Have you ever watched a movie and thought ‘That’s just like my life!’?  It’s great if you’re watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ but not ideal if you’re watching a John Grisham thriller like ‘The Firm.’

Follow the steps discussed in my book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures, and I can reduce your odds of ending up in ‘The Firm’ or ‘Psycho’ or any other toxic environment.

‘The Firm’, a 1993 movie starring Tom Cruise and with a great ensemble cast that included Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Wilford Brimley, Gary Busey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris and Holly Hunter, tells the story of Mitch McDeere, a young lawyer fresh out of Harvard Law School looking for and finding an elite job at a successful Memphis law firm.  From the outside, the firm looked family-friendly, a great place to work (no one ever left to take another job!), and they always asked lots of questions of concern to find out more about their employees!  What a nice place to be.

Until the moment he started, that is.

After he joined The Firm, McDeere instantly realized the family focus was designed to ensure secrecy from wives of firm lawyers, the retention rates were based on employees knowing they’ll be murdered if they leave and the questions were only being asked to fill in the blanks on what the firm’s security unit couldn’t hear from wiretapped calls.  And, of course, they blackmailed him and tried to kill him.

I was never shot at in the company I write about in ‘The Arsonist in the Office’ and no death threats (lucky me), but some of their actions and cultural datapoints I saw stir up memories akin to the law firm discussed in the movie, including:

  • Secrecy is Omnipresent. Information and the flow of it is used to control people.
  • If You Have Ethical Concerns or Standards, You or Your Job Might Disappear In a Box.   The box may be what you’re put in after your firm blows you up in a boating accident (from the movies) or the box you check when you find yourself filling out the paperwork for a severance package after informing your employer that there is a serious problem that merits concern (happens every day somewhere).
  • The fear factor. I will never forget the bizarre experience of having lunch with a former colleague from the fictionalized company I discuss in my book ‘The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures.’  I wasn’t writing a book at the time and was merely there to reconnect with a person I had enjoyed working with.  In texts and emails, he expressed concern that we were meeting in too public a place, and he didn’t want us to be seen together. He said the company acted strangely about employees talking to any former employees. I thought he was joking–who cares who someone is having lunch with, right?  He wasn’t kidding.  When he saw people from the company having lunch several tables over, he froze with hands visibly shaking and speculated about whether he would be interrogated after returning from lunch.  For him, his employer (and my former employer) had a culture that in his mind modeled Cold War-era East Germany when it came to interactions.  You don’t believe it until you see it.
  • Bad behavior is ignored, explained, and even defended.  In most cases, the bad behavior manifests itself as rudeness, disrespect, and a void of ethics. However, if the bad practices are tied to enhanced profitability, it can become a de facto policy.  Or it can become a case of mutually assured destruction among high performers. Especially watch out when this happens.  It’s how people in some organizations end up in jail–they played a game of ‘Follow the Leader’ with toxic leadership who were pushing ethical and legal bounds.
  • Health takes a backseat to the toxic culture.  Absenteeism increases, blood pressure spikes, alcoholism is rampant, and stress levels hit new highs.  I’ve seen it and you must avoid it.

Want to avoid finding yourself in a job that feels like an action thriller, but not in a good way?

Here are tips from my book that will come in handy when researching your next employer. If you have any concerns about a company being toxic, do all of the following:

  1. Look at reviews on Glassdoor–Do angry and disgruntled ex-employees post on Glassdoor? You bet.  Do employees with legitimate complaints post there too? I can guarantee it.  Avoid making your decisions based on one negative review. However, if you see a large number of posters saying the same bad things, watch out.  Look for patterns.
  2. Google the organization and don’t stop with just the first page–Use keywords along with the company in your searches that include ‘toxic,’ ‘EEOC,’ ‘sexual harassment,’ ‘lawsuit,’ and ‘culture,’ and ‘scandal,’ to name a few.
  3. Connect with a former employee–Wondering what an organization is really like on the inside?  Talk to former employees by finding some on LinkedIn.  Unorthodox? Maybe.  Will you learn a lot? Guaranteed.
  4. Watch body language–Are you getting a weird vibe from people you either interview with or see in the halls via their body language or comments?  Don’t discount it completely or hope you maybe missed something or overreacted. Evaluate it for what it’s worth and refer back to #3.
  5. Ask about the culture–Have interviewers describe it to you.  If they can’t, make a note of it. Is that a deal breaker? No. Should you be concerned? Maybe. Ask if they like working there and have them explain why.
  6. Have a kitchen cabinet to rely on in a job hunt–Why? If you’re like me, you’re better advising others than evaluating your own situation. Don’t let your pride or the blind spots in your thought processes cause you to find yourself in a bad situation. Lay out the pros and cons of your job prospects and ask smart and experienced friends for their opinions.  More sets of eyes are better.

Odds are good that you’ll never have McDeere’s problems or mine (being followed,  and having my spouse harassed by the employee they called ‘The Arsonist’ and the company covering up the Arsonist’s actions, and much more). One is from a movie and trust me when I say I wish my experience was from a movie and not real life. However, you can save some major headaches, stress, and resume missteps by avoiding toxic workplaces entirely and the above tips can help you.

So to protect your interests, just like they say in the movies…Action!

Pete Havel is the author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures.  He is also the CEO of The Cloture Group, LLC, a firm dedicated to helping organizations build strong, productive and health cultures through books, training, consulting and public speaking engagements.  Additionally, he is Senior Counsel for Sunwest Communications, a firm based in Dallas, TX.  You can reach Pete at 855-NO-ARSON (855-662-7766) or email pete@petehavel.com and his website is http://www.petehavel.com.  To buy copies of ‘The Arsonist in the Office’, go to http://www.arsonistintheoffice.com.


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