When “Green” Turns Toxic: 6 Lessons Learned about Setting Healthy Boundaries at Work

Updated: Jul 11

I was reflecting on my post the other day about the importance of setting healthy boundaries and respecting yourself. It got me thinking about this huge weight that had been on my chest for months - a less than ideal work situation that challenged all of that this past year. I want to, therefore, highlight the unethical, tone-deaf, toxic and unprofessional behaviour I experienced while working for a green parenting magazine from August 2020-June 2021 and the lessons I learned and hope to impart to others who may be going through something similar.

Please note these are my direct personal experiences, and it’s not libel if it’s true (I have evidence/documentation backing up my claims).

Lesson #1: Look into all the Legal Stuff at the very beginning

When you start a new job, the first thing you need to do is look at the fine print of your employment contract. In your eagerness or enthusiasm to get started, you may more or less skim through and just read the parts that seem important. But it is SO important to look over ALL the details of this foundational document and be comfortable with them.

I say this as my lesson #1 learned from this job. For starters, I got off on unequal and disadvantaged footing, as a full-time, 40 hours/week - “digital editor/manager" independent contractor. While this was an unprecedented situation for me, I was so "honoured" at being chosen for the role that I ignored the question marks. When I dug a little deeper, I quickly found out there were more than just disadvantages - there were blatant labour law violations:

Labour law violation #1

Illegally classifying employees as “independent contractors” with the possible benefits of not paying taxes, benefits, vacation or being beholden to employment standards act.

  • Citing the “remote supervision” and “making their own hours” aspect as reasons they count as “independent contractors.”

  • An independent contractor runs their own business; an employee helps another run their business — a “digital manager” who helps manage and run all aspects of a company’s digital content and marketing and is contracted to 40 hours a week is NOT an independent contractor. There are fines and legal consequences for employers who fail to classify properly.

Parties cannot decide employee status merely by mutual agreement or by the signing of a written employment contract or independent contractor agreement. In essence, a document saying “I am an independent contractor” is mostly useless.

Labour law violation #2

Lesson #2: Company Culture and Work/Life Balance

It is critically important to get to know the company culture and work/life balance, ensure they align with your values and expectations, and don't ignore any nagging feelings if they fall short. I was so sure this position was perfectly aligned with my personal values. The owner/person I worked for there, managed to create a well-respected niche brand based on values such as sustainability, conscious parenting, wellness and integrity - and attracted a team of very talented people as a result.

As far as I could see, most of those values were not encouraged internally. In fact, as it pertains to wellness and parenting, my mental health and family life greatly suffered during my time there because of the relentless demands and lack of respect for boundaries.

These included:

  • Lack of transparency and a constant sense of urgency in getting “things done” without communicating actual client priorities/expectations (rushing to get something done and then waiting weeks for feedback).

  • Being emailed and texted at all hours of the day (anywhere from 5 AM to 11 PM), Including Christmas Eve, Sunday morning on Mother’s Day, and 7 AM the day after, I was no longer even working for him.

  • Instead of appreciating and encouraging me to take a break with my family over the winter holidays, I received an itinerary of all the added work/responsibilities when/if I renew my contract - on top of my already full slate of duties - which I would NOT be receiving any additional compensation for.

  • Sending messages to both of my personal emails after I no longer worked there, including one with a bizarre screenshot of his upset face.

  • Freeloading off contributors and brand ambassadors, including not paying BIPOC for their work (the only contributors who were compensated happened to be White) - citing “lack of resources.” I did NOT know this and feel ashamed of my role in enabling this to happen (I brought in many contributors and ambassadors to the cause).

Yikes. See below.

Lesson #3: Red flags and your gut instinct

Your gut instinct which signifies warning signs, are there for a reason, do NOT ignore them. I ignored so many red flags from the beginning, including how he talked about his staff and how uncomfortable he made me feel with his expectations and incessant communication.

Another red flag: not once did I hear anything from him on how the brand will actually do better in terms of genuinely promoting sustainable ideals, dismantling racism or bias, helping more people, or inspiring others. Sometimes the signs are right in front of your face, and you need to believe people when they show you who they are. He called himself a “money-grubbing” publisher, and I should have done well to believe it. It was all talk of how to squeeze a profit out of this reputation he’d built on the backs of hard-working, talented people and contributors who also believed they were a part of a good cause.

Lesson #4: Don't undersell yourself for anyone else

Talk is cheap. Know yourself and your worth so you can be your best advocate in your professional life. Looking back now, I cannot believe I undersold myself, my time, my energy and what my skills are worth in today's market, because of some idea that it was for a "higher cause". But it was no higher cause, it was an operation that had become, or perhaps always has been, a jaded academic’s clever way to siphon money from the government and pay himself an income to basically be a grant writer. As far as I know (and likely a matter of public record), all his staff’s incomes are grant-funded. Still, despite the revenue from advertising and digital sponsored content and marketing campaigns, he is either unable or unwilling to compensate them properly.

