Handling Toxic Retail Work Environments (Full 2020s Guide)


The image of the toxic workplace often carries with it the stereotype of the high flying, high paying, corporate job, where the stakes are high, and the atmosphere is super competitive and toxic to account for this. The term “corporate psychopathy” is often used to describe this caricature.

However, this term no longer captures the full extent of toxic employers and workplace environments in the world today. More and more, we are seeing toxic ideologies and cultures in lower end, low paying retail jobs as well.

This is not a good trend, since at least with the high end corporate workplace that is toxic, good people who are trapped in this can at least trade off the good pay they are getting for the bad environment they have to suffer.

With retail jobs, this is far less so. You will suffer from a toxic environment AND often low pay and low job satisfaction as well. You get the worst of both worlds.

This is not something that should be allowed to continue. It is already hard enough to get up and go to work each day for many of us, without even lower end jobs being more and more infected with toxic managers and staff and becoming a bad place to work.

This is why we wanted to create a comprehensive guide for the modern world for toxic retail jobs, covering as many different angles as possible – spotting them, surviving in them, and developing a plan for exiting them and finding healthier workplaces instead.

More than anything though, we want to emphasize the management ideology and cultural mindset you need to be wary of here – that of moral relativism. This is the ideology that seems to more and more be infesting retail environments as well as high end corporate jobs – the belief that there is no “right or wrong” and anything you do is OK as long as you can “justify” it.

This mindset seems to be at the heart of the rationalized cruelty that seems to be the norm in toxic retail workplaces. If you are a decent person that does have moral standards, and a “line in the sand”, you should avoid companies that adopt this approach at all costs.

Let’s look at the common features of these kind of workplaces in more detail, together with some plans of action for navigating them and moving onto something better.

Lines of Work in Retail To Watch Out For

Here are some more general, overarching themes to watch out for to indicate a particular line of work may be toxic.

  • The line(s) of work or the company has no vocational or charitable aspects whatsoever – it is purely commercial. This is most definitely NOT a telltale aspect on it’s own as many commercial companies exist which are not psychopathic. However it is a red flag in combination with some of the other factors listed.
  • The culture of the company is purely profit seeking to an extreme fixated degree with little or no consideration for more intangible factors such as treatment of workers, quality of life and morality and ethics.
  • The line of work exploits, mistreats or has contempt for it’s customers, often preying on despair and destitution.
  • The line of work requires morality or ethics to be somewhat numbed out or suspended. This relates to the above point and is especially important as psychopaths/narcissists will naturally gravitate towards this type of work as it already fits their psychological disposition
  • Betting, gambling and pawnbroking are particularly bad industries on this front. For our UK readers, parts of the betting shop industry do not have a good reputation for treatment of employees. BetFred is undoubtedly one of the worst employers in the UK, with an appalling reputation, and should be avoided at all costs. William Hill is not much better. LadbrokesCoral are in fairness much better in terms of the way they treat workers. I can’t speak for US retail bookmakers.
  • You generally observe a lack of worker satisfaction and reports of poor treatment of staff are common, from within and/or outside the company. Employer review sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor are excellent resources to get feedback about employers from.
  • There is a common pattern of relief among people who leave the company – you commonly hear feedback like “It’s the best thing I ever did”, “It’s a weight off my shoulders”, or “It’s like getting out of prison”.

The general idea would be to try and avoid these lines of work to begin with.

Signs of a Toxic Retail Workplace

Now let’s turn more to specifics, in terms of actual observable trends you can spot from within a retail company to see if it is toxic.

One trait on it’s own isn’t necessarily going to signify a toxic workplace, but once several of these traits starts clustering together, chances are it’s not going to be a good place to work.

