01 230621 Toxic Work Environments - Should We Leave or Stay?
5:27PM Sep 11, 2023
Megan Goering Mellin
Today we're going to talk about toxic workplaces. Should we stay in them? Should we leave them? Should we quiet quit. And what we've seen people do and what we've seen work and not work.
And today is also going to be an introduction to empowered communication, which is a new model for handling power dynamics in the workplace that is based in keeping your integrity rather than watching it tragically erode. We are so fortunate to have Meredith Holley here with us today, who is not only an attorney, and a published author, but also a communications Coach and an extraordinary mediator. And I am so excited to have everybody learn more, Meredith, about how you got into this work. How did you become a person who was both a lawyer but then helping people navigate better communication in toxic workplaces?
Yeah, so for me, I got my dream job and working at a civil rights organization, early in my legal career, and it was everything I didn't even think was possible for me. And I was representing women in sexual harassment lawsuits. And the problem was that I was being sexually harassed at the same time. So as a lawyer, and as you know, a smart, tough person, this was really embarrassing to me. It was very humiliating. It seemed unsolvable at some points. And I went to other lawyers and said, Hey, I know how to file a sexual harassment lawsuit. But what if somebody just wants to stay in their workplace and not have their boss touch them every day? Like, how do we teach people not to have that happen? And the lawyers I talked to said, like, that sounds really bad. You should probably leave but we don't know. Like, you could leave and file a lawsuit, you could just quit. But like, it sounds pretty bad. You should. Like that's all we have. And, and so no one that I talked to initially had any solutions for this problem. And I thought, you know, the human brain has invented the iPhone, like, I think we should have a solution to not have people touch us every day. Right? Like, right, right. And, and I mean, to me quitting in that space meant giving up my career, it wasn't, oh, I can go find another job. I live in like a not a tiny town, but like a small enough community that leaving would have major ramifications for me. And so I got so bad that at some point, I would walk to work every day. And I could hear the sound of my heart pounding over the podcast that I was listening to, like, I would stay late at night, my boss would also be there, I was honestly terrified to go into work. And I started experiencing some weird health symptoms. I couldn't hear for a little while, like just all of these, like, really extreme health symptoms. And then I ended up finding solutions that worked. And it sounds kind of magical. It's absolutely not magical when I talk about it, but just like, at the outset, what happened when I changed the way I was encountering the situation, using the new tools that I learned, my harasser apologized, Stop touching me. And my entire power within the organization changed. So it said to me, okay, these solutions exist, we're just not taught them I had just as somebody who was very well educated, who went through, like higher level education, who I was a Peace Corps volunteer after college and lived in another country. I'm not like a shy person. I had never been taught these and how to handle that type of power dynamic in the workplace, in what we're taught as lawyers, at least where I was trained in any lawyer who does employment law that I've talked to, we're taught that when somebody calls and they're in a toxic work environment, they're experiencing harassment or discrimination, that you have to just say to them, call me back when you get fired. And that's basically the answer that you can give. So once I learned these tools, I thought, I'm not satisfied with that that's not good enough to me, we need to be providing people solutions that work for the employees, and honestly, that worked for the employers, so that we can just resolve these issues and work in safe work environments. What about you? Because yeah, oh, go ahead.
Awesome as to but I just I want to straighten it out. So here you were a civil rights lawyer and former Peace Corps volunteer, you got a job in a civil rights law firm, but your boss in that firm was in fact sexually harassing you while you were working on sexual harassment cases to help protect other people and despite that what I would call sort of specialized situational knowledge you're finding from the legal field is that the standard of practice is basically call us once you quit. And that's because you know, from our conversations, like, if you want to have a legal claim, and you want to prove kind of legal damages, you have to quit first. But you didn't want to quit. But you didn't want to have to quit. But even giving your specialization, the other options weren't really presenting themselves as a, as a rich buffet. So you kind of went and created your own.
