I recently saw a question pop up in one of the nonprofit professional groups that I frequent. The advice seeker was finally leaving their toxic nonprofit job and wondering if they should agree to sit for an exit interview with HR, as well as provide candid feedback about the terrible work environment that they’ve been forced to contend with during their time of employment.
Overwhelmingly, the replies warned against saying anything. “Keep your head down and your mouth shut. Work your two weeks and leave without saying a word.” “It’s not worth your time.” “Take the high road.” “Be professional.” “You never know if this could come back to haunt you.”
It looks like I’m in the minority here, but personally, I strongly disagree with the “keep your mouth shut and be professional” approach. I understand where these folks are coming from–they are most likely speaking from deeply painful personal experiences in a sector where abusers are protected, women and people of color are silenced, and harmful work-life balances are extolled. I’ve been through the wringer myself. And yet I will still say: if you can–if you can afford to–don’t hold your silence. Speak up.
When I left my previous job, several people on the team were entangled in an unpleasant HR dispute. I wasn’t involved, but when you’re working on the same team, it’s impossible not to be affected. It’s like asking someone to work in a room with a rotting bowl of fruit and pretend not to notice the smell. When HR contacted me for an exit interview, I gladly sat down with them and told them everything on my mind. Did they do anything about my grievances? Of course not. But to this day, I do not regret a single word that I said, because it was the truth.
On the day of my departure, I sent a final email to the director and deputy director of our large department, copying HR, expressing my concerns about the amount of abuse and harassment directed at women of color that I had witnessed throughout my time. Even though I had already lined up a new job, I was terrified to actually send that email. I spent weeks writing it, going through at least five different drafts. It went from a fraught, highly emotional epic detailing every single thing that had distressed me and accusing the senior management of inaction to–eventually–a cool-toned, almost clinical memo focused on the one thing that was objectively the most horrible (the culture of fear and bullying). I didn’t use anyone’s name or cite specific examples. And at the end, I asked for a very specific action item that was not “you need to fire this person immediately”, but rather something that would protect my colleagues who were still on the team.
(I should note: I did share with multiple people on the team that I was planning to send this email, and described to them the contents. They all said that they would have no issues with my sending it.)
On the afternoon of my last day, I copy/pasted the letter into a new email message, walked over to the IT desk, and hit “send” with trembling fingers. Then I gave my computer back to IT and walked out of the office for the final time. I was done.
Again, I don’t regret sending that email. It’s written proof that I was not okay with what happened; that I spoke up and made my objections known. I’m proud of what I did. But sometimes I do wonder: should I have sent it earlier? Should I have asked for a meeting with the director to discuss these concerns in person? Should I have copied the rest of the team on the email? Should I have copied the entire department, just to be really messy?
Airing my grievances didn’t magically make things better overnight. I was in therapy throughout this time and had many heavy, emotional conversations with my therapist. When I started my new job, I was still suffering from a mild form of PTSD and found it difficult to trust any of my new colleagues. About a month after I started, the director of our department invited me to coffee (I wrote more about her here–a truly wonderful person that I really look up to), and she asked, “So what do you think is weird here? Have you noticed any things that aren’t working?”
I froze. I could not give her a coherent answer beyond umm, no, everything’s pretty good here.
And the truth is: things actually are pretty good here, from the little corner where I sit. I don’t know if it’s a European thing or just the particular culture of this workplace, but people here are way more open and candid than I’ve encountered anywhere else in the world. For instance, someone who’s several levels higher than me in my team isn’t embarrassed to tell me that they’ve interviewed for (and gotten rejected from) another job within our organization. There’s a woman in our department who frequently sends email blasts to the 500+ staff members about her grievances–concerns about logistical issues in the upcoming staff union election, accusations of retaliation against staff members. And… like… she’s still here. She still has a job, and she gets elected to the staff union board every year.
At first I found her email blasts pretty annoying, but then I realized: this is what a healthy work environment looks like. This is what openness and freedom of expression look like. And if we’re all keeping our heads down and our mouths shut for the sake of “appearing professional” and “taking the high road”, then who’s going to speak up for us? Who is going to organize us and form a union and fight for better things? And most importantly, who is going to say, “hey, I just want to make it very clear to everyone that the things that have been happening are actually super fucked up, and if people are feeling traumatized and scared, it’s not because they’re too sensitive or crazy, it’s because they’re being abused.”
Your mileage may vary. Definitely. But this is what I believe, and this is what I choose to live by.
Photo by Abolfazl Ranjbar on Unsplash