Quitting a toxic work environment
September 2, 2010 7:38 PM   Subscribe

How to quit a job when the company is small and the boss unstable?

A friend of a friend helped me get what seemed like a promising job at a small company. I've been working there one month. While the job is in my field, it isn't my dream job. Hiring/firing is at-will in my state.

Within a week of working there, each of the seven employees who work there came to me privately to tell me that I should get out now. One quit within two weeks of my hire date, and another is threatening. I learned that dozens - dozens! - of people have quit or been fired over the last three years. (The company has only been around for four.)

The problem is the boss - he's charming when you first meet him, but a terror to work for. Mean, bullying, sexist, condescending, and a terrible, intimidating manager who makes life hell for his employees. He's the President and CEO of the company and has private funds. He doesn't have to account to anyone. I've left each work day with knots in my stomach.

The issue is that since I'm new - and thus, a novelty for him - he hasn't been awful to me, but I'm told this is his pattern. I've seen him reduce the other employees to tears on a daily basis. Half of the work day is spent figuring out how to get him what he wants, which is ever-changing and confusing.

There is no HR. I know I want to quit, but I'm a bit of a delicate flower and I worry he'll blow up and be nasty to me if I tell him face-to-face (as he did with the employee who quit a few weeks ago). However, I've never cut and run for a job, or quit by e-mail or letter. He's a prominent person in the community, and a D-list national celebrity. Burning this bridge will burn a lot of others for me.

How do I proceed? My current plan is to go into work tomorrow and tell him face-to-face, and hope for the best. I tend to turn red and get tearful in confrontation. What's the best way to present the news, knowing his temperament? Should I give him the news another way since he's such a loose cannon? How do I extract myself from such an intimidating, stressful work situation with the most dignity and class?

Thanks for your help.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Here's your mantra: "If he yells, I walk. If he yells, I walk. If he yells, I walk."

You owe it to yourself (and only yourself) to attempt to quit with your dignity intact. If the histrionics start, stand up, gather your things, and head for the door without looking back. You've quit. You're out of there. You don't have to sit trapped in a room and take any abuse if you don't wish to.
posted by contessa at 7:48 PM on September 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

Get out ... This job will be bad for your mental and physical health. Nothing is worth what this job will do to you.
posted by jayder at 7:50 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Hi, {boss}. Here's my letter of resignation." If asked for a rationale say "it's just business." Refuse to be drawn; refuse to elaborate. If the man blows up, just walk away - he can do nothing about it. His neuroses, his bad manners are his problem and not yours.
posted by jet_silver at 7:50 PM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

When faced with a similar situation I left my letter of resignation on the boss' desk at lunch then climbed out the window, ran across the parking lot, drove home, changed my phone number and stayed with friends for a few weeks. The boss was later arrested for shooting at people. My advice? Leave now without confrontation. Send a polite email "Friday, September 3rd will be my last day with Company X. Thank you." and don't look back. If he is crazy then people are going to know he is crazy and understand. If you are describing the situation accurately then there is no possible positive outcome from staying.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:52 PM on September 2, 2010 [23 favorites]

Sorry, what I meant to say was get out, consequences be damned. It really doesn't matter that he's a local celebrity, etc. Just quit, don't worry about histrionics or diplomacy.
posted by jayder at 7:52 PM on September 2, 2010

^ chrishartley's got it
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:53 PM on September 2, 2010

Write a simple letter and take it to work with you. Make sure all your things are packed up and you are ready to leave. Hand the letter to him. Immediately leave.
posted by fritley at 7:56 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Note that quitting on him won't necessarily be as bridge-burny as you're imagining it will. Most business circles are pretty small. If he's that much of a psycho, I promise that his competitors (and customers, etc.) already know it, and are unlikely to think less of you for GTFOing.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 7:56 PM on September 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

I've worked for this guy, and his equally evil twin sister. Even if you were to end up being the office golden child, life's too short to work for an asshole and go home everyday feeling sick. I agree with your co-workers; get out while the getting's good. You've only been there for a month, and he hasn't been horrible to you, so chances are you can frame this as a no-fault, "thanks for the great opportunity, but the fit's not quite right." Write a formal resignation letter so that you can hand it to him as an accompaniment to your discussion. (I do think you need to do this face-to-face, since it's such a small place.) Be calm and polite, smile, rehearse what you're going to say, and DO NOT mention other people leaving. Offer to give a week's notice, as in, you're done at the end of the week, to reduce the inconvenience to him. Smile some more.

