Top Image: Tey Liang Jin/RICE File Photo
Madeline dreads the portion of a job interview where they ask why she left her previous place of employment before securing a new job. Especially when the company she exited was a toxic one.
When I interviewed the 26-year-old, she had just left her job as a content writer in a small local media start-up enterprise. Even though she was adamant about staying till the end of 2021, the growing frustration stemming from workplace harassment and not being respected as an employee compelled her to finally leave in less than a year.
“People asked me, ‘why don’t you just quit?’” says Madeline, “and if I could, I would have already done so, but I needed the job. I’d also need to explain why I quit so early to my future employer. I just wanted to hang on till the end of the year. But I really couldn’t take it anymore.”
It’s a common thread tying most of my interviewees for this piece: being pushed till wit’s end and final straws before finally realising their best option was simply leaving.
I didn’t realise it was toxic
Often, one may question those in toxic workplaces for being in this situation in the first place—binding themselves, albeit unwillingly, to borderline harassment and abuse.
Sarah* felt that she ended up working an account servicing role in a toxic small digital marketing agency due to the lack of reference points.
“It was my first job, and I didn’t know I was doing multiple people’s roles until I spoke to a friend from a larger agency.”
Most of my interviewees who ended up in such circumstances were either fresh graduates or joined the workforce as an intern. It seems to be a case of not knowing their rights, as was the case for Sarah, or simply being grateful for having a stable source of income regardless of how they get it.
Even after speaking to her friend, Sarah viewed being overworked as the typical Singaporean work culture: making the most out of our small pool of labour and resources. She never considered being overworked as a form of toxicity.
“We’re a (toxic) family”
At surface value, the Dom Torreto promise of ‘family’ sounds compelling—the vision of a tight-knit and cosy workplace culture. But this kinship resembles dysfunctional Asian families more than sepia-toned, photogenic smiles that we plaster on our Instagram feed for Christmas.
More often than not, a professional ‘family’ is a euphemism for the conflation of work with personal lives.
Take, for example, Sarah’s boss, who treated employees like “best friends” but with a capricious relationship—she’d buy them gifts on one day and ice them out on the next.
In its worst form, the boss takes the form of an aunty gossiping during family reunions, sussing out the next victim for their tirade of abuse. Such was the case for Jenny* and Kiat*.
The two friends worked at an entertainment agency and production house run by a well-known Singaporean celebrity. There, “casual conversations” were code for interrogating employees about lunchtime gossip. There were also CCTV cameras planted in the office for surveillance.
Their company policy was clear: “no one is supposed to bitch about the company”, unless, of course, you’re part of the management.
Printer ink is thicker than blood
Besides being a clear red flag, the family trope is cemented with none other than emotional blackmail. Instead of mothers wagering their lives over messy rooms, these companies have bosses who frame their employees’ mistakes as a threat to the carefully fabricated thread of a ‘chosen family’.
Theoretically, these “families” should be easier to walk out on should the need arise. Blood is thicker than printer ink, but these contracts are signed with unspoken terms and conditions.
“It’s like being in an abusive relationship. You know you should leave, but you don’t know how,” Sarah points out.
In an extreme instance, Madeline relays the tale of her colleague, a graphic designer who attempted to quit three times before finally severing ties with the company.
“She wanted to quit sometime in April this year, but our boss went to her house at 8am to beg her to stay, so she agreed.”
Subsequently, the same colleague submitted a thousand-word resignation letter after Phase 2 Heightened Alert ended. But once again, just like the lifted restrictions, her attempt to quit was short-lived. Their boss sat her through a four-hour Zoom call to debate why the letter was “wrong”.
“A resignation letter is supposed to be fully accepted by the management. There shouldn’t be any debates. But somehow, they agreed for her to work part-time with half her original salary.”
Drawing the line
Beyond prolonged resignations, the blurred lines in toxic workplaces bring about another set of problems. In the spirit of creating a chummy relationship, employers inadvertently broach sensitive topics mid-conversation that conflates professional and personal boundaries.
