice, of those 40 roughly 5 stuck around longer than one year). He mentioned at lunch one day that he wouldn't hire a non-white, non-male programmer (as the only Asian programmer had just quit recently). Some of us noticed that the only woman who was hired who wasn't blonde was the one who was a family friend.

On a technical level, suddenly nobody was allowed to work on anything that wasn't his idea. And his ideas weren't good. Our tech lead did a good job of shielding the developers from this, and lots of cool ideas were kept out of the owner's line of sight.

Anyway, I ended up leaving because of ^^^ once I got enough experience to switch without a large pay cut. (This job paid unusually well for the geography). The company I switched to has problems too, obviously, as do all companies. But they're much more fixable. Company A's primary problem is fundamentally unfixable: the person who owns 100% of the shares and commands the puppets on the board is honestly one of the worst people I've ever had the displeasure of knowing.


> they would do a stack-rank 10% cut to reach the target turnover each year

Does this mean leadership would rank all employees once a year and fire the bottom 10%, so they could hit a statistic? And that was before the owner came back? Obviously your story is insane and I'm sorry you had to go through that, but I can't get over this part. I think the concept of a terrible person owning a business is less shocking to me than the idea of someone giving themselves a minimum quota of people to fire every year.


Thats a really popular idea, I think it came from Jack Welch at GM. Microsoft used to be famous for it. https://www.jaywren.com/20-70-10-employee-stack-ranking/


It is an idea based on you have some method of determining the best employees and you select the most productive which sounds fair.

What happens is people make choices that put them in that 10%. Some by increasing odds by hiring awful in purpose. Some will target others work. Selecting the right group becomes more important than doing good work.

I believe you should hire or fire based in objective numbers. If 50% are bad fire them now. If none are bad keep them and give them a raise.


It was the owner's idea, and yeah as a sibling comment pointed out, it was something he copied from Microsoft.

In the owner's words, it was his way of basically taking people who were "doing fine" in that there wasn't an active reason to fire them, but who had plateau'd or something and "re-roll" to potentially get someone with a higher ceiling. This is, obviously, a completely sociopathic view of employees and people in general.

In between the lines, it was just a fear tactic to keep people "working harder".


> He mentioned at lunch one day that he wouldn't hire a non-white, non-male programmer

Holy crap! I'd like to think I'd notice that someone is that terrible before I start a job, but if I heard that from a boss, I'd quit on the spot. And I'm a white male programmer.


Agreed, funnily (not necessarily ha-ha funny, but you know) enough this happened the day prior to me taking a PTO day to interview at my now-current employer.


Clickbait article. I was expecting more than, "don't be an asshole to your peers".


Yeah I never did the 'take the team with me' thing but I wish I had. I heard great things from people I've met randomly who work as a team and go together to a new gig. Sounds like a lot of fun. Is it too late for me. I am > 40 and tried of the industry. Well, you know, tired of "industry" in general and the workers/company conflict that naturally arises. Reading that linked thread about BaseCamp - and I won't give my opinion on it - but it does show a tension between employer/employee that is always there, even when it isn't.


I've been a member of a team that had that happen to it (the crew all showed up), and boy was it toxic! They would only work with one another, couldn't deal with people outside their crew, actively sabotaged people to keep them in control, etc.

It's great when the people doing it are cool, but when they're using it for evil it can ruin an entire department.


It feels like with how relatively arbitrary and complex the hiring process is in companies nowadays the “take people with you” thing doesn’t happen as often. Even people I know who are absolute top performers anywhere don’t necessarily have the giant raft of interview-only skills. Having been in tight relationships at work I’ve still yet to see a team member leave and take anyone with them, except between management, where it’s happened frequently. I believe when you’re a manager or director it’s much easier to interview using job skills you use on a daily basis than as an engineer, where you need to focus on abstract puzzles.


> Is just telling people to be loyal to each other enough?

Uh, no. This industry is obsessed with individually optimized paths to success. In other words, everybody is looking out for themselves. I have been on teams where there was camaraderie, mostly because of shared struggle. But, the idea that people are suddenly interested in the common good is laughable.

I'll trade his "trust" for accountability and consequences any day, especially for management. Without visible accountability, appeals to loyalty are meaningless. Also, I have seen manipulators and liars game these altruistic arrangements.

One particular gig had a co-worker that was given a sudden lift into power. That person had trouble after a month and tried to cover some misleading stats and results. Then they came after their co-workers, manipulating public chat while being fairly nasty in DM. On the surface they were all about the common good, but to us individually the person was toxic.

