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A Toxic Boss Changed My Career Path. Don’t Let Yours Do That To You.

. 7 min read . Written by Shagun Rastogi
A Toxic Boss Changed My Career Path. Don’t Let Yours Do That To You.

I was 24, fresh out of film school, full of the dreams of making my own film someday. I wanted to direct, and I was lucky enough to have landed a role as a director for a children’s television show. The sections I was supposed to direct were small and simple, but over the course of that summer, the creative direction changed, and those segments grew in complexity and scale. 

Now, a new boss was hired to help take this ambitious season further. She was well qualified, experienced and very impressive, at least on the surface. A new pilot episode was written. Much to my surprise, I was asked by my boss to direct that pilot. I had assumed that someone more senior would be called in, but apparently, this ‘chance’ was being given to me. 

If I knew then what I know now, I would have seen right through it. I was the scapegoat. If the pilot turned out well, the big boss would get the credit. If it was bad, I would be blamed. I did not consider if I had the resources, experience, or support to pull it off successfully.

I said ‘yes’.  

“I’ll be watching you,” threatened my boss. 

That shoot, which went on all night, turned out to be an absolute nightmare. I received the script half an hour before the shoot, which left me no time to plan the shots. Even before we had started rolling, the boss had already shouted at me in front of the whole crew. Then, she shouted at me for not being confident enough and not behaving like a leader. With every word, she undermined my confidence and then berated me for not being confident. 

During the course of that night, I heard actual abuses, paeans about ‘real’ filmmakers in Mumbai who were willing to sweep and mop the floors of the set, nasty comments about entitled film school students like me, and so many such ‘loving’ and ‘empowering’ things, that it was all I could do to hold my tears back and complete the shoot to the best of my ability.

What kept me going? The two other girls in my team who softly encouraged me and were by my side through it all. 

I reached home in the morning and had barely slept for a few hours when I was woken up by a call from the Supervising Producer, who yelled at me for not being at the edit and told me off for being ‘unprofessional’. And so I stumbled, sleep deprived and exhausted, back into office. 

I lacked the vocabulary and the confidence to call out that experience for what it was  – abuse and harassment. I am sure that many who have been in the industry will concur that this is how life is on sets, and that it is normal.

It is normal because we have normalised abuse and harassment. There is no way that the boss would be able to get away with that kind of behaviour in a large corporate. It is the lack of processes and systems in the media industry that allows for this kind of behaviour to continue. 

Soon after that experience, I found myself developing a distaste for shooting and direction.

I wrote an email to the leaders of the company and resigned. One of the leaders asked me to reconsider. She asked me to shift my attitude from a ‘victim mindset’ to a more ‘positive mindset’. 

I know, in hindsight, that she was right, but that shift is a process, not a decision. And at that point of time, I did not have the resources to make that shift. I left. 

I did not just leave that company. At a subconscious level, I left behind the idea, the hope, the desire to be a director on a film set.

I am very happy with the way my career panned out, but I do think that I would have made a great director if I had been nurtured instead of being abused while I was still growing and learning.

One experience should not change the course of someone’s career.

But when we are young, even a single traumatic experience can suck all power out of us.

And in order to emerge from it unscathed, we have to find ways of taking back our power to the extent we can.

It is too late for me to change that now. I only found my power by walking away and discovering my confidence through other means. But if you are going through something similar now, here are my suggestions. 

A Toxic Boss Changed My Career Path. Don’t Let Yours Do That To You.
A Toxic Boss Changed My Career Path. Don’t Let Yours Do That To You.

Know your rights

Read the HR manual. Read other global companies’ policies around good HR practices and prevention of abuse. In India, there is currently no law that directly prevents or addresses non-sexual workplace harassment. However, good companies have policies around such subjects.

With or without a policy, you should know that bullying, verbal or physical abuse, intimidation, etc. is not ok, and that you are well within your rights to raise the issue and complain. 

Document the evidence

Take some time to document the evidence.

Sound or video recordings, screenshots, emails, testimonies y from other colleagues – it’s all fair game.

It is likely that a bully will deny or find other excuses instead of owning up. You may not even have to present the evidence, but having it documented gives you confidence and courage and ensures that no one can gaslight you.

Call it out. Walk out, if necessary

If a certain person is bullying or harassing you in the workplace, you must call it out. Address it to the person first, in private. Tell them how an action or behaviour of theirs impacts you, and politely ask them to stop. If it does not work, or worse yet, you face consequences for speaking up, you will have to involve people.

Retaliatory action for speaking up is another thing good companies have HR policies against. 

Do not continue to put yourself in a situation which is damaging to you mentally, emotionally or otherwise.

If your work environment is unsafe, the onus is not on you to complete the work. If you suffer, work suffers, and everyone must understand that. 

However, if you can document the evidence, complete any urgent/pending/immediate work, and then take your case to leadership, you will have a lot more going for you because you would have demonstrated your work ethic as well. But that is only if the situation is moderate and you are somewhat able to cope; otherwise, there is no shame in walking out. 

Involve leadership

Take the issue up with HR, but also talk about it with the senior-most person you have access to.

Remember, it is the responsibility of the leadership of the company to ensure safety and fair treatment within their organisation. It is their job to look into this seriously. 

Find a support group

In every organisation, you will find colleagues who are supportive and empathetic. Find the ones who are able to give you a listening ear, and do share what you are going through.

In your sharing, make sure you only state facts and how it made you feel.

Do not name-call, abuse or say negative things about the person yourself, because that may weaken your case and may come back to bite you in the back. Maintain a decent code of conduct at all times. It is ok if you cry or are otherwise emotional, but always resist the temptation to make any personal attacks on anyone. 

A Toxic Boss Changed My Career Path. Don’t Let Yours Do That To You.
A Toxic Boss Changed My Career Path. Don’t Let Yours Do That To You.

Find a mentor

In general, everyone should actively seek out mentors and coaches throughout their career journey. An experienced mentor can help you navigate such situations more easily and with more finesse. 

Don’t leave just because you have a bad boss

Remember, you should not be the one leaving your place and your dreams. They should.

The person who did wrong is the one who should be punished, not you. If you simply leave and they don’t face the consequences, they will get away with such behaviour and the entire culture will diminish. Leave only if you would have left anyway; not because you have a bad boss.

Ask for compensation

Sometimes, nothing works. No action is taken, and you decide that it is better for your mental health and confidence to leave that situation. Know that if you are being forced to leave your job for reasons that have nothing to do with you, you can ask for compensation or ‘damages’. It is highly likely that you won’t get it because a company that does not acknowledge bad behaviour is unlikely to do you justice monetarily.

However, just talking to a lawyer, and making the ask (politely), will teach you a lot about people and power, and that will hold you in good stead later. 

In a larger context, a situation like this can teach you a lot. The abuse and misuse of power tells us not only about the other person, but also about ourselves. How do we respond? Do we take it lying down and suffer in silence? Do we discover anger or helplessness or both? Have we learnt to stand up for ourselves?

These are clues to larger patterns in your life, to older narratives, to deeper emotions. Once you’ve done the best you could (or not, and that is ok) in a situation like this, you can use it to understand more about your own self. You can change how you respond. You can uncover old beliefs and transform them.

Nothing is permanent, not a bad boss, not that version of you which was bullied by a bad boss.

And I may yet direct a film one day. 

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