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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Is It Toxic? My Boss Made Me Work Through a Mass Shooting

Bailey Zelena/Getty Images
Bailey Zelena/Getty Images

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

Dear Benish,

My boss made me work through a mass shooting. It happened in Atlanta, at a hospital where my sister was a patient at the time. I didn’t know if she was there that day and she wasn’t picking up her phone. 

Everyone at my company was talking about the shooting on Slack. Lots of people said they needed to take a break from work, and I saw my boss like their comments. After a few minutes of not being able to reach my sister, I called my boss. I told her about my sister's connection to the hospital and that she wasn’t picking up her phone. Then I told her I needed to take the rest of the day off because I needed to figure out where my sister was. She told me, “I know this must be hard, but I’m sure your sister is fine. We must learn to persevere through hardship. You have a deadline to meet today. As soon as you get that done, you can be out.” I asked her again and said this is an emergency situation. She told me again that it couldn't be an emergency because she didn't know if my sister was shot or not.

After that call I just sat there. She had been a difficult boss before, but this was another level. Then in the Slack channel with the entire team, I saw her say, “This will be a hard day for many people in Atlanta. Take the time you need to process.”

I don’t like the race card. I don’t like saying that I am a black woman and my manager is a white woman. I hate that even in Atlanta, most of my team is not persons of color. Everyone gets more leeway than me. This, however, is not even about leeway. My manager told everybody on my team that they could take time off to process—except for me, the only black woman on the team. I was told that I couldn't take time off because I didn't know if my sister was shot.

I’m writing because this is not an issue for HR. They wouldn’t even know what to say except that maybe my manager is insensitive and should have been better. I am writing because I need to know if this is normal. I need to know if this is how it’s supposed to be at work, or if my manager’s behavior is toxic. If it’s toxic, what do I do?

Overwhelmed and Scared
Atlanta, GA

Dear Overwhelmed and Scared,

I was debating whether to answer this question this week, because there was just a mass shooting near a city where I live. I try my best to be objective when I answer questions around toxic workplace issues, and I genuinely was not sure whether my feelings around the violence in America would cloud my ability to answer your question with clarity. But your question ran through my head several times, and with it my concern for how helpless these moments make us feel. There is much to say about what you experienced, but one thing to say up front: I’m sorry you experienced any of this.

In organizations, we often look for patterns of behavior before we make a judgment about whether a person or environment is toxic, or whether it’s a one-off instance. We do this to ensure that we are taking into consideration the myriad things a human being could be going through on any given day. We do this because sometimes, even the most well-intentioned people react from a place of emotion, exhaustion, or insecurity. 

But every once in a while, I hear a statement and think, This situation does not require a pattern because it in and of iitself is egregious. In this case, it’s not about whether your boss is toxic or not—it’s a question of whether they are toxic to you.

The hallmarks of a toxic boss are a lack of empathy, low emotional intelligence, and/or unrealistic expectations. They lay a foundation for additional egregious behavior, including an inability to regulate emotions. Your boss did show empathy via her Slack messages to the team and her acknowledgment that it may affect people. However, that same empathy was not made available to you.

Your boss stated that you had to continue working until you met your deadline because she had no way of knowing whether or not your sister had been shot. (Editor's Note: Her sister is OK.) It indicates both a lack of empathy and a conscious dismissal of your concerns. When you combine her public statement and her private conversation with you, you have a recipe for someone who knows how to be perceived well by an organization while being toxic to certain team members.

How can a boss be toxic to one person and not others? 

Bosses are humans, as are the people on their teams. This means there are personality-based dynamics at play. Certain personality types get along very well, and others don't. Generally speaking, when managers are building their team they look for what is called a “personality fit.” Personality fit is to see how a new team member will work with others on the team, but also how they will work with the manager.

When I worked in media, one exec was beloved by everyone. People would compete for her attention, and I was lucky enough to be one of the people in whom she took a personal interest. For me this meant more opportunities, stronger networking, and a clear path to success within the organization. However, there were select people that she just did not like. These people were competent, brilliant, and liked by everyone else. But for whatever reason, this executive had it in for them.

I asked her about it years later, because it felt like it went against her principles as a manager. Her response was, “You just can’t like everyone, no matter how good they may be at their job.” That’s the moment I realized that while she was not toxic for the organization or me, she was definitely a toxic manager for individuals that she didn't like. 

It’s easier for some to be toxic toward people they simply don’t like. It has nothing to do with competency, talent, ability, or anything else that we would normally measure. It just has to do with the personality difference, and a personality difference cannot be overcome.

You may have already picked up on this from other conversations with your manager. She may simply not interact with you in the same way she interacts with the rest of the team, which is evident in this example you shared, but the thing I’m here to say is: You will not be able to change her opinion about you, and it will not lead to better interactions between you two.

We are often taught that if we are just nicer, if we do more work, or if we try to adjust ourselves to fit our manager's personality, we will succeed. But when the manager is acting in a toxic manner toward you, there is very little that you can do. Because at this point, it’s not about how well you communicate to them, it’s about whether they are willing to comprehend what you are saying.

So, what can you do?

There are two paths forward for you.

Path 1: You accept that your manager is going to treat you differently from the rest of your team. Often this acceptance can help provide peace, because it removes the need to try to get your manager to like you. Your path forward is a focus on making sure your work is so stellar that it cannot be questioned by her. Realistically speaking, this does put a larger burden on you to outperform her expectations. You will see others do less work and get more praise, while you are expected to do more with more criticism. But if you believe you can handle that, power to you. 

Path 2: The second path is to find a way off this person’s team. I don’t know how big the company is or whether this is an option, but it’s a good thing to consider. If you find that you can’t move teams, then you can find a new job. In either case, you need to look for a personality fit for yourself. Make sure the person who will be your boss can connect with you on a human level and not just a professional level because you’ll need that. We all need that.

The big thing to remember as you go through this process is whether you feel like you can continue working with this person. Especially when you know that in a time of fear and trauma they may not give you the space you need. Use that as a guide to determine which path you want to use going forward.