Most people will tell you to run from a toxic work environment, but there is much to be gained by advocating for yourself in the face of challenging circumstances.
Through our self-advocacy as women of color, we can be empowered in the face of unjust challenges that we so commonly encounter in the workplace (e.g.-microaggressions, harassment, pay gap, etc), improve workplace culture for ourselves and others with marginalized identities, and advance our careers (e.g.-increase our salaries and accomplishments).
When people tell you to just quit your job because you’ve encountered toxicity, they aren’t necessarily thinking about your career goals or what you could stand to gain by advocating for yourself and broader diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. They also are not thinking about how powerful you can be.
You have more options than just quitting your job or suffering through a toxic work environment. Women of color are often told to just quit their jobs when they mention the toxicity in their work environment. However, rather than letting the Boys Club (which by the way, often has a few women in it) push you out, you can take a stand for a healthy work environment in which everyone can thrive and experience your power in the process.
I advocated for myself and broader DEI goals in a highly toxic work environment . While it wasn’t easy, my advocacy led to workplace improvements and resulted in a life-changing settlement. I also gained invaluable skills such as how to negotiate in high stakes situations, how to maintain my confidence when speaking truth to power, and how to create allies at all levels of the company.
Of course there is always the option to play small, stay silent, and keep your head down. One thing is for sure. None of the challenges facing women of color in the workplace change without our voices and without us advocating for change. I share my story of self-advocacy in the face of a highly toxic work environment in the hopes of inspiring others to advocate for themselves and speak up for equitable change at work.
I was a senior leader in a government-adjacent organization based in Washington DC. The work environment was highly political and I often relied on the advice of a trusted mentor to help me navigate the power dynamics and challenging personalities. He was a tremendous source of support for years until I reported sexual harassment and had been appointed to lead the organization’s DEI work.
After reporting the sexual harassment, a few projects I led that performed really well had been taken out of my portfolio. I sensed retaliation. I called my mentor to get his perspective on things. He told me that the projects had been removed from my portfolio because my supervisor felt that my work product wasn’t great. I reminded him that one of the projects that was removed from my portfolio resulted in a global treaty being passed at the United Nations. I also reminded him that my DEI work resulted in the organization forming an entire department, staffing new positions and substantial resources. My accomplishments had been recognized by my colleagues and the Executive Team. What my mentor said didn’t make sense. He gaslit me.
Once I laid out the receipts for the work I’d done, my mentor told me that my supervisor saw me as a primadonna. This was after I had reported sexual harassment and refused to be ignored. My mentor then told me that the men I had reported wanted me out of the organization. He encouraged me to go to my supervisor and ask for 3 months’ salary as severance and plan to leave the organization.
I had called my mentor to confirm the growing suspicion I had that my supervisor was trying to sabotage my success, assassinate my character, and push me out of the organization. He affirmed that suspicion and let me know that I couldn’t trust him anymore either.
When I hung up the phone, I felt more resolve than I had ever. It was an immediate shift. I could have decided to stay silent, keep my head down, and politely requested a severance of 3 months salary.
OR I could stand strong, look my toxic supervisor (and his supervisors) in the eyes as I created accountability for the harm they caused. I could leave with my head held high. I could leave on my terms. I could advocate for change so that no one else experienced what I did.
If you are in a toxic work environment and want to advocate for yourself and others who might be on the receiving end of toxicity, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success.
- Document everything. Focus on your side of the story.
- Connect to a purpose larger than you. When you advocate for yourself, you are standing up for everyone who has been in a toxic work environment and you are improving things for those who will come after you.
- Find your allies. You can’t trust everyone at work, but you can certainly connect with others who see the toxic treatment and have also been impacted. Advocate together.
- It may be advantageous for you to report what you’re experiencing to Human Resources. If/when you do, remember they are not your friend. They are there to protect the company.
- Have a strong support system outside of your workplace. That support system may not always be your family. That’s okay. Try to have a community of other women of color who can relate to what you’re going through and encourage you.
That's exactly what I did. I left that place knowing that my self-advocacy opened space for others to advocate for themselves. I left that place knowing that the "leadership" of that company had to account for their harmful treatment to me and others. I left that place with my head held high. I left that place with a life-changing settlement. And now, I coach women of color to own their power and negotiate in the workplace.
I resolved to leave that job on my own terms for a few reasons. First, the way women of color were treated in the organization was unacceptable. Women of color were hired and encouraged to make big contributions, think outside the box, then when they built credibility in the organization, it seemed the higher ups felt threatened. Rather than reward the women for their contributions, management would target them with bullying and other forms of toxicity.
I also resolved to leave that job on my own terms because it was my dream job. I got to advocate for gender equality, human rights and inclusion on a global scale and at the United Nations. I had career goals I was in the process of accomplishing in my role. No one was pushing me off track of pursuing my goals and making a difference for women around the world.
If you’re experiencing toxicity at work, either through your own experience or your observation of someone else’s experience, ask yourself what is the cost of staying silent? Ask yourself what you (and others) stand to gain by speaking up? What’s possible if you challenge the status quo? Ask yourself who wins when you create accountability when harm has been done to yourself or to those around you?
The next time you encounter toxicity at work, challenge yourself to advocate for yourself and others, remain laser focused on accomplishing your goals, and speak up for positive changes that create a work environment where everyone can thrive.