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How to Quit a Toxic Work Environment

Erinn Bucklan  |  December 16, 2021

Learn how to protect yourself — and burn as few bridges as possible — when you decide to quit an abusive job.

Work may not be Disneyland, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the most miserable place on earth. There are many reasons why you may find yourself in a toxic work environment: an awful boss, office bullying from cliquey coworkers, a total lack of communication, or unrealistic expectations that keep you working around the clock. And some places are downright abusive — so much so that you may want to file a legal claim when you leave.

Before you turn in your resignation, learn how to protect yourself if you do take legal action, or to simply keep your bridges intact and not hurt your professional prospects.

Talk to a Lawyer

If something makes you uncomfortable and goes beyond a normal office dispute, reach out to an attorney, says D. Jill Pugh, a Seattle-based employment lawyer. An attorney will give you an idea of where you stand — maybe your boss sucks, but what he’s doing isn’t illegal. Or you might learn you have grounds for a court case and can start taking steps toward filing a claim.

A lawyer can also give you a bigger picture of your options based on your specific workplace. For example, she may be able to point out policies that you didn’t even know you agreed to when you were hired, Pugh says. (Employers often have new hires sign paperwork — or print information in their employee handbooks — that waives employees’ rights to court trials.)

To find an attorney who primarily represents employees, check out the National Employment Lawyers Association.

Take Notes

Instead of firing off an angry email to your friend when your boss steps out of line, keep a journal on the situation, Pugh says. If you do plan to file a claim, these records will be invaluable — and the more detailed, the better. Include dates, times, the names of people involved, and descriptions of abusive conversations, unmerited punishments or discriminatory practices.

Always make sure to hand-write the notes — don’t put them on a company computer or even your personal one, Pugh says. This protects you against the chance that your former employer could request access to your entire personal computer, which a court just might grant.

Sit Down With HR

When something problematic comes up at work, use any employer dispute resolution policy before quitting, Pugh advises. This way your higher-ups can’t say they would have taken steps to resolve issues if only they’d known about them.  

The procedure for resolving a dispute should be outlined clearly in any good employee handbook. Generally, you’ll want to start by making an appointment with your HR representative. Bring those notes with you, as well as possible solutions. As in any conflict, you want to come across level-headed and non confrontational. You never know where this HR person will end up, and you might as well be remembered not simply for the conflict, but for how well you handled it.

Don’t Touch Anything Confidential

Whether or not you pursue legal action, remember that you could get yourself in hot water with an ex-employer if they think you’re repeating confidential or proprietary info. In the event that you received an email from an employer that contained both proof of harassment as well as confidential company information, document in detail the exact nature of the harassment, as well as the date, time and recipients.

If you end up needing the entire email as proof, you can let lawyers do the job of legally gaining possession of the communication, and you can’t be dinged for distributing confidential information.

Be Honest When You Resign

If you write a resignation letter, don’t leave out the real reason you’re leaving, Pugh says. Otherwise, your letter could be used against you as proof that you were happy at your company, should you end up pursuing any legal action.

If you want to get your point across but not wreck relationships, you can strike a happy medium between honesty and diplomacy. Pugh suggests a simple: “I wish I could stay, but circumstances in the workplace have made it so I cannot.”

Give 100 Percent Until the End

“As tempting as it might be to slack off, take the high road and give the company your complete attention until the day you leave,” Sharlyn Lauby, author and president of ITM Group Inc, says. Chances are, your industry is smaller than you think — every good reference counts.

Finish strong by making sure your coworkers aren’t left with a pile of your loose ends. Complete any existing projects, or at least make sure anything you can’t finish is delegated to someone qualified. Organize documents that can help your successor take over, like schedules, contacts and protocols. In other words, leave your company as if there weren’t bad blood between you.

Learn From the Experience and Move On

Instead of ending up on a hamster wheel of workplace dysfunction, treat your toxic work environment as a learning experience, Lauby says: “Understanding what you’re looking for in a career will help you make better decisions in the future.”

To avoid the same pitfalls in your new job, there are some questions you can ask before you accept a new offer. For example, ask about what personalities flourish in their organization to figure out whether you’re a good fit. Or turn the tables and ask your interviewer what she likes about working at the company. If she has a hard time coming up with an answer, it can be a hint you may want to look elsewhere.

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