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Abusive Leadership: 7 Ways to Support Someone Who Hates Their Job

Toxic environments can eat professionals alive and can make employees feel trapped without any options for resolution, especially when HR is unable to support employees... here are seven ways to support someone dealing with abusive leadership at work.

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Depressed employee

“People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.”

Leadership is arguably the most critical piece of an organization’s structure because change and success happen at the top. Poor leadership can quickly unravel an organization, resulting in toxic environments, high employee turnover rates, and even potential lawsuits around discrimination and workplace harassment.

Toxic environments can eat professionals alive and can make employees feel trapped without any options for resolution, especially when human resources hands are generally tied and unable to support employees.

I recently supported a loved one impacted by such an environment. They were committed to the cause and dedicated to the organization’s mission, but leadership was swarming with inappropriate behavior, discrimination, and bias. Why? Because it was all at the leadership level and everyone else had to fall in line. Nicknamed the “good ‘ole boys club” for the organization’s tendencies to promote unqualified representatives due to political alignment and favoritism, were key indicators and red flags for disaster ahead (if the extremely high employee turnover rate wasn’t warning enough).

Without a Zero Tolerance Policy in place, as leadership demonstrated inappropriate behavior, they were tossed into an unorganized “remediation program” no more serious than a slap on the wrist. No consequences were given and management continued to exhibit similar behaviors.

My loved one held on for years, training employees in coaching programs without the compensation their colleagues were receiving, holding onto any sliver of hope that just maybe management would respect this committed individual. They even designed and coordinated internal training programs and received stellar recognition from team members, but when it was time to promote, those the individual trained went up for the role. Team members were disgusted by the way leadership gossiped and overlooked this talented and driven employee, but they weren’t comfortable standing up for them because that would put their own roles in jeopardy. It was best to remain undetected, even if it meant ignoring personal values.

But what kind of friend does it make us when we toss our own morals and code of ethics aside? Fueled by greed and career security, poor leadership can make the most compassionate and supportive colleagues turn on one another.

Obviously, I’m a little biased because this person means a lot to me. They felt unseen, unheard, unappreciated, and simply stuck in an unfulfilling, toxic role. The toxicity of the work environment bled into relationships outside of work, fueled by the negativity eating away at their core. This negativity changed the details in their radiant personality to a melancholy and nearly unrecognizable person. But how could I support someone who felt so ashamed of their lack of accomplishments? Their confidence was nonexistent and their motivation to succeed evaporated into thin air.

If anything is true, a strong community can change the world, and providing support was just what this individual needed to level up and discover what career fulfillment can look like. It doesn’t have to be a side hustle or entrepreneurship. The career joy can be uncovered in a role where they feel seen, heard, and appreciated. But where to begin?

In supporting this individual to seek alternative career options, they built newfound confidence and landed an even better role with a real chance to grow and succeed…

7 Ways to Support Someone Who Hates Their Job

1. Listen.

Take time to listen to the individual that needs to vent. Working in a toxic environment can be extremely exhausting and dangerous to mental health. It is common for individuals to feel uncomfortable opening up to internal employees and team members because of the potential for remarks to fall onto the wrong ears or taken out of context. Listen attentively without providing feedback, advice, or suggestions. Simply act as a safe resource for this individual to go to when their mental health needs a friend.

Just being present was likely the biggest piece of support I was able to provide. I realized quickly that no amount of feedback or perspective I could bring would make things better, so I simply let them know they could count on me. We talked often about the challenging times and this cycle of communication kept them professional and supportive at work, saving any negative thoughts, emotions, or remarks for behind closed doors.

2. Inquire.

Ask them why they choose to stay. Having someone to ask questions works as a sort of therapy, similar to the Psychology Principle. There is only so much value you can take away from reading an academic study on mindset and behavior. Now practicing that in an applicable setting via question and answer brings new results and value.

I noticed when I started asking questions about why this individual puts up with the toxic environment, they started thinking about alternative options. What solution could come out of this problem? It was clear with a lack of supportive HR resources that the only solution was to terminate employment, but how? Where do they go to get started? Why did this individual stay in this position for so long? What was the mission or core purpose they were so deeply connected to? Answers to these questions helped to guide them toward opening their mind to endless career possibilities aligned with their own passions.

3. Encourage.

Tell them they are doing a great job. It’s easy to lose all confidence when you manage belittling remarks, let alone criticism from leadership without constructive feedback or suggestions for improvement. A lack of confidence can take a deep mental toll, spiraling quickly into mental illness. If you hear of an individual being mistreated, support them appropriately.

What are the characteristics of the individual that you admire most? In my eyes, this individual was extraordinarily talented, compassionate, and knowledgeable. When I told them how much I admired these qualities, they seemed relatively shocked after having their confidence shattered by management, week after week, after week. Without the smallest ounce of confidence, they would have never felt comfortable reentering the job application process.

4. Empower.

Highlight their strengths and skillset to empower them. Lead your community from encouragement to empowerment. People can only feel motivated enough to make a change through empowerment. If they don’t feel like there is a fit for them in the workforce, why apply elsewhere? Empowering your peer can be done in many ways, including:

  • Complimenting them on their strengths
  • Mentioning qualities you admire in them
  • Encouraging other solutions for obstacles in their way
  • Acknowledging their personal values
  • Admiring their set of morals and code of ethics

The best way that I was able to empower the individual in my case, was to listen attentively to what lit them up and find characteristics and traits within them that met similar roles open on the market. Once they admitted they were curious about alternative options I had realized they had derived the confidence needed in order to take the next step forward.

5. Support.

Support comes in many forms from all of the above strategies, but in this case, I personally kept notifications ready for job listings that matched their interests and sent over a comprehensive list of three to six jobs per month. They mentioned to me that this was overwhelming and exhausting at times, but also that they sincerely appreciated the support as they would likely not have applied if it wasn’t for this support.

6. Check-In. 

Have regular check-ins. Providing support and friendship to colleagues isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it mission. If you see a friend struggling, set reminders to check in with them. Host a weekly dinner on Taco Tuesday or take them out for coffee on the weekend. These check-ins have mutual benefits, according to Mayo Clinic, “good friends are good for your health.

A 2018 study published in Trends of Cognitive Science noted that “Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness” because friendships reduce loneliness, increase our mental well-being, and increase our cognitive functioning and physical health.

7. Coach.

Obviously, there are areas where you should trust the experts. For my final tip on how to support someone dealing with abusive leadership, I suggest the option of working with a Career Coach. Sometimes people can feel so incredibly lost that they don’t know where to begin or if their field is actually the best industry for them. A Career Coach can help with that, and thankfully, LinkedIn is overflowing with them.

Although they never ended up leveraging a career coach, it certainly helped to equip them into making an informed decision about which path they were going to go down next in order to succeed.

For more information for managers, I suggest reading this Forbes article by Jack Kelly, People Don’t Leave Bad Jobs, They Leave Bad Bosses: How to be a Better Manager to Maintain and Motivate Your Team

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