The Warning Signs with Sarah Morgan

young black woman taking notes from the computer

Photo Credit: Retha Ferguson/Pexels

Minda Harts, author of The Memo and the founder of The Memo LLC — a career-development company for women of color — is the creator and host of the Secure the Seat podcast, “The Podcast for today’s professional women of color.”

In this episode, Minda sits down with Sarah Morgan, HR professional and Chief Excellence Officer of BuzzARooney LLC, about how to navigate toxic work environments. The following is an abridged transcript of their discussion.

Minda Harts:

Hi, my name is Minda Harts, and I'm your host of Secure the Seat, your weekly podcast that helps women of color secure their seat at the table. And it's not about just getting your seat, but it's about creating space and bringing other women of color along for the ride and for the work with you. It's really important that we do that. We see so many people get into positions of power, and sometimes they don't bring anybody along with them, or they like being the only one. And I'm a firm believer that success is not a solo sport. And to create a legacy, we have to continue bringing folks along with us. It's just better that way.

Also, for my listeners that are not people of color or women of color, I appreciate you, too, because this content is how you educate yourself. You have to understand what we're talking about — what we're going through — even to attempt to try and help and be an ally or be a success partner. So kudos to you for joining in and continuing to be part of the conversation. Martin Luther King said, "We will live in the monologue, not the dialogue." And I think it's so important that we live in it, not just talk about it, that action.

So our guest today is really rad, and we became friends through social media. It seems like that's the way you meet people these days. And I had the opportunity to take our online friendship in person when I was speaking at Duke earlier this year, and she took me to a really amazing chicken and waffles spot in Durham (North Carolina]. I just appreciate women like Sarah Morgan.

I don't even know where you are in your situation. Maybe you're in a great environment, and if you are thriving at work, go sis, go bro, go. I'm happy for you. But there are so many that reach out to me and say, "I'm having a hard time at work. I'm experiencing this. My boss is this. My colleagues are that." Just a really bad place to work. And today we're going to talk about the Warning Signs, because sometimes we're so embedded, so entrenched in these environments, that we start to settle into the micro-aggression, we start to settle into the bias. And we're going to talk about how to understand that and how to get yourself out of it.

So, Sarah Morgan: She's been practicing HR for over 20 years. She's the Chief Excellence Officer at BuzzARooney LLC, where she provides consulting and coaching surrounding organizational culture, comprehensive and total wellness benefits, and executive leadership. Listen, Sarah is the truth, okay? Sarah, welcome to Secure the Seat. How are you?

Sarah Morgan:

I am great. I am so excited to be here. Let's do this.

Minda:

Yes, I know we've been talking about it for a little while, so I'm so excited to have you on Secure the Seat. Tell everyone a little bit more about you.

Sarah:

My name is Sarah Morgan. I am the Chief Excellence Officer for BuzzARooney, LLC, which is my HR consulting boutique. I do writing, speaking, consulting, and coaching in the areas of executive leadership, benefits, and wellness, as well as inclusive organizational culture. And that's my night job. By day, I am the Director of Human resources at a national retail organization. So I'm still side-hustling in addition to my full-time job, and when I'm not doing that, I am a married mother of five, so my days and nights are very busy.

Minda:

Yes. So I'm very happy that you made time for us. Yes. Come through with that Chief Excellence Officer. I like that title.

Sarah:

Thank you. I'm still getting used to saying it — like the whole pitch of how you present yourself. I'm still working that out. That's that side-hustle thing. You got to learn all of those tricks and treats.

Minda:

One of the things I want to talk to you about today is the Warning Signs, and sometimes many of us as Black and Brown women — women of color — we are barely surviving in certain environments, when we should be thriving. But we don't all have that kind of option right now. I'm hoping that the future of work will provide many of us, if not all of us, the opportunity to do that. But let's talk about toxic work environments. And for those who might not understand what that means, how would you define it?

Sarah:

So I'm so glad to be talking about this, especially at this moment, because I just transitioned into a new role and came out of what had really become a toxic work situation for me. So this is right on time in terms of my personal experience. I think that toxic work environments — I would define [them] as any atmosphere where the vibe, the energy, the people, and the work you're doing are causing disruption to your professional productivity or personal life in some combination. And that can look like a lot of different things. It creeps up on us. It's not usually a sudden thing where you look around and go, "Oh, I'm in a toxic work environment." It usually happens much more subtly, and you start to feel that lack of energy.

