Career/Essays & Confessions

3 Signs Your Boss May Actually Be Super Toxic — & 5 Rights You Have To Protect Yourself

By | Saturday, December 12, 2020

“First, I was praised and beloved. Then, I was disliked and dismissed…” 

“What’s holding you back from saying ‘yes?’” my potential new boss asked during a final interview in which she verbally extended a job offer to me.

She could tell I was a bit hesitant to accept the offer even though everything looked great on paper – great pay, more one-on-one client work, lots of room for growth, and more responsibility. So I answered her honestly: “I’m concerned about working with you.” 

Throughout the interview process, she seemed constantly stressed, distracted, and hurriedly asked questions one after another without much pause. I told her I worried that it’d be too intense working with her, and that I wanted to be in a role where it was okay to slow down and take things as they come. I also mentioned this role would be entirely new to me and I would need more support to get up to speed. 

She quickly worked to address and assuage my fears. While the company moved fast, she assured me that she’d have room to mentor me and support the pace I worked at, so long as I met all deadlines. That seemed reasonable to me; so I accepted and pushed aside my concerns. I figured it was just “Imposter syndrome” telling me I wasn’t good enough to handle a role that required more responsibility and had a steep learning curve. 

However, months later, my first impression proved to be right. The longer I worked at the company, the worse the dynamic between myself and my now ‘former boss’ became. The harder I tried to please her by adjusting my efforts to match her feedback, the more critical and negative she became. As the only Black woman at the company, I was afraid to speak up. I eventually spoke to Human Resources about our communication problems but by then the damage had been done.

As I look back, there were three things she did that raised red flags and presented a fuller picture of a more toxic and racist working relationship. 

Pet To Threat Phenomena 

Initially, when I first joined the company, I was praised for taking on a new and challenging role, while being the only Black woman at the company. My manager and others repeatedly said they wanted my new ideas and fresh perspective. As time went on and I started to get used to the role, I started speaking up more and presented ideas to my manager about improving processes, documentation, and client relationships. Yet. I was constantly shot down, even though others ideas were being heard and implemented. I was often told my ideas didn’t “fit into the system already in place.”

First, I was praised and beloved. Then, I was disliked and dismissed.

I found my former manager’s dismissal frustrating and odd considering her initial eagerness upon hiring me. I learned months later that I was stuck in the “Pet to Threat” phenomena, common among Black women and other women of color in the workplace. First, I was praised and beloved as long as I stayed within the confines as to what’s acceptable. Then, I was disliked and dismissed. This was my first warning and signal that something might be amiss. 

Excess Criticism

In the beginning months, I was given time to adjust, read documents on the company, and get up to speed on the clients I’d be managing in the new field I was in. Over time, my manager didn’t only just check my general client deliverables, she combed through every single email, and sat in on most of my client calls, expressing that she’d become concerned as to whether or not I was leading them incorrectly.

At first, this felt normal. I thought maybe my boss just wanted to double check my work. But with time, it slowly became unmanageable when in most one-on-one meetings, or even in front of colleagues, she would criticize my email tone, the words I chose to use, and even the questions I asked clients — all things that she claimed to be concerned about. When I asked how I could communicate better, she said that it was something I ‘should just know how to do.’ Nothing was good enough for her. That was my second warning sign.

Nothing I did was ever good enough for her…

Tone Policing

Lastly, as I spoke up more and more to my boss about the progress I’d made with client work, she started to question my tone of voice in both calls and emails. She even once gave me the feedback that my tone came off “cold” or that I was being “too aggressive” in my language and follow-ups. I told her I was simply expressing urgency to the client and without their response, we’d miss the project deadline. 

With this feedback, I tried to tone it down and amp up the warmth that I’d normally would exude in person.

Later, I realized she was tone policing me. Tone policing is the action or practice of criticizing the angry or emotional manner in which a person has expressed a point of view, rather than addressing the substance of the point itself. It was the final straw that reminded me something was off and I wasn’t crazy for thinking that. Luckily, I eventually got out of that situation and far away from that manager.

