I Joined the Great Resignation and Escaped a Toxic Workplace

woman in white sports bra and blue denim shorts running on beach during daytime

Honestly, I think I’ve given up on finding a decent workplace in either corporate or nonprofit. My experiences at my last three jobs were severely marred by some of the most unpleasant people and their toxic behavior. At this point, I don’t ever want to enter another workplace again, remotely or in-office. I don’t want to step into anyone’s office, be subjected to anyone’s demands, or be run ragged on anyone’s hamster wheel.

Three weeks ago I put in a notice of my resignation from a well-known engineering, design, and planning (EDP) firm at which I had been employed for eleven months. I really tried to stick it out, but the prospect just became more and more intolerable. My last day at EDP was Friday, August 27, 2021.

Up until this point, my life has been a whirlwind of long commutes, remote work, MS Teams meetings, frivolous social media posting, reacting to numerous conflicting demands, and endless tail-chasing.

Describing my experiences at EDP is hard for me to write because so many questionable things happened when I was employed there. There is a lot to unpack. From toxic work culture to a nasty boss to an unqualified manager to a burned-out colleague to the racist “micro” aggressions I experienced.

But I need to write this out to help me make sense of the insanity and start my healing process. All company and individual names have been changed to protect me in case anyone from my former work life happens to stumble upon this blog post.

Company “CULT”ure

One of the things I truly despised about Sure Face was the blatant disrespect and exploitation I experienced as an employee. So when I interviewed with EDP, I was pleased to hear about the effort they put into creating a company culture that would address all of the indignities I experienced while at Sure Face.

Corporate Religion

My interviewer Da’Niece, who I cover in Part 2, seemed like a very friendly, confident career woman. I remember specifically telling her that I was impressed with EDP’s THREAD (Trust, Humility, Respect, Excellence, Accountability, Discipline) culture.

I was completely sincere about my appraisal; I wasn’t just trying to score interview points. A culture of respect was grossly lacking at Sure Face, so this spin on company values was deeply attractive to me and was an important selling point.

Da’Niece said THREAD was great, blah, blah, and that most people can’t articulate their company culture. That’s what made EDP so great, blah, blah.

I’ll be honest. I was really hoping working at EDP would be a real positive change from Sure Face. I really thought THREAD would ensure that I would not experience the levels of craziness and disrespect that I endured at Sure Face. A culture of pleasantries and goodwill. Or not.

As someone who de-converted from Christianity and left the church, I’m pretty sensitive to the faintest inklings of dogma. To me, THREAD took on an almost religious tone. As said before, I feel like it was expected that those of us lower on the hierarchy were expected to “perform” THREAD at all times. We must always be trustful of our director/managers no matter what asinine decisions or demands they make of us; we were to remain humble at all times; we were to be respectful, even if we didn’t receive respect in return; our work must always be excellent with no room for mistakes, flaws, or “off” days; we are always accountable, our work under intense, constant scrutiny; and we should be disciplined, nose always to the grindstone with little reprieve.

THREAD began as a year-long initiative practiced amongst the leadership team and then trickled down to the rest of the company. The idea was that cultural changes needed to be implemented at the top before leadership expected the rest of the staff to follow suit. Fair enough. And it seemed reasonable in theory.

What I came to discover at EDP, is that although THREAD behavior was a company-wide expectation, it wasn’t always practiced by the very leaders who devised this maxim. In fact, it seemed to me like leadership expected the rest of us to devote ourselves to THREAD, while they got to pick and choose when or if they displayed these values, and who would or wouldn’t be the recipients of THREAD treatment.

Basically, the practice of THREAD in relation to director/manager to direct reports was selective and based on personal preference rather than principle.

In my opinion, THREAD could easily be used as a weapon against employees during performance reviews. It can be used as a measure of whether or not you deserve advancement. “Oh, on such and such date, you rolled your eyes as Betty Sue. You didn’t display THREAD values, therefore no promotion for you!” I’m being a bit silly here, but you can see the potential outcomes of adhering to these tenets.

And how does one evaluate someone else’s workplace performance—performance being the keyword here. Much of our work is highly performative and laced with a layer of artifice and hypocrisy meant to help us navigate the treachery that is office politics. What might be THREAD-like to one might not be THREAD-like to another. Evaluating workplace behavior is subject to managers’ prejudices, which are informed by a myriad of factors that direct reports can’t control, such as race, gender, and socio-economic status.

Another thing that struck me is how easily THREAD culture can be used to enforce groupthink, much like organized religion. In fact, the term “THREAD culture” became more and more of a “thing” the longer I was at EDP. Of course, HR was invested in this idea, and understandably, it moved into the realm of marketing as we tried to create ways to interweave the concept with our marketing activities.

