Imagine you’re catching up with a dear friend. They tell you how their partner calls them names, makes mean comments about their appearance, gets angry at them if they don’t do the chores right. You’re shocked; you ask why they don’t break up with such a nasty person, and they stare at their shoes and mumble something about their partner being right: they are terrible at washing dishes and could do with losing a few pounds. You almost laugh at how ridiculous that is, because you know they’re wonderful and deserve so much better. You want to get them to wake up and walk out like you’re sure you would in the same situation.
So why do we allow ourselves to be treated like this in the workplace? Not every day is going to be a walk in the park, but far too often, we find ourselves in toxic work environments that make us miserable. We know that we need to be tenacious to succeed. When we’re the new person, we need to get our head down and work hard, do the crappier jobs and don’t take the teasing (that seems essential to the running of our industry for some reason) too personally. But there comes a point where the initiation period ends, and if you’re still the butt of every joke and being told you’re useless by most of your colleagues, you might begin to believe it. Perhaps it’s more insidious than that: your boss has reasons for why other people keep getting the jobs and promotions, even if they’re less experienced. Your coworkers might not yell at you, but they’ll roll their eyes and have hushed conversations that stop suddenly when you’re around. You might even work in several places with similar atmospheres, so you think this is normal. Dreading going to work and feeling worthless is not normal. Or at least not inevitable.
If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to take stock of what is actually wrong, and how you feel about it. If you love the work, but there are a couple of things that make it difficult, talk to a friend or trusted colleague for a less emotionally-invested perspective. Your coworkers might genuinely think you like the nickname they gave you or didn’t realise how much the joking was getting to you. If that doesn’t improve things, or the problems are systemic, try raising it with HR if you have an HR department or your boss/head of department/tour manager. Try to discuss it calmly, relying on facts more than feelings as much as possible, and approach it with the goal of making the work environment better for everyone both now and in the future. A reconciliatory approach will be better received than an accusatory one, no matter how justified it might feel. It’s always worth working at relationships, whether personal or professional, before declaring them dead.
There will still be times when this doesn’t fix the problem. It might even be that no one is at fault, you just don’t fit well together, or you feel like it’s just time to move on. Ideally, you’ll have saved up some emergency cash to tide you over until you find another job. Paulette Perhach illustrated the importance of a “F**k off fund” in this great but NSFW article. It can also be an incredibly powerful negotiating tool. You can be more confident and assured, and make much better decisions when you know you don’t need the money.
If you’ve given it a good shot, there is no shame in walking away. Even though it might be tempting, try not to burn your bridges as you leave. This industry is close-knit, and your reputation will precede you. The best revenge is simply living well. There are so many different work environments out there if you keep looking, you will find one that clicks sooner or later. It might not be easy: you might need to move city or discipline, or you might need to leave sound altogether. It can be tough, but once you are in a better place, you’ll wonder why you wasted so much time in a situation that didn’t work. Deciding to find better opportunities is a positive thing, even if it feels like quitting at the time. Letting people who don’t appreciate you take your time and your joy for years on end would be the real failure.
Beth O’Leary is a freelance live sound engineer and tech-based in Sheffield, England. While studying for her degree in zoology, she got distracted working for her university’s volunteer entertainments society and ended up in the music industry instead of wildlife conservation. Over the last ten years, she has done everything from pushing boxes in tiny clubs to touring