Unfortunately, these experiences with bosses are all too common. To gain a deeper perspective on how to better handle this, I spoke with two HR professionals, Tameika Scott and an anonymous HR professional. Tameika Scott has been in HR for over 15 years and currently is the Founder & CEO of Employee of Choice, Inc. and the MyZolve workplace advocacy brand. The other anonymous HR professional has worked in HR for four years in the tech startup sector. 

In our conversations, there were five ways they recommended to protect yourself or someone you know, in a similar situation: 

1. Document, document, document

The first recommendation and probably the most important one – is to document your experiences. Keep a document full of what’s happening and, equally as important, when it happened. Screenshot any conversations you’ve had via text, email or workroom chatrooms, and write down any in-person verbal discussions you think show discriminatory behavior.

Think about it, how they think about it.

2. Educate yourself on EEOC laws and your company’s policies

Secondly, be educated about the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laws as well as laws applicable to your specific state, and any other company policies that could be relevant. Tameika Scott echoed, “Think about it, how they think about it.” By approaching the issue from an HR and company perspective, you can be knowledgeable about what specific policy or guideline your manager failed to adhere to and what disciplinary actions are in place. 

3. Go on the record with HR

Third, this one might be the hardest one. I know it’s one I struggled with when I was going through it at a previous company. 

Once you get documentation and you’ve reviewed your work policies, it is crucial that you voice your concerns to a HR representative and your manager at your company. Scott noted that it’s important to “speak up and let the company know what you’re feeling, and say if you’re uncomfortable.”

By officially filing a complaint and having a discussion with your manager, you have clear evidence that both you and the company know about what your manager has done. Even if you don’t entirely trust your HR representative, it needs to be on the record, and they have a legal obligation to file and document everything. If need be, these records could present evidence for changes to company policies and even help with future legal proceedings, if necessary. 

4. Request a neutral third party in meetings with your manager 

Next, If you’ve done all of the above and you feel particularly, psychologically unsafe being with your manager alone, it’s advisable to have a neutral third party join your meetings. This would ideally be someone from HR, but if no one is available, it can be someone you’re comfortable with within the company, or another supervisor. I ended up pulling HR into my final discussions with my manager because I wanted that neutrality in the room and for someone else at the company to witness her poor treatment. This third party can also help diffuse the situation and make sure things don’t get out of hand. 

5. Protect your mental health

Last but not least, fighting any kind of discrimination and experiencing conflict with your manager or boss can be very stressful. That kind of behavior and treatment can be waring and even lead to nervous breakdowns. Before you potentially get to that point, try your best to take care of your mental health with a therapist or someone you trust to vent about your situation and who can offer emotional support. Personally, I relied on trusted family and friends who echoed back to me that the situation was wrong and reminded me of my options. 

If this all sounds overwhelming and you need resources to help you, I recommend using the MyZolve application or contacting Corporate Alley Cat; they provide support in navigating difficult situations in the workplace. Tameika created the MyZolve application specifically to help employees have an advocate for when they feel something discriminatory is happening, and MyZolve covers all of the suggestions above. It has a self-help tool where you can ask questions about potential workplace issues with action steps, gather documentation, and even chat with an employee advocate who’s an HR expert, or schedule a one-on-one call with said advocate. It’s an application I wish I had when I was going through my situation. 

By identifying these toxic behaviors and following the suggestions above, you are taking the first steps to changing your work situation for the better, or just getting out of it, entirely. By doing so, you can protect yourself your mental health during a very stressful time.

You’re not crazy for thinking something — or someone — is not quite right.


Know you are not alone in experiencing this and you’re not crazy for thinking something — or someone — is not quite right. Trust your gut and do what you can to either better the situation you’re in, or leave it if there’s no hope. You’ll be thankful you did. I know I am. 

Hope Lewis is a freelance writer and author of “A Student’s Guide to Being Happy in Argentina” who can often be found reading a new Black romance novel or meditating before her morning chai latte. You can connect with her on Instagram.

Image via Pexels

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