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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9 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.

  6. Katie says:

    I am a very competent and highly skilled person. I know I am good at my job but over the past 8 months my boss has taken control away from me and effectively prevented me from doing it. I told her in a 1:1 that I was struggling and feeling stressed and that I felt I would work more effectivly if I had some more control back. She was very sympathetic but refused to allow any changes and continued to make demands I couldnt meet becasue she was controling all I did and wouldnt give me any space to prioritise. Others had left our department and she used that as a reason to justify taking control back centraly to her in order to prioritise. Eventualy I burnt out and had 2 months off- on return her husband had become my line manager, with her above him. She used a very sympathetic approach which listented to all my problems and was very sympathetic towards my stress and I feel started to actualy use this as a way to justify taking responsibilities off me, her husband used a no nonsence approaceh, so your exhausted on return to work after 2 months sick, well take a lie down lunch time, but I will still require you to travel away from your office base to a location over 2 hours away and effectively work a 10 hour day. He made out I was being petty when I returned to occ health and presented him with the facts about my return to work. He wont accept that there are limits on what it is possible for me to do in the time I have- he required me to work some time over teaching in a remopte location and to take it back from my administration time the next day. I pointed out that this would given me less time to get reports ready for when I was due to go on leave. He asked me why I was getting behind. I told him I wasnt I was just pointing out that I would have less time tomorow as he was reducing the hours I could spend. He told me to send him an e-mail explaining why I was short on time- it was as though I was short on time because I was managing my workload badly- even though these reports are monthly- there where two weeks till they where due they take 1/2 a day to do and I am also required to do data collection which takes 1/2 a day each week. I could only do one or the other the next day. In addition I was due to go on AL the week the reports where due so they he needed to be aware that I he couldnt take any more time off me the following week otherwise I wouldnt be able to do them. I wrote him the e-mail, listing what time I had worked that week, where admin time had been given over to teaching and listed my work load highlighting the most pressing items in line with his priorities.
    He sent me an e-mail back asking why I was getting so far behind.
    He takes this no nonsence you must do everything you need to approach- regardless of the time I actualy am given to do it in. He has also done other things to undermine my ability to do my job- he decided to centralise training kit at his hospital- 1.5 hours from where I work, because he thought that would be easier and he is aware I have far less teaching kit than everyone else to do my job (no kit to use powerpoint on) but even though this has existed for years I am critisised for not doing traiing the same way that he does. There is spare kit in his location but he always makes excuses about it being needed for some upcoming event- but then even though there is a possibility for us to get more kit he makes excuses that we cant order it because we have sufficient. Then he gives me a broken lap top and tells me to get IT to fix it (even thought they have failed to fix it in the past). Sorry this is getting long winded- I was starting to feel desperate again, I didnt want to go off sick, I love my job when my managers are not involved and I have fantastic feed back from my teaching. I had great traiing figures from periods of time when I was allowed to plan training myself. And I felt my senior line manager must be great because she had been so understanding when I talked to her about my stress. then I had a particularly frustrating conversation with her husband where he kept telling me that I needed to do something I just couldnt do. (As in get someone else to do their job) rather than accept it wasnt something I could do for them and try and suggest other solutions he just kept telling me we need to get that done. I eventualy gave up and said I’d do what I could. Then I realised there where more usefull thigns I could do to help achieve the results he needed and I e-mailed both my managers and explained what and why I intended to work on something different. I got no reply and later thanks for what I had done with a message to phone him to “sort things out” in the morning- I still had not been able to get the other person to do their job- they where not there- and the conversation focused on, why did the previous conversation upset me, why did he need to keep asking me the same thing over and over? What is the impact of not getting the other bit of work done (actual answer someone much higher up sees it not done on a report- good- they have the power to get the others to do their work so its not a bad thing, it will improve safety) his manner was of him trying to get me to see the error of my ways and still hasnt actualy acknowledged that I culd not do what he was asking me to do- eventualy I told him I was going to hang up because I couldnt see any other way out. Thats a big deal for me, I do anything anyone askes of me and I think the best of everyone, and I would have really liked to simply produce the work he was asking for but couldnt. I went to HR, they gave me a policy on dignity in the work place- I read it and thought well I’m not being harrased, and dont fit the protected characteristics, and my bosses arent bullys they are great people, they just want to get results and they are under a lot of pressure. If he realises how I felt he will be sorry and change. He didnt intend to upset me. But I couldnt shake that the descriptions of bullying behaviour where clearly the way they acted. I could actualy see it better in their responses to my colleagues. But I didnt think it was possible they could be doing it deliberatly. I had some really bad nights sleep, I didnt know how I could actualy get to work well with these people and actualy have the job satisfaction I needed. On returning to work I had adopted a just do what your paid/ asked to do and take your money home and dont care that you are not working effectively approach- this was in order not to get so stressed. but I didnt want another job, I didnt know how I could find one with the hours to suit my child care. I also thought that it was not the best way to find aonther job- by simply applying as a way to get out of what I was doing.
