Ever had a dream job become a nightmare?
On paper, the job was everything I wanted and more. Sexy product with high growth potential; industry stars leading the initiative; the best Glass Door reviews I’d ever seen; snazzy downtown office with free snacks, free catered lunches, even beer on tap. I’d be working with a few beloved former colleagues, and oh, right—they were doubling my previous salary. I even got to interview and approve my own manager, who was hired after me.
This opportunity sparkled from every facet like a lovely jewel. I entered that job with this-close-to-literal stars in my eyes.
Four months later, it was 8:05 a.m. on a Monday. I was lacing up my snow boots for the walk to the train station. And I couldn’t see the laces anymore because tears reduced everything to a wobbling blur. They were tears of pure dread. These tears had replaced the stars in my eyes and the job that had once thrilled me filled me with misery.
My train leaves at 8:31, I reasoned. It takes me twenty minutes to walk to the station. I have six minutes to kneel here and let the tears flow. Not the healthiest calculus.
I told myself I would give it a year. After all, I had known real hunger—I could do anything for a year. But I only made it to six months.
All my life, I’ve had instruction on how to identify people who want to abuse me. Peers who want to bully and backstab; husbands who want to beat and control; strangers who want to rape and kill. But nobody ever warned me about their institutional counterparts.
These are the hospitals that confound you with arcane billing procedures; colleges that frame their loans as special awards; police that may arbitrarily enforce or not enforce the law based on who you are; unscrupulous realtors who redline; vampiric MLMs who predate. The list ain’t short!
But worst of all, the place you are obliged to go for forty hours (or more) every single week: the toxic workplace.
As above, so below
When I found myself trapped at an awful, toxic work environment, I called my dad. He’s something like a professional career coach, so he always has good advice in these situations.
“I’m so unhappy,” I told him. “Casual racism and sexism in the office! Rampant nepotism and favoritism! The managers control their reports through bullying and threats. HR does nothing. Our numbers don’t add up, I think something shady is going on.”
“Tell me about their CEO,” my dad said. “Do you like him?”
“I don’t know him at all. I’ve only seen him once, and it was for a big ‘town hall’ talk. I’ve never spoken to him one-on-one.’”
“Oh, it sounds like you know him quite well,” my dad said. “He’s probably racist, sexist, nepotistic, plays favorites, bullies, threatens, rules with an iron fist, fudges the numbers, and is up to no good.”
He explained that these traits don’t pop up from nothing, like weeds after a spring rain. If a business is dysfunctional, it’s coming from somewhere. And it almost always comes directly from the top. Good leaders amplify the good qualities in their team. But toxic people corrupt everything.
At the time, I thought he was making a pretty big generalization. But several more years in the workforce have shown me exactly how right he was.
The what now?
It was impossible for me to watch the Fyre Festival documentaries without seeing the obvious warning signs.
If you’ve magically avoided knowledge of the Fyre Festival until this very moment, I’m thrilled to be able to give you the juiciest Wikipedia link of your adult life. It was the perfect storm of sex appeal, marketing chicanery, criminal incompetence, white nonsense, and karmic justice. And I think it’s a super valuable example to use when talking about toxic workplaces.
These places exist, and they are hiring. Hindsight makes this one look ridiculously fake and scammy. But it’s not that simple.
Based on the interviews with Billy McFarland’s employees, it seems clear that some knew exactly what they were doing. But others froze like deer in the headlights. In freezing, they became accomplices to the exploitation of the idle rich (funny) and the hardworking poor (unfunny). That’s a stain that’s hard to rub clean from your conscience and your professional reputation.
So how do you identify a toxic workplace? How do you tell the difference between a boss who’s a benign jerk versus a malignant narcissist?
Bad workplaces don’t always do what’s right for their customers—but toxic workplaces openly acknowledge contempt for them
Billy McFarland and his inner circle used appalling language to describe their own customers. He characterized them as basement dwellers, posers, wannabes, dreamers, fools, and all-around chumps.
There’s a word for leaders who view their customers as prey: predators.
Only a very arrogant person could build a business model relying on the consistent stupidity of his own consumers. Now, consumers may make choices I don’t understand—like dropping tens of thousands of dollars to go to an untried music festival. But even a consumer who makes mystifying choices knows when his expectations aren’t met. Few are such gluttons for punishment that they return as customers.
My old toxic CEO definitely thought he was the smartest man in the room. (This was especially baffling because he made us take IQ tests as part of the hiring process. I rolled his ass up and smoked him like a Virginia Slim. Ladies and gentlemen, the Dunning-Kruger effect is real.) A prominent 2020 presidential candidate sued his arrogant ass, for an amount that starts with the word “b.” She represents all those customers he thought were sooooo much stupider than he was.
As esteemed speaker George “Dubya” Bush said: “Fool me once, shame on—on you. Fool me twice—cain’t get fooled again!” When the prey wises up, you have to wonder who that predator is going to try to hunt next.
