Toxic workplace


Ready to join an upbeat team with a mission? Well, look away, because this isn’t it!

Small, downtown SF office looking for a part-time administrator! This person will play an integral role in the company’s day-to-day functioning, as well as take on additional projects, such as nursing themselves from the loss of inflated PEUC benefits. We need someone who can be impeccable despite a long line of “peccable” predecessors. Common sense is required, as well as a can-do attitude.

Job specifications:

• Ability to mind read when assisting the Vice President in assisting the President.

• Ability to work hard and play hard (in their free time, this is not a Chuck E Cheese)

• Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Adobe PDF

• Ability to micromanage details in a fast-paced environment

• Bachelor’s degree required, Master’s preferred

Diversity and Inclusion statement:

So much more than a job. Other companies try to buy this in you with snacks and beer, but here, we really mean it.

The stars rustle; a train rips the silence with its howl, distant and lonely. You, a teenage runaway, sit at the station with your duffle bag warming your lap. It has been a while since you last washed your hair, and the grease pinches at your scalp. This is the vision of freedom: dirt under your fingernails; cold, always cold. Any rustling grass could be your path in the dark.

            A shape moves in the distance—was that a silhouette? Suddenly, you have never felt more alone. Your phone chimes—it’s your mother, who you never wanted to see again. But it’s cold, and you swear you can make out the eyes of the shape in the distance.

         We face the same turning point today—the artist or the caravan. PEUC benefits are ending, as well as the freedom to work from wherever you want. Come home, your mother writes. The stars, which once seemed limitless, are now exactly that, and your petty dreams are whisked away as is the steam from your breath.  Life is an aberration; awareness a clasp. We hide behind the glare of our computer screens; the neon lights chase bad thoughts away like bells do demons. You’re always at your desk anyway, why not do it in your cubicle where you also get paid?

            Come home. Why did you ever leave in the first place?

So much more than a job. Other companies try to buy this in you with snacks and beer, but here, we really mean it.

Toxic workplace

4. Master Sun, part 2

Who will I take on for the role? WILL IT BE YOU?!

           Every manager knows the best way to test a candidate is to drag out the interviewing process: Only someone who smiles like an idiot while dodging wrenches can handle a fast-paced environment like my office. Save for the mysterious man, I have no friends in this group, and while my plan is working brilliantly so far, I still need more time to see if he or anyone else has it in them to meet our company’s standards.

           “I will be testing you now on cultural aptitude,” I tell the final four. I stack a box of props on the front table. “But before I can test your fit for this company, I am going to need you all to fit into these costumes.”

           The Asian man stands up. “We came in on a Friday to wear costumes and put on a play?” he says. “This is a part-time position with no benefits. I paid $30 for my Uber here!”

           “$30!” I say, pointing to the door. “Now you know how much you’ll make when you drive for them.” An applicant eliminated; a disaster prevented.

           The woman with the braid whimpers after he leaves. “Since he eliminated himself, can we move onto the next round of interviews?”

           “Absolutely not,” I respond, handing out new papers. “Here are the scenarios. I suggest you put on your costumes quickly.”

           Applicants assembled, I read the first scenario aloud. “I ask you to come to work on a day you have requested off.” I lay the sheet down. “How do you respond? Demonstrate!”

           The contestants don their big hats and aprons to begin the next round with the energy of stale bread. One applicant turns to her partner. “Don’t worry about overtime: I should be paying you for this opportunity!” she says.

           Outside the office, the alleyway homeless man moans with more passion. I scurry to the window. “Scram!” I yell out of it, throwing a dollar bill at him. “Go grind on a Starbucks.” I turn back to the room and sigh.  

           “Applicants! The situation has changed,” I say. They all look so handsome in their costumes. “Today is your engagement party. Pretend that I am the fiancé—convince me to let you go to work instead.”

           The one with the afro goes to her feet. “Oh, exalted one!” she says.

           “Exalted one?” I say. “Remember, I’m your partner, not your boss! Next!”

           “I can do this,” says the giant redhead. He bends down in front of me. “Fiancé, you know how I will always choose work over us?”