Screenshots. Documentation. That's what saved my job in that particular instance. I showed how the public Slack was different than DM, which was different than direct email. Multiple contradictory threads. I saw what was happening and covered my ass with documentation.

Management tried to handle the initial problems with appeals to shared goals and teamwork, which are noble. This person was very good during those calls. We went to bosses individually and said there were problems and that this person was getting toxic. Response was "we'll look into it." Nothing happened.

In the end, problems got undeniable and we ended up in a series of one-on-ones with managers. My screenshots worked. That person was given a soft exit. The mid-level managers that ignored it got no consequences. The people that were left absorbed that person's leftover mess and nobody trusted anybody and management lost credibility. To this day, I document DMs out of habit.


This wasn't what I expected based on the title. It's probably a concept that's hard to categorize.

I have had only one full-time paid job so far, so I don't know how to assess the suggestion. But it's a thought provoking piece if you actually read the article and not just the title.


I haven't worked at many companies (only 4 during my 20+ years from late 90s until now) and while work at two was stressful (TV journalism and IT) with 'pushy' bosses, I've NEVER encountered any where the environment is truly toxic. And that includes working in different countries, private and public sector (University of California, for instance). I didn't hear too many horror stories either. However people keep talking about toxic workplace like there's an epidemic going on. It feels weird.


> I haven't worked at many companies (only 4 during my 20+ years from late 90s until now)

You admit to this and then asks how you didn't see or hear more about it?

I worked for 8 companies in the past 16 years, across 2 different countries. From these 8 I'll exclude 2 of them that were very early-stage startups I joined to help some former colleagues or friends (the experience was great nonetheless but not representative).

From the other 6 I'd rate that 2 were really toxic, 2 were great and the remaining 2 were completely mixed, depending very much on what part (and/or team) of the company you worked at.

The toxicity ranges from: verbal (and once physical) abuse; constant gaslighting from higher management; immature (and hyper emotional) bosses and/or peers; C-level trying to use divide-and-conquer tactics, spreading false rumours about people talking about others behind their backs, making two teams work on the same feature and dumping the losers; immature management inducing micromanagement, to the point of scheduling HR meetings to berate people if they forgot to complete every 15 minutes time-slot of a timesheet; and so many more instances of toxicity.

You just get used to it at some places, it desensitises you, it's easy to cope by going numb. It doesn't need to happen constantly, just often enough to start to affect you mentally. At one place the toxicity was always in slow burn but after 2-3 years employees would drop like flies from burn out.

There are definitely a lot of toxic places and people around. I'm very glad you didn't have to experience it.


That's very interesting, because some of your examples do seem toxic or borderline toxic, but some do not. Let's take verbal and physical abuse. Can you tell me specifically what was said? Same with physical abuse. There's no excuse for getting physical, unless there's a reason why force had to be used. For instance, at one corporate party one of co-workers got really drunk and pushed another co-worker (a woman) during dancing. The push looked mostly accidental, but the other person nearly fell down, so a bunch of guys had to physically restrict the drunk guy. We forced him into a taxi and took him to a hotel. Next day the guy sobered up and apologized for his behavior and left company/got fired (not sure) soon after. I've seen the entire with my own eyes, but I wouldn't say this is an example of 'toxic workplace', because the company is great and when you have hundreds of people attending a Christmas party, some guys and gals will get drunk and do stupid things. And when drunk people do stupid dangerous things, you have to apply physical force and/or call the police. Also, I've seen two teams working on the same problem exactly for the reason you describe - see who does it better and faster. And the winning team then takes the entire project over. I don't see how it's toxic in any way. Same with other example you have. I absolutely hate micromanagement and has experienced it before multiple times. I think it's stupid and counterproductive but I've never seen it become toxic. Office politics? Happens in every large organization and is inevitalble. Not necessarily toxic, unless you consider that any city hall or local government politics is toxic by default.


Every instance I described was something done in the normal work environment, during day-to-day operations, not drunk people at parties or after work celebrations.

Verbal abuse as in: a C-level calling one engineer a "dumb motherfucker, lying to my face" and variations of that over time. An IT manager telling his employees (a team of about 6 people) that they should be grateful for having a job, that as stupid as they were it was a blessing they could still work with him and learn. A shouting match between two engineers, banging meeting room doors, shouting across the hall.

Physical abuse, founder of the company slapped an engineer on the face when the engineer refused to implement a feature that wasn't only unethical, it was criminally fraudulent. The engineer raised that concern, they got into a discussion, the engineer called the founder a criminal and got slapped on the face.