Good luck.
posted by sillymama at 7:58 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd go with extremely apologetic about a terrible emergency family situation, thank you so much for this amazing opportunity, I so very much regret that I won't be able to stay here and learn from you and be part of this incredible organization you've built, and I apologize incredibly if I've inconvenienced... People who want power will take mercy on you if you sufficiently grovel and flatter them and do nothing to threaten their pride and desire for control. If your goal is to get out unscathed, just grovel and plead for forgiveness and flatter them, under the guise of some emergency situation that you just absolutely must quit to go deal with.
posted by salvia at 7:58 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I feel for you. I recently left a very toxic work situation, and let me tell you--nothing is worth staying in an environment where you are not respected.
posted by tyris33 at 7:59 PM on September 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

So, this one job, I went to work every day praying they would fire me, I was so unhappy; I couldn't bring myself to quit because I was scared. And it wasn't as bad as what you describe. Don't do that knot-in-the-stomach thing one day more. A letter on the desk at lunch sounds perfect to me. And if he's like this with everyone, no one worth working for will hold it against you.
posted by SMPA at 8:00 PM on September 2, 2010

I'd go with extremely apologetic about a terrible emergency family situation

Why do this? You do not have to give a reason. And you certainly don't need to lie.

Have you things packed and a simple and polite letter informing him that you no longer wish to work at the organisation. If he asks for a reason, say it's personal, then leave.
posted by the noob at 8:06 PM on September 2, 2010

A. The problem is the boss [..] Mean, bullying, sexist, condescending, and a terrible, intimidating manager who makes life hell for his employees.

B. Burning this bridge will burn a lot of others for me.

If A is consistently true, then I suspect B will not follow. If this person is as unreasonable and unprofessional as you believe him to be, he might be "prominent," but that does not make him respected among your other potential future employers. I vote for honesty: "This is not working out for me. People seem very unhappy here and it distracts me from my work" is along the lines of what you tell your current boss tomorrow [NOTE: Remember that you do not owe him an explanation at all, let alone one that he accepts or agrees with. Bossy people accustomed to using intimidation to get their way often demand that you "sell them" your reason for making a decision that displeases them. Don't get sucked in to that.] "I left [X job] in order to find a [your occupation] position in a more positive environment" is what you tell your future interviewers. I'm truly sorry you're dealing with this. Good luck. It will be okay.
posted by applemeat at 8:08 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing salvia - if he feels that you quitting is a personal reflection on him, he won't take it well. You might even frame it to him as an extended leave of absence.
posted by AlsoMike at 8:14 PM on September 2, 2010

Can you line up another job before you leave? If you do, then you wouldn't need to worry about any sort of influence he would have on your next job.
posted by TheBones at 8:26 PM on September 2, 2010

If he's really that bad, I just would not go into work tomorrow and would quit via telephone.

Good luck and hugs...I have had several bosses from hell and I feel your pain.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:27 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Be professional. Tell him face to face that you intend to resign to pursue other opportunities. He may react by firing you, which has its benefits. If not, tell him you will be leaving in N days (I would say two weeks, but it sounds like that would be pretty taxing). If he becomes abusive, change that date to immediately.

From what you say, he's an asshole tyrant, but nothing that can't be confronted -- by which I mean informed in a low-key but direct way. (This advice is wrong if you sense a physical exchange, and if you have vague misgivings, ask someone to stand nearby.) This is an opportunity to behave professionally and build self-esteem and gumption.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:41 PM on September 2, 2010

Don't be afraid of facing him. If he's still in charming mode with you, he's probably not going to flip out. And if he does, you can be strong in the knowledge that he will never have the chance to do that to you again, and it'll be over in a few minutes.
posted by amethysts at 8:54 PM on September 2, 2010

You will not be burning any bridges if you quit.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:13 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

He's a prominent person in the community, and a D-list national celebrity.

Some people are treating the above detail as though it doesn't matter, but powerful people can ruin lives, especially when they are the cold, calculating sadist type that our society tends to reward. I don't know whether you can leave safely, but I bet you will end up leaving one way or another, so you might as well get out now.

My advice is to post the above story and the name of the person in question to reddit or elsewhere. National celebrities have to worry about their image. You think he isn't accountable to anyone, but he actually is, albeit in ways more subtle than direct employment. A nasty celebrity is a Story, and a Story tends to gather Attention. Attention means potentially millions of people out for blood. That can end a person's national power quickly.
posted by Xezlec at 9:13 PM on September 2, 2010

Don't lie. Just say it's not a good fit, and thanks for the opportunity and g'bye.

You don't have to put it in writing, but quitting by phone is really pathetic, I think. You might be a delicate flower, but certainly you're a adult enough to walk in, say your piece and turn around and walk out--for no other reason than to prove to yourself that you can do it.