Bad bosses play favorites based on relationships or performance—but toxic bosses surround themselves with physically beautiful people
I think there are two key reasons: the most visible victims were shallow asshats with too much money. And the most visible victimizers were smoking hot babes who tricked the asshats into thinking they could possibly purchase proximity to them. Come on! That’s JUICY like a PEACH in SUMMER!
But as with most American stories, the real victims are the invisible ones. McFarland’s deception ruined the finances, properties, and reputations of innocent, hardworking Bahamians. Tourism is vital to the Bahamas. Providing consistent service and hospitality is part of their national pride. It was so incredibly disrespectful to put them in a position to not only fail, but absorb the cost of the failure.
I don’t hold the models responsible for any of this. They are businesswomen. Sexy businesswomen—but businesswomen just the same. But by virtue of their sexiness, they were also McFarland’s favorites. He openly admitted his primary goal was to get laid by models.
His favorites lived the Fyre Festival as it was meant to be. You saw it yourself, if you watched the legendary promo video. McFarland rented the finest accommodations, booked private planes, laid out incredible spreads, and wrote insanely huge checks for their time. When the models were bummed to hear there wasn’t enough time to swim with pigs, McFarland booked a private helicopter to make it happen.
(Please note that I would also really like to swim with pigs in the Bahamas. If someone would like to pay me to go do that, I’d really appreciate it. I will wear a bikini! The Kraft Singles cheese sandwich is enough for me!)
I have seen this degree of favoritism from bosses in real life. It never felt like a coincidence that in the worst, most toxic cases, the chosen favorites were extremely attractive. In every case I can remember, said hotties were actually super nice people who would’ve rejected the special treatment if they’d been given a frame of reference for understanding they were receiving it. But hiding the favoritism is part of the toxic boss’s manipulative skill.
Using your business as a tool to peacock at hotties is not a good look. It betrays immaturity, narcissism, sexism, poor judgement, lack of awareness, and a thirstiness that is totally embarrassing and unacceptable in the workplace.
Bad workplaces lack transparency—but toxic workplaces tell outright lies
I mentioned in the opening that the toxic company I worked for had the best Glass Door reviews I’d ever seen. Wanna know how that was possible? Shortly before I joined, the company forced employees to fill out positive Glass Door reviews.
During the Fyre Festival, McFarland instructed his employees to automatically block social media comments with certain words. At first they concerned questions the team couldn’t answer: “details, info, flights.” The banned word list grew to encompass warnings: “fake, fraud, scam.”
McFarland lied about so many things. The list of things he never lied about is probably shorter! People who had limited time with him—like journalists and investors—may not have picked up on them. But his employees had to know he was a serial bullshitter. They must’ve thought that McFarland had the self-control and self-awareness to only direct those lies outward. (He didn’t.)
If a company is willing to lie to their customers, you can bet your ass they’re willing to lie to their employees. I don’t know how that employee could be surprised when his paycheck later bounced.
Bad bosses want their team to stay in line—but toxic bosses are paranoid about “traitors”
This goes hand in hand with silencing dissenters on social media. Toxic bosses will always make truth-tellers Public Enemy #1 within the company.
The people who leave toxic work environments the swiftest won’t necessarily be the people with the worst responsibilities, or the smallest paycheck, or the most abusive interactions. It’ll be the people who have too much integrity and self-respect to stay. A toxic boss will end his career surrounded by a shambling skeleton crew of people who are as rancid and dishonest as he is.
When it became clear that the Fyre Festival had swum boldly and purposefully into the icy waters of scam artistry, some truth-tellers tried to warn us. There were anonymous social media accounts and credible, published journalistic reports.
McFarland responded by drowning these voices out with paid hype elsewhere. “Stay off social media,” he told his team.
Does all of this make you think of our sitting president? And his paranoid obsession with finding and punishing those who pass unfavorable information on to the public? Yeah, my mind went there too.
The most powerful tool of scam artists is their ability to charm people into believing their lies. If you threaten to expose them, you’ll be exiled to the frozen wilderness and forced to eat raw fish. Only a lucky few will get an Oscar out of the experience.
Bad workplaces have rumors and gossip—but toxic workplaces have high-intensity, next-level drama
It’s hard to explain what it feels like to walk across the floor of a toxic workplace. Like a library or a cathedral or a mausoleum, it has its own special, palpable vibe.
How do you know? Look at people’s faces. Are their smiles fragile? Do they look worn out? If you ask them how they are, do they answer with an exhausted laugh? Are they huddled together in small groups, whispering urgently? Do those groups stop whispering when you walk by? Is every door closed? Do people exchange nervous looks when walking into team meetings?
My manager and I used to go to a park a few blocks away from our terrible office. We’d sit on the benches and cry together. “I’m really not a crier,” I protested the first time it happened (like that was gonna make my tears agree to quietly disband and go back to their homes).
“I am a crier,” she told me, blowing her nose. “But I’ve never in my life cried in front of my own freaking employee. Please don’t tell anyone. I hope you don’t think less of me.”