           “I’m listening,” I say.

           “Our engagement party is tonight, but so is work, and I am sorry, but- “

           “But what?!” I jump in. “This is your career that you’re talking about. What on earth are you apologizing for?” He steps back; my employees come up to the door again.

           “What is it now?” I say.

           “We’ve waited another hour. Now, it’s well into our weekend,” Allison says.

           “Can we leave?” Melanie asks.

            “How about this?” I say. “Since you both love cake so much, I can order another one when this round is done.” I pat Allison’s arm. “It’ll be fun.”

           “I’m sorry, but—”

           “Don’t say that word,” I say.

           “We have plans. We both have to go now,” Allison finishes.

           “Go where?” I ask. The handsome man approaches us. “You know what? Never mind. Just clean up before you leave.”

           I turn around. The handsome man says, “May I hold your hands for the sake of acting?”

           “For the sake of acting,” I say, laying my palms on his. His skin is soft and smooth and cool. “Fiancé, I will not mince words. I am going to work and I am missing our party. Before I do, allow me to explain why with a parable.” He traces a finger up my wrist and pulls me closer. “Success relies less on the enemy not coming but of our readiness to receive them.”

           The remaining verse rises like a balloon within me. “Success relies not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather that we have made our position unassailable,” I continue.

           He smiles. “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

 “I see we have a disciple of Master Sun,” I say.

           “I see that, too,” he responds.

A disciple of Master Sun!

            As the applicants put their costumes back in their boxes, I make a special effort not to look at one of them in particular. My heart throbs like the tea bag that I bob with my hand. I do my breathing exercise. It is better to be feared than loved. It is better to be feared than loved.

            “What’s going on?” the woman with the afro asks.

            “I don’t know,” I say, spilling tea on my blouse with my stupid, shaking hands.

            “No, I mean what’s going on with the interview?” she asks. “Aren’t we on round three?”

            “Oh yes,” I say and pick up the schedule. Creativity test. “If you really want this position, I’m going to need you to show it.” I hand everyone a fresh sheet of paper and a pen. “Write me a poem about how much you want to work here.” And I sit back down and breathe with my eyes closed, hoping that Melanie and Allison don’t take the fresh air for granted when they go out. But where are they going without me? How could it be that they have their own lives?

            “I finished!” says one of the candidates, not the handsome one unfortunately. I take her poem:

My alarm rings; it’s time to fly

Without my job, I think I’d die

Administration, it’s the dream

Planning meetings and filling forms by the ream

Purpose is freedom, and it’s good to know

That my work helps the company grow—

            “One second,” I say, slamming the paper down and bolting into Melanie’s office, where Allison is also sitting.

            They jump at my arrival. “Where are you going?” I ask.

Melanie says “the engagement party” before slapping her hands over her big mouth.

            “Melanie!” Allison says. “You weren’t supposed to—”

            “It’s okay,” I say, thinking quickly through the shock. “I have plans, too. You can both go now; you’ve waited long enough. Wait—” I say as they stand. “Make sure to mention that I have plans. Fun parties. You know. Friday.”

            “We know,” Allison says, and they continue to clear up.

            I return to the candidates. “Wow. Time really has flown today, hasn’t it?” I say. “But I think we’ve been here long enough, and you can come back on Monday to finish.”

            “We’ve been here for hours,” one says. “What more can we test?”

            “Your readiness for the position,” I snap, loading up my purse. “See you!”

            Chairs creak behind me as I empty the teacup out the window. I tap my fingers on the windowsill—everyone needs to hurry up, I must be out before Allison and Melanie. They and the ex-admin must see how busy I am and how awesome my plans are.   

            I feel eyes on the back of my neck: dark, handsome eyes. “Can I help you?” I say, turning around.

            “I think you can,” he says, handing me his poem.

            “I hope you see that I am a very important woman with many plans,” I blurt.

            “To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear,” he responds.

             I hold his poem to my chest long after I return home. It is better to be feared than loved, but a little love would go a long way in the empty apartment tonight.