Don't explain, don't complain. There's no exit interview.

He can't eat you, take away your voting rights or your birthday cake.

So what if you get red? There's no hidden camera. If you feel yourself get shaky, cut it short and walk out.

And while he might be a bad boss, it's not illegal. So, don't post his name or whatever. That's childish, and can also leave you open to a lawsuit. This isn't whistle-blowing. D'list celebrity = F list story.

(And "our society" tends to reward the effective--the OP might just become one.)
posted by Ideefixe at 9:32 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

You may find, having made the decision to leave, that you have a new feeling of power and security in yourself, and that you don't actually feel like quitting today. If you can view him with a little detachment, with your letter of resignation in your back pocket, you can time your departure to suit yourself.

If he blows up at someone else in front of you, for example, you can interrupt his tirade to tell him he's a dick, and then give him your resignation, conveniently pre-printed and ready. He will be flapping like a popped balloon, and already spewing rage at one victim, so he's unlikely to be able to regroup quickly enough to direct it at you in any meaningful way. (I don't know about you, but I find it a lot easier to handle a possible rough confrontation when I can be certain it isn't personal.)

Since there have been daily examples of his dickitude, and dozens of people affected by it, how do you feel about quietly gathering details and writing down a narrative of what goes on? Does your phone record video? Don't do this to threaten him, but as a documentation of the toxic environment you and your colleagues are working in. (Although, really, he has more to lose than you do if there's going to be mudslinging. If it takes you a long time to find another job, depending how he rates as a celebrity, TMZ pays for this kind of crap.)

However, if you don't think you have the distance required for that, leaving the letter on his desk isn't a bad thing.

You don't owe him any notice, really. You've only been there a month, and any time spent there after you leave the shiny golden novelty zone is bound to be unpleasant. Don't worry about keeping him as a reference. You don't need this on your resume. You will feel so much better being out of there.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:52 PM on September 2, 2010

As in a previous thread, secret video or audio taping of someone might not be legal in your state. Please don't do this.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:56 PM on September 2, 2010

You're clearly ready to get out of there, but there's no need to make it all dramatic. Slowly begin to take your things home and/or replace them with things you don't mind leaving. Take personal things off your computer. Give your contact information to coworkers who you'd like to stay in touch with, especially those who are telling you to get out now, and let them know that at the moment, you're not being treated badly, but in the event that that changes, you'll be leaving quickly.

And then, as soon as the boss inevitably blows his top at you, say these words, which you should practice saying, starting now. (Trust me, I'm also a delicate flower type, practice makes perfect.)

"I am an adult, and I do not tolerate anyone yelling at me. If you do it again, I will resign."

Then, of course, the yeller will yell at you for saying it. And then, you'll say,

"I won't tolerate disrespect and yelling at my place of work, so I quit, effective immediately. I am going to go collect my things, and you may send me my last paycheck at my home address."

Then take your minimal things and go. If you say those things above loud enough and in a public place, you will be empowering your (former) coworkers, too. That's a parting gift you should enjoy giving.

Be prepared to contact a lawyer if you don't get your final paycheck in the time your state has outlined, between two weeks and one month after your last day. A lawyer-penned letter should get that moving if they're not forthcoming.
posted by juniperesque at 10:33 PM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

My advice is to post the above story and the name of the person in question to reddit or elsewhere. National celebrities have to worry about their image. You think he isn't accountable to anyone, but he actually is, albeit in ways more subtle than direct employment. A nasty celebrity is a Story, and a Story tends to gather Attention. Attention means potentially millions of people out for blood. That can end a person's national power quickly.

This. If this person is a D-list celeb but an A-list psycho, TMZ or a Gawker media blog might be interested. You could write an anon email with a detailed and amusing description of said psychoness and offer some kind of proof and see what happens. Celebrity is fleeting and often with not a lot of staying power, one good story could be enough to end a person's 15 minuites or drastically change thier public image, ask Tiki Barber, Jon Gosslin or Jesse James. Underlings have power too.
posted by T.D. Strange at 3:51 AM on September 3, 2010

I'm surprised that everyone thinks it's a good idea to walk away from a job immediately with no plan B, even thought he's still in charming mode for you. I'm not going to tell you to just put up with a terrible situation - "with knots in my stomach" makes me wonder if he is already abusing you subtly. But if you feel that you can detach yourself a little from the job and keep a letter of resignation handy just in case, then you can use the situation to your advantage until you leave.

