A few months ago, I left a tech job at a small company that turned out to be nothing like I thought it was. While I worked there, it seemed terribly run and I felt physically ill and depressed every day, but it was only after I left that I found out I’d been lied to about many things and my experience was not unique.
The other people who quit or were fired before and after me all got in touch with one another to exchange information. We all realized we’d had similarly distressing experiences with a ton of gaslighting and toxic behavior from bosses who believed they had magical, godlike powers. (I know those terms are overused, but sometimes they are accurate, and it seems to have all been strategically done to break us down and keep us isolated.)
This company openly claims to hire and support diverse people. While the workplace is genuinely diverse across race, gender, neurodivergence, and other lines, several people’s minority status was used against them. For example, people with mental illness or learning disabilities were told they’d never get hired elsewhere or be able to keep another job, and stories about other tech companies’ abusive environments were shared with the team as if to warn them about the outside world.
We are all happy to be out of there, but here’s the thing: Some people are still in, including several junior employees who haven’t worked anywhere else. Every few months, more people leave, and more young, diverse employees get hired who are surely excited to work for a company that seems to care so much.
We all feel worried about them but also know they may not appreciate any sort of reaching out — and we’re worried about the legal implications. I’m also not thrilled with the idea of convincing anybody to leave a paying job right now, however much it will traumatize them.
When you leave an abusive workplace, what is your ethical duty to those who remain, if any?
I commend you for finding your way out of a toxic workplace that was destroying your mental and physical health. It’s hard to be happy with your life if your work environment isn’t what you’d like it to be; we spend 40+ hours per week working, and we can’t make up for it with a few nonworking or sleeping hours each day and weekends packed with errands.
In short, you do not have any obligation to warn prospective candidates or new employees about a toxic workplace that you experienced, and I caution against it in most circumstances.
First and foremost, there may be legal implications. Before proactively speaking with anyone, I recommend reviewing the company’s employee manual and your original offer letter for language around defamation and responsibilities you may have as a former employee. It’s one thing to speak with past colleagues about your experience and keep in touch, but it’s a completely different scenario if you’re organizing to poach current employees or warn prospective ones about the working conditions you experienced. Most companies have public-relations, communications, and legal teams on the lookout for how their company’s name is being mentioned. It’s not worth it emotionally or financially to get into legal trouble over a workplace you’ve left.
Second, as time passes, the company may make changes to improve the toxic work culture you dealt with during your tenure. The longer it has been since you’ve left, the less “in touch” you’ll be with what the company is or is not doing to improve its environment. The dynamics will inevitably change as employees who contributed to the toxic culture move on in their own careers. Now, you may be rolling your eyes while reading this because, based on your experience, you’re convinced that your former employer could care less about its people. Yet if attrition among diverse employees is as high as you’re implying, it will catch up to the company in time and something will have to be addressed. It won’t happen overnight, but it may happen gradually.
As a DE&I consultant, I can attest to how long it may take for an initiative my team launches to impact the greater company. Often, the first step we take is to conduct an updated engagement survey and host companywide roundtables to gain insights on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to the company’s current environment and DE&I initiatives. We then prioritize a list of recommended changes that generally get spread out over a one-to-three-year implementation period. No matter how many communications we send or town halls we present, there are always employees who have no idea about the changes happening based on feedback from past and current employees. This is not a perfect science, and there’s no clear timeline for how long it takes a company culture to “feel” different.
If you still feel compelled to share your experience and warn prospective employees about your former workplace, I recommend using a site like Glassdoor to provide anonymous feedback. As much as you may want to grab a sign and protest in front of the company’s HQ, it’s important to remember that it’s each individual’s responsibility to vet an employer before signing an offer letter. Candidates should conduct their own informational interviews with their network, review Glassdoor, and ask the hiring manager questions to ensure they will be comfortable accepting an offer. One of my favorite interview questions is, What’s the reason my predecessor left this role? Will the hiring manager tell the truth if it’s a negative reason that may reflect poorly on the company? Most likely not, but you can read between the lines of the answer to gather some much-needed insight about the organization.
Last but not least, it’s not your job to convince anyone to leave a toxic work environment. Similar to ending a bad relationship with a partner or friend, only the people in that relationship can make the decision to work things out, tolerate the bad behavior, or end it. It feels terrible watching people engage in relationships you know are harmful to them, and you may even have the time, energy, or resources to take an active part in helping them leave your former employer. But they have to make that decision for themselves.