Any time your atmosphere, the work you're doing, the people you work with, are starting to interfere with your productivity, and that trickles into your personal life, your work environment is on that spectrum of toxic.

You start to see your body is aching. You're starting to feel sleepless, your mind races. That can lead to bad eating habits. You start to find yourself getting sick more often. And eventually, for a lot of people, myself included, that starts leading to things like anxiety attacks and panic attacks. And the struggle and the harshness that toxic work environments can cause people is real. So that's my definition. Any time your atmosphere, the work you're doing, the people you work with are starting to interfere with your productivity, and that trickles into your personal life, your work environment is on that spectrum of toxic.

Minda:

Yeah, girl, I like your definition because I've been in a couple of toxic work environments — one where I was having panic attacks in some meetings. I could barely speak. You would think that I was having all kinds of issues. It's real, and you start to question yourself in those moments. And so I'm glad that we're talking about this. And now that we understand kind of what a toxic work environment does to us mentally, physically, sometimes financially, tell us what some of the Warning Signs are so that we can be alert when it's taking place around us or to us.

Sarah:

One of the first things I think you will see when a work environment is toxic or becoming toxic is absenteeism. And to some extent, "presenteeism," which, I think they're, like, cousins, right? You have either people not coming to work, coming in late, leaving early, taking long lunches, or being at work, but they're not really productive. They're spending a lot of time in their coworker's office, venting about their frustrations with the job. A lot of gossip is going on, and that's taking away from people being present and productive in their jobs. So that's one of the first things that you see in toxic work environments.

The other thing is low enthusiasm, low participation. You'll have companies that are trying to get people to sign up for things like potlucks and trying to get people to … we're celebrating the birthdays, and nobody wants to come into the break room and sing.

When you start seeing stuff like that, it's because people's … their enthusiasm is low because, when we blow these candles out, and I go back to my desk, there's some foolishness. And I don't want to fake the funk with y'all, so I'm not coming in the break room to sing happy birthday. I might not even like that person. So you start to see that going on.

Turnover tends to be a pretty sure sign. People are not going to stay in unhealthy work environments. So it may not necessarily be your department, but you may hear people talking about, “I'm looking for another job, I'm trying to get out of here.” Or you start to see people leaving. I think you start to see a lot of siloing of people and a lot of finger-pointing in toxic work environments.

The dreaded cc on emails, when you got to copy everybody and their boss and their boss's boss because you're trying to cover your own butt. People are just unwilling to work together. They silo themselves. It's like I'd rather do this project by myself than work with so and so, because I can't trust this person is not going to try to throw me under the bus. So, you see, just that unwillingness to collaborate and work with people isn't healthy. And I think the last thing is: your leadership is going to be disengaged. And you may even start to see some twinges of narcissism happening in there, where they're just not willing to listen to feedback. They're not willing to hear what you have to say if you don't agree with them, and you don't want to move forward with whatever it is that they're saying with no objections. And you can raise objections that are valid. They don't want to hear that, either. When you find yourself in that kind of environment, you know that your workplace is toxic.

Minda:

I had some PTSD moments, too.

Sarah:

Yes, yes, like you start checking the list, and you go, "Ooh, I got that. I got that." Yeah. It happens.

Minda:

Yes. And on that note, so we know the signs and understand what it is, we know that there's some stuff happening that shouldn't be, and maybe you're not in a position where you can just check the deuces and leave. Right? You're like, "I got to stay here until I find something else, or whatever the case." But that self-advocacy — how would you advise others on how to address these occurrences with balance in the workplace?

Sarah:

So when you're in a very toxic work environment, advocating for yourself is probably not going to yield the same results that it would if you were in a healthy and supportive work environment. So you have to do that much more carefully. For myself, I monitored my venting because I found myself in just this kind of swirl of negative energy. When you start constantly talking to other people about everything that's wrong, then you just find yourself stuck in this negative space, and you can't shake that off. So what I would do is ask myself, "What's the next answer? This is trash. I know it's trash, it's going to be trash, but what's the best next thing that I can do in this circumstance to make it just a little bit better so that I stay in integrity with myself?"

