Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

3 Steps to Take When Your Dream Job Turns Toxic

upset woman

You’ve probably been planning for this moment since you were 16 years old, plotting your dream life in your high school bedroom. Finally, you’re crafting your own career, on your own terms! You probably imagined the high-highs: praise for a job well done from a supportive boss, substantive assignments, collaborative co-workers and opportunities for adventure!

But what about the low-lows? I regularly hear from young women that they are stuck in toxic environments: Predator bosses, sabotaging co-workers, institutionalized sexism, life-destroying workloads, and unsafe work conditions. So what do you do when this has job has been your dream since you were a teenager? How do you protect yourself when this position or this company is an important first step toward your version of The Big Life?

I think a lot about Erin Andrews. She was honest, vulnerable, and brave in her lawsuit against the stalker who took peephole video of her when she was on assignment for ESPN and of the hotel that allowed it to happen. She had the ultimate unsafe, toxic workplace. But I’m even more impressed with how she has built her career and crafted a personal life in the wake of public humiliation and violation. It's a phenomenal display of strength. The story has slipped from the headlines. But this piece about the unimaginable lengths other female sports reporters have had to take to protect their safety on the job has stayed with me. They do their job, despite obvious threats, because they love it and it matters to them.

Erin shined a very bright light on some dark corners of her world so other women wouldn't have to face the same degradation. And should you find yourself in your own soul-sucking version of job hell, these tips can help you protect yourself and keep you moving toward that Big Life. (Note: This is not legal advice and if you’re in physical danger, please see the police.) But if you need to protect your heart and soul from a toxic situation in the present moment, this advice compiled from The Badass Babes—a sisterhood of young women who are going through the struggle together and want to help you succeed—is for you.

1. Keep a Paper Trail

After a year of high-fives in her job as a coordinator at a film festival, Jennifer was promoted into an executive role. She knew it was an amazing opportunity to add management experience to her resume. But quickly she saw some financial sketchiness that made her very uncomfortable. “I refused to sign off on certain financial documents. I did my best to clean things up and keep my name clear. But I also saved emails and correspondence to absolve myself from blame down the line.”

She knew she had to get out, and so as soon as she could land another job, she gave her two-weeks notice. She says: “The final answer was to take the experience I needed, struggle through what I could reasonably handle and then get out.”

2. Ask to Change Departments

After a year of unpaid gigs at small startups, Haley finally landed a job at a prestigious beauty company. But the environment was not the supportive place to grow that she’d been promised in her interviews. She found herself iced out of important meetings and criticized by co-workers in front of her boss. “The shocking thing is how senior women don’t support the younger women starting their careers—they seem threatened,” Haley says.

But rather than jump ship, she crafted a plan to lobby her bosses in a series of meetings and memos to create a customized role for her in another department. She got the new gig, but still she’s soured on the company. “When I make my next move I’ll be proud to say I did everything I could to make a job work for me and for them,” Haley says. “My sanity is more important to me now than it was when I just wanted a big name on my resume.”

3. Plan to Pay it Forward

Kiera* was thrilled to land a PR job right after graduation, but within the first month the entire team quit (red flag!) and she found herself with zero guidance. Even worse, her new boss yelled at her at every turn. “I was so, so miserable there, every day I knew something traumatic was going to happen,” Kiera explains.

Ultimately the job was short lived—Kiera quit. But she left with an important legacy of the gig: “I learned how not to treat my co-workers, but I still get the shakes every time I pass the office building.”

Ultimately, the minute you realize that you’re in a toxic situation, you should start crafting a plan to find a job, and a company, that treats you with the respect you deserve. The dream is still yours, but the path to get there doesn’t have to be so treacherous.