    I actualy looked at a piece of sheet I have hung above my bed to help block out a street light and twirling it round in my hands thought about wrapping it round my neck. Fortunately I have children to live for and would not put them through finding me that way- but the thought scared me. Espescialy as I am actualy doing well with support from my GP in getting on top of my deppression and anxiety and counseling has also helped significantly.
    I read more and more about dignity at work and realised that there are a lot of tactics my boss has used to bully them, she has undermined my views of one colleague who to all intense and purposes seems to do a good job but my boss confides to me that she is getting into trouble due to the way she speaks to people (open, and honestly and direct) my boss also used to tell me that another colleagu lacked the emotional inteligence to do her job ( and that I didnt, so I was somehow better than my coleague with 10 more years experiance, and a dozen better qualifications, who was wonderfully supportive and kind to me). eventualy she left- saying she had a lot of respect for our line manager and wouldnt be what she was without her- but that she just couldnt seem to please her. I witnessed her being critisised regularly and even behind her back and also deinied AL when she requested it for no actual good reason. The term that it wouldnt benefit the department was often used. She took a sideways transfer and straight away told me she felt valued and appreciated and was given far more responsibilities.
    Another colleagu-is so damaged by them that she belives she couldnt work anywhere else. I am really worried about her.
    Another colleage left more recently. My counterpart in a different location seems to be mentaly quite resilient but is so overloaded with unsatisfactory poorly planed work that he will either leave or he will burn out.
    When my senior line manager arrived following my difficult conversation with her husband. she bustled in and seeing me upset, said right lets get you to occ health, she immediatly picked up the phone. Then when they couldnt see me immediatly she tried HR, then when she couldnt get through to them she told me to go home. I was clearly too upset to work. I was at that moment but I would be ok in a few minutes.
    I went to HR myself and they said I could stay in work. I realised that in her over sympathetic rush to recue me approach she had totaly disregarded what I may want and was actualy forcing me into a sick role that I didnt want to be in. If I’d gone home she could have continued with her poor “X”, she is just not able to cope with the demands of our organisation at this time, and she could continue to use that to make me reliant on her support and take away responsibilities from me.
    I realise now that I was in an abusive relationship. I didnt need the obvious bullying that some of my colleagues needed because I am the type of person who can be manipulated in a nice way, by giving me praise and keeping me, apparently in her confidence I was actualy seeing her abuse of others as a result of them just not telling her there was a problem. I think she may have been threatende by the loss of control she had when she alowed me to plan my own work load and possibly challenged by my better results- so she needed an excuse to bring me back into the fold. She gets a lot of priase from senior managements for her production of active results- she seems not so interested in them being meaningful results- as long as we can put figures in the boxes. and in this way she challenges my morals in giving the figurs to her.
    But the fact she gets results and is clearly well respected from above makes it harder to raise concerns about her methods.
    Reading dozens of articles over the weekend have really opened my eyes. My bosses may well not be bullies, they may well have everyones best interests at heart and are just misguided in their attempts to help- and I would prefer to see them in this way. But the reality is that there are currently at least 6 people that I know of who are in real danger from the abusive relationships we are in. And certainly 2 people who have left who also suffered. I have not cried at all since I had these revelations. I am good at my job. I am not depressed or emotionaly unstable. I am “disabled” only in that I am a human. I dont need their help to cope. I need respect and sufficient room to do my job. I have a proven record of being good at my job. I am seeing occ health tommorow. I will disclose all this and come up with a plan. I will also report my concerns about the bullying of my colleagues.
    I dont know if there is a solution to how they behave but I dont have to accept it and I am fortunate to work in a large organisation with a good HR department. I can ask for a transfer- but before that I am going to try and stick it out for a change in line maager for myself. I am no longer frightened. I feel strong and confident. Learning this has been like turning on a light bulb.

  7. Brandon Smith says:

    Thank you for your comment. It was rich, personal and empowering. If I can help in any way, don’t hesitate to ask.

  8. jaeson says:

    This is spot on where I work- for a local government office run by a bunch of crazies!
    It’s sad, my former bosses (at another government office) were nothing like where I work now.

    I get micromanaged from managers 2 to 3 levels above me. Just last week I was chewed out for a phone call with another employee who was “above my pay grade,” even though they are part of the parent organization!

    Everything down to small emails to people within our own Department has to be controlled and reviewed by managers 3 levels above me. My own team members cannot even make an agenda for a meeting they set up without extreme layers of review.

    Their reasoning is that they want things to be “excellent.” The reality is they want control. When things are not exactly as they desire we get chewed out.

    The office head recently made one of my workers cry because they were so rude towards the subordinate staff.

    The only thing I hear from people is how they want to retire (both managers and lower level staff), how they hate their jobs, and how they do not want to be there.

    I’ve even seen managers going home in tears..

    I’m getting my resignation letter ready to leave the hell hole.. I’m sick of it!

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