Toxic workplace

3. Master Sun, part 1

I test out the new candidates… are any of them worthy of a part-time position with no benefits?

            “You come from far and wide and passed our rigorous screening process,” I say to the six candidates in the kitchenette. “Now, I will evaluate you on the qualities of a successful hire.”

            My fingernail runs through the stack of paper and separates out a chunk. “We will start with these problem-solving tests. Then, I will look at cultural aptitude, creativity, and long-term potential. One of you will be eliminated each round.”

            The redhead takes the stack. An Asian man in a collared shirt frowns at his test. His neighbor, a stretched-out Melanie, scratches her head. Behind her sit two others: one with an afro and another with a braid. Their neighbor is a dark-haired man: handsome, maybe Middle-Eastern or South American. Or Indian. One of those.

            “Let the second round of interviews begin!” I say.

            When the ex-admin left, she brought a storm to my tight ship of an operation. Thanks to my managerial expertise, I grabbed the situation by the mast and steered us through muddled waters to the rain clouds’ silver lining. Over those fateful welcome-back donuts, I promised gentle Allison and meditative Melanie that I would not only rectify her departure but improve the company’s processes. I would start by identifying gaps in our recruitment strategy.

            “Five more minutes!” I announce. “And I would like to remind any slackers that PEUC benefits end in September.”

            My tea tastes like frustrated water; its bitterness is a reminder of the ex-admin. I knew upon her application that she was a chance to hire that I would have to invest my time and resources in training her. All of it was wasted: She made her low culture apparent by refusing to come in on days off, and when she negotiated benefits, I knew attitude would be a problem. While no one could have foreseen her final tantrum, I can only blame my easy-going nature for welcoming her on board in the first place.

            It is better to be feared than loved, but a true leader is a fox as well as a lion. Much as the lioness’s roars are felt throughout the Sahara Desert, I make my influence known throughout the company. But today, I will embody the clever fox when selecting the next admin. Ostensibly, the candidates are demonstrating their abilities, but secretly I am eliminating them on their predecessor’s characteristics: fickleness, hypocrisy, and greediness of gain.

            “Time!” I say to the motley crew, who slam their pencils onto the table.

            “No.” I thumb through the packets. “Absolutely not.” I slash a page with red ink. “I will be with you in a second,” I say to Allison and Melanie when they show up at the door. I turn to the candidate with the big hair. “Young woman, what is your name?”

            She mumbles. “What?” I say.

            “My name is Maddy,” she says.

            “Well, Maddy, I’m going to need you to be more calm-y.” I flip to a random page. “You are in a cabin. Every direction around you is south. A bear shows up. What color is its fur?”

            “I don’t know,” she says.

            “White! The bear is white! You are at the North Pole—where else would your compass point south everywhere?” My head shakes. Unbelievable.

            She flinches and is saved by the idiot in front of her. Stretched-out Melanie says, “What do bears have to do with the job description?”

            I point to the door as the mysterious man stands up.

            “Do you want to grow stagnant at your role?” he says. “We lateral thinkers welcome the challenge.”

            The poets describe love as a softness you fall into: blankets, fresh from the dryer; a scented bath; the ball pit at McDonald’s. In truth, it’s a more violent experience, like stubbing your toe in the dark. And right now, watching this candidate recite facts like song, I am hit HARD. But I am a boss babe, a company woman, and once the tingling retreats from my appendages and is replaced by warmth, I return to reason—company first. Always put the company first. I have business to take care of, and I tell stretched-out Melanie and Maddy.

            Allison and Melanie step up as the two women step out. “Could we go home now?” Allison says.

            “It’s after 5 on a Friday,” says Melanie.

            “Absolutely not,” I say, watching the two failed candidates leave the office from the conference room window. “I might need backup.” My two employees mope their way back to their desks.

            I face the rest of the group, now thinned out. “Based on these results, I shouldn’t be keeping any of you. However, there are three more tests, and I am ready to be impressed.” I lean back in my chair. “So dazzle me.”

Render unto Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar!
Toxic workplace

2. Bridezilla

A heartfelt reunion… and tearful departure.

