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Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash

To stay for a year or not to stay? That is the question. The answer? RUN. NOW.

My first job was a gig straight out of college. I took the first thing I could find since I needed to pay those bills, and wound up a secretary in an university office.

I had a BA and a BS and the department head asked me repeatedly why I wanted to do this, and I explained that I loved the school and wanted to learn more about it from the inside. And pay my bills.

So I was hired and linked to a completely awesome guy in charge of the fitness program offerings at Penn State. He told me repeatedly not to get sucked in there and to keep looking for better opportunities.

The whole team was extremely supportive. The other secretaries I worked with were amazing. They were the most organized on top of their shit people I’ve ever met, and they worked HARD. It was amazed on a daily basis by how much work they cranked out.

Now we bring in the supervisor AKA demon spawn.

(Disclaimer: It’s been 12+ years since this happened and she’s now retired, so in the off chance someone recognized the situation, it still wouldn’t impact her career.)

This women was one of the most soul crushing, verbally abusive, tyrants of a human being I’d ever met. There had been really high turnover in the role I took as it turned out. In the first week on the job I saw her make every single member of her 4 women team, other than me, CRY. Like, legit they left her office sobbing. Let me repeat again, that they were incredibly hard working and kicked complete ass at their jobs.

Those women had been working in that office with that psycho for a range of 5 to 10 years. I pulled each aside to find out if things had always been that bad, and they said in the beginning things were a little bad, then her husband left her and she turned into demon spawn. Then she started having health issues and the office environment went from happy people rocking their work like champions to a living hell as soon as her office door opened.

Now, I was a young upstart fresh out of college who “didn’t know anything” but I DID know that she was getting away with something that shouldn’t be happening. I got to be close to the team in the 6 months I worked for her, and started pointing out specific things that shouldn’t be happening to the team members that had worked there long term. They kept responding “things are just as bad everywhere else, she’s told us that.” To which I replied, no, it’s actually not just as bad elsewhere. I have friends in other departments with amazing bosses and great work environments.

Then they said they were worried about retaliation and poor reviews if she found out they were applying elsewhere. I explained that the department head or the awesome guy I was working for would vouch for them for future gigs instead. They were higher up on the food chain than she was, and their reviews would hold more weight anyway.

I made it to the 6th month, at which point I’d had enough. You know that old, “stay at a job for at least a year no matter how bad it gets” adage? It’s BS. You only have a certain number of minutes on this earth, and you don’t need to lose half a million of them to being made to feel like garbage by a person with low self esteem and/or anger issues.

If you land in a hellish work environment, start applying for other jobs IMMEDIATELY. And even if you have to take a small paycut that will still allow your life to remain comfortably livable and pay your bills, consider it. Your health (including mental health) comes first. Jobs that are going to take years off your life due to the stress the put on your body and mind aren’t worth “sticking it out for 12 months”. Bail. And don’t look back.

I had a chat with the Department Director on my way out. He asked if I would candidly explain why I was leaving, that he was extremely concerned by my leaving and the high turnover rate in that position.

I asked if he’d be willing to write my recommendation for my next position rather than leaving the task to that woman, and he agreed. At that point I explained that he need someone to either put demon spawn through anger management/management effectiveness courses/intense therapy to help her stop taking her issues out on her staff, or put her in a role that didn’t allow her to manage others. I explained the verbal abuse, the constant crying after her attacks, and the levels of stress these women had been experiencing for years.

He said he had no idea any of it was happening, and I explained that was due to demon spawn instilling fear of retaliation of they tried to report her.

Sometimes it just takes one person to stand up to make a wave. That wave ripples and impacts more people than you’d expect.

A few months after I left I got together with the ladies to catch up over lunch. They told me that after I left and had that chat with the director, he requested meetings with each of them as well. He offered to write them letters of recommendation if they wanted reassignments, and promised not to alert her to their applications to avoid retaliation in the meantime. 3 of the 4 women took him up on his offer and left that department. They said that their new offices were unbelievably better than the previous, and they thanked me for giving them the push they needed to get away from her and that toxic place.

At times people feel stuck, like there is no way out. There is ALWAYS a way out. You just have to be willing to step through some doors into opportunities you may not have considered otherwise.

I’ve been fortunate to have absolutely incredible managers at every job since. And now, in interviews I know exactly what to look for to avoid situations similar to that hellish first one. Sometimes the cues to look for are VERY subtle.

Here are some quick tips for men and women who are applying for new jobs:

  1. If you go into an interview with a team, and they’re all afraid to talk in front of the boss, there’s likely a problem
  2. If they look scared after they participate in conversation and keep shooting side eyes at the boss to check for a response, there is probably a problem
  3. If the hiring manager talks over you when you’re answering questions, there’s a problem
  4. If the hiring manager talks down to employees who ask you questions, making them feel stupid or small, there’s a problem
  5. When touring the office, check the environment. Does every single employee look stressed and upset? Or are people very focused on their work but stopping to smile when people come by.
  6. Are there conversations taking place at the water cooler or in the kitchen? Any laughter? Or does it sound like a tomb. (Unless you LIKE tomb silence, which some people do.)
  7. If you’re not automatically given the opportunity to meet with the team before you accept the job, ASK for the opportunity. If your hiring manager is hiding his team from you, there many be a problem.

These are very subtle things, but having the worst job of my life first thing helped me to learn what to look for and what to avoid. That awful job really has saved me a life time of misery that could have followed. I hope these small tips are useful!

Written by

UX Blogger ~ Product Designer ~ Sr Mgr of Design Community Partnerships @InVisionApp Opinions are my own ❤ (© 2014–2019 Jennifer Aldrich)

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