There are two things you should know about the corporate culture in America. First, it’s fairly universal. If you’ve worked for one, you can easily understand another. Second, it’s seriously messed up.
Think about it. The corporate culture wants you to make work your #1 priority. Even the ones that advocate a home/work balance really want the balance to lean decidedly toward work, admonishing you for missing days for being ill or having sick children. There’s an attitude that you should come to work sick and infect your colleagues. There’s also this idea that you should live to work rather than work to live.
Management tends to be almost universally less qualified than the people who actually do the work, excelling at saying little to nothing and hobnobbing with other members of management. I’m not going to say that none of them are qualified, but there’s a high percentage of mangers who don’t seem to actually know what their employees do on a day-to-day basis, don’t hold themselves accountable to the same rules and schedules as their staff, and often have ego or control issues that make them ill-suited to handling other employees.
Then, there’s the issue of conflict in the workplace. It’s a nightmare. In a hostile work environment, there is supposed to be a system in place for how to handle it. There’s a chain of command to be used to report problems and a human resources department to go to when those problems can’t be resolved at those levels. And yet, if you are an employee who reports the problem, you become the problem.
I speak from experience here. I once experienced active and repeated harassment from another employee. It wasn’t just emotionally challenging to deal with. It also prevented me from doing my job. I spoke to my direct supervisor about the ongoing issue, which had been witnessed by my supervisor and all the other employees on more than one occasion. It was happening on a daily basis, and I went up the chain of command to try to resolve the issue. When it made it to management, I was told that it was just a female issue.
Read: Women are catty to one another, and this should be expected. First of all, this has not been my experience of women. Secondly, this is a learned behavior, and it’s not one that is appropriate in the workplace. Third, it’s spectacularly sexist to suggest that an issue of harassment is simply a gendered issue that shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Needless to say, the harassment continued to escalate to the point that I moved to another department. But a note went into my file from that point forward that I had a problem with conflict resolution. At that moment in time, I was completing a post-graduate degree in counseling. My problem wasn’t with resolving conflict. My problem was with a hostile work environment and an employee who was allowed to continue her reign of terror with no consequences. When I left the department, she targeted a new (male) supervisor, and it was no longer a female issue. She was terminated shortly afterwards.
I left the entire situation feeling awful. I questioned if I was truly in the wrong for reporting harassment that was impacting my job and creating a harmful work environment for myself and other employees. I wondered why that incident followed me on every performance review from that point forward, impacting my upward mobility and salary.
Why did doing the right thing feel so wrong?
I’m not the only person who has been in this situation. It makes us feel sullied in some way, but the truth is that empaths in a corporate culture often absorb the negative energy from these encounters. Doing the right thing feels wrong because we’re being gaslighted by the very people who should be supporting us. We’re told we are the problems, often sanctioned and labeled a troublemaker for addressing issues of harassment or ethical issues in the workplace. They’d like us to sit down and shut up so that they don’t have to do their jobs.
Because we’re the kind of people who are highly impacted by energy, we take that toxic work culture and absorb it. It does feel negative. It can even make us feel like we must be in the wrong if we are so deeply impacted by something other people are saying we should just get over. Our authenticity and sense of ethics is telling us that we should address issues head-on, but our bosses often are the ones telling us to ignore it, bury it, and get over it. This feels deeply incongruent for us. This out-of-balance is upsetting, and we often internalize the experience.
For assertive women in the workplace, we also hit misogyny in the corporate culture head on. Just as I was told the issue wasn’t harassment but essentially women’s hormones, women who are assertive are often made to feel aggressive or intimidating for dealing with issues directly. We’re all expected to be considered nice and friendly above all else. When an issue comes up that isn’t nice, we’re looked at as being the problem when we try to address it.
We often don’t see that the problem isn’t us, it’s the culture that tells us that we shouldn’t prioritize self-care. It’s the culture that normalizes putting work before self or family. The problem is the culture that has misogyny so deeply ingrained that it might as well be written into the mission statement of these companies.
Addressing a problem head on isn’t wrong. Doing the right thing feels wrong because of the amount of negativity directed at us for rocking the boat. We’re not in the wrong for pointing out ethical issues or issues of harassment. We’re being authentic and handling things directly because that’s who we are as individuals.
There’s nothing wrong with being impacted by a hostile work environment. The problem isn’t that we have feelings about it; the problem is the culture that allows the hostility to continue. Speaking up about something that is wrong is exactly what we should be doing. Being silent in the face of discrimination, harassment, or unethical behavior is the wrong thing to do.
This is how we have a #metoo movement. People were afraid to speak up because of the backlash they would receive for confronting a difficult issue head-on. Women, and even men, already knew the consequences because we’ve experienced it in the workplace in lesser situations. If we’re sanctioned for speaking up about non-sexual harassment, what would be the penalty for talking about sexual harassment or rape? Other people witnessed what happened but were also afraid of making waves. All of this silence in the face of wrong resulted in more people experiencing trauma. It kept happening. If no one had spoken up, it would continue.
If feels wrong to do the right thing sometimes because of how others react. That doesn’t mean it is wrong. Standing up for ourselves or others is rarely comfortable, but it is necessary. If no one speaks out, it just continues.
Still, we often leave those situations feeling like failures, as if we were somehow at fault. We’re even forced out of positions and jobs that we’d have liked to keep due to our inability to be silent in the face of corruption or harassment. It feels wrong, and we often internalize the experience and question ourselves.
I’ve been there, and because I have, I’m going to tell you that you are unlikely the problem. The problem is the corporate culture. The problem is the fact that everyone just keeps their head down out of fear rather than doing what’s right because it’s right.
I also deeply believe that this can be the Universe nudging us out of an unhealthy situation. I look back at the circumstances surrounding my issue of hostile workplaces, and I’m glad that I chose to leave those situations. Each time that I decided enough was enough, I ended up finding work that more closely aligned with my values. Doors opened for me, and I allowed these situations to be learning experiences. Instead of learning to keep silent, I learned to trust my intuition because it consistently led me away from toxic environments.
We have to work to pay the bills, but we tell ourselves we need this one particular job even if we have to leave our values at the door to do it. We tell ourselves we can deal with a toxic work environment because we have no choice, but we always have a choice. We tell ourselves that we must be in the wrong because we feel so bad, but we’re internalizing and absorbing the negative energy of the situation rather than shielding ourselves with the knowledge that we are doing the best thing in a bad situation.
Empathic people feel so much. This doesn’t mean that it’s too much, although we’re often told that we’re over-sensitive. Being an empath at work isn’t a weakness. It’s often a strength. It usually makes us better at our work. For those in sales, empaths are often able to make the right connections with people to generate sales, instinctively sensing what people need and how to approach them. In customer service, it’s an asset because empaths are natural problem-solvers. In every industry, the thing that gets targeted as a weakness is usually our superpower.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not challenging to navigate a workplace with all its different energies. We simply need to learn how to better insulate ourselves from that energy so that we’re using it to help without harming ourselves in the process. When we feel strong negative feelings, we need to question if they are coming from ourselves or from an ugly situation that we’re internalizing. We’re not wrong for doing the right thing, and we need to hold fast to that fact. Being authentic is never easy, but it’s important to honor our highest selves rather than acquiescing to a toxic corporate culture.