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For some jobs, the best move is out the door

(ran PT, HT editions)

Kelly Collins moved back to Washington, D.C., from West Virginia a few months ago, excited about her new job in public relations. The president of the company, with whom she had interviewed, seemed personable, and she was thrilled to find a job in the city of her choice.

The six-person office seemed friendly enough at first. But once the honeymoon ended, Collins began to notice that the office was a bit, well, toxic.

The president and vice president argued _ loudly, complete with cursing. Once, in front of Collins, the president slapped the vice president on the hands when the vice president tried to show the president where a paper was.

Her boss, the president, demanded that things be done on deadlines not humanly possible, while also demanding she do errands, such as renting a car for him, even with deadlines looming. She worked more than 12 hours most days, trying to keep up. Collins got sick and couldn't sleep, and yet she was afraid to quit because she had been there only a few weeks.

The last straw was when the office assistant faxed a document to the wrong number. The president screamed at Collins and slammed his hand on her desk, inches from her face, even though he knew she hadn't sent it. He simply needed to vent.

And she simply needed to get out of there.

Just like bad relationships, a bad workplace can be a hard thing to handle _ and more difficult to leave. Although Collins could say she knew she had to get out of there, it was others who convinced her that the environment was not good for her physical and mental well-being.

The issue of dealing with a nasty boss is not unique to younger workers, of course. Older and middle-aged workers may have the same problem when a new manager comes on board. They may fear that if they leave the job, finding a new one will not be easy. Or they may be afraid they will walk into the same problem at a new job.

Patrick C. Dorin, co-author of The Dragon Complex: Identifying and Conquering Workplace Abuse, said there are many examples of the "dragon boss," a person who "is definitely into power and control," he said. "There is no sense of community, no sense of an understanding or warmth."

A manipulative or toxic workplace situation often comes about gradually, he said, which can make it more difficult to understand where a feeling of workplace stress or unhappiness comes from.

Betsy Friedlander, president of Willmott & Associates Inc., a workplace consulting firm in the Washington area, said there are several ways to deal with a toxic workplace.

The first thing people should do, she said, is try to talk to someone confidentially about the problem. "Just so you have a chance to put things in perspective. Otherwise you may make a decision that is more emotional than logical."

After that, it's time to talk to the problem manager, if you think you can. "Realize that this person's behavior has very little to do with you. You're not the first to receive this behavior, and you're not the last," Friedlander said. "Force the manager to think about that behavior. If you don't, it seems like whatever they did was appropriate."

Don't be surprised, however, if it's not the manager's bad behavior alone that makes the workplace so toxic. That behavior often is a sign of the organization's culture. If that's the case, "You might just have to leave," Friedlander said. The toxic workplace became an almost normal occurrence among the dot-coms. Their fortunes tied to stock options in those upstart companies, many employees and managers showed great gusto as business was building. When things began to go downhill, that same emotion came out in negative ways .

"It's very common that people find themselves in work situations that are intolerable not because of the work they do but because of the personalities they have to deal with," said SaraKay Smullens, author of Setting Yourself Free: Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Abuse in Family, Friendships, Work and Love.

"If you work for a dictator who bullies you and makes you believe that anything you do is not right . . . you may be able to hold on to your job, but only for so long," she said.