Ask Emily: Is It Possible to Thrive in a Company with Toxic Leadership?

A toxic manager is one thing, but what if they’re supported by a toxic leader? Here’s what to do if you feel like your company is set up against you.
Emily Durham (Photography: Mango Studios)

Welcome to CB’s work-advice column featuring Emily Durham, a Toronto-based senior recruiter at Intuit, public speaker and content creator known for her funny and relatable TikToks about all things work. Each month, Durham answers reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and offers her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected].

Q: I have been reporting to a toxic manager for over a year now. He takes credit for my work and belittles me in meetings. When I’ve attempted to address this behaviour with him, I’ve been shut down. The problem? He reports to a toxic leader who supports him without question. Some of my other colleagues have brought forward concerns about other managers that report to her and she refuses to acknowledge that her reports are doing anything wrong. They’re all buddies and mutually support each other no matter what. I feel like I don’t have anywhere to turn. Is there any hope, or do I need to leave my job?

When I first started in my career, my dad told me something that I’ll never forget: “Culture comes from the top.” In my experience, both as a recruiter and career coach, I can now validate that he was entirely correct. The true culture of a company (not just the culture they claim to have on their website) is largely reflected by how leaders treat their people. The problem with having an entire management chain that is toxic is that there is no higher standard to hold people accountable to. In this environment, people’s warped mindsets can easily become fixed views that are rarely challenged. As a result, great people leave the company.

There are many things that can make a workplace toxic, but ultimately it boils down to a lack of psychological safety at work. According to the Harvard Business Review, psychological safety refers to “a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s okay to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions and to admit mistakes—all without fear of negative consequences.” When you have a manager who does things like throwing you under the bus, belittling you or intentionally overworking you, it erodes that sense of safety.

Related: How to Repair a Toxic Work Culture

The first step to addressing this toxicity in the workplace is to connect with both the toxic employee’s manager and human resources. Sharing your concerns with leadership and HR should be enough for the company to take action and set expectations for the culture of the team. However, in your specific case, where your manager and their manager share a similar way of working, I recommend going solely to human resources. Their function is to make sure every single employee has equal access to career growth and a safe company culture.

Spend time with your HR rep to talk through your experience and observations. In this conversation, come prepared with facts, especially any written documentation like Slack messages or emails, that support your experience. It’s also important to position the conversation as if you are asking for help to resolve the situation, not making accusations. This will help the HR team better understand your perspective more clearly.

In the best case scenario, your HR rep will use this information to coach your leadership team and support them in revamping the company culture. However, there is a very real possibility that this approach will not work. In my opinion, a good human resources team would be getting ahead of this and proactively managing the culture before things get to the toxic place they’re currently in. So that doesn’t bode well for their effectiveness in dealing with it now.

In the event that I’m right and HR does not support you through this process or brushes off your concerns, my strong recommendation is to have one last conversation with your manager to express how you are feeling…while you look for another job.

We spend at least 40 hours every week at work. In your scenario, 40 hours of your week are spent feeling anxious and undervalued. You deserve better. As you weigh your options, have an honest conversation with yourself about what career growth looks like at your current company and whether your concerns will get in the way of it. If the toxic behaviour persists, is it something you are willing to accept? If the answer is no, it’s time to start making your next move.

As you apply for your next opportunity, it’s a smart idea to document all interactions between you and your manager and their leader. This helps ensure you are protected in the event they try to terminate your employment before you find another job. I also advise setting clear boundaries by not working over time, not responding to inappropriate emails and not engaging in office politics as you work to identify your next role.

It can be emotional and frustrating to be in a job you love but on a team that doesn’t set you up for success. The burden of working to fix a broken system while juggling your workload can lead to intense burn out. Knowing when to raise your voice and when to walk away is critical. Toxic cultures are truly systemic and very challenging to dismantle. It is so important that you prioritize your health and happiness.

Emily Durham
Emily Durham
Emily Durham is a Toronto-based coach, public speaker and content creator known for her funny and relatable TikToks about all things work. Follow her on TikTok and Instagram at @emily.the.recruiter.