And when I started to look at it that way, I was able to bring my anxiety levels down and find safe spaces of people that I could talk to. But we held each other accountable, not to let ourselves get too far into the doldrums, because venting is a dangerous habit. Because when you're venting, you're not looking for solutions. You just want somebody to conspire with you in your misery, and nothing good is going to come of that. And the universe responds to your energy. When your energy is bad from 8:00 in the morning till 5:00 in the afternoon, you're not going to come home in the right frame of mind to write that cover letter and send that resume out so you can get that next opportunity. You're not going to feel like going to the networking event to shake hands and meet people that are going to bring you to that next opportunity.

So you really got to be careful about that. But by the same token, cultivate your outside interests, because toxic work environments take such a toll on us physically and emotionally. That's the time that you have to make sure that you're eating right. That's the time you got to make sure you're hydrated, you moisturize, you keep your prayers up, keep your meditation up, all of those things that keep you in positive habits. Listening to podcasts that keep you encouraged like this one and others — that's the time for you to really fuel your spirits, so that when you come in there, you're ready. It's also the time for you to cultivate your other interests. I started my blog out of frustration with my job, which led to me starting a business. So you can take that hobby that you've been wanting to get into, that side business that you've been wanting to start when your workplace is toxic. That's the time to take that untapped, creative energy that you can't successfully put in place and put it somewhere else that's going to feed you in a different way.

So those would be the things that I would suggest to people to handle themselves. I will say, in full disclosure, I did not do a very good job of eating healthy and all of that stuff. I ate all my feelings. Okay? And I'm going to have to hire a trainer to undo some of this damage, because I just snacked the days away. I was like, "Oh, I had a bad day. Let me eat these donuts." I did that. And instead of focusing on the positives and trying to keep my head in the right space, I let myself get down. And that cost me opportunities, because I just didn't have the energy to go get it the way that I would have if those sorts of things weren't going on. So if I had it to do again — which Lord knows, I'd hope I never have to do it again — but if I did, I would listen to my own advice and not do that.

Minda:

Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing and being candid about that because, man, it's a slippery slope, like you said. I'm glad that you talked about that whole gossip and kind of venting piece, because, once you find your tribe, you become friends with someone in that venting and that gossip. That's the only thing that you guys really have to hold on to.

Sarah:

Yeah, misery loves company. And that is true in a lot of ways, and we use that as an adage for negative people. But energy attracts similar energy. And when you're in a negative space, you can't attract positive people. What you need to get yourself out of that toxic work environment is to get yourself set for that next opportunity — you need as much positive stuff out in the atmosphere and around you as you can possibly get. So as much as you can, find yourself a safe friend, set a timer, give yourself five, 10 minutes, and then switch the topic to something better, something positive so that you can keep the good vibes going.

Minda:

Yeah, because you need them all. You need them all in that environment. I know that we're laughing about some of it now, but what advice would you have for that woman listening right now who is dealing with a toxic environment? Because sometimes we start to believe that this is it for us. This is as good as it gets. And we start to normalize it. Tell her why she deserves an environment she can thrive in. She might've forgotten because of all that's around right now.

Sarah:

Well, I can share my own story. I started to feel the shift in my work environment, probably, I would say a year, almost two, before I finally was able to exit. And for a while, I told myself that I would be a quitter if I just up and left, that it would be weak of me somehow to not fight through and try to make that work. And those were just lies that I was telling myself. What I was experiencing was not normal. And for other women out there who are experiencing toxic work environments, it is not normal. You deserve better than that. As Black women, as women of color, by and large, we are the most educated group of people on the planet. We are out here cultivating ourselves, getting our minds right, getting our knowledge right more than any other group.