The most telling of the cult-like nature of the company came directly from employees themselves. During one or the company meeting rehearsals, the discussion came up about a nickname for EDP employees. Some different names had been bandied about for a couple of weeks, but a true winner was emerging. The actual name of EDP is the last name of the company’s CEO. Someone joked that the use of his name in the employee nickname makes the company sound like a cult—and they all laughed! Ding, ding, ding! I’ve felt this way for some time now. And this moment before the firm-wide meeting gave me full confirmation.

Servant Leadership?

EDP prides itself on building “servant leaders.” In fact, I’ve created social media posts on how such and such is serving on this board or that board, #servantleadership! But honestly, how is being on a board servant leadership? Where’s the service? What leadership? Are they actually being of service to the community or just padding their resume with dubious volunteerism?

Every month EDP had a virtual all-company meeting. At the end of the meeting, they gave out “THREAD Props.” Employees can nominate each other for a THREAD prop by recognizing some THREAD-like act or behavior their fellow colleagues displayed. The reward was a $25 gift card.

Sounds pretty cool. But I always wondered why out of 200 employees, the same people kept getting nominated, including my former coworker Nancy, who I discuss in Part 2. Most of the nominees were not in senior or leadership positions. Then I examined more closely what was said about the nominees who won the gift card. Almost always, the winner (randomly selected) would be described as very accommodating, service-oriented, and one who goes the “extra mile.” The subtext of this praise is that people who were getting these props were probably yes-women and yes-men. In fact, one winner was described as someone who rarely said no! So basically, people who are over-accommodating, over-extended, probably over-worked, and had poor boundaries were recognized with a THREAD prop and perhaps rewarded with a measly $25.

The CEO

He is originally from Colombia, about 5’8″ with graying hair, and he speaks with a lingering accent. He started the company as a brash structural engineer in the early 1990s and has since grown the company to over 200 employees in five different cities.

Not only is he the founder of the company, but he’s also the “brilliant” mind behind THREAD. He also wrote a book with a really ugly cover called Fire Yourself. Every new employee gets an autographed copy with a personalized message straight from the guru himself. In hindsight, looks like I took his advice after all and got the hell out of there.

I wish I could say my encounters with the CEO were positive, but the weirdness of the workplace seemed to flow from the top down.

The first time I met the CEO was on a Tuesday, marketing meeting day, and he came out of his office and walked toward my desk to greet Melissa and me.

He walked over to my desk where Melissa and I were working on something. As he approached, I remember having to gird myself with a smile. As Melissa introduced me and the new digital communications specialist, the CEO’s eyes looked me up and down with a cool, analytical expression. He seemed unhappy to see me. Maybe he could tell I was wearing a lace front and disapproved. Overall, it took him a moment to gather himself and fake being delighted to have me on the team.

He warmed up a tad bit once Melissa started chirping about this, that, and the other. He might have even cracked a smile. He left us with a spirited walk to his office, but I felt weirdly deflated by the encounter.

“Where’s my printer paper!?”

I wish my first awkward encounter with the CEO was the last, but unfortunately, there was another.

I went into the office one morning to get some peace and quiet and get some work done. I was working peacefully on the week’s social media items, writing captions, creating graphics, and scheduling them out on the calendar.

The CEO saunters through, and without even bothering to greet me with a “hello,” “good morning,” or “how are you doing,” he stops 12 feet away from my desk and shouts at me “Krystal, do you know where the regular printer paper is?” The only paper he could find was the nicer, thicker paper.

Well, I was in the middle of writing content for social media or the company’s blog, so it took me a moment to get out of my flow and fully focus on what this man was barking about.

Apparently, I didn’t respond quickly enough for him, so he added, “All I can find is this nice paper. If you can find the regular paper please put it on my desk.” Then he paused and continued with an edge in his voice, “Is that okay with you?”

“Sure,” I replied coolly.

“Thank you!” And he strode off.

Wait, what just happened? Why was he so rude to me? My morning of peace and productivity was jolted by the CEO’s unTHREAD-like behavior. I don’t care if he was the President of the United States. How dare you shout at me from 12 feet away as if I’m a child?

What a dick.

In fact, I would say most of my interactions with the CEO, mostly over email and social media related, have been somewhat negative. I was told by my motor-mouth manager, aka Mediocre Melissa, that the CEO hates social media.

Record scratch. Say what? Then why the hell am I here? When I pressed her on it, she didn’t elaborate and tried to backtrack: “Forget what I said.” So it appears the CEO already has a prejudice against social media and my executing the role was just another thorn in his side.

Breakfast with the CEO

This was a nonsensical event put on by HR to give the company’s employees to “have breakfast” with the CEO and ask him our most burning questions. Really, it’s just an ego-propping session for him and a waste of time for the rest of us.

Mind you, we’re still working remotely, so this meeting was via MS Teams at 8:00 in the morning. No one was eating breakfast. I was lucky enough to make myself a cup of coffee.