Doesn’t this scene sound intense? Two talented, well-compensated adult women sitting in a park, stifling sobs over typical white collar nonsense? Honestly, I can’t remember the details that drove us to such desperation. But one was definitely about not being CC’ed on an email.
I see all of these behaviors in the Fyre employees—especially the lower-level people. Confused faces, exhausted sighs, spiritless protests, snarky jokes, cynical laughter, bursts of helpless rage.
I can’t really overstate how scarring the experience is. Toxic workplaces make you feel like you stood in line for It’s a Small World, but ended up on the Tower of Terror. It’s dark. You’re strapped in. You’re surrounded by screaming people, but you still feel like you’re alone. It’s up, and down, and up, and down. And you feel powerless to stop the ride. Everything builds to an atmosphere of chaotic suffering that’s completely out-of-proportion to the task you’re trying to achieve. Like “put on a music festival.”
When you try to explain to your friends and family why you’re so sad, everything sounds so small. Its pettiness compounds your isolation. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve lived it—but it feels like your life has been hijacked.
Bad bosses ask you to do the impossible—but toxic bosses ask you to do the illegal
Bad bosses love to make promises they cannot keep. It often comes down to not fully understanding (or caring about) their employees’ roles, processes, and existing commitments. How that boss assigns blame determines whether he’s a lovable fuckup or a dangerous sociopath.
When a company goes south, who pays the price? In the case of the Fyre Festival, it clearly wasn’t Billy McFarland! Even after the festival’s collapse—even when he was supposedly completely broke and millions deep in debt—even when the indictments were rolling in—somehow, that dude still found a way to rent out a gorgeous penthouse, fly first class, wear expensive clothing, give out freebees, and start new business ventures.
McFarland asked his employees to do a dazzling rainbow of illegal and unethical shit. “Mute that critical social media account. Design some villas we don’t have. Sell some services we won’t offer. Avoid those taxes. Steal our merchandise out of lockdown.”
And yes, most memorably: “Go suck that customs officer’s dick.”
When someone asks you to do something impossible, you can try a bunch of different strategies. You can try to do it anyway, or shift expectations, or ask for help, or refuse. But when someone asks you to do something illegal, don’t you fucking do it. Your evil, toxic boss can probably afford a much, much better lawyer than you can.
Billy McFarland clearly committed a lot of crimes during his long career as a con artist. But he didn’t act in a vacuum. As one person put it: “Don’t just focus on Billy. There are people who helped Billy commit fraud so that they could make their money.”
Why didn’t they leave?
I want to show compassion to the employees who didn’t know what was happening. And I want to condemn the employees who knowingly participated in victimizing others. But there isn’t a thin black line between those groups. The documentaries didn’t address this subject, so I can only speculate.
- I think McFarland and his team hired a lot of young people who lacked wisdom and experience. We teach young people to accept all sorts of unfair bullshit as “normal.” How were they to know?
- I bet McFarland structured pay to incentivize them to hang on until the end. Also makes sense given his cash-flow problems.
- I think it’s hard to foster a culture of integrity if your workforce is almost exclusively thirsty young white dudes who want to be part of the influencer/music/party scene.
- Maybe they suffered from the same FOMO they relied upon to sell tickets. “If I’m the one who leaves, what happens if it somehow comes together? What if all my coworkers make bank and get Bella Hadid on their arm while I’m putting in resumes at medical technology firms?” It’s a powerful fear, that one.
… Or maybe all of that is too compassionate! Maybe they’re all garbage. A whole staff of messy bitches who love drama. Maybe they never thought for one fucking second about the harm they were contributing to.
What I do know is that this wasn’t harmless fun at the expense of rich pricks. Bahamian laborers who assembled tents, build infrastructure, cooked food, served drinks, drove buses, and flew planes were sucker-punched by the Fyre Festival.
“Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”
Bahamian restaurant owner Maryann Rolle tearfully described paying her employees out of her own savings. They had done their jobs—she couldn’t hang them out to dry. She ruined her credit to make them whole. I wanted to physically embrace her. She is the model of true leadership. She “just did it,” and is the only legend in sight.
Rolle’s forthrightness moved a lot of people. About ten thousand people have donated to a GoFundMe to make her whole. At time of writing, they’re quite close to a quarter million dollars.
“What a wonderful world we live in where people are so generous,” she said.
Speaking of wonderful people who are so generous… today’s topic was chosen by our Patreon donors. Like FEMA tents and cheese sandwiches, their support is the only thing keeping this blog alive. If you enjoy our articles, please consider becoming a patron! With a donation of just $1 per month, you’ll get to vote on what we write about next.
THANK YOU, DONORS! Donors, your hair is strong and shiny. Your legs and powerful and shapely. I would buy whatever you asked me to. I would swim with pigs with each and every one of you.
Bitch Nation: have you ever worked on a Fyre Festival? Share your toxic workplace horror stories in the comments below!