           San Francisco’s foggy mornings fortify my bones. The salt in the mist carries my body from the bedroom to downtown, from sleepiness to the present: I am here, I am now, this is not a dream. While my girls from the office might disagree, shutting off your 6AM alarm is an act of humility, a prayer almost. With that simple gesture, you symbolize your contribution to a world where rivers flow and bees pollinate—it’s not about you and your momentary comfort.

            Yes, I think on the escalator ride up from Muni’s dark belly. My two and a half employees might be upset that I ended remote working prematurely, but like most adults, they will realize that their place is in the cubicle and not at home with their beloved partners, families, and hobbies. The decision was a hard one to make, but growth is a painful, dirty affair, and only after a wasp larva eats its way through the abdomen of a spider can the baby insect fly to freedom, soaring to great heights.

            Speaking of great heights, I crick my neck as I look up to the top of the building in front of me. The cloudy canopy above absorbs its very tip as if extending the elevator track through the heavens.

            Eyes glued to that purity, I pull the keys from my purse and step next door to my building, a concrete hut, a fungus at the root of a redwood. But all creatures have their place in the ecosystem, and humble spores often blossom into great toadstools.

            “Scram!” I tell the homeless man in front. He moans before disappearing into a closed alleyway. When will the city do something about that?

            Inside, I flip on a switch to ignite the office and illuminate its open layout. To match the panopticon theme, the walls of my cubicle were replaced with glass, per my request. The sleek doors come closer as I approach them—old friend, is that really you? A sigh escapes me like the steam from a cup of tea, and I step in; the trophy is back in its display.  

            From the inside of my crystal, I watch my underlings return.

           First stumbles in Melanie, the office manager. She circles around my cubicle on her Target flats. I gesture to her without lifting my elbow off the desk. An unfortunate mustard-yellow top reveals that work from home has added a few inches to her waistline. As a mid-level manager, it is my responsibility to share my concerns with her. Like how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved Mumtaz, the universe built me for this role: My employees’ success is my success, and Melanie’s health is my own. There is no freedom without rules, and indulgence is the greatest of shackles.

           Next to arrive is Allison, the intern. As always, her entire outfit and personality was purchased from the “new this season” counter at Francesca’s. I too gesture to her, and she responds with a little wave before sitting at her desk in front of me.

           Her computer lights up to a photo of her and her sorority sisters, a reminder of how my work is cut out for me here. College photos? What’s next—pentagrams? I never shame myself with silly relics, not even with pictures of my cat. No one here knows it exists. I wouldn’t sometimes if not for its meowing.

           Finally, the part-time admin arrives. She glides in, last of course, on the long sleeves of her silk blouse. The fabric flows behind her as insults do from her keyboard. Is that a dress code violation? She waves to me; I look for something in my purse.

           Naturally, she disrupts us all as soon as she is seated. “You guys!” she squeals. Allison, Melanie, and I rush over, hoping she hasn’t completely lost it.

           Instead, her desk is covered in white and gold glitter and presents: Congratulations here, Congratulations  there, Congratulations every-freaking where. Balloons are even taped to this idiot’s walls, as well as photos of her with the now-fiancé, an unbelievable hoopla for such a predictable event. The room breaks into applause. What will we celebrate next, mold growing on bread? Fish swimming? But one must give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and thus I bestow upon the tax collector a socially dictated number of claps.

Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar!

           “Congratulations!” Melanie says, hugging her.

           “We set this up yesterday to surprise you!” Allison says. She almost knocks me over to hug the admin herself.

           “Yesterday?” I say, straightening myself. “I wasn’t informed.”

           Allison gives Melanie an awkward look. The part-time admin wraps her arms around the presents and holds them to her chest, as a dung beetle would with its own ball of waste.

           Melanie’s phone pings. “Donuts are here,” she says and rushes out to grab the delivery.