It's partly right, what you said, the important distinction is that if you do quit, for the most part, you lose all of your legal rights. So what we say, as lawyers is call me back when you get fired, because that's the main indicator of whether there is a legal claim. The other thing I'll say, though, is I've done this work, like represented employees on the Civil Rights side for about a decade now. And I've never talked to an employee who thinks I hope I get fired so that I have a legal claim. Or I hope I can quit, so that I have a legal claim like that isn't every employee's worst nightmare? It's also every employers worst nightmare. Right? So in that way, employees and employers are absolutely aligned with these problems. No one wants this to be a problem, except maybe true predators, true abusers. But I think you're absolutely absolutely right. Like, on the legal side, there have not been sufficient solutions to create healthy, safe work environments. And I think it's absolutely possible for that to change.
So this is how you became an author. And your book is how I originally found you. So Meredith wrote this book called Career defense 101, that when I found it, I quickly realized was the one object that I would send back through the time space continuum to my 17 year old self. Because what I found in career defense one on one was basically like a field guide handbook, to navigating situations where you don't want to actually have to get the law on your side. Because really, what you want is to just do their what you came to do. A young, you know, eager beaver working in big tech and Silicon Valley, you know, I had come to Silicon Valley in 2010, which was kind of a peak for some of the big companies and very much a jumping off point for what we now know as all the unicorns. And I had gotten what I thought was going to be a humongous stepping stone job and ultimately was a huge stepping stone job. And most of the things that I encountered there, I sort of just swatted away, like one does sort of mosquitoes when one is trudging through a swamp on the way to one's destination, you know, no shade on swamps. So they're, you know, they're we weren't, you know, doing everything out in nature, not a big deal. But one of the kind of strangest things that's happened in my career is that when I was leaving that role, you know, I kind of gotten to the point that I wasn't learning anymore, a senior female colleague and sort of see me chomping at the bit for my next challenge. And she said, look like we're kind of going into a coast mode here. So if you want to coast and have a kid, this is a great time and a great spot. But if you really want to keep learning, like, you know, the action is going to be elsewhere. Like she gave me that permission slip. And so I was doing my exit interview. And the exit interviewer said to me, she said, to what extent would you recommend this work environment to another woman, and completely unfazed? I said, zero, not a problem. But I didn't think that I was saying something stressful or bad. It's, it's her. And she was shocked. And then I was shocked that she was shocked. And in the course of this, what became a very strange exit interview, she asked if I could talk again later. So she called in someone else. And they started a whole investigation. Because the things that I had just batted away is like no big deal, this will not get between me. And my goal turned out to be pretty historic, toxic workplace trades. And I just wasn't aware enough at the time to know that those are not the kinds of things that even kind of as a bystander in some situations I should have had to be dealing with. It was a lot more stressful than I had realized at the time. And then after leaving, it was a bit alarming the exit interview situation, but it also just took me a long time to start to clean up just what those expectations were that led somebody outside of my team to be so flabbergasted that I had gone through something that I had been trained with perfectly normal. So that's what got me passionate about this space where I was so excited to find your book because the knee that I was at that job I wouldn't have really wanted to know that it was like toxic because it it would have been a problem right for the goal. was that I had and, and for the commitments that I had that were behind those goals. And yet, once I learned about the multitude of different options and actions we can take, I realized that there would have been so many other things I could have done differently in that situation that could have helped me reshape that environment to be easier on myself, but also to have me feel less guilty about the way I was leaving it for future people and for other
women. Right? It's been 10 years, right? Like the,
the mask of the Scooby Doo mask is off of Silicon Valley. Like we're dealing with this stuff, like with its face right now. Right, you know, Ellen Pao, and Susan Fowler and so many others, you know, so many other really brave people have taken all of the authority and the power that they can muster, and they have blown the whistle. And they have, you know, kind of unmasked the phenomena there. So it's not a secret anymore. But at this time, I felt so guilty, that I wasn't doing something. And so whether whether you're in a situation for yourself, or whether you're watching people in your environment, go through it, and you don't want to go through that anymore. I think that there's just a really exciting set of tools that are available that we want more people to know about, because toxic workplaces don't have to run you.
