How I Fought Back Against Toxic Work Culture

A few weeks ago, a male colleague told me, quite earnestly, that he assumed people hired me because of my hair. In 2019. Even though my hair is brightly colored and does garner some attention, my hope is that people are hiring me for more professional reasons. Thankfully, I now own my company so I had the opportunity to challenge him in a way I could not when I was just starting out as a young lawyer.

I spent many years working in difficult, and often toxic, work environments that unfortunately are the norm in the legal profession (and many others). Although those jobs are long behind me, I still use a framework I developed during that time to stand up for myself and navigate those difficult conversations.

Honor Your Goals and Values

On a yearly basis, write out your work goals (long- and short-term) without any editing. Allow yourself to really dream and reach—and you cannot censor yourself. If you want to write a book, give a TED Talk or take a sabbatical, write that down. No judgment allowed! After you have set your goals, add a column to include your personal values. Including your values in this exercise is key because your values are typically what fuel you to keep going.

I focused on those goals and values each time something happened at work that made it hard to get up and go to the office. I knew that to really excel at my job, I needed training. So instead of focusing on the emotionally draining parts of my jobs, I absorbed as much information as I could. I learned how to be a graceful advocate for clients, the skills needed to be a great lawyer, and what type of manager I did not want to be. Experiencing what doesn’t work or what you don’t like about a job can aid you in future endeavors and can fuel you to keep trying.

Focus on the Small Victories

When that larger goal feels far away and nearly impossible, look for the small victories and the little joys in the office. Frequently in toxic work environments you won’t receive much positive encouragement. This is where true inner strength comes from. Look inward and find your own personal victories. Revisit your values so you know what makes you feel fulfilled.

Allow yourself some celebration when something great happens. These don’t have to be momentous occasions. Sometimes it is as small as waking up early to get to the gym. Completing a successful project, helping a coworker, or receiving a thank-you note from a client are all also cause for some applause. And every once in a while, sneak some small part of yourself into the office, even if it is a little controversial for your workplace culture. It does wonders to keep your identity.

Set Boundaries

This is not the same as choosing your battles. These are the issues that are non-negotiable. That’s different for each person, but once you know your boundaries, it becomes much easier to maintain them. Keeping a boundary, one that you won’t allow work to cross, will give you a sense of control that many workers in a difficult work environment are often lacking.

Know When It is Really Time to Leave

I wish I had some amazing movie moment where I threw down my highlighter and stormed out of a meeting to start my own company. In fact, I practiced law for seven years in various environments that seemed to get worse each year. I experienced a slow burnout, that I know many women experience. My defining moment, however, was the birth of my first son. Coming back after maternity leave, I knew that if I wanted to truly live by the values that were important to me, it was time for a change. I left my job six months after returning from maternity leave, but I never stopped working. I took freelance jobs to make ends meet. I also started two companies that failed before I started Hashtag Legal.

When your gut says that it is time to go, set a plan in motion. Remind yourself that acting impulsively, no matter how romantic a dramatic resignation seems, is not the best way to set yourself up for success. Challenge yourself to be sure that it is the right time to make a change by sitting with your feelings. I recommend giving yourself a few days of space between any difficult situation and a decision to leave a job. After the emotions die down, if you still feel like it is time to go, then you know you are not being reactionary, but this is actually what you want.

Embrace Yourself and Failure

Looking back, I am grateful for the bumps, pain and failures. Those experiences challenged me to embrace who I am rather than run away from it.

What makes me different is what makes my company successful. What makes you different is your best asset. Take the leap (whether large or small) without fear of failure. If you fail, pick yourself up, learn something and keep going.

Just because I quit my job and started my own company does not mean that my life is perfect. I am still a female lawyer in a man’s world trying to make a difference. Being a working mother who wants to be successful and put my kids to bed at night only adds to the pressure.

With every bump that comes my way, I remind myself that while I cannot change the people I interact with, I can control how I react to them. You can take the high road and be true to yourself. No one is more successful than the person who takes the high road with a smile. And it doesn’t hurt to have pink hair. People just assume you’re happy. And that’s all we want in this life, right?

Jamie Lieberman is an attorney, podcaster and entrepreneur dedicated to making legal accessible and to sharing the message that legal does not have to be scary. As the owner and founder of Hashtag Legal, Jamie draws on her experience working with influencer marketing professionals, creatives and business owners to help her clients grow and protect their businesses.

She leads an all-female, virtual team focused on providing clients with advice on a wide range of subjects such as intellectual property, contracts, privacy, FTC and general business law as well as negotiation strategies. Jamie is a highly experienced speaker and is the co-host for the FearLess Business Podcast.

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