workplace abuse

Workplace Abuse and Entrepreneurship: The Warning Signs

Whenever I visit a doctor’s office, a bank, or even a fast-food drive-thru, I’ll often encounter signs that state plainly, “Abusive behaviour or language toward our staff will not be tolerated.” I always appreciate that those signs are there to protect those public-facing employees and staff members. The other day, it gave me pause to stop and think – as entrepreneurs, how do we afford ourselves the same protections against workplace abuse?

In the process of starting a business, keeping it going, attracting and satisfying clients, and maintaining revenues, we often find ourselves working tirelessly. We are bending over backward to close a deal and doing things we wouldn’t normally do just to make the client happy, all the while ignoring the little warning bells ringing inside our heads.

These little behaviours and overextensions often start small. Maybe you disregard a prickly email, extend payment terms, or simply log some unpaid time in the client’s favour. Sometimes, these actions can pay off and you win the client or receive a huge payout for your troubles.

In my experience, these overextensions need to be done cautiously. The occasional ask is often a sign of good faith for both you and the client. However, if you are responding to these seemingly-small asks more frequently for a client, it can be the start of a very toxic relationship.  It often leads to bigger requests, larger concessions, and in the end, a breach of your integrity and values.

Workplace Abuse In Small Business

In today’s world, we are very much aware of the profound impact that abusive and toxic relationships have on individuals and society as a whole. We’re educated on the signs to watch out for. We know the places and resources for help, and the steps we can take to recover and rebuild. That said, most of this education and these resources are only made available in-house in private companies, and for individuals struggling with personal relationships. Where do small business owners and entrepreneurs turn for help with workplace abuse?

You might think that the answer is as simple as just cutting ties and ending the business relationship, but it’s not always as easy as all that. Just like a personal relationship, business connections can be complex and multifaceted. Oftentimes, business relationships involve legal contracts, people’s livelihood, reputations, and so much more. How do you walk away from a business relationship when the person owes you the money that you depend on to keep your lights on and feed your family? How do you cut ties when you’re locked into a contract or could risk irreparably damaging your reputation?

Recognizing the Red Flags of Workplace Abuse

How do business owners identify a toxic relationship before it’s too late? What signs should we be on the lookout for? What resources do we have if we find ourselves stuck in an abusive professional relationship?

When a client gets excessively demanding, screams, or berates us in-person or via email, your first instinct might be to brush the behaviour off. It is easy to write it off as a stressed individual’s reactions – or, even worse, internalizing it as a failure on your part. It doesn’t register as abuse. That notion of disrespectful mistreatment is not something we talk about in the small business world. If that same behaviour were picked up and slotted into a friend’s personal relationship, however, we would be telling that person to run for the hills and never look back! It seems there’s a disconnection here.

Workplace Abuse is Sneaky

I’ve had numerous friends who have sadly been in abusive relationships at various points in their lives – some of whom I even helped transition out into a healthier, safer lifestyle. I have even had a few abuse shelters as clients throughout my career.

However, I missed all the warning signs when I found myself in such a relationship. The problem wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed the signs. Rather, I wasn’t watching out for them in the first place because it wasn’t a personal relationship – It was a business association with a client. It wasn’t until the end of the contract that I realized just how toxic the relationship had been and I saw the damages all around me, both personally and professionally.

Turning a Blind Eye

The contract only lasted for a few months and had started off beautifully. We started with a fantastic strategy and a strong first month’s worth of content. We came out of the gate with some great numbers to back our workup. The client singing our praises. Life was good.

The honeymoon phase came to a quick, abrupt end, though. After one or two missteps that resulted from some crossed wires and poor communication, it wasn’t long before the finger-pointing and nasty emails started flying around fast and furiously. As we entered the second month of the contract, we decided to incorporate some new content that was provided to us by the client’s own team. We adapted the content into social posts for the client to approve.

The response to our hard work was a document covered in red question marks accompanied by snarky remarks and accusations that we had simply made up content to fill out the posting schedule. I was shocked because the content had come directly from the client’s team. Not only had the client loved the first months’ content, but through a full decade of social media management, I had never once received such an abrasive response to our efforts.

Ignoring the Signs

My Social Media Manager was baffled and warned me that this was a big red flag for her. I was undeterred, though, and brushed off her warning. I assuring her that this was just us getting to know the client and that bumps in the road like this are normal and to be expected. So, we proceeded onward and edited the content to the client’s satisfaction.

As the client-approved posts went live, the nasty emails continued. We were incompetent, the client claimed. We were never available enough on the weekends. Our responses to 9 PM emails weren’t fast enough. Everything was our fault.

Despite countless concessions, long hours, and re-worked strategies to mitigate misunderstandings and accommodate the client’s requests, it still wasn’t enough – and things only continued to go downhill.

The New Normal

Soon, midnight email exchanges became the norm. I was working unscheduled, unbudgeted hours that ate into my little personal time. On many occasions of questioning my capabilities, I found myself pleading with my team to keep going. I felt paralyzed –all we wanted to do was deliver quality work and make the client happy, but no matter how much we gave, it was never enough.

Eventually, I just sunk into survival mode and steeled myself to wait the contract out. I was too afraid to end things early. I feared the damage an angry client could do  – not just to my reputation, but to my ability to earn revenue and continue to pay my team.

Fortunately, the relationship came to an end – a messy one, but an end.

Workplace Abuse: The Fallout and Lessons

It was only after the relationship ended that I realized how toxic it had been. I realized the concessions I had made were far beyond what I would normally do for any client. If someone had told me that they were facing this situation, I would say, cut the client loose. That advice is always easier said than done, of course. In the end, I had sacrificed myself, my morals, my sanity, and my team to keep this client happy. If that is not an abusive relationship, I don’t know what is.

Hindsight is 20/20

It wasn’t until I reflected on the wording of emails I had received, the finger-pointing, the lack of accountability, the irrational outbursts from the client, the warnings from my team, and even my actions during those few months with the client that I realized how toxic and harmful the relationship had been.

I always strive to treat my clients with respect, integrity, and understanding. However, sometimes that understanding goes too far and my self-doubt creeps in. When these two personality facets meet within me, it’s a messy situation. In this particular case, I realized retrospectively that it turned me into a doormat. In this situation, I stopped realizing my worth.  I rationalized and explained away the client’s behaviour. Warning signs from my team were ignored. I stopped listening to my internal warning bells and I just went into survival mode to complete the project. In the end, the cost was far more than the compensation I received for my part in the project.

Workplace Abuse: It Is All Around Us

When this relationship ended, I realized that abuse can happen in any relationship – personal, romantic, or even business. The forms of abuse can take are often subtle, but no less destructive. Sometimes, that abuse sneaks up on you and you don’t even know it happened until it’s all over. Hopefully, these warning signs will help you raise your red flags when faced with a potentially abusive relationship.

This topic is one that’s simply too big to address in a single blog post. Join us next post when we talk about what steps if you find yourself in my position.

Our expertise is in marketing and branding at The Marketing Girl, but if you’re finding yourself stuck in an abusive professional relationship, please feel free to contact us. We are here to raise each other up and support one another. We’ll help you cut ties and forge a new business connection based on shared values and mutual respect.


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