I had little money and a lot of determination when I moved from Tampa to New York City three years ago. I was 27 and on the fence about pursuing a master’s degree, but I knew I needed to be in New York. While Florida was where all my amazing family and friends were, it was no longer enough for me to feel culturally fulfilled.
My opportunity came when a friend got into New York University and asked me to move with her. It was a golden moment, and I was ready to do whatever it took to make it work. At first, I had weeks when I had only $20 to my name, so I became very familiar with the selection of flavor packets offered by the Maruchan Ramen Noodle Co. Just when it seemed like I may have to return home, I landed a hosting position at a restaurant on the Upper East Side.
The first few months on the job were excellent. My coworkers came from all over the world and were some of the nicest people I’d ever met. I got one free meal a day, which meant I was eating real food. I was paying my bills and finally able to enjoy the city a little more. On busy nights, the team pulled together to make everything run smoothly. In our down time, we shared stories and music. I was so pleased to be part of such a fine group of people for so much of the day. That is, until the restaurant hired Monica (not her real name), the new general manager.
Initially, I really liked Monica. She seemed to have it all together. She exuded grace, poise, confidence, and kindness. But little by little, the kindness stopped and the poison came out — changing the culture of the restaurant dramatically. If an employee confided in her about a personal situation, it became a secret joke to circulate behind the person’s back. If anyone suggested a way to do things other than what Monica wanted, he or she was belittled in front of coworkers and told never to disagree with management again. We all felt unsafe. Good people were quitting. The misery that began with Monica trickled down through the ranks until even the dishwashers were nervous when they walked in.
Nightmare at the workplace
One slow night, Monica and I were chatting. She said to me that spell check was making the public dumber. Assuming we were in a casual conversation, I answered honestly and politely that spelling really had nothing to do with intelligence, but rather memorization skills. That’s when I became Monica’s emotional punching bag.
The next day, she demanded I buy new shoes, claiming the ones I’d been wearing for months didn’t make enough sound on the tile floor. I was yelled at, finger in my face, repeatedly. Not noticing and picking up a tiny scrap of paper on the floor meant that I was careless and sloppy. She insisted I apologize repeatedly for saying the words ad nauseum, which she found offensive because they referred to vomiting.
I dreaded work. I lost sleep. I started to grind my teeth. And worst of all, I questioned my abilities. I had to regularly tell myself things like “You have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. You graduated with honors. You are a published photographer. You are making it in New York City,” because I was starting to forget! Often, I’d retreat to the bathroom for a quick cry to get through the work night.
I was shocked at how easily the unfair gossip, the aggression, and the resulting fear had changed my self-image and my once-happy workplace. People who had been easygoing coworkers bickered tensely. It seemed the only way to avoid attack was to attack first, and many did.
After a month of feeling beaten down, I reached my limit. It was business as usual that night for Monica, who took one small misunderstanding and turned it into a complete attack on my ability to do anything correctly. The venom flowed. She called me names. She insisted I apologize — yet again — for saying ad nauseum weeks before. Angrily and tearfully, I expressed all my feelings for her poor management style and walked out.
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Giving up the double standard
Freeing myself from the toxicity was my only choice. I needed to process. Watching an environment of openness and teamwork transform into a world of blame and frustration made me decide I would not engage in that kind of landscape again. I vowed never to become a Monica in the larger sense — a destroyer, as I saw her. I also realized that even the smallest contributions of negativity were no longer an option for me.
Reflecting on my studies in ethics from college, I decided to consciously practice empathy in a way that I hadn’t before in the workplace. Previously, I’d allowed myself a double standard of behavior. I wanted the best for my coworkers. I tried to make people feel free to be creative and communicate whatever they needed to. When I did something wrong, I would admit it and apologize. On the other hand, I participated in gossip because it felt like a social privilege, and I enjoyed the bonds that seemed to come with it.
Until my trauma with Monica, I’d never considered how the small negative choices I was making could wreck my positive efforts. That’s when I developed my three-point conduct of behavior.
1. Avoid gossip. Practice empathy for others. People’s lives can be so interesting, and I admit there was a time when I had no problem whispering behind people’s backs at work. The most alluring aspect was feeling in control of the group’s social fabric in a way that others were not. But I can see now that it never really paid off. It fueled unnecessary drama and ugliness that did more damage than I realized.
To stop myself from joining in, I imagine how the person under discussion would feel if she knew. That makes it difficult to pass along the information. Gossip still lands in my lap, but I prefer it end there rather than disrespect the names and private business of others. And by trying to squash this behavior in myself, I find that the bonds I have at work are more dignified.
2. Give yourself credit. Practice empathy for yourself. It’s hard for me to pat myself on the back. Even when I perform marvelously, I usually think I could have done it better. And when faced with negative attitudes, it’s proved a real weak spot for me in the workplace. There are the apathetic coworkers who make everything seem like nothing’s special, no matter what you do. And the overly critical ones who fill you with uncertainty because of their unfair or unkind remarks. My enthusiasm can last for only so long when the feedback — including my own — is lukewarm or colder.
The best way I’ve found to deflate a careless remark is by dwelling on the good as much as possible, starting with an honest and fair evaluation of myself and my efforts. It takes work, every day, to focus on my successes rather than my failures. But the eventual payoff — a fairer self-image — has helped defend me against the cruel and thoughtless.
3. Insist on accountability, especially from yourself. Practice empathy for everyone involved. I believe that accountability is one of the most important strengths a group can practice. It’s a complicated quality to cultivate, especially in situations where people don’t feel safe to be themselves. I’ve worked with people who react harshly when you admit fault (or responsibility, depending on your perspective). You stop being honest and start looking for someone to blame.
This is the kind of scary situation where accountability makes an epic difference, and I make a concerted effort to be that person. Sometimes it’s easy, but other times it feels foolish and painful. In either case, it’s a chance to learn from my mistakes and be better at my work, which makes the vulnerability worth it. And if I can help others by focusing on next steps rather than harping on past failings, we’re all on our way to a place where we can thrive.
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Laura Cameron works in the operations department of SYPartners. She has an unquenchable passion for metaphor and loves cartoons. When she isn’t throwing bizarre birthday parties or loading a dishwasher, she is playing ukulele and recording music with her sweetheart in Brooklyn.