Career / Essays & Confessions

The Toxic Tech Startup & 7 More Workplace Horror Stories

By Wednesday, May 19, 2021

When it comes to finding the perfect job, it’s a lot like finding the perfect partner: You have to go through a lot of options before discovering ~the one.~ And even when you find the one, chances are, they’re not as great as you envisioned. That said, while no job (just like no partner) is perfect, there are plenty out there that are downright terrible. Whether you love your career or hate every second you’re clocked in, these workplace horror stories will help you get through another day of meetings that could have been emails. 

Before diving into eight of the most shudder-inducing work stories ever, though, let’s unpack what makes a job suck. Sometimes it’s the boss, sometimes it’s the environment, sometimes it’s the pay, and sometimes it’s just not the right fit for you. Whatever the reason, being in a job you despise is unfortunately common. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, but like most things in life: Misery loves company. 

So, if you’re hiding in the bathroom on your lunch break or considering calling in sick because the thought of logging into Slack is making you feel nauseous, these scary workplace stories from eight very different employees might make you feel a little better about your own employment status.

1. The Toxic Tech Startup

Company type: Tech startup
Age at time of employment: Mid-twenties
Location of company: Sydney, Australia 

“I worked for a tech startup (AKA a rich CEO’s pet project) for two years. It was the epitome of a toxic environment. The CEO micromanaged us to the level that every single employee had to copy him on every single email whether it was internal or external. Before I sent an email, I had to print it out and show it to him. Then he would tell me to change it, make me print it again, and then sign off on it before I could send it. 

“The company had about 12 people on staff and I saw 25 people leave in my two years there. We weren’t allowed to have birthday cakes or celebrations when he was in the office, because we were told we weren’t allowed to be friends (outside of work). When one girl quit and refused to come back for an exit interview, I was forced to do the exit interview for her and punished for not telling them that she was thinking of leaving. 

“Our accountant position was a three day/week role, and about a year after we hired the latest one, the boss decided he wanted it to be a five day/week position. She had her daughter in daycare at a place that was full on the other two days, so he told her to ‘get a nanny or get a new job.’ I honestly lost count of how many crying people I comforted in the bathroom.” -KM

“The CEO micromanaged us to the level that every single employee had to copy him on every single email whether it was internal or external.”

2. The Bully Boss

Company type: Law firm
Age at time of employment: 24
Location of company: Little Rock, Arkansas 

“My boss had a reputation around central Arkansas that if you stayed there for at least six months without getting fired, anyone would hire you. You truly never knew what version of him you were going to get that day. 

“He once asked me to come into his office to put a piece of paper behind him on a shelf while sitting in a chair that had wheels on it. He also once called me into his office and asked me to shut the door so he could ask me what my last name was. I had been there for almost four months at that point, and we were friends on Facebook (he commonly commented on my posts.) He also once placed me at the front desk because he said I, ‘looked like a receptionist.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with being a receptionist, but I’m in my last semester of LAW SCHOOL and was being taken away from clerking duties because of the way I looked. He then took me off the front desk because he didn’t like how I spoke to one client. Instead of explaining his issues to me in private, he yelled at me in front of every single person who worked there. 

“Ultimately, he was a bully. I had a drinking problem because that was the only way I knew how to cope. I left about three weeks ago, and my new boss described me as an ‘abused puppy.’ He’s so nice to me, I genuinely don’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t realize how bad it really was until I left.” -Anonymous 

3. The Hellish Boutique Hotel

Company type: Boutique hotel
Age at time of employment: 24
Location of company: Chautauqua, New York

“I worked for a boutique hotel (owned by a woman in her 80s) when I was 24 and a new mom. Although I was hired as a marketing coordinator, I acted as the housekeeper, cook, marketer, front desk person, dog walker, personal assistant. My boss even made me fill out her speeding tickets for her. She would change my schedule at a moment’s notice, which made childcare impossible. On more than one occasion, she’d call me on a Friday night at 10:30 p.m. asking me to come in at 8 a.m. on Saturday when I wasn’t supposed to be working.  

“When summer came, she hired students from Lithuania through a special program. In her contract, she was required to provide them with rooms. She instead tried to have them sleep on the dirty basement floor. When they refused, she called them entitled. One of these kids had a seizure while working there, and she tried to have the program let her fire him because ‘there was something wrong with him.’

