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“Humiliated for my sexuality”, “Fired for being dyslexic”: Sifted readers share their experiences of toxic workplaces

Toxic workplaces are a rife occurrence, so we asked our readers about their experiences of working at some.

By Kai Nicol-Schwarz

Credit: Illustration by Riddhi Kanetkar

“The levels of mistrust and lack of transparency were unbearable. The only voices that were listened to were those of bullies and the competitiveness to get the spotlight was constant.”

This fintech worker’s story is not unique.

Following Sifted’s investigation into the culture at 10-minute delivery scaleup Gorillas, we put the call out to our readers, to find out about their experiences of challenging work environments.  

282 readers replied. They worked in sectors ranging from fintech to marketing to enterprise software, and included startup operators, founders, consultants and investors.

Here’s what they had to say.

Toxic behaviours

Working at a fast-growing startup can be an unforgettable experience. But big personalities and pressure to grow quickly can also often be a recipe for toxic culture. 

Lack of trust between team members, not being able to express a difference of opinion and lack of a work-life balance were the most common toxic behaviours our readers cited.

A staggering 78% of them said they had quit their jobs because of a toxic work environment.

Top-down toxicity

Many readers told us that a toxic work environment was cultivated directly from an egotistical or uncaring leadership team. 

One employee at an enterprise software company worked for a CEO that “always” put employees down, often in front of others. After beginning to experience mental health issues, sharing her concerns with the CEO and seeing no change in behaviour, she resigned. 

“The CEO said that she was relieved, because ‘I depressed the whole team, I was a liar and I took advantage of all of them’,” the respondent told Sifted. “I am still seeing a psychotherapist.”

“We were told that ‘nothing we could do would be good enough’ by the founder.”

“We were told that ‘nothing we could do would be good enough’ by the founder,” said a junior employee at a health company. Senior leadership was no better, and called a rough brainstorm “shit” after this reader explained he had learning difficulties, and sketching things out was how he solved problems.

‘Blame culture’ was another common experience for many readers, and in many cases this led to a complete lack of trust at a company.

One respondent said that “dictatorial leadership” from a CEO caused a chaotic environment with “no trust, no empowerment…and no possibility to voice opinions and concerns”.

Another spoke of a “blame game” from management attached to any perceived failure that created “little to no team trust or support”. This was echoed by many, and one marketer told us that they were “constantly undermined and belittled by cofounders that were always pushing towards burnout and trying to get colleagues to compete”. 

Work-life balance and stress

Others also found that boundaries between the office and home became blurred and a lack of a work-life balance was a common thread. 

At the fintech she worked at, one reader told us that staff members frequently worked long hours and weekends, and guilted others to do the same. “Within weeks of starting, a number of staff members went on stress leave or disappeared completely — which I later found out was due to mental health issues,” she said. 

Expectations that an employee must be contactable and ‘on call’ at all times were not isolated.

An enterprise software worker said the ethos from his managers was “if I have a question and you’re not reachable, [even if] it’s out of hours… it’s your fault.” The “constant guilt-tripping” led to him quitting.

For another respondent, it fed into what she called “toxic positivity” — where everyone is supposed to think that the company “is the best thing in the world despite clear abuses”, like the expectation of working every weekend and long hours. Similarly, another commented that she was expected to work “atrocious hours” at a fintech that had a “cult-like mentality”.

Social pressure and public humiliation

Pressure to be part of the group and public humiliation for perceived failures were other toxic behaviours that came up regularly among survey responses.

For a marketer in the legal sector, her experience of working in a startup was that “staff motivation was based entirely on not being the person to be publicly fired that week” and was only able to get feedback from management in the form of “rants or snide comments”.

“If you did not drink until 3am with ‘the boys’, you missed out on the choice projects and opportunities for advancement.”

One project manager spoke of the pressure to fit in with “bloke culture” at the innovation consultancy she worked at. “If you did not drink until 3am with ‘the boys’, you missed out on the choice projects and opportunities for advancement,” she said. 

She was not the only respondent who reported being ostracised for not getting involved with drinking culture.

An orthodox Jewish health operator said that he was “lambasted” in his review for “not being ‘part’ of the team”. This was because he wasn’t able to join the team for Friday night drinks, as it falls on the sabbath. When he suggested moving the drinks to a Thursday if it was important to the founders, he was told “not to try and change the culture without embracing it”. 

“After I continued my religious observation rather than going for a drink I was swiftly made redundant due to a ‘restructure’,” he told Sifted.

Discrimination and harassment

It’s no secret that European tech is under representative, both in terms of gender and ethnicity, and some of the most harrowing tales focused on some form of discrimination or harassment.