And we don't do all of that to go to work and make 65, 75, 85 cents on a white man's dollar and have to deal with this foolishness. I am a woman of faith. I say, "Jesus did not die for me to go through this." I don't know what your faith is, but whatever your faith is, whatever it is that you believe in, that sacrifice is not in vain. You waste yourself doing that. You should not be stressed out. That's not how we are meant to live our lives out on this earth. It's just not. So don't let yourself get down too far in the doldrums. Recognize the signs, recognize the symptoms, and then make yourself a plan to get ... I know we talked about it jokingly, but workplace PTSD is real. The prolonged exposure to micro-aggressions, prolonged exposure to stress, and all that heightened negativity that you go through when you work through a toxic work environment are likened psychologically to war.

So when you come out of that, you are scarred. That's real trauma. Do not be afraid to get mental-health help for that. I did it. I love my therapist. I talk about her all the time. I say, do not be afraid to do that. If your organization has an EAP or health benefits, use your EAP first because those visits tend to be for free. You usually get three, sometimes five or six. Some of the EAPs out there have what they call a "professional development component" built into it that will let you extend that. So if your therapist also does coaching, you can extend that to a certain number of visits. And again, you're not having to come out of your pocket for that. So get somebody to help you get your mind back right so that when you go to your next opportunity, your mind is clear, and you can make better choices.

I needed somebody to help me as I was going through the job-search process again. To make sure that I was asking the right questions of my next employer, that I was looking around to see the signs of what happens in a toxic work environment before I got there, so I could say, "Uh-uh, this ain't the opportunity for me." And I turned some things down because I could tell that this ain't the type of environment that I need to be in and I've got to go somewhere where I can build myself up and thrive again. So it's really important. Don't be afraid to take those steps to get your mind back right.

Minda:

Yes, yes. All of that great information because there's a lot of toxic work environments out there, and we don't need to be in them. There's plenty of good opportunities, and good people, and good colleagues that want to create equitable environments for us. And we are more than enough, and we just sometimes have been battered. And to your point, taking that luggage, that baggage, don't take it to that next job. Leave that crap right where it is.

Sarah:

Right. It's just like a bad relationship. You might need to clear some stuff out to do some personal work. And the other thing I'll say, if things are really bad, you go into your doctor, you go into your therapist, those sorts of things become important, because I am a human-resources professional. If you ever become in a situation where you have to sue a former employer, having the health issues that you experienced documented in your medical files is important and helpful. So don't sell yourself short on that. People always say, "Oh, we don't complain nearly enough." There may be a lot of claims out there, but a lot of them ain't us. As much as they like to pretend like we make a big deal out of everything, we complain far less. A lot of us walk away from negative jobs and places that have really done us damage and traumatized us, and we just move on to the next thing. So that may be you, but that may not be you. And if it's not, then make sure you put yourself in the best position possible.

Minda:

Thank you. Let people know how to find you.

Sarah:

Okay. My website is buzzarooneyllc.com, and my podcast is Leading in Color. My blog is The Buzz on HR.

Minda:

Yes, yes. We're out here sharing the sauce so that we all can win. The show is called Secure the Seat. What does that mean to you?

Sarah:

This is tough. I think being professionally successful as the most whole and authentic version of yourself that you can be in a way that radiates and creates space for other people to do the same so that you can bring the people from the margins in. For me, that's what securing the seat is about. The more that I show up as myself and that I feel comfortable and confident and accepted showing up for myself, that representation makes it okay for other people to show up for themselves and makes it okay for us to invite those other people from the margins in. So that for me is what securing the seat is all about. As I think on the second half of my career and the legacy that I want to leave, showing up authentically and making space for other people to do that themselves and bringing folks in from the margins, that's really what I want it all to be about. So that's what securing the seat is.

Minda:

I love that, bringing folks in from the margins. That's just so great. And that's what legacy building is. It's not just about our seat. It's about making sure that when we look back, there are bleachers full of folks. Just all kinds.

Sarah:

It's just full of people.

Minda:

They're doing their thing. And so I appreciate you and the work that you do, and I'm so happy that we finally got you on Secure the Seat. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah:

I'm so glad to be here. Thank you so much for having me.


CircleAround Powered by Girl Scouts™ is operated by a wholly owned subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA. The site serves adult women nationwide by providing content that is uplifting, thought-provoking, and useful. We make revenue distributions back to GSUSA so they can further their mission of building girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.

Trending

We use cookies to ensure that you have the best experience possible on our website. Read Our Privacy Policy Here

Got It!