Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Is It Toxic? I Want to Tell the World How Awful My Old Bosses Were. Should I?

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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 or @benishshah. And for more advice, visit our “Toxic Aware” hub.

Dear Benish,

There has been all this news about how the new labor board rules nullify non-disclosure clauses in severance agreements and I want to know if it’s OK to talk about what I went through with my old job. I know this is not the typical question you answer but my experience was terrible and I want to speak about it. Whenever I see my old bosses get high-fived on Twitter or LinkedIn, I want to scream because no one knows how terrible they are. They keep hiring and hiring and no one knows that they are horrible people. Toxic workplaces should be exposed and I want to be able to do that but I don’t know if I should.


Silenced in San Francisco


Dear Silenced in San Francisco,

You’re right. This isn’t the typical question I answer, but it’s been popping up in my inbox a lot recently. It reminds us that the harm of toxic workplaces extends beyond your time in them. And the answer is a long one, so grab your coffee and be prepared for some attempts to lighten an otherwise distressing topic. Why? Because I want to scream, “Yes! Speak your truth!” But what I have to say instead is: “Let’s play this out.”

Disclaimer: I want to be clear before I continue that this isn’t legal advice. If that’s what you’re looking for, please consult a lawyer that can assess your specific situation and take you on as a client.

Understand what the recent ruling says

Your question refers to the February 2023 National Labor Relations Board ruling in McLaren Macomb which holds that employers may not offer employees severance agreements that require them to waive their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. This includes severance agreements that prohibit employees from making disparaging statements about the employer or disclosing the terms of the agreement.

A guidance memo from NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Arbuzzo further clarified that “maintaining or enforcing old severance agreements with broad nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements would count as a violation of federal labor law.” Abruzzo encouraged employers to inform former employees that any non-disparagement orders signed before the ruling are now void, though I haven’t heard from any employers or employees that this is happening in practice.

Read More: Companies Can’t Demand Silence for Severance, So Do This Before Signing

Know why you want to speak out

Now, let’s get to your specific question: Should you speak out against your previous employer?

To answer, we need to identify your desired outcomes and play out a few scenarios. The goal of this exercise isn’t for you to silence yourself; it’s to help you understand why you want to speak—and what the effect of that speech might be on you.

When you leave toxic workplaces, there are three common reasons you may want to speak out:

  • You want to punish those who hurt you.
  • You want to warn others so they’re not harmed.
  • You need to speak your truth so that you can recover from the harm done to you.

Let’s look at each one separately.

1. You want to punish those who hurt you.

The desire to hurt those who’ve hurt you is natural and is often the result of our inability to hold them accountable. Accountability is about stopping harm from happening. It involves someone acknowledging responsibility for their actions and the harm they caused, showing genuine remorse, doing what they can to repair things, and changing their behavior going forward. Punishment, on the other hand, is about consequences and retribution—and it can feel like a last resort. It’s why the John Wick movies are so popular: They let us play out a scenario where punishment is doled out when accountability isn’t an option.

But it’s important to assess whether speaking out will have the desired outcome. Will it punish them or will it further harm you while having no measurable effect on them? If you’re recovering from a toxic workplace, this question can feel especially disheartening because it brings up feelings similar to the ones you felt while you were still steeped within it: experiencing loss of control, fearing retaliation, lacking support, not being heard, and otherwise being harmed because you didn’t wield enough power.

But consider this: Will speaking out create a groundswell that gets these bad actors fired or prevents them from being hired elsewhere? Do you have the mental capacity to deal with the fallout? Do you have access to media and/or lawyers to help you?

Know that bad actors in the workplace are bad actors elsewhere too. They won’t take you speaking out lightly and neither will their friends. This could result in difficulty getting hired elsewhere, public attacks on you and your story, and night-and-day trolling on social media (especially if you’re in tech).

The potential for reputational and emotional harm is real, but there’s also legal and financial risk to assess. Bad actors are fond of lawsuits they know they can’t win but have the ability to fund—and if they can use company resources for legal action, the funds increase exponentially.