The CEO asked us to introduce ourselves, talk about our hobbies, and so on. He asked us some questions about ourselves, which was nice, I guess. But mostly, he blathered on about himself for a good 30 minutes before opening up the floor for questions.

What I really loved learning about this man is how much he likes to travel. Specifically, he likes to travel with his grown children and plans individual vacations with each of them. One to Paris, the other to Alaska, the other to Argentina.

Must be nice to have all of that free time and money to take off to other countries when a majority of your employees only get two weeks out of the entire year. And that’s not two weeks of vacation alone. That’s two weeks of all personal time, including sick time and recreation. All squeezed into two miserly little weeks. So if you get sick and have to be out for a week, well you now have one week to ration out for the rest of the year. So much for work-life balance.

The Hot Mess Website

The last thing I will cover is the hot mess website I was charged with maintaining.

One of the main reasons I was brought on at EDP was to help with the redesign of a new company website and maintenance.

I completely redesigned the website at my previous company, and have years of WordPress experience.

When I arrived at EDP, I found the website in a state of critical neglect:

  • A WordPress version that had not been updated in nearly two years.
  • Dozens of plugins that had not been updated for years. Half of them were abandoned or no longer available on the WordPress repository due to violations.
  • Outdated PHP (which is the programming language used to run WordPress).
  • No SSL certificate.

Mind you, this type of neglect creates serious vulnerabilities in your website.

So I set right to work updating the website. I updated the plugins that were still viable and core WordPress. However, this action caused the database to double in size, which caused a flurry of hand-wringing from Da’Niece and the IT department. And understandably so. An increase in the database meant that they might have to upgrade their hosting plan. But honestly, for a company with EDP’s kind of money, they really shouldn’t sweat this.

Of course, I caught a lot of heat for the changes I made. And upon retrospect, I should have cleared these updates with IT before I forged ahead. However, the fact that the website had not been updated in two years is neglect and oversight on their part, not mine. Do you know how easy it is to update WordPress? It literally takes the click of a button! If they had been updating all along, then the increase in the database size would have been more gradual and not such a shock. They still would have had to upgrade their storage, but that’s what comes with maintaining a website. It’s not rocket science. But the marketing and business development departments (the two groups that touched the website the most) did nothing but pass off blame and responsibility for maintaining the website.

I did finally convince IT to install an SSL certificate on the website. Even though EDP doesn’t conduct any e-commerce on the site, it’s still best practice to install an SSL certificate. Without one, Google might penalize the site and mark it as unsafe and block it on web browsers, something I’m sure EDP didn’t want their site visitors to experience. Plus it looks unprofessional to not have that little padlock symbol in the corner, and people will notice.

But the real humdinger is when the pop-up started appearing. Da’Niece was beside herself when the pop-up started appearing on her laptop every time she visited the website.

Initially, she tried to blame me for the pop-up and thought I must have installed a plugin that caused the pop-up to appear. This was a huge red flag for me. What evidence did this bitch have that I caused this problem? None.

Full transparency, I installed Rank Math SEO to replace All in One SEO. I chose Rank Math because it was what I was using my websites with no issue. It looks like Rank Math did have some security vulnerabilities back in March 2020, but issues were resolved immediately. There have been no issues with this plugin recently. The installation of Rank Math SEO and the appearance of the pop-up was pure coincidence. Trying to establish causality between the two actions was faulty thinking.

Both Da’Niece and IT tried to blame me for the pop-up, neither of whom had bothered to do any research into this problem or tried to find any solutions. Thankfully, this guy named Scott, a white man, of course, countered their false assumptions by stating that it was very unlikely that the installation of a new plugin caused the problem, and it was more likely due to un-updated plugins and other neglected areas of the website that are the basis of the issue. Now whether or not a rogue script inserted into the website is the culprit remains to be seen. But at least he cleared me of receiving any more blame for this problem.

Eventually, the situation was resolved. I told Da’Niece that this problem was beyond me and she needs to hire someone who deals with these types of website issues. Then she tried to push off responsibility onto IT. And yeah, to be honest, they should have handled the problem when it was brought to their attention.

IT finally hired a cyber security expert to remove the virus that caused the pop-up, which they and Da’Niece should have done from the beginning instead of wasting time blaming me and expecting me to fix a problem I didn’t cause.

Now, as to why I was being blamed for this situation, I have a few theories. One is because I updated the WordPress version and the out-of-date plugins and caused the increased database size, which caused me to be viewed with suspicion. And as a black woman, my performance is immediately subjected to extra scrutiny and criticism.

And this is the real problem. It had only been a couple of months since I started the job! The constant stress of having to defend myself, be extra diligent, and be otherwise perfect and above suspicion and reproach was already starting to weare me down. I felt like I was being treated unfairly, and I was at my breaking point.

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