           We step out of the cubicle as well. I change the conversation to our new filing system, but Allison beats down the admin instead: “Where did it happen?” “When is the wedding?” “Show me the ring? (Gasp) So pretty!” Each squeal from her is a ping pong ball bouncing off my head. Even the kitchenette with its matching plates and mugs[1] can’t cheer me up.

           “Are you excited about marriage?” Allison asks, pouring water from the purifier into one of the coffee mugs. I wince.

           “Unbelievably so,” the admin glows.

           I gag. “That’s sweet and all, but some of us are too progressive to be kept woman. Hee hee hee,” I giggle.

           “Kept? More like kept away from you,” the admin says. Even without a smile, I recognize her zany humor. Not many bosses boast of my intuition.

           Melanie returns. “I got donuts and a little something else,” she says, placing both deliveries on the table. She lifts the lid off one box and then the second: a cake with Congratulations spelled out in gold.

           “I can’t believe you, Melanie,” the admin says, wrapping her silk arms around her. Melanie blushes and puts her card back into her wallet.  

           “I can’t either,” I say. “Did you use company money for both the donuts and the cake?’

           Melanie’s blush intensifies. “I, well-“

           “Is this cake congratulating all of us? Because, unless it is, this looks like a personal purchase,” I say. The mustard pufferfish opens her mouth and closes it. “We’ve been through this. Even the Jolly Ranchers on Allison’s desk were a struggle to approve. Have I been speaking to a wall this entire time?”

            After some silence, Allison says, “It’s okay, Melanie. I’ll cover it. My treat. We’re just so happy for you!” She turns around and grips the admin’s hand. 

           “Don’t worry, Allison; she’ll have an audience fawning over her soon enough,” I say. No one laughs. Apparently, the vaccine immunized us against humor as well. “A joke,” I say.

           “No, it wasn’t,” says the admin.

           Clearly, she is overwhelmed: marriage, no more freedom, no accomplishments or aspirations. Even I would crack under the weight of it all—these kinds of stressors stack up!

           “Atlas shrugged, I guess,” I say and pat her on the shoulder. I pay for my portion of the cake with a $20 bill and step out.[2]

           I try to focus on my work, but unapproved movement in the admin’s cubicle pulls me out of my flow state—it’s time to confront her on unprofessional clothing.

           From the doorway of her cubicle, I giggle, “Knock knock.” She’s packing, another mark against her.

           I start off with an apology sandwich as she loads up a large paper bag with her possessions. “I hope you understand my concerns about the cake. The company is consistent about budgeting, and it’s only fair that rules are applied equally. I want to help you grow.”

           “Oh, no worries,” she says and hitches the bag on her shoulder. “I’m leaving now, but before I go, I have something for you.” She hands me a tiny parcel wrapped with a baby bow on top.

           “A present?” I ask, unwrapping a single green Jolly Rancher. “I don’t understand.”

           “Choke on it, witch,” she says. “I quit.”

           Long after she leaves, the homeless man moans up at the clouds outside the building, the only noise in the office.

Next: Candidates fall over themselves for the opportunity to work a part-time job with no benefits!

[1] Everything white.

[2] After all, no one is above company rules, not even me.

Toxic workplace

1. The Reckoning

          I am a mid-level manager: Hear my roar! I travel extensively despite the quarantine—from my home office I plant my authority in my underlings’ living rooms, floating from apartment to apartment to peek through their windows and evaluate their performance. I am a company woman, a boss babe, and I set the pace, floating above them all in my corporate-sponsored cloud. Of my importance I was certain, until a fateful message pushed me from my pedestal into a sea of doubt. Now I am drowning, splashing in the froth of no longer knowing who I am or what I do, and it is all thanks to remote working.

          Click click click. Unless we’re outside work hours, the nightmarish sound you hear is not spiders hatching in your ear but my Slack message shaking up your peace. Check your email, I send, sounding out each syllable before I do. I then lean back on my swirly chair, holding the warm weight of responsibility and fresh coffee against my chest. After a breathing exercise, I check Facebook to see if the ex has responded to my poke from 2017. He’s just busy.  

