Most of us have worked for companies that were a mismatch with our personalities, our talents, our expectations, our beliefs.  Some worse than others. I wanted to write about the lessons of what appear to be unfair circumstances and point out the great, long-term benefits of them.

I’ll never forget when I took a job at a boutique ad agency, leaving the comfort zone of being a sales rep at a media company. It was my first foray into management as a vice-president.  It was the highest base salary I’d ever negotiated. But my first shock as the ‘VP of Business Development’, was the mentality around bringing in revenue, which does not include the word SALES.  For creative types, this conjures up pictures of used-car salesmen with suspenders and baggy pants that droop below their bellies, ready to sell a pregnant woman a piece of junk that will break her bank and break down at the first intersection.

This wasn’t the primary reason for it being the wrong fit.  I was the first and only woman in a male-dominated management team that had been in place for awhile. My prior sales successes had been based on hard-hitting negotiations with media buyers; hustling for the order, making deals happen and being managed by people just like me – hunters of ad revenue. So, my personality and approach was already in their minds — the used-car bully.  I didn’t presume this. I was told that I came across that way.

Well, here in the midst of all this creativity flowing around me (the agency does not exist anymore, BTW) I was told more than once, in front of my colleagues, that I should “go make curtains” instead of sit-in on strategy meetings.  When I wasn’t being outcast, my boss would discretely come to my office, shut the door and cry about how his boyfriend had dumped him, or whatever his personal battles were with others in the company.  He had crossed the line with me so much that when it came to including me as part of the team, he must have felt so vulnerable (as if I was going to blow his cover) that he had to shut me out, and reduce me back to the 1950s.

Then one evening, they called me into a team meeting.  I was so excited!  Finally, embraced by my co-workers!  But nooooo….it was an ambush.  Each person told me one-by-one, how useless, uninspired, uncreative I was and that I would never meet their standards.  They pummeled me with assertions about how I was mishandling their accounts. My boss had essentially given people their scripts and bullied them into this treatment of me – just in the way he made me feel threatened that if I didn’t listen endlessly to his dramas, my job would be on the line.  I tried to defend myself. Then, at one point, I got up and tried to leave the room.  My boss held his arm in front of the door to block my exit.  One of my colleagues, the finance guy, ex-attorney, told him I could sue them for entrapment.  He let his arm down.  I walked out.  I quit/was fired the morning after the ambush.  I almost sued them for harassment, but decided my well-being would suffer and I wanted to just put it all behind me.

We soon found out that my boss was a coke addict. And, despite all of this, I had brought in some revenue in that time in those four months.  Go figure!

First let me say that this experience in no way expresses my feelings or attitudes about ad agencies!  And, my time there is so rich with lessons that have helped me since grow, that I bless the coke addict and his pals for every act of inappropriate behavior towards me.  I also thank my 30-something self (this happened in the mid 90s) who had no previous experience with such things, for enduring and learning.

So, some tips for dealing with a toxic work situation:

1. Set boundaries with everyone, including bosses. You are not to play therapist or allow them to feed off of you like vampires.  You say, “I’m sorry you are going through this and I am not in a position to help. Can we focus on X piece of business – I would love to consult you on this matter.”

2. The minute you are harassed, do not defend yourself.  No point in trying to establish power. Say nothing.  Document the incident and file it with HR.  You will now be at risk of being fired, relocated or demoted.  It’s okay, your integrity is more important than living with the bullying. You will move on –  way beyond this particular employment.

3. Do not share your horror stories with anyone, except for documentation to HR. (I made the grave mistake of complaining about him to others, to try to find allies, and it backfired!)

4. Step back and understand that no title or amount of income can outweigh such toxicity.  Check your ego on this.  Let this job go.  It’s safer to go back to a lower title and less income in the right environment than hang on because it looks good on your resume.  Your self-esteem means everything, your ego means nothing. (I went right back to ad sales from there and enjoyed the comfort and success of working with like-minded co-workers.)

5. Laugh about the craziness of it all!  It’s really an amazing journey to deal with such dysfunctional people. Think about the story you’ll be able to share with others about how you grew as a result of such pain, and the many benefits you were able to accumulate.



Copyright, PointMaker Communications, Inc., 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jackie Kellso and PointMaker Communications, Inc., with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.