Shutting Down in a Toxic Environment

Young women often tend to accept poor treatment from superiors and underestimate their workplace achievements, assuming lack of experience and expertise.

What happened?

I was fresh out of college and had landed a coveted position at an advertising firm following a successful internship at the same firm. It wasn’t long before things quickly went downhill. The environment and culture were highly toxic, and I suffered from health complications as a result of working at the firm. One incident that stood out in my mind was being staffed on a project that I had little to no experience in. The vice president on the account (a man), came into my office the day I was staffed on the project and threatened that I have the project completed within a very short timeframe, or else I would suffer consequences.

I panicked but pulled the project together in what I thought was an impressive show of work ethic. When I presented the project to the vice president, he proceeded to berate me (literally screaming) for how poor the project had turned out. This went on for several minutes, and I was so shocked that I basically shut down and said nothing. I just stood there.

I thought maybe his reaction hadn’t been so terrible, but his admin approached me later that day to ask if I was doing ok because she had been able to hear the whole exchange through his closed door, he was screaming so loudly. Fast forward to a few weeks later, when the managing director on the project (a level above the vice president) came to my office with the vice president and told me that the client had received the project, and had given feedback that it was the best set of materials they had ever received from an advertising firm.

How did you respond?

Shortly following this exchange, I was called into my yearly review and was told that “my performance was seriously lagging my male peers, who had more experience” in exactly the type of project I had received glowing feedback on. Once again, I completely shut down and said nothing, I was completely blindsided. No one had previously communicated to me that I had been performing poorly in any capacity.

I just sat there and numbly agreed to everything the reviewer told me. When it came time to receive my bonus, my number was embarrassing, and in talking to my male peers, I realized that although I had been ranked at their levels in terms of performance, I had received a pittance of what they had received in bonus. Luckily, I found a new job shortly thereafter and left the firm; I never tried to remedy the situation, I just wanted out.

What are your takeaways in hindsight?

I would urge all young women to stand up for themselves, to not sit there and accept poor treatment, to defend themselves and their work accomplishments. No one else may advocate for you. Please don’t shut down!

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