Madeline was a victim of this as she recalls her boss’ insensitive remarks about women in his attempt at small talk.
She remembered an incident lucidly. As she was looking through some fashion trends for work, her boss came to her table and said ‘ee so fat’ while pointing to a plus-sized girl on the screen. On a separate occasion, he asked her offhand why ‘girls go crazy sometimes’.
“It’s usually during casual conversations, but everyone in the office heard him saying that. Most of us are used to such comments from him,” added Madeline.
The apparent lack of professional boundaries provides an avenue for sexist, racist, or homophobic comments to be made.
What’s worse is a complete lack of channels for whistle-blowing or feedback. With no year-end reviews, appraisals, or formal exit interviews in these small media start-ups, employees feel cornered into accepting such behaviours.
The rise of social media has proven handy in such situations. Instagram, for instance, has become a go-to tool for calling out toxic and abusive workplaces.
However, it is also worth noting that any significant change comes with the privilege of traction—so grievances aired on posts or stories that don’t go viral merely fade into the digital abyss.
The baggage of bad companies
Since leaving her first toxic place of employment, Sarah has been second-guessing her abilities as an employee, even till today.
“I’m no stranger to self-doubt, but working in that environment did not make it any easier at all.”
She was always put down in that digital marketing agency, spoken to condescendingly and gaslit in ways that continue to pervade her perception of self. To top it all off, she didn’t feel like she grew much in her time there either.
Sarah’s experiences made me wonder how we can navigate the intrinsic complexities of managing employees’ mental health at work, something we all face.
While working in Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) as an intern, 23-year-old Danial* recalled witnessing first-hand a “social experiment” conducted on one of their colleagues, Aurelia.
The video saw Sylvia and Aiken commentating as they set up one of their talents to cry in front of another simply to witness their reactions.
“That’s all they see as mental health. Just that. It’s so insulting considering all the other people in the office who’re suffering from burnout and anxiety while working there, and they’re pulling such cheap stunts,” asserts Danial.
And after watching the video in my research for this piece, I couldn’t help but agree. The sitcom quality of commentating and keeping scores for such a tender situation commercialises the harsh realities of burnout and mental illnesses.
The Unspoken Gag Order
It’s a wonder NOC’s insensitive response to mental health went unnoticed before. Yet it seems plausible given the unspoken and informal gag order placed on employees at toxic workplaces. It’s self-censorship that rears its ugly head often long after the employee has left the workplace—all the interviewees requested anonymity before agreeing to share their experiences for this piece.
From the SGcickenrice IG account to Glassdoor reviews, anonymity seems to be the golden rule for calling out bad workplace practices and bosses. But even this new-age form of whistleblowing has its limitations.
For Sarah, it came in the form of having to strategically plan when to leave a Glassdoor review.
“My colleagues and I wanted to post a review immediately after leaving but were fearful of the consequences. We were worried that it might be too obvious if a bad review immediately followed our resignation.”
However, even being able to leave some form of feedback in the online space is a privilege. The 5-man start-up team that Madeline worked in gives her close to no wiggle room to offer any form of review or feedback anywhere. It’s precisely why the company she works in doesn’t even have a Glassdoor page.
It sounds borderline confusing as some of us may ask, “why are people so hesitant to voice the injustice they faced? If you are truly the victim, there shouldn’t be anything to be afraid of, right?”
Still, politics is not confined within the four walls of the office. Like it or not, there seems to be a sinister consensus that airing their grievances online may jeopardise one’s future career prospects.
Coming from the media industry, all the interviewees recognise a widely known fact that everyone is relatively familiar with one another. The well-connected community makes employees feel like they have a reputation to uphold should they wish to continue working in the industry.
The employee who cried abuse
Many young Singaporeans fresh into the workforce face the stigma of being labelled as part of the ‘strawberry generation’. But the derogatory stereotype merely clouds any tangible feedback that could benefit the companies’ welfare policies and practices.
In a stroke of one convenient label, the red flags of exploitative workplace culture are transformed into the heat that can’t be handled by these sweet ‘strawberries’ and effectively declaring a clear message—if you can’t handle the job, that’s on you.
