Top 4 worst corporate cultures: #2 “This is an abusive culture”

Is your workplace abusive? Definitely worthy of the #2 slot on this countdown, abusive workplaces take huge tolls on everyone they touch. And I’m not just talking about physical abuse. I’m talking about cultures that foster mental and emotional abuse. The kind of abuse that wears on you over time until you begin to lose confidence and ultimately your own sense of identity. Here are some questions to determine if your workplace stacks up as abusive.

• Is your boss unstable? – Do you feel like you have to “walk on eggshells” when you are around your boss? When he or she is in one of those “bad moods,” do they often go off the handle and berate those around him or her? Tom’s boss was that way. It seems like his boss’ favorite word too use was “incompetent” when he lost his temper. And he didn’t just say it in passing. No. Tom’s boss would look someone dead in the eye and call them incompetent to their face. In fact, Tom heard it so often, he began to believe it.

• Do you routinely feel a combination of the following emotions: guilty, “bad,” incompetent, and worthless? – In abusive workplaces, just like in abusive relationships, the abuser beats on the abused so frequently that that abused begins to believe that he or she deserves it. And in those situations, the abused begins to feel some combination of these emotions on a regular basis: guilty, “bad,” incompetent, and worthless. If this is true for you, this is not healthy. Get help.

• Does your boss (or others in management roles) frequently call employees names? – If the leadership of your workplace uses name-calling as a way to release their frustrations on others, be wary. That’s not only unacceptable, but it is fostering an abusive workplace. Listen for phrases like: “idiot, incompetent, loser, worthless” as well as any profanity directed at another person as signs that you are not working with adults.

• Do you feel UNPROTECTED by H.R. and/or senior leadership? – Do you get the sense that if you tell human resources or other members of leadership about what’s been going on, the beatings will only get worse? This is a sign that not only has the abuse permeated all parts of the culture, but that it has become accepted. Sickening.


Abusive cultures are not something to be taken lightly. The longer you stay, the weaker your confidence becomes making it more difficult to leave. Worse yet, you may actually begin to believe you deserve the abuse. A very fair analogy is to compare abusive workplaces with abusive personal relationships:

1. Try to change the culture – This DOES NOT WORK. Don’t kid yourself into believing you can change another person or believe that there is “hope” if you just stick it out. Those beliefs are dysfunctional in themselves. Imagine the abused spouse that says, “I know he/she loves me. If I just do things different/better next time, it will be different. He or she will change.” You can’t change another person – only they can do that. The same goes for cultures. Unless you are the senior leader, culture change at best is a decade long process. At worst, it never happens. Do you really want to give up that much of your life with such a slim probability? Are they really worth it? We both know that answer to that question.

2. Pack up and leave – This is your best strategy. But it’s not as simple as that. Abusive cultures and the leaders of those cultures tend to see people as either “good” or “bad.” Once you announce your departure, you become “bad.” “How dare you leave me!” becomes the mindset. You will likely receive one more round of abuse. Abusers believe that they can beat people into staying, into loving them. And when you do leave, they will do everything they can to hurt you. So what can you do? Get a “safe house.” Have another job lined up, move to another city, or spend time with friends / family. Just get away. I would also recommend changing industries. If an abuser thinks you’ve gone to a competitor, they will make it a personal goal to hurt you even after you have left. Don’t just leave – disappear.

3. Look at yourself – Finally, if you have found yourself in an abusive workplace, be gut-level honest with yourself. Are you drawn to these situations in your life? Do you have a history of other abusive workplaces and / or personal relationships? If so, you need to seek professional counseling to break this unhealthy and destructive pattern. It is not something that is to be taken lightly. Abusers only exist when others allow it. You have the power to stop the pattern and those perpetuating it with help.

Abusive cultures are dangerous stuff. They are made up of five year old bullies that never grew up. If you find yourself in an abusive culture, get help and get out. No one should ever feel as though they deserve that form of treatment or belittling. It’s unacceptable. And frankly, you are just too important to allow it to continue. Get some courage, stand up and get moving.


A note from Brandon
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5 replies
  1. Vicky Robinson says:

    Dear Brandon, I have recently handed in my notice with no job to go to after weeks of agonizing – I have some funds saved and so I’m good for a couple of months. For the first time in my life I’ve created emotional and mental space which will allow me to sit back and truly breathe. I’ve known in the last month or two that the organizational culture of the company I work for is abusive. In truth, I have known this for much longer than that but fate is a funny thing, she simply made the message louder and louder until I finally gave in and listened! I have a deep core faith that I will be ok and although I do not know where this is coming from I believe and trust it. I have also now acknowledged on a deeply personal level that I chose to stay in an environment which was abusive and understand why. It truly is like the doors of a cage have opened. Tonight I started to cry, a tired pattern, but then something wonderful happened, I started to laugh – my courage and my faith over rode it. I believe my faith brought me to your web-site this evening, I was in need of a little extra and this was perfect. Love and light, Vicky

  2. Brandon Smith says:

    What a wonderful note and reminder for all of us. Courage, faith and purpose can override even the toughest of times. I’m so very proud of you! Hang in there… and don’t be a stranger. That’s what I’m here for!


  3. Fred says:

    Dear Brandon – your series on worst corporate cultures really hits home. These describe the General Surgery residency program I am leaving. Specifically, Culture 2, 3, and 4. Your advice is on the spot – I got out and am happily starting an Anesthesia program at a well reputed hospital. Interestingly, my new colleagues knew about the reputation of my former program (something I seem to have missed the memo on when I appled!).

    Culture 2 I believe is very true of many medical residency programs, and especially General Surgery, across the country – but not of all. You would be well served in doing a special on the corporate culture of residency training, with its special features and demands. I would be very interested in learning more about how different fields grew their culture and how different programs grew theirs within the same field. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss.

    Thank you for your insightful post, you truly have a great understanding of cultural psychology.

  4. Brandon Smith says:

    Thanks Fred for your kind comments and congrats on making the move! Cultures are tough to change if you don’t sit on the top. I would welcome the opportunity to connect and discuss culture in more depth. One of my passions!

  5. Julie Child says:

    My employer was exactly as you mentioned. I quit on Saturday and I feel as free as a bird. Like you said, there is no changing the situation. I felt I could fix things and after 2 years, it became very clear to me that it was impossible. Thanks for your article. It helped me to leave.

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