“Additionally, the hotel had a policy that any cancelations, no matter how far out, were not subject to a refund. When customers would call and complain, my boss would make me tell them to get travel insurance and to lie to the insurance company about the date and the reason for the cancellation. So basically, I was required to tell these people to commit insurance fraud.

“She would regularly yell at all the staff and call us all entitled for having basic standards when it came to a job. I was ultimately fired because she wanted me to be the nighttime front desk person, and I told her I couldn’t make that work with a child.” -Samantha

4. The Covid Ignorant Lawfirm

Company type: Law firm
Age at time of employment: Mid-twenties
Location of company: Baltimore, Maryland

“Where to start? They didn’t let us work remotely for covid. They made us come in every day and didn’t require masks. They wanted us to share offices, and they didn’t let us stay home when sick during the pandemic. People would be at the office coughing, other workers would complain, and the sick employee was still not allowed to go home.

“My coworker’s dad had coronavirus, and she’d been exposed. She was told to still come in and not mention her exposure.”

My coworker’s dad had coronavirus, and she’d been exposed. She was told to still come in and not mention her exposure. She wasn’t allowed to quarantine. When one of our coworkers got covid, we still had to come back in person the next day and couldn’t do the 14-day quarantine the CDC recommended.

“Naturally, turnover there was really high. All the positive reviews on Glassdoor are fake, and the management spends time arguing back against the negative reviews. In the same sentence, they said they wanted us to have more work-life balance, but expected us to be in the office on weekends. I almost got fired for taking time off to see a sick relative.” -Anonymous

5. The Extra Invasive Manager

Company type: Nonprofit 
Age at time of employment: 24
Location of company: Washington, DC

“Just a few days into my new job at a small nonprofit, I realized things were off. The workday started at 9 a.m. but our manager rolled in every day at noon, spewing excuses on the way to her desk. She spent most of the day socializing with us, taking personal calls, going out ‘to run errands,’ and rarely training us. 

“During lunch on my third day, she decided it was suitable to tell us a horrible story about a recent death in her family. I lost my appetite and found myself hiding in the bathroom, which would become a safe space for me and my other newly hired coworker. 

“The moment I started looking for another job occurred during my first month. The manager took me, my coworker, and the executive assistant to lunch at a famous (and overly hyped) DC foodie spot. She started the lunch by openly discussing her dissatisfaction with the director’s decisions and leadership style. We were uncomfortable but listened to her rant. 

“By the time our main entrees arrived, the conversation had turned to us. ‘What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?’ And then: ‘How far in debt are you with your student loans? What’s your monthly payment like?’ It got worse: ‘What’s your menstrual cycle like? When are you going to have babies? Has the gynecologist checked on your uterine health lately?’

“It took everything in me not to slither under the table and escape the barrage of strange, invasive questions. We were clearly appalled, gave vague non-answers, and hurried through our meals as quickly as we could. The bullying and manipulation started a few weeks later, marked by an event where she locked me in her office to scream at me about a decision I made. True to the vows I made to myself, I’ve never returned to that restaurant, and I got the hell out of that job as soon as I could. ” -Anonymous

6. The Senior Sexter

Company type: Law firm
Age at time of employment: 20
Location of company: West Virginia

“A few months into my first major internship at a local law firm, a senior attorney, ‘Ms. E,’ asked me to get her phone from her car. I rolled my eyes as she turned away, but grabbed her keys and my own phone and headed to the parking garage. After finding her phone, I began my trek back to our building, with both phones in hand. Realizing that I probably need to get back to campus soon for my next class, I checked the time on my iPhone — only it wasn’t my iPhone. It was Ms. E’s. 

“Needless to say, I saw something I shouldn’t have seen sent from a senior partner. So I did what any 20-year-old with hot gossip would do: I Snapchatted a quick pic of her phone screen to a co-worker who’d recently quit. He didn’t work there anymore, so no harm, no foul right? If only. 

“Three weeks later, three attorneys and a stenographer from Chicago were waiting for me in a conference room. They took my deposition and asked if I’ve ever felt sexually harassed at work.”

“He saved the picture and shared it with his fraternity brother, Brad, who still worked at the firm. And of course, Brad. Spilled. Everything. We had individual meetings with HR. They asked for timelines, screenshots, any and everything we knew. Three weeks later, three attorneys and a stenographer from Chicago were waiting for me in a conference room. They took my deposition and asked if I’ve ever felt sexually harassed at work. ‘Did I believe the message was intended for me? What did I intend to do with this information?’ 