The crux of it is: Unless you have more power, access, or reputational clout than the people who harmed you, speaking out might have minimal effect on them, while having a larger negative effect on you. And there is little that toxic bosses like more than seeing you gaslit publicly. In other words, know that no action from you will come without some form of retaliation, whether public or private. So make sure you’re prepared for it.

2. You want to warn others so they’re not harmed.

The desire to shield others from experiencing the hell you did is a sign that you’re an empathetic person. However, it raises a key question: Do you need to speak up publicly or are you comfortable speaking up in smaller circles, where there’s a more direct impact?

If you choose to tell your story on social media, it may not get anywhere. If you tell it to the press, it will only be as impactful as the outlet telling your story. But if someone who’s interviewing at your previous employer reaches out to you directly, you have an opportunity to influence whether that person decides to take the job or not.

The “behind closed doors” tactic is an employer power move that happens over casual conversation. It’s also a tactic I’ve seen adopted by senior-level employees who don’t want to risk backlash for publicly discussing their experiences.

These quiet, one-on-one conversations allow people to be candid in ways that aren’t likely to lead to retaliation from previous employers or bosses. Of course, if you have signed a non-disparagement agreement, you should run this by your lawyer. But I’ve found that when I ask someone directly, “Would you work for x person again?” and they don’t give me a resounding “YES,” there’s more to the story—even if they can’t get into the nitty-gritty—and I need to be careful. People are smart. You’re smart.

I often compare this decision to picking your racing environment in Mario Kart (one of two video games I actually play). Each environment has its challenges, but you’re in control of which environment to play in. Assess how and where you want to tell your story as if you were going to have spinning turtle shells or surprise road endings being thrown at you as you navigate the path—because that’s what it’s going to feel like. It’s your choice, just make it an informed one.

3. You need to speak your truth so you can recover from the harm done to you.

Recovering from a toxic workplace isn’t a quick or easy process. It often requires a therapist and/or a career coach that understands the effects of toxic workplaces because they can linger long beyond your job tenure.

I’ve worked with execs who didn’t begin to address their workplace trauma for nearly a decade after they experienced it. They kept landing in similar workplace environments, one after another, and repeatedly faced the same toxic patterns. Once they began to unpack it, they saw that they were attracted to toxic environments because they felt familiar. The fear and anxiety felt normal because it was what they’d known.

Healing from traumatic experiences, which toxic workplaces can be, requires more than speaking your truth in public. This isn’t to say you won’t want to publicly share your experience at some point, but that you should focus on healing yourself before you decide if and how you want to tell your story to the world. If you do the work to process your workplace trauma and still want to tell your story publicly, you’ll be able to do it with more clarity.

Before you make a decision, give yourself time to process the toxicity you suffered. Talk to a career coach with trauma-related experience (yes, I do this, but it’s not a plug—you need to find the right one for you).

The bottom line

I want my answer to your question to be a resounding “Yes!” because who doesn’t want to see toxic workplace actors held accountable? But it’s a complex and personal decision.

It makes me think of a recent Hollywood Reporter interview with Sarah Michelle Gellar. While Gellar supported castmates who spoke out about negative experiences working with Buffy the Vampire Slayer show creator Joss Whedon, she said, “I’ll never tell my full story because I don’t get anything out of it. I’ve said all I’m going to say because nobody wins. Everybody loses.” She made a choice that served her and recognized that some of her colleagues made different choices that served them.

Toxic work cultures—and the bad actors who perpetuate them—affect employees long after they leave. Non-disparagement agreement or not, the decision to speak publicly about workplace experiences is a nuanced one that has to focus on your goals and desired outcomes. If you analyze your reasons and still want to speak, seek out legal advice and secure representation before you take on a previous employer.

But I’ll say this one more time: Take the time to think through how you want to tell your story, who you want to tell it to, and why you want to share it—if you want to share it at all.