What I would do is start looking for jobs right now, and don't let the current job get you down. You can tell prospective employers that you're doing fine, but the job & culture aren't a great fit so you're looking for a place where you can really excel. That way, the paychecks are still coming, you're still gaining experience (3 months experience > 1 month experience), and you can still walk at the very second that he does anything abusive. So if you can say to yourself, "This is the place I go during the day to keep a roof over my head" and not take it so seriously that it affects your well-being, do that. Keep your computer clear of personal stuff, keep your desk devoid of personal articles, and keep a letter of resignation tucked away. Then just conduct your job search on the side and take pleasure in knowing that you're gaining the upper hand. Plus, if you really think that leaving is burning bridges (leaving usually doesn't burn bridges, but maybe this guy really holds a grudge), wouldn't it be nice to have some new bridges ready to go at a new employer?

But definitely get out. I just think you should have a plan and keep drawing paychecks. And if it's too taxing to stay in the job, even if you disengage a little, then go ahead and leave. Jobs are important, but it's not worth your health and sanity.
posted by Tehhund at 4:55 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

My advice is to post the above story and the name of the person in question to reddit or elsewhere. National celebrities have to worry about their image. You think he isn't accountable to anyone, but he actually is, albeit in ways more subtle than direct employment. A nasty celebrity is a Story, and a Story tends to gather Attention. Attention means potentially millions of people out for blood. That can end a person's national power quickly.

Since this has been seconded, let me dissent. Doing that kind of thing anonymously, based in part on what others have told you, is neither professional nor fair. Doing it under your own name risks professional and legal consequences of the kind that will at least make you anxious afterward. Bad idea.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:33 AM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm with Clyde. You think he's mad at you for quitting like dozens of other people have? Try being the only one who outs him publicly as a psychotic asshole. The island you're on is on fire. The bridge isn't. Don't worry about whether the troll is going to light it before you're across.
posted by Etrigan at 5:45 AM on September 3, 2010

Burning this bridge will burn a lot of others for me.

Well, you assume it will. If the guy is as big a douche as you describe, it's probably well-known throughout his circle of contacts and acquaintances. I suspect a good number of them also consider him an asshole and won't hold it against anyone for jumping ship.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:57 AM on September 3, 2010

If you've only been there a month, I'd pick up the phone now and quit. All done.
posted by dzaz at 6:25 AM on September 3, 2010

Yes, this is a good situation to lie/tell a half-truth that will get you out of there with as little harm as possible. salvia is right.

Family emergency, personal health issues, whatever. Leaving work every day with knots in your stomach will, very quickly, become a personal health issue. Our brain, our emotions, and our stress levels all are PART of our body.

Staying at this job is like smoking a pack a day. Quit. Doesn't matter how. If you start to feel guilty about it (and people like this run on the guilt of good people), go volunteer or donate some money to charity or something.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:36 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thorzdad, maybe, but there are two things that make this not necessarily true:

1. People like this guy are often good at making other people do things, including blackballing former employees, because they're bullies, forceful, have money, know people, are an important client, sit on the same charity board, whatever.

2. People like this often reserve their bullying for people they can effectively bully. The OP didn't know he was this horrible before she took the job. His friends and acquaintances might never see this side of him, or they might see it occasionally but dismiss it (he was a little rude to that waiter, oh well, not a big deal).
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:40 AM on September 3, 2010

One month? Just don't go to work tomorrow.
posted by eas98 at 7:12 AM on September 3, 2010

Wow, that is almost exactly the situation I was in last year. I have to disagree with people who are saying if the boss has a bad attitude, others must know this and therefore won't blame you for leaving*. Chances are, unless you've worked for this person, you have no idea he's a snake. He's a business man, if he were a prick to his customers and suppliers, he wouldn't be successful. He was (still is?) charming to new comers, but ultimately sees his employees as unimportant and worthy of abuse. His property. So if you can avoid making it a public issue, do. I also had to deal with the possibility of fallout, I was in a small town where everyone knows everyone else's business, but unless he specifically seeks out the competition to warn them of you (in a 'you'll never work in this business again' fashion) the only way another employer will know you had problems there is if you put him as a reference which is unnecessary as you've only been there a month.
What I did was write a letter stating my reasons for leaving, told her she was abusive and made my work day a horrible experience. Explained that because of her temper I felt I wasn't able to tell her these things in person, that being yelled at like a bad dog was an experience I hope I never have to endure. Told her she should be ashamed of herself for treating her employees (some of whom where her own family) so disrespectfully. Then I thanked her for the opportunity and wished her the best in the future.
I waited til the end of the pay period so she didn't owe me anything and I left the letter and my key on the desk as I locked up at the end of the day (doors locked from the inside, last thing you need is to be to blame for anything going wrong).
I like to think the weight of my words shamed her into silence at least at first. Maybe changed her attitude towards her other employees. I doubt it, but it's nice to think so.
Good luck!
*no one blames anyone for leaving a job. It's business. Once it's made personal (in how it's affecting you emotionally) it's time to go.
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 7:14 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

My advice is to post the above story and the name of the person in question to reddit or elsewhere. National celebrities have to worry about their image. You think he isn't accountable to anyone, but he actually is, albeit in ways more subtle than direct employment. A nasty celebrity is a Story, and a Story tends to gather Attention. Attention means potentially millions of people out for blood. That can end a person's national power quickly.