Case in point, the job description for my role (not including the new projects my successor would be taking on)...A responsibility-heavy mid-senior level management role that executes as much as manage - for $40,000/year - 40 hours a week with no vacation or benefits.

I took a big pay cut to sign on to this job, believing in the “meaningful, ethical work,” and spent the first 3 months at least working 7 days a week, at least 10-15 hours overtime each week (uncompensated) to build everything up quickly and constantly prove myself. To be fair, I'm not saying don't go the extra mile or strive to exceed expectations, but do so when it is proportionately awarded. Your time is valuable, don't sell yourself short.

Lesson #5: When values do not align as well as you thought, and compromising is not enough

Despite all of the above, I still believed in the brand values and mission, the quality content created by the contributors and the other passionate and genuinely good colleagues I had the privilege of working with. When I discovered I was pregnant, though, and not able to even qualify for maternity leave benefits due to being wrongfully classified as an “independent contractor” (the irony of it being at a parenting magazine is not lost), I almost left to work for a different company who offered me much better pay and full employee benefits. Due to my idealism over the brand’s values (and early pregnancy hormones), I built a case for myself to stay, citing the “meaningful” work.

So I tried to compromise. To entice me to stay, he agreed to make me an employee for 2 months so I would accrue the hours I needed to qualify for maternity benefits and raised my income temporarily to match the other offer. In exchange for the increase (which translated into an extra take-home $330/month after taxes), I was to stay on for an indeterminate amount of time to train his new replacements.

After months of being overworked and under-compensated, I decided I would do a week of training modules (with the two people he hired to replace my role because he couldn’t find one who could do it all) of 2-3 hours each day. He was upset and expected more time and “on-the-job” training. There was nothing thoughtful or conscientious about the whole arrangement.

I was 7 months pregnant at this stage and already had enough. But I did what I said I would, and didn’t say anything negative about his behaviour or the brand to my trainees, except encouraged my successors to set healthy boundaries so they wouldn’t suffer as I did.

When you reach a point where compromising is simply not enough, it's time to walk away respectfully.

Lesson #6: You can only be accountable for yourself

I walked away, knowing I governed myself with grace and professionalism to the end. I did everything I could to help, including reaching out to and spending an hour - convincing the person who is now the current digital editor - to apply for the role, talking only about the positive aspects. Of which there were many, but mired overall by what I experienced as poor leadership.

In my experience, the person I worked for behaved in vindictive, unprofessional and erratic ways that became more glaringly obvious towards the end. Since my departure, he’s done everything from forwarding messages to my personal email on a Sunday morning to blocking me as a visitor to the website, which is a shame because I do enjoy reading and sharing the articles...however repetitive and service-based they can be.

I am relieved to finally have my space, and want to put this chapter completely behind me. To take the positives and learn from the negatives. And feel proud in knowing I did good work. In fact, prior to when things went sour due to my imminent exit, this employer wrote me a glowing professional reference which he then said not to use to get another job. I have no intention of ever using his reference or communicating with him in any capacity again.

My only hope is that this person, this owner of a PARENTING magazine, will not choose to harass an 8-month pregnant ex-employee who has done enough good for his brand and just wants to be left alone. The fact this is even a concern is entirely inappropriate but not unfounded. Further drama is the last thing I need in the last few weeks of my pregnancy and heading into what should be a calm and happy time in my life (as much as it can with a newborn!)

At the end of the day, you can only be accountable for yourself, to be the better person and hope karma takes care of the rest.

Release and move on

It's normal to have lingering feelings of anger, disappointment or even resentment after an unhealthy work experience. Sometimes these feelings don't just go away, so you need to find healthy outlets to release them in order to move on. But it's important to let that go because nothing, especially a place that treated you unfairly, deserves more of your attention. If you can, go to HR and do an honest but professional exit interview with your experience. Leave an honest (but professional) review on indeed, or write in your journal.

For me, it is so important to be able to take negative experiences and turn them into something valuable. To turn mistakes into lessons. Let this be my written testimony so I can get it all off my chest, move on, and safeguard in case he tries to pull anything. My honest account is here. I have no intention of sharing this widely beyond my personal blog, to my professional network or to my influencer friends - unless forced to protect myself. I am VERY fortunate to be well supported, come from a family of means on both sides, and have close friends and professional colleagues who can attest to my personal and professional character.

Also, FYI: if you are Canadian - please keep in mind - Your tax dollars are funding this operation. Let that sit with you however it will.

...to bigger and better things

I’m writing this for myself and also for others who may be in this situation. Though the particulars vary, all too often, people (especially women) find themselves in uncomfortable and unhealthy work environments.

For those reading this and going through something similar, my advice is this: firstly, set healthy boundaries, secondly KNOW your rights and labour laws, thirdly, speak to a Counsellor if you are struggling. And lastly, if you are not being treated fairly or respectfully - seek out other options where you are treated as you deserve.

Nothing is worth your sanity or compromising your values.