“Absolutely shitting my pants, I explained that Snapchat only showed pictures for 30 seconds and that I expected all evidence of infidelity to be erased from existence moments after it was received. They seem satisfied enough and sent me on my way. 

“As I left work that evening, I popped into the boutique next to our office, and I (physically) bumped into none other than the senior partner who tells me he’s PICIKING OUT A GIFT FOR HIS WIFE and asks my opinion on two handbags. Over the next few months, he took me under his wing, gave me LSAT advice and law school study aids, and even wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for my law school applications. I don’t think he ever found out what happened, but I’ll be damned if I ever tell a man another secret.” -Anonymous

7. The Super Controlling CEO

Company type: Software
Age at time of employment: Twenties
Location of company: Scottsdale, Arizona

“Fresh out of my first postgrad job, I interviewed with the marketing VP of a small — three-person total — software startup. I wasn’t super interested, but I could tell the VP really liked me, so I figured I might be able to leverage a good offer. Before the interview, I stopped in the bathroom and of course, realized I had just gotten my period (almost a week early). Not great, considering I was in white slacks and didn’t have a tampon. The interview was more or less a formality, so I was dying to get out of there before I bled through my wad of toilet paper and onto their couch. 

“I stopped in the bathroom and of course, realized I had just gotten my period. Not great, considering I was in white slacks and didn’t have a tampon.”

“Fast forward a few days: I got an offer with a start date of a week later. I showed up at the office at 9 a.m. on my first day and only the CEO was there. When I knocked on his door, his face drained of color. He said he didn’t think I’d show up since he got ‘such bad vibes’ from me during my third interview, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to hire me after all. 

“I got sent away until 10 a.m. when the marketing VP would be in. When I came back, the three of us had a closed-door meeting where the CEO asked if I ‘wanted A job or THIS job.’ Rent was due in two weeks, so I lied through my teeth and got to stay. 

“That first day was more or less an indicator of the nine months I’d spend there: no communication between coworkers, the CEO constantly changing his mind, extreme micromanagement, and always being asked to ‘do more’ with the social media channels (even though there was no budget). It all ended with the VP calling me while I was on vacation and letting me know the CEO decided on a whim that I didn’t have a job to come back to. No severance, no opportunity to grab the stuff at my desk. It was by far the worst job I’ve ever had.” -Taylor

8. The Editor With An Erotic Alter Ego

Company type: Media
Age at time of employment: 22
Location of company: Toronto, Canada

“I was a staff writer at a trade magazine, and my boss — the editor — was the only other full-time employee dedicated to that publication. It was a weird start: My first interview was on the floor of a bookstore because the nearby Starbucks was full. My second interview involved the editor pulling up a BBC article on his computer, setting a timer for six minutes, and asking me to summarize it. He said that if there was one factual error, the interview would be over then and there. 

“Once I got the job, things stayed weird. My boss refused to provide deadlines because he insisted I’d just ask for more time anyways. He would call me over to his desk, announce my article ‘needed serious surgery,’ and would proceed to loudly criticize it for half an hour. In a meeting with the art team, he learned that his idea for a cover photo wouldn’t be feasible, so he walked over to the wall and started kicking it. 

“He was a white Canadian man and wrote erotica novels as an Oxford-educated British Black woman…”

“The strangest part was that my boss also had a side gig writing fiction. He occasionally alluded to some romance books he’d written under a pen name, so I did some Googling. It turns out, the pen ‘name’ was really a pen ‘identity.’ He wrote these novels as an Oxford-educated British Black woman (he was a white Canadian man). He ended up admitting this, saying he’d been invited to appear at a romance writers’ convention but had to turn it down because he wasn’t, in fact, a Black woman.

“The romance books, naturally, included some seriously racy erotica. His LinkedIn page included a link to his personal blog, where there was a post about it. In the post, my boss mentioned that sometimes the scenes he wrote turned him on so much, he had to take a break to masturbate.

“I left after about a year, and my replacement only lasted a month. Thankfully, she complained to the publisher and to HR. Shortly after she resigned, my boss was terminated. A slight victory? I think yes.” -Sara

***

The next time you’re dreading another day at work, remember: At least you didn’t accidentally discover your boss’s erotic alter ego!

(Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Rachel Varina is a social media, digital marketing, and editorial expert living in sunny Tampa, Florida. When she’s not creating content or collaborating with brands, you can catch her devouring thriller novels and supporting pineapple in the great pizza debate with her husband and two rescue pups by her side. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Image via Unsplash

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