One fintech worker spoke about being “deliberately humiliated”, “called stupid” in front of others, and the difficulty of speaking up as a Black woman without “being seen as angry”. Another employee, this time in the education sector, handed in her notice because of a founder who would say “abusive and racist things when drunk”. 

None of these responses were outliers. At an enterprise software company, one respondent told us that people with ethnic sounding names were told to change them to sound more “English”, and also experienced “blatant homophobia and sexism”.

The prevalence of male-driven, misogynistic working environments also featured heavily. 

One respondent talked of “boys club culture” at the fintech she worked at — which was outwardly pro-equality but “never gave women strategic opportunities”. She also mentioned “gaslighting and bullying” and ended up leaving because the “systematic sexism meant there would be a lack of career opportunities”.

At another enterprise software startup, an employee told us that following the executive team not taking action after multiple harassment accusations, there was a “mass exodus of female coworkers”. 

A management team being unwilling to act on accusations of sexism, harassment or discrimination was cited as one of the key causes of toxic work environments.

One advertising operator told her manager that she’d been sexually harassed, and was told “well men are men, what can we do about it?” A marketing professional said that “racist and sexist jokes were openly told in the workplace” and no action was taken by senior management or HR when it was reported. The “lack of action from management and subsequent gaslighting” was the final straw for this employee, and she quit. 

“Leave. Just leave. Life’s too short.”

After being “humiliated for my sexuality…fired for being dyslexic”, one fintech operator quit his job, too. His advice to those in a similar boat? “Leave. Just leave. Life’s too short.”

Investors also struggle

But it’s not just the fast-paced startup scene that can foster toxic workplaces. Working on the other side of the VC table can be equally challenging. 

One investor in the energy sector told us that despite previous experience, she found herself doing demeaning tasks to stay in favour with leadership. “I realised this was affecting not only my personal life, which I had been aware of, but my self-confidence at work and development opportunities,” she said.

Reflecting on the situation, this VC talked of falling into the trap of believing the situation wasn’t that bad. “I realised that, as with any abusive relationship, when they give you a crumb of positivity it feels like a huge thing and you are incredibly grateful,” she said. 

“I had to learn to see these things for what they are — something you would naturally receive on a standard basis in a non-toxic environment.”

Another spoke of a “Hunger Games competitive energy between staff”, and an investor in the enterprise software space said he has a “political boss who manages upwards, is unsupportive, focused on his own career and gaslights”.

Internal rivalries, dishonesty and gaslighting were commonly cited toxic behaviours by VC respondents.

A fintech investor talked of colleagues “hiding personal interest behind company goals” and “non-transparent decision making”. Another highlighted the poor leadership “enabling and feeding internal rivalry”, and this fostering a lack of trust and collaboration.

Remote working

For 20% of respondents, the shift to remote working actually made a toxic environment worse. Lack of communication was the most common reason given, as companies struggled to adapt Zoom meetings and Slack conversations.

It was “harder to resolve differences” when remote working, said one respondent, and others told us that the poor communication resulted in “feelings of isolation” and “a general lack of trust”.

The difficulty of drawing up barriers between work and life was also mentioned frequently by Sifted readers, and many found that employers were only too willing to cultivate this blurring of the lines. 

“The ever daunting ‘online or offline’ dot monitoring definitely made me feel like whenever I wasn’t next to my laptop, my time was limited”, said one respondent who worked in real estate. 

One enterprise software employee noted feeling like they had “to ‘be seen’ as being accessible for 12-14 hours a day,” and another said they were accused of “disappearing at lunchtime” — when they were having lunch.

Currently working in a toxic workplace? Sifted readers share advice

Our readers had a lot of advice about how they dealt with a toxic environment. Here what they said:

“Believe in yourself. Go to therapy if you don’t. And get the f- out. It’s not worth the emotional toll.” Operator, fintech.

“Trust your intuition. In most cases, just get out as quickly as possible. Don’t try to manage them or the situation and make the best of it. People who don’t have scruples will always be better at manipulating than people who feel bound to ethics and integrity…There is no “one” shot in life. Other opportunities will come and the amount of destruction — financial, psychological and reputational — that these types of people can wreak on you is not worth it.” Founder, health.

“Leave.” 

“Communication is really important. If you notice any discrimination to you from a person or a group, put in a meeting with them and share what you have experienced. Most of the time they do not realise what they do.” 

Don’t expect the culture to change as long as the same bad leaders are at the top.”

“Don’t work overtime if you can help it. You won’t be rewarded. Try to make it work for you for as long as you need to (whether to meet financial goals, because it is tied to a visa, need 1 year on your CV, etc.). But make an exit plan and try to leave before your mental health is shredded rather than after it has already happened. Don’t expect the culture to change as long as the same bad leaders are at the top.” Operator, health.