          I glance at the clock. Three already! Time flies when you are busy. I prioritize tasks for the rest of the evening: I could look for formatting inconsistencies in the intern’s emails, but wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to berate the office manager for her overpriced highlighter orders?[1]

          Instead, I google memes for our all-hands presentation. Right as I land on NO PRESSURE NO DIAMONDS, a Slack message rips me from my reverie and sends me spiraling.  

          The Slacker is none other than the part-time admin, pretty and sweet and as pleasant as a hair in my margarita. Have a minute?  She writes.

          Have a minute? The words reverberate like the shaman’s drum. This is what remains of decorum and of law and order: managers are not even worthy of a do you anymore.

          It is time to reconsider remote working.

Check your email!

          Work was never meant to take place from home, of that I am certain. Time saved from not commuting can’t convince me otherwise. Healthy breakfasts and fresh lunches I only now prepare haven’t either. My yoga breaks and extra sleep haven’t argued their point, and palm trees swaying in the breeze and birds tweeting from my yard won’t change my mind—the people need an office.         

          I didn’t attend the nation’s most prestigious and overpriced schools just to lord my authority over two and a half employees. I am here to show these girls what success looks like, and sometimes leaders must demonstrate bravery and humility when making scary decisions before they’re asked to do so.

          First, I must temper the brat. Do I have time for what? I write, unfortunately forgetting to italicize the first two words.  

          To talk, she says. We are talking right now; I want to respond but hold off. She begins to type again; the three dots by her icon dance.         

          Some say that remote working improves employees’ mental health. I put little faith in the elites who forget about the clarity gained from our commutes. We are above all a civilized species, and the physical distance that separates a person from work and their beloved partners, families, and hobbies constructs the veneer that they don for colleagues and clients. What to say and how to act is only learned in the physical realm. As I forego all interests not directly in the company’s benefit, a corporate personality comes easily to me. Others are not so blessed.

          What is this about? I type before she responds, cutting her off. Chop chop, underling—I need to pick a color theme for the return-to-office announcement. Should I start off by saying that I am delighted or thrilled for us all to be back?

          Finally, she responds: Never mind. Melanie answered my question. Sorry to bother you.

          Sorry to bother you.

          My LinkedIn bio describes me as a super-star thought-leader, which means something different to all award-winning, growth-minded individuals, and a possible interpretation is that I let apologies stand and bygones be bygones.

          It’s okay, I respond. You haven’t bothered me.

          I send the Slack and stand up over my desktop computer to face the window. The sun washes over me, its radiance reminiscent of my own grace. I sip from my coffee, the sincerity of reconciliation supercharging my spirit. If only the admin could understand her impact on me today!

          They say that the solution to restitution is dilution, and I can’t overwhelm my coworkers with change if I want to return to how things were. After all, all is not lost: my colleague still somehow remembers how to apologize.

          We can still do two days from home, three if the team models the company’s mission according to my high standards. My boss will be so impressed to see the ducklings back in their pond first![2]

          Still aglow, I again check the ex on Facebook. Something is up–how could he not respond in four years? And it dawns on me to click on his profile.


          This can’t be. Four years? That’s not enough time to get over me, start a new life, and meet someone new. Good things should only happen to those who work hard and network. Schadenfreude, my sweet relief, convinces me to search up another lazy bum—the admin. Surely her failure of life can be the salve to my own discomfort!

          Also engaged. I sit back down and stare at the wall.

          We come back Monday; I email everyone—no template, no color theme.

            Two engaged and one enraged, but my breathing slowly returns to normal. I lean back on my chair and tune into it all: the sound and the fury, the ocean waves pounding against the rocks. An eagle soars over a canyon; somewhere, a hiker’s boot crushes a ladybug. And here we are, unique instruments in the world’s ecosystem, about to assemble ourselves in our rightful nests as of Monday.

            I’ll ping the office manager to order donuts for everyone, but all three and a half of us know those pastries are for me and my authority. After all, we should celebrate the leaders who make hard decisions in our best interests, and today that person is me.

[1] $2 more on Office Depot than Amazon, a difference of almost $9 this year!

[2] When he decides he and his team should go back, of course.