Right. And I think I think that that is sort of what we want to talk about here, we want to talk about what toxic workplaces look like what toxic work experiences look like even if the entire workplace isn't toxic, and then how to be more effective in creating healthy workplace culture. So everything can run better, so that people's brains aren't stuck on these awful experiences. I know, in my experience, at one point, I realized that probably like 80% of my energy was being spent strategizing like, where to walk in the office and how to prevent my boss from coming around the side of my desk and just distracted with all these things. So it was hard for me to even do my work. So I was doing lower quality work than my potential because there's such a wait, this situation was so distracting to me. And I see that with so many employees, so many and even with leaders, honestly employers that I work with, these situations can be so distracting from the stuff we really love from the stuff we really want to focus on. The other thing that you sort of said that I think has come up in what we're talking about is we're both sis hetero white women who have a sexual harassment related gender discrimination related experience. So I always say, we want to be Karen's for good. Like we have that Karen training in us. And we want to go out and like user experiences to make things better for other people. But our experiences are not universal. They're not what everybody's experiences look like. And what I'm hopeful for that will happen is that people will send us their experiences, so we can kind of talk about it, we can have some people on who have different experiences to share with us. But I do think that there are some universal principles that can connect people over these environments. And I will say like, I work with a lot of clients who have many different races, gender orientation, gender identities, like all these different experiences of toxic work environments, and I can say, in sort of the decade of having worked with people like this, that there are unifying experiences, and that anyone who feels like they're in a toxic work environment is not alone, like they're in good company with good, smart, tough people who also have these experiences.
And I think that you were the work that you've done has also surface a lot of places where race and gender are kind of combined together along with all of the things that make those sort of new phenomena for some people in workplace environments, you know, race and gender together also have a whole variety of individual experiences that, you know, often have not been talked about. And I think that one of the one of the goals here is to make room for those kinds of conversations, and to also learn how we can be kind of better bystanders, for the kinds of harassment and discrimination in the workplace that are constantly going on around us the kinds that we immediately have learned to ignore when it's happening to anybody in our workplace and the kinds that we have learned to ignore for ourselves. So in some ways, kind of peeling back the blinders for ourselves or like getting more aware about what's affecting us I think, for white women can be kind of an important step on the road to getting aware of things that have affected a lot of other people for a lot of generations. Yeah,
and I think race and gender is one type of intersectionality but I also think that like disability can be an interesting Question with a lot of and especially invisible disabilities can be an intersection with a lot of other typically marginalized experiences that people have or characteristics that people have. And so those can create some nuance. But again, I think a lot of the experiences that people have a feeling of alienation, of feeling hopeless of feeling discouraged of, even those health symptoms I talked about, like a lot of my clients have, like heart palpitations, they develop high blood pressure, they have panic attacks, on the way to work, they start losing their hair, these are just very common experiences, that people have more common than we would think. And when people are having them, they feel like they're the only one having them. Or even like in your experience of ignoring, ignoring, ignoring, ignoring, and then having that feel like its own form of discouragement, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, knowing that you have more potential than what that is. So, when we're talking about this, I like to talk about there being three pillars for Empower communication. And to me empowered communication is just being in that space of showing up in a difficult environment as fully yourself as much as you can, and representing what you want in the world in that space, which is difficult, like we're not really taught how to do it. And we're taught that it's really scary and threatening, and that it will make waves, it'll cause problems. But I think that it actually is the way that we make change in the way that we create safety. And so the three pillars that I focus on are boundaries and understanding the nuances of boundaries, the boundaries are not all or nothing. They are ours, they're ours to create, and they're ours to enforce. And then reprogramming hegemony is the second pillar. hegemony is that is the training that we have to agree to our own limitations, to agree to our own oppression. And then the the social programming that we get to then oppress ourselves where people who are benefiting from our oppression don't even have to work at it. Like we just say, Oh, don't worry, I will opt out of this situation, I will limit myself I won't apply for that promotion, I won't ask for more money, we're doing it ahead of time to ourselves. And then the third pillar is accountability. And accountability to me, is just the math, just the literal, what is ours? And what belongs to somebody else? What do we want to take responsibility for? And what do we want to let somebody else have responsibility for, and being willing in that space to own our results, the results we do want and the results that we don't want, but also to let other people own their results and not have to own them for them.
