Toxic work culture: The national epidemic of horrible bosses
They initiate pay cuts for beards, have peons stalk you, and definitely don’t look like Jen Aniston
Toxic work culture is rampant. More widespread than HPV. While HPV, in some cases, goes away by itself, all you can do to survive workplace toxicity is either resign or grow skin thicker than leather. This epidemic has become staple conversation, generously punctuated with tequila shots and shots at their horrible bosses.
Huge workloads, unrealistic expectations and a difficult environment may seem like a personal hell that is designed to sabotage your mental space, and sometimes, lead to a physical breakdown—but they’re increasingly commonplace. According to psychologist Urvashi Bhatia, an increasing number of patients name toxic work culture as their main complaint.
Hitler-ish bosses are often cheered on by a silent spectator of an HR. Snide personal remarks and the culture of coteries often put Gossip Girl and Mean Girls to shame. The concoction of all these red flags increasingly result in employees giving up on their sanity, and ultimately, the jobs that they happen to love.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with comments made at work, bogged down with unrealistic demands, and are repeatedly questioning if a job should really be making you this miserable, you’re not alone. Read on for the instances that pushed dejected employees to finally jump ship.
Hrishita Agarwal, social media manager at a food app
“At one point, I worked for 21 days at a stretch. And we had to be available 24×7. If we didn’t reply to a text—even if it was sent after midnight—we would be humiliated on the office Whatsapp group. HR was equally scared of the boss because she was the founder. It affected my health; I was stress-eating, put on weight, and eventually got diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes. I finally landed another job, but even on my last day, she delayed my relieving letter and threatened to stop the process, saying things like ‘I will make sure you don’t get to leave. Just do your bloody job’ on the Whatsapp group. It was a living hell.”
Aniket Agrey, anchor for a home-shopping brand
“The toxic work culture ran on favouritism. Employees were expected to pamper and bribe the bosses—take them out for drinks to get more shows. Things got worse as they progressively introduced strange rules—like a pay cut if you had a beard, pay cut even if you were just two minutes late. It was frustrating because it was normal for us to stay at work till midnight, and then they would expect us to report at 6am the following day. The bosses would also threaten to bad mouth us when we landed a new job. My boss threatened to tell my new company that I am a psychotic person. Thankfully my current company knew better.”
Archit Joshi, client servicing manager at a Mumbai-based advertising firm
“They took the advertising stereotype really seriously. The creatives had a god complex and made snarky, personal remarks at everybody. HR was basically non-existent and they couldn’t retain any employees for longer than four months. It was a norm for the HR head to constantly stalk us on our social media and openly make remarks about our whereabouts.
One time, my girlfriend fainted at her workplace in Churchgate. I informed my boss and left. One of her colleagues had dropped her to Goregaon (where we lived), so I met them at the station and went home. The following day, my boss accused me of lying. Apparently, they had sent a peon to follow me and saw that I didn’t go to Churchgate. That was the tipping point for me. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to have someone followed!”
Prakhar Jha, writer for a popular comedy collective
“It was a scream fest every day. The boss/main comedian had trust issues and there was no HR so we had no one to report anything to. The other comedians were slightly better to interact with, but they couldn’t stand up to the main guy. He would make comments like, ‘You guys don’t deserve the money I pay you. I cannot trust you with writing. Why do you guys call yourself writers?’
On my first day itself, he asked me to write five sketches, and rubbished them all. Spending 14-15 hours every day in that toxic work culture left me exhausted, and had me questioning my abilities—to the point that I contemplated giving up writing and like a few other colleagues, even went to therapy. However, when I joined my new office, I met a few writers who had similar experiences at my previous workplace and realised that it was not just me. The terrible environment had left our self-esteem in shreds.”