Kiat recalls a meeting that held a pretext for team bonding purposes, although it was conveniently held after a slight misdemeanour in the office.
“We were all feeling very overworked, and my colleague, in his frustration, pointed a middle finger at the CCTV in the corner of the room. A few days later, we were called in for a team bonding meeting where our boss kept tossing the phrase: ‘the market is open, if anyone wants to leave, you can leave,’ shares Kiat.
Instead of attributing blame to either the employees or bosses in such situations, we can objectively see that the incident was barely handled formally or appropriately. Neither indirect flashes of grievances nor passive-aggressive remarks serve as practical and beneficial means for improving workplace cultures.
The indispensable but often neglected HR
Eventful as it was, the NOC saga was symptomatic of a more significant problem within the media industry: the lack of a Human Resources department, especially in small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
More often than not, HR tends to be the last thing on the minds of start-up founders. Shah, an HR Director from Big 3, provides some insight after working close to 10 years in the media industry.
He tells me that traditionally, HR is usually parked under the general or office manager. And while they are capable of handling simple paperwork, they may not be competent in managing people.
“It’s a field and science in itself. It’s not just ‘oh, talk to people nicely’,” the 32-year-old quips. “A lot of people view HR as paper pushers, but I don’t subscribe to this. We do much more than approve leaves and help employees apply for claims. We also mediate conflicts and are heavily involved in grievance handling.”
For Shah, good HR starts from choosing the right candidate for the team. It has to be someone grounded in their values, has an objective moral compass, and remains impartial from both employer and employees. Most importantly, they should be able to prioritise doing what’s right over getting popular votes.
His description of HR is noble, but I can’t help but point out how it is also seemingly idealistic in this day and age.
One popular sentiment is that HR will always be on the employer’s side—they have a vested interest to protect the company, potentially at the employee’s expense if necessary. To wit, all my other interviewees doubt whether HR can really be their friend.
“Trust is essential in a company, and it needs to be earned through proper handling of grievances and conflicts. Ultimately, you want employees and employers to have confidence in HR as an objective mediator.”
According to Shah, HR should ideally bridge the gap between employers and employees. A unit that plays devil’s advocate on both sides to help them see from the other’s point of view.
I remember a similar sentiment by Jenny as she reflected on her experiences in the production house she was a part of.
“Employers need to understand that we are on the same team. It’s not them against us. We want what’s best for the company too,” she insists emphatically.
Perhaps HR can fill this void, especially in smaller companies. But just as Shah mentioned, it seems to be contingent on the companies’ earnest desire to care for their employees.
Despite all the media call-outs this year, from BooksActually to Shopee, there seems to be little to no news about any future updates to the perhaps outdated system of labour policies in Singapore.
“TAFEP exists as a platform to ensure there is an outlet for employees facing workplace harassment or abuse,” says the HR Director.
However, many employees are unaware of their rights as TAFEP is not a proactive check and balance against toxic workplaces. Moreover, Shah still believes that HR professionals are more adept at reading and understanding the policies to protect both employees and employers.
If such is true, it is an odd phenomenon in our tiny red dot that there are still many companies without HR professionals. From Shah’s perspective, it appears to be a failure in recognising the value of HR.
“At the end of the day, even though you don’t see (not having HR) as a problem, it is still a step towards improving your company. It gives you an edge because you’re taking care of your employees’ well-being.”
He puts out a public service announcement to all media companies about how happy employees have a snowball effect in creating a more productive workplace that benefits themselves and employers. “Your returns on investment (ROI) improve, and it makes for a solid business case as to why HR should be essential.”
Shah and I also discussed the changing labour dynamics. With more youths entering the workforce, they bring along their values in life, one of which is prioritising mental and physical well-being. And as the year draws to an end and the great wave of resignation tides its way through Singapore, perhaps there’s no better time than now to take stock of the things we cherish and want to maintain moving forward into a new year.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy and career prospects of profiles