Let me think part of when you talk about accountability, or part of what you're talking about, there is something different from blame. And blame is like one of the biggest, like taboo or like touchy things about this, like the blame the fault, the shame, because I think part of the one of the things that keeps us from dealing with us in an accountable manner is that we have been told so many times as women, but also of anybody who's kind of from a newer demographic to the workforce, at least in the US, we have been told so many times it just buck up and do it better, you know, and not be affected by it. And so when it comes to the pillar on accountability, I feel like one of the one of the things that that comes up is like, Well, does that mean that we have to basically take responsibility that we were the ones that caused it, you know, if we want to be able to get the power, you know, like some people say like taking 100% responsibility, it's like, well, if I declare that I am the cause of this, then I can have all the power I need to solve it. But your your vision of this is different than that you have a kind of a different point of view of blame versus accountability.
Yeah. So I think that we're sort of taught you know, the, the historical thing of what was she wearing that day is like the classic Right? Was she looking so pretty, that he just couldn't resist touching her friends,
we're surrounded by like,
and it is offensive. I had one client who was actually an HR manager, and her boss was in her HR presentation and he said know, some women are just too beautiful. You just have to stare at them. Like as though it's, they just deserve this aggressive behavior because but you should also feel good about it because it's a compliment or something. And so that space is the like blame the victim space and then there This other space of don't ever blame the victim, and that is 100% true like nobody's abusive behavior was ever created by somebody's clothing. No one's abusive behavior was ever created by someone being beautiful or attractive, abusive, aggressive behaviors created by somebody by that abusers thinking by their
choices. Really? Yeah, it's choices. Oh my gosh, we slept on the floor. And now we're down a slippery slope. Oh, it's just, it's so out of control. It's like, no, that's not accountable at all, Royston stake,
their choices. And what we see as normal in culture, like what we what they believe is normal, what they were raised to think is normal, what they were raised to think they were entitled to. And what we validate as a culture that they're entitled to their abusive behavior is theirs. And also, in those spaces, I think each of us does have some power. And that's very nuanced. Also, what our power is, what our ability is to impact that situation. This is the other thing, I think about any of those situations. And we're talking about quitting versus being fired. And we're talking about like quitting versus staying and making a change. Like the number one rule in all of this is safety first, like if somebody is a danger to you, like, do not hesitate to call 911 Do not hesitate to leave, no one should hesitate to quit or, or even just quit for the day and come back the next day, you know, like make yourself safe in a space. And I think safety is absolutely the number one thing. I also think that the question is not is it the victims fault? Or is it not the victims fault? The question is, the the victim or survivor or whatever we call the person who is experiencing an abuser is a full human that is fully worthy as a human and not defined by an abusers behavior, and who deserves to have space and, and in my experience, there usually is some additional space that that person can take up to care for themselves and identify what they need, and to impact the work environment in an empowered way.
So it's a little bit giving up the narrative we learned, which is part of the hegemony, we were talking about giving up the narrative of looking for a fault or finding our fault in the situation in order to determine next steps. And it's more of looking to find our power, or looking for ways that we can claim power to do the best that we can for ourselves based on what we really want. From whatever situation we find ourselves in finding fault. This out, finding power is where we are headed. Of course, choosing safety first, you know, but But it sounds like what you're saying is that that switch from the kind of fall calculus to the where can I claim my power here is, is a tool that people can use when they are still at work. When they're going do I stay? Or do I go rather than just thinking about? Well, what is the law need you to do so that you can win in court, you're wanting to have people get a little bit of space, to claim the dignity to say, You know what, now, this is not how I wanted this to go, and then to also create the storyline. Given everything that's happened, this is how I do want this to go, how can we move in this direction. And then we unblock ourselves using your three pillars using boundaries, using this getting rid of hegemony, you know, kind of casting out or internalized self limitation. And this process of accountability, deciding what we want to account for, and what we are not accounting for as our responsibility of other people's behaviors. We go through that process. And it leads us to having more options, maybe we've to maybe there is a road, we didn't see where we stay, and we do something. So I think it's important to also ask you even though I kind of know the second half of the story, like you didn't quit your job. And you also didn't get fired, even though that is basically the best legal advice that you could get. Even as a lawyer with colleagues in the field. You didn't get fired. You didn't quit. What did you do when your boss was harassing you?