Don't do this, unless you fancy a libel action.

Type up a letter, hand it to him, say 'This is my resignation. Thanks for the opportunity.' Then walk away. Nothing more is required of you, legally or morally.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:21 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with what juniperesque, with the provision that you're also looking elsewhere as of now.

But, a caution too - make sure all your i's are dotted and t's crossed and that there's nothing to be accountable for should you walk - accounts, contacts, paperwork, keys, what have you. Once upon a time, I left a job with a proper resignation and all, and handed over my key immediately - but didn't get my keyholder agreement signed and returned with all the stress and drama of the moment. A week or two later, the store then tried to collect from me the cost of replacing the locks. When a lawyer friend helped me with a letter requesting copies of their receipts proving they'd done so, they withdrew - but to this day I'm amazed that they couldn't resist that one last opportunity to turn the screw. So, arm yourself, cover your butt and keep your nose clean.
posted by peagood at 8:38 AM on September 3, 2010

Wow, that sounds exactly like my old boss from a job I had 7 or 8 years ago. Former congressman gone into private business who totally schmoozed up to people he needed something from while being a tyrant and a bully to his employees (especially female ones). Not so much me because he was clueless about technology and I made things just work in the office and did other things as needed (plus I was male at the time, and I think he felt more free to get away with that kind of behavior with women), but in the nearly a year I worked there a parade of other employees came and went because of it. He made several cry. It was incredibly stressful just to be in that environment.

One Monday morning I woke up and decided I couldn't go in. By lunchtime I'd emailed a letter of resignation. Shortly thereafter I received a nasty phone message from him raving about how unprofessional I was and that the police had been notified about how I was a disgruntled employee and I'd be arrested for trespassing if I were to show up to the office (complete paranoia on his part; I never even pursued my last paycheck, which I really should have in retrospect). My coworkers, on the other hand, called and congratulated me on getting out. And mailed me the stuffed bear I'd left behind on my desk. It wasn't the most graceful exit from a job, but I've never regretted it one bit.

So, don't stay any longer than you have to. Do be professional and classy and keep things simple as other people have advised, but do walk away and not look back.
posted by Pryde at 8:52 AM on September 3, 2010

From the OP:
Thanks for all the replies While you've given me a mixed bag, I appreciate the thoughts. I'm still deciding what to do. I can tell you that everyone who doesn't work directly with this man thinks he's the friendliest, nicest guy in the world. That's his reputation out of the workplace, and what several people told me when I was researching the position. He presents as charming, sweet and affable, which is why I was shocked when I saw this other side. The position required signing a rather aggressive contract in which slagging the boss/company in public forums was prohibited. (Even if that wasn't in the contract, this wouldn't be my style.)

I have no personal items at work, and none of my major assignments are off the ground yet, so leaving won't cause a lot of damage in that respect. The interview process was intensive and long, and he was apparently reluctant to hire someone to begin with, which is where my apprehension comes in. But I won't be staying, and I'll either tell him in-person or on the phone.

Thanks again for the advice.
posted by jessamyn at 10:00 AM on September 3, 2010

I'm not surprised he may seem great to others. Often people who are your boss act completely different when they have "power" over you than they do to people who are equals or superiors. I have worked incredibly closely with people who seemed amazing, and I know they were abusive to their direct reports. My dream is to work for a place without this BS boss/direct report structure, because I don't think many people can actually handle it. Insecure people are horrendous at managing others, and unfortunately a good % of the population is deeply insecure (especially those that want to be d-list celebs).

I think you should quit gracefully before the abuse even starts. Provide a reasonable notice period while being ready to leave that instant (all personal items removed to your house in advance, no personal emails on your computer, etc). Don't bother with getting back at him, it's not worth it.
posted by rainydayfilms at 11:31 AM on September 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I personally would write a letter detailing how I felt about his personal style. Not that you "owe" it to him, but hey you never know ... maybe it'll help the asshole be less of an asshole.

If you're gonna write a letter of resignation, that'd be the perfect opportunity to explain to him, politely, that he's an impossible-to-work-with boss.
posted by dwbrant at 11:03 AM on September 10, 2010

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