You've never seen two competing teams on the same feature become toxic? What about when one team starts to actively sabotage the other? And actively bullying them to further demoralise the team after they started to falter behind due to the sabotaging? I've seen that.

You have 20 years of career, I have 16, we both have been through office politics, needlessly bureaucracy and lots of other unpleasant things that I wouldn't ever consider toxic, so please believe me, there is some really toxic stuff.

I feel you are trying to counter something I've said and I don't understand what, or why.


Yeah, I'd definitely agree with verbal and physical things as toxic, never encountered anything close to that. Now, if one team sabotages other - that's clearly an individual or individual making own immoral choices. I wound't put that on the company.


That is always on the company as they incentivized and tolerated that behavior.


perhaps you’re just privileged to have only worked with great people!

one alternative might be that you’re a little toxic?

who knows. doesn’t make everyone else’s lived experiences invalid :)


It certainly doesn't. My point is that truly toxic workplaces are very rare. I can't generalize my personal experience but my bet would be that an average person will never experience it (again, talking about developed world here with corporate culture and labor laws). Or, looking at it from the other end, most stories about toxic workplace may very well be overdramatization of things that are fairly normal. Here's an example - Basecamp is (or has been historically) a great employer. However, recently 30% of workforce has left due to a cultural dispute, which is totally fine. I can easily see how a person who has left Basecamp can interpret is as an act of leaving a toxic workplace even though there doesn't seem to be an evidence that it has ever been. Makes sense?


"All it takes is for good men to do nothing". It seems Burke never said that, nor "evil will therefore good must".

Nevertheless, I have never experienced a "toxic mob" situation but rather a few bullies with a complicit crowd, often afraid to be turned victims. I find the realization of this complicity weakness to hurt even more than the actual bully abuse.


Trustworthy and loyal friends and colleagues have been difficult for me to find. It seems that so many of us who struggle to get where we are pull up the ladder behind us instead of helping uplift each other.


I see some points but i'm getting tired of the bashing Basecamp gets. We can clearly see where it went wrong - i mean, at some size of the business it doesnt look good if employees make fun of customer names internally. But come on, i dont think any of the customers were hurt or affected at all, none of them even complained about any such thing happening. So this was some internal whistleblower who raised the alarm and then some internal shitstorm started. And suddenly a stupid joke becomes racism, sexism or other form of criminal offense and nobody has any control over what's going on.

Did the company become toxic? Of course, something broke internally. But was it a toxic place before raising the issue? Not necessarily. It was just some inappropriate fun that should have been quieted and stopped without making a big fuss and throwing accusations around. There are some people who take advantage of such occassions if they can accuse coworkers of 'big offenses' like racism or sexism and hope to cause as much damage as possible (with a good chance of succeeding in such case).

Of course I dont know the real situation at Basecamp, but have seen how easy it's to destroy relationships inside the company and company's reputation by throwing around accusations of pathological behaviors.


Oh man. God forbid you talk about Jeff Bezos in our company chat in a positive light. Good way to get into big trouble. It’s assumed we all know he’s a demon who destroyed countless lives with his low wages and slave labor. We all hate him. If you don’t show you hate him too, you’ll get in big trouble. Reports will be filed. People will be offended.

Don’t dare say anything good about capitalism either, that’s a good way to trigger everyone and get isolated as an insane person.

I believe we’ve gotten to this point simply because of people like you describe essentially winning the war and having control over the company culture. They are a minority but they are very loud and hyper aggressive and controlling of everyone’s behavior. The worst part is, they claim that they’re oppressed, as they control the entire company’s thoughts and speech.


Yep I think it's about control. Punching everyone around while playing a helpless victim. You read someone accusing coworkers of racism and sexism, whole company of being evil and pathological and you see the 'victim' causing all the trouble themselves by behaving in arrogant, entitled and manipulate way. We had some examples from Google and other big companies, and very often it's a person with an unappreciated primadonna syndrome.


The gist is, be the trusted person who has the backs of the other team mates. Don't have to be the best performer, but be loyal to your team. Be the person who can be trusted with the project work, but also off the team too, like with someone's spouse and money, heh.

But, that's not how to survive a toxic workplace, that's how to get a job somewhere else once you're axed.

The only way, really, to survive a toxic work place is to either be a bully or a target. There's no one else. You're a bully, or you're a target. Pick one.

My advice, just start compiling the instances of bullying. Report them to HR on the record. If HR refuses to do something about it, then depending on your jurisdiction, you might have a legal case. Be sure to have lots of documentation over the course of several months to a year at least.