Yeah. So the first thing this sounds kind of general. But the first thing that I did was I didn't give up and I think that that's the most important thing that people can do is not give up on themselves not give up on their career, regardless of whether there's an abuser, a predator, a dangerous person or even a super annoying person in the work environment, whether we are in our dream job or not, I think Not giving up on ourselves not giving up on our career is really the most important thing that we can do. And then honestly, I tried one thing after another to make it stop. And I just kept trying different things until I found a strategy that did work. In my work environment, there was one other owner, who had slightly more or equal to ownership as the person who was harassing me. And that person ultimately was able to talk to the person harassing me and kind of shame him enough. But that wasn't the end of it. Like he did have reoccurring behavior. But I was able to then encounter the behavior in a different way, I was able to say absolutely, in the moment, do not do that. That's embarrassing for you, you need to stop. And then I trained myself to point out even when he was harassing other people, sometimes it was not sexual harassment, just general hazing. That would be like, Oh, hazing, that's incorrect. Oh, that's racist, stop doing that. You're messing up this. And I ended up taking the power in that situation, which I didn't even honestly know was possible until I tried it out. I would never have I was like a brand new employee. So I would never have I was younger, I was more experienced. However, I could see the problem. And he could not see the problem. And anyone who is experiencing abuse and is feeling the impacts of it, that's a superpower where that person knows something that the other people in the environment may not know. And it's their true gift, that when you can notice your own power, and then use it intentionally, you can really make a difference both for yourself and for other people.
In this situation, you're not saying it's a gift to be the recipient of abusive behavior. But because of what we were talking about earlier, that a lot of abusive behavior reflects what has been normalized, in environments different people have been through, it's almost like the fact that you don't see it as normal, and that you are realizing the amount of cause causes can be a gift from the perspective of folks down the line. Like you can actually end up being a cycle breaker, should you have had to deal with that situation? And is that the situation we wanted you to have? No,
Should people have to do this? Or should people have to deal with this? I think he would say no, I think he would say if you got to pick, none of this should be happening. Like what year is it like this shouldn't we're gonna say should or ought like this be our reality anymore. But one of the things I appreciate is that even though this can be kind of like a tricky space to speak about, because we speak about it so rarely, I think, I think what I what I know we're really committed to here is getting messy if we need to, in order to carve out a place where we can talk about those situations where it shouldn't be happening. And yet it is, you know, some of us ignored it. But we're not trying to do that anymore. We're trying to carve out the space where people can say something is happening that should no longer be happening. I know that I see it, I'm willing to believe that this could be a gift for people who I don't want to have experienced this. And then basically what you are bringing is kind of this toolkit that you have a range of the kinds of things that you can try the kinds of steps you can take, when you wouldn't like to be fired to get a legal case when you don't like to quit and risk your career. But when you are choosing kind of to stay and fight and when you wanted the job that you have, and when you are prepared and preparing to try and tackle this as the next obstacle. Because that's what you you know, you came there for a reason. And you do so want to fulfill on that reason. I think your ultimate message is that, you know, people have been successful at walking this road before. We've seen a lot of the bad stories, and they're even more bad stories than we've seen. But I think part of what we're trying to create here is a place where people can say, here's what I did, that actually worked right to bring encouragement for people who wish they could see at least one way that it could work out.
And it's not a one size fits all. I mean, I think that that's true. I think the only way that I would reframe that is for me, and I've seen this happen for some other people, maybe not all people, when we're in a space of this shouldn't be happening. The only trap there is a lot of times our brains tell us it's not happening and we kind of gaslight ourselves and we say because this shouldn't be happening maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's not really happening. And the only shift that I make sort of language wise in my own brain with that is to say this is happening Name and it needs to change. And I am absolutely committed to being part of the change.