“Set boundaries and strongly encourage other workers to set boundaries too.” Consultant, health.

“Don’t suffer in silence. If you aren’t sure who to turn to, contact your HR person for advice.” Sustainability

“Don’t wait too long, don’t hope for a magic resolution, Take action and speak up.” Investor

“Reframing situations and understanding it’s not you. Recognising that people have their own motivations for doing things. Find support from team members if you can. Minimise interactions, keep a low cover, and look for the right opportunity to exit.” Investor, enterprise software

“Remember that you are more than your job and you are worth more.” 

“Quit and find a new job. Your talents are appreciated elsewhere and you will be developed by an organisation that cares. Don’t hang on for a startup to change because they won’t.” Health

“Voice it always. You’re part of the problem if you say nothing (especially as a manager or leader).” Enterprise software

“Leave. It won’t get better. Nothing is worth your sanity, and it will grind your confidence over time. Nothing is worth that either.” Operator, enterprise software

“Go straight to HR. If they are unwilling to provide support go seek external help from a union or citizens advice. Talk to others about it, share experiences. Leave the company if there is nothing done, your health is more important than a salary.” Consultant, deeptech

“Keep your cv updated, look out for roles, when interviewing make it clear what kind of culture you like and get a sense of their culture. Find your own methods to deal with toxic people, try to gain confidence within yourself. Care less!” 

“It can feel extremely hard to leave, particularly when your confidence is shot… But don’t hesitate.”

“It can feel extremely hard to leave, particularly when your confidence is shot — this makes it hard to find a new role. But don’t hesitate — your mental health and happiness is not worth any job.” Operator, fintech

“Changing jobs was the best choice ever, and had such a 360-degree impact on life quality. Finding a professional fit where one feels valued and can freely contribute to a team is priceless. We work better in environments where we are heard, respected, and challenged. Remember that employment should always be a two-way street. Building your network is also critical: so that you can reach out or lean on others when you need a new role, and you can offer help to others when they do.” Marketing

“Leave. If the rot is top down you cannot exorcise it. The only trickle down theory I have ever seen work is toxicity.” Consultant, innovation consultancy

We’ve closed the survey, but we always love to hear from our readers. If you have stories about toxic culture that you’d like to share, please email [email protected]

Kai Nicol-Schwarz is a reporter at Sifted. He tweets from @NicolSchwarzK.

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Ms B
Ms B

I worked for a small company with no HR department just the owner and I was bullied almost daily had to be on anxiety medication just to work there. We never got any breaks and could not take time off for doctors appointments we had to go on our lunch break or to urgent care after work. If my kids were sick I could not stay home with them my boss would tell me to bring them to work with me and they could sleep under my desk. He was a complete gossip about all his employees. He was verbally… Read more »

Boo Boo's Dad
Boo Boo's Dad

When it comes to Leadership, H.R. is blind and deaf when reporting abusive management, company violations and violations of federal law. Better to keep your mouth shut rather than being called into H.R. and told your a trouble maker! “Hey they’re your rules, not mine, I just don’t want some arrogant idiot to jeopardize our ability to do business!”

Maria
Maria

I work where HR is in cahoots with management and sides with them 100%. They snitch on you with any complaints of abuse and go right to management where they flip it around and make it your fault. Then when you go back to work, 5he manager you complained to HR about makes your life even more of a living hell then before.

ThisOneLeft
ThisOneLeft

I had to wait six years to walk. Couldn’t afford to lose my pension just because management refused to get their act together. Indifference and tolerance of bad behavior from a coworker did it. When you are stuck pulling 25x more work because of a slacker for that length of time is not acceptable. Especially when you can see your management stacking the deck in slackers favor. In my exit interview I laid it out for management in plain blunt terms – leaving because they refused to discipline co workers bad behavior.

DDahlia
DDahlia

Working for federal government is extremely toxic. For all the claims of employee assistance, we are dictated to without “ANY” concern for veteran employees. We are frequently reminded how disposable we are.

Robert Howe
Robert Howe

This behaviour is not limited to start-ups. I’ve twice left jobs because of the toxic culture affecting my mental health. On the second occassion, after being signed off with depression, I told my line manager they needed to reduce my work-load. They called my bluff (as they saw it) and tried to load even more work on me to cover for somebody who had been made redundant: I handed my notice in. I have no regrets other than not having done so soon.

Maria
Maria

I should have done the same. I had a heart attack brought on by stress from an extremely toxic work environment. The CEOs wife’s friend was put in charge of my area and she hated me.I went from being viewed as the best most efficient worker by the CEO and everyone, to being viewed as a screw up, moron in less then a year. She’d actually come within a half inch of my face and scream at the top of her lungs, I could feel the spittle. It took everything I had not to knock her unconscious, but I’m a… Read more »