Ask a Recruiter: How Can I Move On After Working in a Toxic Environment?


Photo courtesy of Charisse Kenion

InHerSight asked Dana Hundley and Jenna Richardson, cofounders of Career Cooperative, to talk about what women leaving toxic work environments should do to recover and find happiness with another employer. These are their answers, in their own words. Are you a recruiter with job advice to share? Email our managing editor Beth Castle at [email protected] for consideration.

What’s your elevator pitch?

We are the cofounders of Career Cooperative, an Oakland, California-based boutique consulting firm that empowers clients to face career transitions, professional growth, and recruiting with confidence. We consult with companies to attract diverse talent through impactful recruiting and interview strategies and support employees through career development. We started working together at a recruiting agency, and through our combined more than decade in full-cycle recruiting, we’ve worked with hundreds of candidates and companies and learned a lot in the process. When you have a focus, understand your value, master the magic of your story, and build a supportive and diverse community, the realm of possibilities is endless.

Toxic work environments can have long-term effects, carrying over into how we view prospective employers or new office environments. What are some practical steps women can take to keep feelings generated by previous employers from affecting their career prospects?

Acknowledge it, face it, and talk about it. Telling a story over and over again and unpacking whatever trauma you have experienced will go a long way toward helping you storytell without feeling those somatic responses when interviewing, asking your new boss for a raise, or facing whatever situation may trigger you. 

Find your allies, the person or people you can be safely, confidentially, brutally honest and vulnerable with. Lean on your community to help you face and process the trauma from a toxic work environment. Are there HR, recruiting, or career coaching professionals who can help you with mock interviews? Find your confidence boost! Entering into an interview under any circumstances can be nerve-racking, so take care of yourself so that you can show up as your most confident self.

What are some of the most common feelings that carry over from toxic environments?

The list of feelings could go on for days! People feel scared, undervalued, unappreciated, threatened in some way, silenced, overworked, taken advantage of, not respected, not encouraged, not good enough— it really runs the gamut. 

What does tend to carry over is feeling like you have to make compromises in your career moving forward, or re-evaluate priorities, or both. Many people feel that to ensure you don’t have to relive the toxic situation, you have to settle for lower pay, a longer commute, or even another toxic trait you force yourself to deem not quite as bad as others. But that doesn’t have to be the case, if you can face and work through the feelings carried over from a toxic environment, you can use that experience (and understanding of how and why that was detrimental to you) to create a framework for evaluating the type of work environment that is going to best for you.

During the interview process, how can women ensure they don’t fall into another toxic situation? 

Again, process those feelings associated with a toxic environment as much as possible before jumping into something new. Identify your triggers and what you want out of work before going into the job search, so you can ask questions that directly address your concerns. They don’t have to be negative questions (Do you micromanage?) but they should be direct (In your experience, how does—insert name of manager—manage workflow? What does autonomy mean to you/them?) 

Also, be aware of warning signals and red flags during an interview process and address those head-on. If during your interview, all of the interviewers seemed rushed or flustered, point it out (seems like a busy day today, is there a big project happening or is this the typical pace?). Empower yourself to get the information you need before you enter into a new situation. 

What are some ways women can talk about their toxic experience honestly and constructively with prospective employers?

Interviews are definitely not a time to vent, and venting really tells the interviewer more about you than your past experience. 

Instead, you can talk about things in terms of what you want moving forward and what you learned. You don’t owe prospective employers the nitty-gritty of bad office politics, dysfunctional teams, or overall toxicity—even if it seems like they are fishing for it. Keep any background information you need to provide brief and high-level, then move on to something more relevant to the future of your career. Interviews are not a time to wade in the waters of the past, but focus on how it has informed what you’re looking for moving forward. 

What if a prospective employer wants to talk to your previous toxic employer? Will saying you’d rather they not contact your previous employer negatively affect your hiring prospects?

Keeping your past employers out of the reference pool will definitely raise a flag to future employers, especially if you were in that role for a significant amount of time. This is why it is so important to face and process the feelings associated with a toxic environment. In this particular example, you will have to be very upfront and have a tough conversation with a prospective employer that the particular organization was not a productive environment and you have concerns that conversation will not be the best representation of your work or how you show up to work. 

Offer additional reference options from the start. It may be that there is someone from your past position who can speak to your work, and that you also respect and trust, if your direct supervisor was a major contributing factor to the toxic environment. 

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