Rimi Banerjee, CA at an international finance firm
“My boss favoured girls on his team, especially the ones who would blindly follow his unrealistic expectations. Since I was not on board with this, he started playing mind games. During my appraisal meeting with him, he made me stay till 10.30pm when everybody left by 7pm. He kept delaying it and finally asked me for random data and company figures which wasn’t even part of my job. He made me believe that I knew nothing and grilled me for an hour. By the end of it, I was in tears. Because it was my first job, I was scared to raise my voice. A couple of years later, I spoke about it to one of my colleagues at the HR department, and she said that he could have been fired for this kind of behaviour. He had already left the company by then.”
Rhea Patel, journalist at a women’s lifestyle magazine
“There’s zero irony in a boss who makes rape jokes being nominated by the management to head the sexual harassment prevention committee. But with no HR to intervene, we had to endure commentary on our sexual orientation, clothing choices and personal lives. Company resources were diverted for personal trips, while employees were told that there was no money for appraisals. The bosses treated their subordinates like bonded labour — one of our colleagues was called while she was at her grandfather’s funeral and threatened with dire consequences if she didn’t complete the work that same day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that working there sent more than half the employees to therapy.”
Desiree D’sa, teacher at an IB school in Pune
“We were the second branch of a fancy IB school and our branch was treated like a second-grade citizen—we were never appreciated. We were made to stay on for really long hours during events, but we never got paid overtime. The main branch would turn down all our ideas, and put them into practice, passing them off as their own. We were also expected to stand all day long and couldn’t sit even while taking attendance—they had just removed the chairs from the classrooms! Whoever tried to discuss the situation was terminated, so within a year, 10 out of 15 teachers resigned and some were let go. The branch eventually shut down, and the remaining 5 teachers, the sycophants, obviously, were absorbed by the main branch. It was a draining experience.
Neha Patel, CA, finance firm
“Four freshers were recruited at campus placements, for a reputed firm with a 9-member HR team. However, our seniors weren’t approachable at all. If we asked them for help, they would say things like, ‘How did you clear your exams?’, ‘Did you clear the exams after five attempts?’ The seniors were rude, but they were best buddies with the HR, so when a couple of us complained to the HR, our seniors threatened us with no appraisals.
The main bosses were mostly AWOL and came to work only twice or thrice a month and screamed at all of us. We had no one to turn to, and it was a horrifying experience for us, especially because it was our first job. We didn’t really learn anything, and we were treated like shit. Most of us left within a year.”
Arjun Shrivastava, marketing analyst at a technology think tank
“My former boss was battling a bunch of sexual harassment allegations against her within the company but it didn’t stop her from publicly humiliating employees all the time. She would often storm into our cubicles and create a scene over something trivial. She would ask us to do really random tasks which weren’t part of our jobs.
For instance, she once asked me to order food for delegates without any details on budgets or dietary instructions. When I tried to clarify, she said, ‘You can’t handle such a tiny job also. Why don’t you just buy those same chapatis that you eat everyday for our guests?’ I lost my cool, and told her that she was crossing the line, and I just left. The toxic work culture stressed me out so much that I withdrew from my friends and family, and turned to drinking and smoking excessively. It changed me. We even wrote emails to the HR regarding these incidents and when there wasn’t any action taken, some of us quieted down while others just left. Eventually, I left too.”
Ashish Kapoor, software engineer at an international firm
“The juniors were not treated with respect at all. We couldn’t be even a minute late, but our bosses came to work whenever they felt like. That was apparently the culture. We got designation changes, but barely any pay hike during appraisals, owing to the company allegedly not breaking even. But we learnt that our bosses always received fat increments. I was shocked when after a year or two, I got promoted, and my seniors asked me to befriend the juniors and inform them about what they would discuss about the company. They also wanted some of us to eavesdrop on conversations at the cafeteria. It was unbelievable and seemed like a common practice. We all felt as if we were constantly being watched by some superior. A mass resignation spree followed soon after. I was unemployed for a bit, but I was at least free of these shady tactics.”
(Names have been changed to protect the identity of the contributors)