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On Toxic Jobs, Low Self-Esteem, & Interviewing

I recently received the following question: Hi Rachel, I am a software engineer who is dealing with low self esteem. There are people at work who constantly belittle me and it is very subtle. I constantly get demotivated and find my confidence going lower and lower. I decided to find a new job but this confidence is affecting all my interviews. What is your advice?

Advice when you are in a toxic work environment

Based on my own experience and the experience of friends, if you think your job is at least somewhat toxic, it’s probably even worse than you realize. Toxic jobs often cause you to doubt your own perceptions, skew your sense of what’s normal, and require some level of cognitive dissonance just to continue going to work in the mornings. It’s often not until you’re out of them that you can truly see the depth of the toxicity. Below are some steps for coping.

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat
  1. Be kind to yourself. Remember that you do not need to be perfect to deserve basic human kindness and decency. Toxic work environments make you feel like it’s your fault. It’s easy to think if only you were more brilliant, more efficient, and more resilient, you wouldn’t be having these problems. Think of how you would respond to a friend that you cared about who was being mistreated at work, and try to show that same level of kindness to yourself.
  2. Find a good therapist. You may have to try a few. Don’t continue with someone who doesn’t seem helpful. I highly recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). If you can afford it, I think therapy is an excellent investment. Many therapists offer a sliding scale for low-income patients. If cost prohibitive, here is a list of Free and Low-Cost Mental Health Resources.
  3. Try to do things that you enjoy and that help you feel good about yourself — whether that is baking a recipe you love, hiking outdoors, knitting, trying a new board game, or spending time with supportive friends. I also find that regular physical activity, particularly weight lifting and yoga, are good for my mood and for my self-esteem.
  4. Stay in touch or reconnect with friends outside your workplace. Toxic work environments can be very isolating. Try to be open about what’s going on, as toxic work environments can feel embarrassing or shameful.
  5. Stay in touch with your professional network, and attend meetups and conferences as you are able. This can be tough when you are over-worked, on the brink of burnout, or being isolated by your employer. This is also what will help you find another job when you’re ready and can remind you of what is normal.
  6. Take a vacation. If at all possible, take a vacation where you completely unplug from email/Slack and relax. Down-time is important to our health, creativity, and ability to reflect on our lives. I take an annual trip with a group of college girlfriends, and one year I made a number of positive, life-changing decisions immediately afterwards (switching careers and making a cross-country move). I credit the time away with making those decisions possible.
  7. Document work incidences (not on a work computer/work account), particularly if you are dealing with shifting goals, contradictory/changing requirements, people “mis-remembering” conversations, or anything else that is aggravating or disturbing. Even if you have no plans of pursuing the matter with HR or a lawyer, this can be helpful for your own sanity and to recognize patterns.
  8. Go for walks outside when you need to calm down after a bad encounter.
  9. Find people inside the organization who would be potential references that you can focus on building a good relationship with, even if your direct manager or team is toxic. Trying to switch teams internally is sometimes a solution as well.
  10. Being part of an underrepresented minority at work can be alienating, so if this is the case for you, try to find time outside of work where you are able to be with people who share your racial or cultural background, or your sexual identity or gender. Online communities can be useful for this as well.
  11. For women in particular, low self-esteem is often framed as some sort of personal failing that they just need to try harder to overcome, but it’s helpful to remember that low self-esteem is a completely rational response to a culture that spends so much time tearing women down and denying their perceptions and experiences.

Is leaving even an option?

In my experience, people in the tech industry consistently underestimate their employability and how many options they have. I regularly talk to people who are miserable in their current jobs, have highly in-demand skills, and yet are convinced that they probably couldn’t find another job and don’t even bother applying. And I understand, because part of toxic jobs is making you feel like the problem is you, not the job. But please apply!

For parents who are supporting children, non-US residents who are reliant on work visas, people with chronic health conditions, and many others, quitting a job without another one lined up is usually not an option. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to do that! In the tech industry, a large number of companies are hiring and there is almost no stigma for switching jobs. I have been on several hiring committees which hired several people each with several less-than-1-year job stints. (This is not true for many other industries.) In my experience, most people seem aware that a lot of tech companies are dysfunctional or toxic.

Your Health

I know people that have developed permanent, chronic health conditions while in toxic work environments. I think most people underestimate the cost of staying in a bad environment. Your health is so valuable; it really is what makes everything else possible.

How to find the time needed to leave?

