Is It Toxic? I’m Being Pressured to Party With Clients, But I Feel Unsafe.
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Welcome to “Is It Toxic?” our new advice column for all the most pressing questions you have about toxic work situations but didn’t know who to ask—until now. Here to help is Benish Shah, a startup operator who’s coached executives and managers on navigating toxic workplaces, negotiating exits, and architecting workplace policies to combat toxic cultures. She’s currently working on a book about creating anti-toxic workplaces. Have a question to submit? You can reach her at benishshah.com or @benishshah. And for more advice, visit our “Toxic Aware” hub.
I’ve recently gotten pulled aside by our head of sales and told that I won’t make it far in sales if I don’t stay out and party with potential clients.
I don’t drink; I was assaulted in college and the whole culture of doing shots or drinking with near strangers makes me uncomfortable. I’m also not comfortable being around drunk people for the same reason. I told my head of sales this, in confidence, and he said that he understood but that I should get therapy so I can do better in my career.
I thought that was it but since then he’s made offhanded remarks about assault and not drinking during meetings. In one meeting he said, “Know your limits so you don’t get assaulted,” and another time he said, “Work is not a place for therapy. Complain to your therapist about trauma. At work you show up and do what’s required.” Both times he was staring directly at me.
The worst part is, I now feel more pressured to stay out late with the sales team to appease him. But I don’t want to put myself in a dangerous situation and my anxiety is through the roof.
I Can’t Party in Austin
Dear I Can’t Party in Austin,
First, let me say unequivocally that your head of sales’ remarks are inappropriate and do not belong in a healthy work environment. Before we go into why and how these remarks create a toxic environment, I want to name that.
First, your safety and comfort are paramount.
A few years ago, I was at a dinner with a well-known sports team. Everyone who worked with the team was great. When they found out I’d never seen them play before, they insisted I fly out with them on the private jet to the next away game. I laughed it off—I wasn’t about to get on a private jet alone with people I had just met.
A few minutes later, someone who worked at a company I was advising pulled me aside and asked me to take the jet offer because it would result in more business. I politely declined. Then they said, “It’s not like we’re asking you to sleep with anyone.” I should have known right then that this company would be toxic. But I didn’t get on that jet, nor did I engage in the partying that felt core to the culture there. And yet I still managed to land more business for the company.
Partying or staying out with clients isn’t uncommon in sales organizations. There’s a belief that showing clients a fun time is the best way to build a book of business. It’s often based on the premise that if your clients like hanging out with you, they’ll want to do business with you. Though at times this tactic can result in more opportunities, you need to balance what benefits you vs. what benefits the company. It’s only beneficial to you—and only worth any potential benefit to the company—if you feel safe and at ease during the process. If you don’t feel safe, you’re not required to engage any further.
Yes, the culture of drinking and parties in organizations can result in unfair advantages to those who do engage, because people like to work with people like themselves. If your boss is into that culture, he’ll likely promote from within the group that participates in it with him.
That said, partying with clients is not the only way to build strong relationships and move ahead in your career. Clients are humans, which means they have varied interests. Many of them are as uninterested in the partying and drinking lifestyle as you are and might prefer not to have to engage in it either. Instead, you can take them out to brunch, coffee, shopping, a show, or their favorite spa.
Find out what you can do to create a one-on-one relationship where you build mutual trust—because it goes a long way in any business dealing.
Now, let’s talk about your boss.
Even if we remove the culture of client entertainment from the equation, your boss’s actions were inappropriate because:
- He indirectly disclosed information shared in confidence.
- His statement about therapy was presumptuous.
- He’s creating a psychologically unsafe work environment for you.
Let’s break these down further.
He indirectly disclosed information shared in confidence.
Discussing private life experiences with managers can be dicey because you don’t know how they’ll respond. Managers are humans—and some are far more understanding than others. However, regardless of whether or not they show understanding or compassion, it’s not information that’s theirs to share.
His statement about therapy was presumptuous.
Your manager’s advice that you “get therapy” was ill-intentioned and meant to make you feel uneasy. The way he said it implied that only if you get therapy—so that you can drink and party even though it makes you feel unsafe—will you do better in your career. He didn’t just violate your trust, he also dismissed your request for him to understand and not push you on this topic.
Now, it’s not inappropriate for your manager or a coworker to suggest going to therapy, but the context and delivery matter. Had your manager responded with empathy and suggested that therapy could be helpful to process your trauma, you could have decided whether to take his advice or leave it, and whether to discuss it further with him or not. But telling you to go to therapy so you can do something that feels uncomfortable and insinuating you must in order to be better at your job presumes that you haven’t already tried therapy and you’re not good at your job. Neither are supportive presumptions.
He’s creating a psychologically unsafe work environment for you.
By making supposedly general comments you know are directed at you—and giving nonverbal cues that you are in fact who he’s talking to and about—your manager is creating an environment where you feel on edge about your career progress and worried about confidential information being revealed. This creates a massive power imbalance because not only is he your manager, but he’s also demonstrated that he could share sensitive information about your personal life if he wanted to—for example, if you don’t start joining in on the drinking and parties.
The reality is he may never share that info because savvy toxic bosses know what will get them in trouble with HR, so they might walk right up to the line, but stop just short of crossing it.
So what do you do?
Depending on your company’s policies, your manager may have already overstepped confidentiality guidelines. I’d suggest you document the statements he’s made and separately check with HR on how the company defines personal and/or confidential employee conversations with managers. Most companies define information about mental or physical health as confidential, but it’s important to know your company’s policies on the matter. I’d suggest asking the question to HR in person and then sending an email confirming the response they gave you, so you have a paper trail in case this escalates (as these things tend to).
At the same time, I’d suggest you think about what type of organizational culture will help you thrive in a sales role. We’re so often taught how to assess job opportunities based on factors like title, compensation, benefits, and brand, and we’re rarely taught to assess how a company’s culture would make us feel. Given that we spend the majority of our week at work, however, an environment where you feel safe—physically and emotionally—is paramount to your career and well-being.
So list out a set of principles you look for in sales teams that would give you the opportunity to grow in a supportive environment. From there, see whether your current company meets those principles. If it doesn’t, it’s time to start looking for one that does. Just as companies have a list of “must-haves” for who they hire, you should build a list of “must-haves” for where you go next.