The probability of that goes up if you are a full-time employee outside the USA, or a member of a protected class if you're inside the USA. Otherwise, don't bother with the documentation, just start looking for another job and save your sanity.

If you cannot quit or find another job for whatever reason, you'll likely need to intentionally bifurcate your psyche. If you're a genuine person with integrity and a focus on improving the quality of life at a company, you have to remember: You're alone in this effort. It'll take heroic effort and probably fail.

Separate yourself from your employee-ness. You care about your employer, the other folks there do not. They will ask you why you care so much. They won't care that you care. You caring is reason enough for them to make your life miserable.

Your conversations will devolve to single word responses. Yes. No. Or... deflect to "ask [insert coworker]."

Do not give real answers, they will only be ammunition against you. They will justify whatever action they wanted to do anyway with, "Well [you] said whatever." It does not matter what you actually said. Having said anything at all to someone to whom the answers don't matter, only their unknown political agenda, will harm you and your career.

If you say, "That's not what I said." They'll say, "Yes you did."

If you can say, "No I didn't, all I said was 'Ask [insert coworker].'"

Of course they can say, "Well why didn't you know?"

Remember, there is no escape. There is no right answer. There is nothing right you can do. All mistakes are your fault.

They will drive you insane.

Get a counselor. Talk to someone who has been through it or can understand.

You caring is your problem. I encourage you to not stop caring. That's no good for anyone. If there are 2 or three or 4 people there who are toxic, it's too late. Management has failed. Work on your exit strategy.

Remember, toxic work places are the result of absent management. Management does not care. Management itself might be toxic.

Don't become toxic yourself. Just separate your work self from your actual self outside work.

Frankly, I can't do that. I work. That's all I do. That's what I love to do, so I can't be the person who just stops caring and so if you're like that to, I get it.

You're probably just going to have to find another job -- or create your own.

Consider entrepreneurship. Try saving up enough money while you're there to break off and do your own thing.

Depending on your employment agreement be careful about working on another idea outside work. They might own that too and come after you.

Sometimes your toxic dealings with a company don't end when you leave. An extraordinarily toxic boss will continue to harass you until long after you leave. Demand you work on things. Demand you fix bugs he created after you left. Without pay of course. Lie to his management. Get the corporate lawyers after you for whatever reason.

Been there. God help ya if you have one of those. It's a nightmare.

I guess you could survive it, but ... it's just not worth it. Just go somewhere else. If you're in this industry and you're the kind of person who is being attacked like that because you care, like... really, just think about that for a second. They hate you, because you care and they don't.

Find a team that cares. Join it. Be happy.

Or do your own thing.

Save your sanity.


> Get a counselor. Talk to someone who has been through it or can understand.... I encourage you to not stop caring

I got a counselor who absolutely thought the problem was me caring whether my colleagues were actively lying to each other. I quit her and the job, thank God.


Most places that I’ve seen that are toxic, the HR either ignores it or joins in. One explained to me that he would love to quit in disgust but HR managers are a dime a dozen.


Thinking you have friends at work is a mistake of youth. It is what it is. Most people will barely have any real friends in life.

It’s a job that sustains people’s livelihoods - spouse, children, house, parents, dreams, future ...

It’s super unhealthy to be best friends forever with anyone at work when it comes to this, mainly because everyone is playing for high stakes. If you are a true friend, never draw people into your own bullshit. You think a place is a toxic environment, fine, but there’s 10 other people that can fucking manage it and have other goals with what the job provides.

Eg ‘Since we are friends, and I don’t like so and so, I expect you to not like so and so’

Get over yourselves, this shit pays the bills. I’ll see you at badminton practice or something, but ain’t nobody friends on that level at work other than pure dumbasses.


Thinking you have friends at work is a mistake of youth. It is what it is.

It's OK to enjoy the company of your co-workers, to socialise with them, you can have some fun and memorable experiences with them. But you have to understand that there is a hierarchy, the job is what pays the money that supports a person's family, and if siding with a co-worker in a dispute with a manager would jeopardise that, then the outcome is entirely predictable.


>Thinking you have friends at work is a mistake of youth. It is what it is. Most people will barely have any real friends in life.

This just isn't true and work is one of the only places most adults will even have the opportunity to make new friends at all.

I'm not saying like treat everyone you work with as a friend but there is no problem with socializing with your colleagues and eventually becoming friends.

All the worthwhile friendships I made in adult life have been through work and there are plenty of people who I worked with 2-4 companies ago that I still meet up with and consider good friends.


I found most of my best friends at places I worked or studied. Just choose carefully.




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