An employee at a small startup wrote that her job was so stressful and time-consuming that she felt unable to even find the time or mental space to apply for other jobs (even though she knew she needs to leave), and Captain Awkward gave her some excellent advice. In particular, she recommends setting a concrete quit date (even if it’s months or a year into the future) and strategies for setting boundaries with work to carve out time for regular effort on the job search. Her advice includes lots of practical tips, so please read the whole article.

Surviving the Interview Process

Unfortunately, interviewing in the tech industry can be terrible, even when your self-esteem is okay. I recommend pre-emptively taking most of the steps I listed in the “toxic environment” section for anyone interviewing for a job: find a good therapist, make sure you are spending at least some time doing things you enjoy, and stay connected with your friends. Try to schedule a little treat for yourself after each interview, regardless of how it goes, even if the treat is something small like taking a hot bath, enjoying your favorite ice cream, or a phone call with a friend.

photo from #WOCinTech Chat

I know it’s easier said than believed, but many job rejections are not about you. Being an interviewer at a company that was rapidly hiring was eye-opening for me: so many of the hiring decisions made were totally inconsistent and often influenced by random factors that the candidate was unaware of. There is so much beyond your control, such as who happens to be assigned to interview you and there may be conflicts between what different stakeholders are even looking for in a candidate. The good news is that in many ways, getting a job is a numbers process. You just need to apply to many places. (With all the usual caveats that many jobs are gotten through your network, so try to use your network as much as possible when applying).

Career guidance: I checked What Color is Your Parachute? out from the library and worked through all the exercises as part of one career search (while in a toxic job). Years later in a different toxic job, I had several meetings with a private career counselor. Both involved various assessments of my skills, values, and priorities that I found useful, and helped me clarify what I wanted in my next job. In one case, I was surprised that many of the things I’m good at are even considered “skills” since they were so completely unappreciated by the company I worked for at the time.

Note: There is a bunch of other advice out there on how to study and prepare for coding interviews and how to reach out to your network, so I’m not covering that here. I do think it can be helpful to seek out a study group or meetup of others preparing for coding interviews as well. And again, try not to feel too discouraged about interviews that go poorly. Pretty much everyone has had embarrassing or disastrous interview experiences at some point!

A note about Illegal treatment

If you are experiencing harassment or illegal treatment, a friend of mine who is an employment lawyer offered the following advice: “Please talk with a plaintiffs’ employment lawyer EARLY — before you lose your job. There are a lot of options other than a lawsuit and most of these toxic situations are settled early with a nice severance and a new start — if you work with a lawyer early and document well.” As she suggests, don’t hesitate to talk to a lawyer about your particular situation (even if you are not sure whether you need a lawyer or not).

If you are pressured to sign non-disparagement agreements or documents waiving your right to sue as you are leaving, know that it’s your right (and perfectly reasonable) to have a lawyer look over these documents first. Be skeptical whenever anyone tries to get you to sign anything with urgent or arbitrary deadlines (creating a false sense of time pressure is a manipulation tactic).

At the same time, if you do not have the money, the energy, or the resources to contest illegal treatment by your employer, be kind to yourself. I know many people sign non-disparagements or drop their harassment claims because they really need the health insurance or few weeks salary that will come with their severance package, or they are just exhausted and want to move on. If this happens to you, it’s awful that your employer put you in that situation and awful that the USA doesn’t have a better social safety net or universal health care, but don’t blame yourself for doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.

photo from #WOCinTech Chat

Hope for Recovery

Engineer Cate Huston writes about her experience 6 months after leaving a toxic job in “Honey, I left the tech industry”. She shares several of the surprising benefits she discovered, such as greater confidence, rediscovering her joy of programming, learning more, and rediscovering her own opinions.

I have twice been in ultra-toxic work environments, and both times it was devastating. It derailed career dreams that I had worked hard and made sacrifices for over the course of years. It caused me to lose interest in topics and work that I had previously loved. I found therapy, exercise, and the support of friends helpful, although in both cases I had to leave the toxic environment before I could really recover. Each time, I found a job that was a much better fit, and today I am the happiest professionally that I’ve ever been. Your ability to recognize the problems with your current employer is a sign that you are already on the right track. I want to offer you hope that you can leave your toxic job and find increased confidence again!

I write an Ask-A-Data-Scientist advice column at fast.ai. My most popular Medium posts are “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention” and “The Real Reason Women Quit Tech (and How to Address It).”