Welcome to “Is It Toxic?” our advice column for 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 know layoffs are coming at our company. I’m not on our executive team—I’m an assistant to one of our execs and not all the executives know this is happening. It's being hidden from them. Our head of people talks about how no one on the executive team is getting let go, but other people will be losing their jobs.
It feels wrong to sit in meetings with my colleagues and not say anything about what’s coming. When some coworkers I’m close with talk about signs of layoffs, they ask me what I’ve heard and I say I haven’t heard anything. I know it’s wrong of them to ask me, but I feel sick to my stomach that I’m lying to them. I feel sick about how the executive team is talking about this and it makes me not want to work for them. I’m questioning the integrity of everyone here. I’m questioning my own integrity. Everything feels toxic. I feel like I’m toxic.
I don’t know what to do.
—Questioning My Integrity
Dear Questioning My Integrity,
First, let me acknowledge this is an awful situation to be in. Nothing about it feels good because nothing about it is good. Before we get into how you get through this, though, let me unequivocally say: You are not toxic, and you do not lack integrity. The simple fact that you’re sick to your stomach about all this is an indicator that you’re not part of the problem. You’re, unfortunately, part of the collateral damage of a toxic environment.
Layoffs create toxic environments
Layoffs almost always create a toxic environment for two big reasons. First, executives try to justify their lack of empathy with words like “greater good of the business” and “efficiency,” often leading them to take swift action that makes them feel bad for the least amount of time. Second, it’s usually leadership’s fault that layoffs are necessary. Though a quick cost-cutting win, layoffs create toxic environments for years to come, marked heavily by lack of trust in leadership and lower employee engagement overall. Of course, like you, there are executives who are uncomfortable with these decisions and how they are executed. Similarly, there are leadership teams that do everything in their power to avoid layoffs, but unfortunately they are the exception and not the norm.
Layoffs create a toxic environment starting at the lead up: Employees can guess it’s coming based on chatter, secretive exec meetings, and other telltale signs. It creates an environment of anxiety and gaslighting. Every time employees ask if layoffs are coming, they are confidently told, “There are no plans for layoffs.” This is often corporate speak for, “We don’t have a plan for how we’re doing layoffs yet.” During the layoff period, the environment becomes depressed, angry, and scared—with employees coping with survivor’s guilt. For years after, the environment remains one of distrust between employers and employees, and it’s a slow climb out of that ditch. Even new hires who join a company six to12 months after layoffs can feel the lasting effects of the distrust.
The hardest part to play in layoffs is to be a team member in the know, but with little or no authority in making—or changing—the decision. Those team members are asked to keep information confidential as part of their job or for the good of the company, but in truth it’s often for the good of the execs. Yes, it’s important that people don’t panic. That messaging is done right. However, everyone has wondered if optics should overshadow truthfulness, and when it is really the right time for the truth.
Confidentiality as your job
Part of me wants to tell you to be true to yourself and tell your closest coworkers to start looking for jobs. Unfortunately, though, confidentiality is a huge part of your job and stepping over that line could make it difficult for your boss to trust you again.
For you, your role requires confidentiality and a deep sense of trust. Assistants are often privy to highly sensitive information and that trust is the currency that makes them irreplaceable.
If you strongly believe what the company is doing is wrong, it’s your choice to speak up, but it’s also a good time to think about whether a role like this is right for you—and where in the confidentiality realm you draw a line for yourself.
As with all these moments, layoffs bring you to a bigger decision point: How long do you want to stay at a company where you do not trust leadership?
In an environment where layoffs are in the news every few weeks, employers began to gain a sense of “bossism”—the idea that employees should be thankful to have a job. The short-sightedness of that behavior is apparent as soon as the market shifts, and it always does. Good employees start leaving, and often the first ones to go are the best ones.
As you think about your next move, whether now or in a year, remember that you’ll always be asked to hold difficult information in confidence. It doesn’t make you toxic, but once in a while it’s important to stop and ask yourself how much information you’re being asked to hold, the nature of that information, and whether you feel good about the decisions being made around you.