Life & Work

When to burn bridges at a toxic workplace


A hostile work atmosphere further propels the decision to break away from an employer. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

After months of searching, Jane Nyambura, 25, finally landed a job as a receptionist at a beauty and spa parlour. Though not in line with her academic background, she was eager to make an impression and began work on June 1, 2023.

Within days, Jane sensed tension between her colleagues and their employer.

“Whenever she (boss) entered the room, everyone would disappear, as if trying to avoid her,” Jane observes.

Such behaviour made her question her longevity in the company.

Read: How to find happiness in your toxic workplace

During a monthly meeting in her second week, her boss remarked, “You’re doing alright, but I’m yet to see your true worth.”

Taken aback, Jane replied, “I’m still in my orientation phase and am yet to grasp everything, including the financial systems. But considering there have been no client complaints, I believe I’m adjusting well.”

Her boss curtly responded, “If you want to take a year to get familiar, that’s on you.” Ms Nyambura was left stunned but committed herself to giving her best.

However, the work atmosphere became increasingly stifling. Once, while trying to warm up some water in the chilly workspace, her boss reprimanded her for using “her electricity.”

Things took a turn for the worse when, amid a particularly busy day, Jane mistakenly undercharged a client by Sh500. Though the client later settled the amount, her boss decided to deduct the sum from Jane’s salary.

With every passing day, the challenges mounted. Between being reprimanded for a single delay and the constant pressure, Ms Nyambura’s enthusiasm waned. The day she received her reduced salary, she decided she’d had enough.

“On July 6, 2023, I returned to my home in Nakuru and resolved to quit,” Jane reminisces. That Monday, holding onto the parlour’s keys, she messaged her former boss, “The work environment was unbearable for me. You can find your keys in Nairobi; I’ve shipped them from Nakuru.”

Ajiambo, a communication specialist who sought anonymity for fear of fallback at her current workplace, found herself at odds with her employer over the issue of a permanent contract.

Despite her dedicated service and navigating the evident favouritism at the workplace, her efforts seemed in vain.

“I had poured my heart into that job and the HR had given me their word regarding the contract,” she explains. However, a disagreement with a coworker, who was close to a higher-up (editor), led to unforeseen complications.

“That editor took the matter to HR. When it was time for contract renewals, I was suddenly informed that my incomplete graduate studies would prevent me from securing one.”

Confused, Ajiambo pointed out the inconsistency in their policy. “Several colleagues without university degrees have been granted better contracts with better pay,” she countered.

Without waiting for another response, Ajiambo left the HR office collected her belongings, and decisively left the company, never to return.

Burning bridges in the workplace refers to leaving with immediate effect or when you are not on good terms with your employer.

Doreen Atyang, a specialist in Human Resources, contends that when employees perceive unjust treatment in their workplace, as was evident in Ajiambo’s situation, they often sever ties with their employers.

“When employees believe they’re under-compensated, bypassed for promotions, or burdened with unequal task distributions, they may opt to walk away informally,” she points out.

Moreover, Ms Atyang emphasises that when employees feel their contributions go unrecognised or unappreciated, it can drive them to leave in unconventional ways.

“A hostile work atmosphere further propels the decision to break away from an employer,” which resonates with Ms Jane’s experience.

Pros and cons

Upon leaving a difficult job situation, Ms Atyang observes that employees often experience a profound sense of relief, especially if they were previously in a high-stress environment.

“Exiting such a situation preserves one’s personal integrity, especially if you were being pressured to act unethically,” she notes.

This step not only shields one from potential harm but also from possible legal repercussions should any illicit activities of the employer be exposed later on.

“Moreover, departing grants you the liberty to explore fresh opportunities that might have been restricted in the confines of that employment,” she states.

Burning bridges can have lasting effects on one’s professional standing. Ms Atyang emphasises that given the interconnected nature of many industries, departing on bad terms can make it challenging to secure positions or networks within the same sector.

Furthermore, it can restrict the references available to oneself when updating a resume or when potential employers inquire about their past roles.

“Departing from an organisation under questionable circumstances, divulging confidential information, or violating privacy agreements might even have legal ramifications if a former employer opts for legal action,” she warns.

Read: Dealing with toxic bosses


Alphas Adoga, Deputy Principal at the College of Human Resources Management, highlights that there are clear indicators when an employee is disengaging.

“Such employees often distance themselves from responsibilities and projects,” he observes. “They might avoid voicing opinions in meetings, stop putting in extra effort, intentionally decline new tasks, resist working beyond regular hours even if suggested, and while they might be there in person, their minds seem elsewhere.”

Nevertheless, Mr Adoga emphasises the importance of staff engagement surveys to detect potential issues early on. Such surveys should be conducted by independent external entities.

“It’s essential to periodically re-evaluate compensation plans, ensuring employees feel adequately rewarded for their contributions,” he states. “Such evaluations should be transparent to mitigate any biases or favouritism.”

Moreover, Mr Adoga recommends that businesses regularly assess the competence of their leaders to ascertain their suitability for their roles.

“Examining the roles of these leaders can deter office drama caused by competing interests and succession politics making the environment toxic,” he elaborates.

Mr Adoga acknowledges that securing employment after severing ties can be daunting, particularly with thorough background checks becoming standard.

However, he suggests that honesty, especially when explaining a departure from a toxic work environment, can serve as a beneficial approach.

“Do not shy away from speaking the truth. However, it can lead to questions of whether you followed protocol rather than just exiting without notice.”

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