Run-ins with toxic bosses have become all too common, leading to irreversible damage to both companies and individuals. Some reports have highlighted that gaslighting in the workplace is in fact, still rising while others have shown how relationships with employees and leaders have deteriorated over the last few years.
As part of WorkLife’s Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we spoke to a communications manager who recently left her company. She said she worked there for 14 years after an unbearable toxic boss experience, following her return from parental leave.
This conversation has been edited for length and flow:
What happened to make you leave the company you’d been with for 14 years?
I’m in my 40s, with a number of years experience in my field, and had been in my current role for eight years when I returned from parental leave in January 2020. I ended up with a new manager who seemed nice enough. She was complimentary about my knowledge and experience. But over the months, she chipped away at my confidence and ability to perform my job.
Give examples to show how she did that.
She dictated who I could and couldn’t talk to directly, insisting I not copy her in [to emails], then berating me for not copying her in. She denied knowledge of things I was doing but had in fact told her about. She overrode decisions and recommendations I made and even told me to “play down” one incident that compliance [HR] was investigating. She told me that feedback I had given to a senior executive (after being directly asked for it) was “inappropriate and unprofessional” as I “shouldn’t be talking to him”. I resigned in October 2021 as I just hated working with her so much. It took a while to find the right new role at the right level. I got some feedback from one interview on how I’d pitched myself too low and should be aiming higher.
Was this boss the sole reason for your resignation?
Ultimately yes. I am a huge believer that people leave people, not businesses or roles. I’d had enough of being overlooked and underpaid. This woman held my first [performance] review while cleaning her bathroom, and the only other feedback in the 18 months I worked for her was that I shouldn’t disagree with what she said or decided, as she was my superior.
How quickly could you tell she was like this?
Something about her hadn’t added up from day one. After a very frank conversation with one of my colleagues, and someone who had worked with her for almost eight years at another business, it turned out she was a career psychopath [defined as people who are charming to staff above their level in the workplace hierarchy but abusive to staff below their level], whose sole objective was to cherry-pick projects and achievements colleagues had worked on, and take the credit for them to advance her own career. My role was fairly high profile, so controlling me was a simple way she could take the credit for my work.
Did you seek any support either internally within the company or externally?
I sought out some career coaching, which was incredibly useful in boosting my confidence and making me realize the value of my 20 years [of] experience, versus the limited experience she had in my field – not to mention the personal skills of a dictator. This led to the conclusion that she probably felt threatened. I don’t actually think she was very good at what she did – she just talked a lot, and really articulately. The day I left, I agreed to give the compliance department the evidence they needed to investigate her for non-disclosures and conduct.
Can you give more detail about the investigation?
Working in financial services, we are bound by law to follow promotional rules of conduct with suppliers. She bypassed both these — contracting people she had personal relationships with, without disclosing it or going through any due diligence. One organization she wanted to partner with had huge repercussions from a reputation perspective, which I unearthed after she passed it to me. I wasn’t comfortable with it, but she basically told me to sort it out and shut up. She’d already told the CEO it was happening and taken all the credit, so I guess it would have taken a lot of humility to explain it was the wrong recommendation as she’d not done her homework.
What was the wider office culture like?
I got along with all my colleagues and was well regarded. The head of marketing was a similar character, quick to take the credit when it went well, but point the finger when it didn’t. I was one of four people that resigned in the space of a month in a team of 20. But the tale from the head of marketing to HR was that she had done such a good job developing and coaching people, they were all moving to better things.
Do you think remote working hindered or helped the situation?
I think hindered, as she sidestepped a number of conversations where I tried to bring issues up, and visibly squirmed when I challenged her. I think she would have backed down earlier if we’d been in the office, as she would have been less able to ignore me.