And it's not your moral imperative. Like I had it for a while, that it was like if I admitted it, and then I didn't do something. I mean, we see this in discrimination all over the place. It's like Google didn't want to admit its gender statistics, because if it admitted it was a problem, and then it didn't solve it. It was like, culpable. Like, there was a piece of me that didn't want to admit it. Right. I acknowledged it was happening, I didn't resolve it, I was just as bad and
you're that person, you every woman.
That's who I thought it was the job to clean up this mess is every woman who have come before me, has not still have not solved the oppression of women problem, right. And I didn't want to earn my own blame the way that I had, you know, really felt like underserved by the generation of women who came before us, right? You're saying we need to move past the should? Or if if we can move past the should to say this is happening. It needs to change. And, you know, what role? Is it? What role do I want to play? Like? How did you face that choice? become somebody who was actually dealing with it?
I think that, you know, I think it's a really good question. I think that the usually what I see is the reason that we feel overwhelmed at the idea of participating in change, is we think that participating in change means going to every abuser and making them safe. And that feels really impossible. And it may be impossible, like that may actually be an impossible thing. And it's not our job as women to make men safe. It's not a black person's job to make white people safe and to serve us by evolving us. It's not a disabled person's job to make abled people recognize invisible disabilities, it's not their burden, although those are changes that are valuable to everybody and anyone who wants to participate in making those changes. I think it's amazing service. But the thing that I think is kind of one easy step towards participating in change, is if you are a person experiencing some kind of abuse, what can you do to care for yourself in that moment, so that you are not also participating in the abusers abuse of you? If you are a black woman in an environment with white people being threatening to you, how can you care for the black woman in that environment? Even if it's you, if you are a person with the invisible disability in a work environment, and people are not acknowledging the additional challenge that you have in a work setting? How do you attend to your challenge and attend to yourself and attend to your body to make it healthy? And the the reason that that's easier is it's an answerable question, it is a question that we have the answer to in our own brains, but we've been trained to externalize the solutions, so that our energy is always in service of the abuser, and we're putting energy towards them to fix them instead of energy towards us to make us safe.
So it's like we go and try and fix the problem, rather than actually repairing and protecting our own experience.
And that's not to say there's not value in fixing the problem. I think that there's value in that, but if we're doing it from a place where we're feeling hopeless, and, and defeated and overwhelmed, it's so difficult and it's not fair to us.
Okay. So that's it. I mean, basically, we're going to start from this place of caring for our own experience as though that is the person in the room who is experiencing harm in a way that needs to change. And it is a pro nuance space. That is like one of the main things that I think we are really excited to dig our teeth into here. So if you are listening, that means we are inviting you to go ahead and send us your story. Send us your questions. You can be completely anonymous if you want to. It's totally up to you. Meredith, how can people write to us to send us what they are working on?
They can submit their stories at Aris resolution, e r i s resolution.com/story. So if you are in a workplace, and you have the response of noon, and I know you don't understand what I'm going through, I love those stories. We love those stories. You can submit your story anonymously. Let us know what's going on with you and we can kind of explore what we've seen work and validate that you are not alone. And we're always curious to hear what's going on with anybody so it's Eris resolution.com/story
and we will be valid in your experience is real just in case anybody needs to really hear that piece. Yes, we are not going to participate in gaslighting recipients of weirdo behaviors. So instead of that we will just be exploring and trying to create that space for something new to happen. And if there's one last thing I want to be sure we get out today it is a question about who is Aris narrative era is an heiress resolution?
Yeah, Yara is. Eris is the Greek goddess of discord. She was not invited to Achillies parents wedding and so she sent a golden apple that said for the fairest, and had all the Goddesses arguing over who the fairest one was and the start of the Trojan War. But the message of Eris is basically that conflict is the discord that makes harmony, beautiful. Conflict is what creates art and beauty and growth. And that's always a priority for me, I think is painful. That's not to say that conflict in itself feels good, but through it, that's how we create a new world.
Thank you so much for all of the work you have done to make this conversation possible. And thank you so much to everybody who's joining us. We look forward to seeing you next time on Empower communication