  • A high concentration of employees in the company with strong psychopathic or Cluster B personality traits. Much higher prevalence than the 1-4% in the general population.
  • A good number of the remaining employees, even if they aren’t fully psychopathic/narcissistic, are poor quality, apathetic, easily influenced people, who will not stand up for what’s right, nor call the toxic culture out for what it is.
  • The above two factors will often combine to create the sociopath-empath-apath dynamic, where psychopaths/narcissists play apathetic bystanders off against high quality, empathic people who try to stand up to them. An extremely common dynamic in toxic workplaces.
  • A general “shrugged shoulders” apathy, or even active aggression and hostility, towards anyone who points out or tries to challenge the toxic culture. The overt or covert message will be “so what”, or “shut up and get back in your place”.
  • High turnover of staff and lax hiring standards.
  • A generally harsh and unsympathetic style from different levels of management. A tendency to blame workers for problems no matter what, even if they aren’t actually to blame.
  • As a follow up on this, watch out for clever sounding management principles like “This job is simple, so you create your own problems”, to justify blaming workers. To set the record straight, this is NOT always true in retail jobs. Personality disordered employees will actively look to create problems for others through manipulation and smear tactics, as will toxic customers who are being spoilt intead of being properly managed.
  • An extremely power-fixated hierarchical structure, where each layer of management dominates and mistreats the layers below them.
  • A generally toxic culture of infighting, backstabbing, division and mistrust.
  • Widespread instances of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct.
  • A pervasive attitude that any kind of behavior or personality, however appalling and toxic, can be overlooked as long as it’s “good for business”.
  • A culture of cruelty – good people are smeared and pushed out without a second thought. Toxic troublemakers often take a smirking pleasure in this. No empathy for workers who are mistreated or forced out. Treated as disposable.
  • See our article on psychopathic organizations for more traits to look out for that signify toxic workplaces.

Plus, here are some more overarching trends to watch out for:

Pomposity and zealousness – Watch out also for an arrogant, pompous and over-exaggerated sense of a company’s importance in the wider world. You may hear zealous management-speak about a company’s “mission” or “purpose”, when it is a solely commercial, profit seeking, soulless retail job like gambling. Watch out for overly dramatic memos , with “over the top” language used. A lack of bigger picture context and down to earthness.  A sign of organizational narcissism, or at least narcissism on the part of the managers portraying this message.

Watch out especially for this pattern – arrogant, narcissistic areas managers with over-sized egos, who swagger around with an air of confidence and “being in charge”, but are in reality very easily manipulated and controlled by sociopathic lower level managers who know how to play on their over-sized ego to their own ends. Once the lower level manipulator has the area manager in their back pocket, they’ll smear others they see as a threat, getting them in the area manager’s bad books. All part of the politics and power games that infest toxic companies.

Toxic retailers will be 100% focused on profit only and have zero consideration for other factors like quality of life, treatment of workers and so on

Abusive Patterns to Look Out For in Toxic Retail Jobs

The personality types you especially need to watch out for here the so called “Dramatic” or Cluster B personalities – especially sociopaths and narcissists. These are the most disordered and toxic of all personalities, and the most destructive in workplaces, since they feed off drama, conflict and provoking emotional reactions from others.

Here are some common ways these personality types often cause trouble in the workplace:

  1. Overt verbal bullying – In really toxic workplaces, troublemakers can get away with even openly abusive bullying, like name calling, shouting and intimidation. They may not even need to be sneaky about it.
  2. Gas-lighting – The invalidation of people’s perception by claiming things were done or said when they weren’t, or vice versa. In toxic companies, this will be rampant not just among lower level colleagues, but also from management, who will bat away valid concerns and invalidate people’s correct perception that the atmosphere is toxic. There will be a general culture of “blame the worker” – you will be seen as the problem and blamed, even if you are not.
  3. Micromanagement – Over analyzing and controlling every little thing you do and eroding any sense of freedom, autonomy and fun from the job.
  4. Dishonesty – Lying and deception will tend to be very common in these environments. Overt lying is an obvious one to mention, but even more than this we suggest that Lying by omission is a huge one to watch out for – where a person deceives not by what they say but by what they don’t say, what they leave out. Very common in toxic workplaces – see our article on it.
  5. Toxic communication patterns – Sometimes overt, but more often covert (sneaky) ways of undermining people through disrespectful and dismissive meta-communication (words behind the words). Constant gas-lighting, double meanings, and subtle “digs” and “slights” will be very common at all levels of the company.
  6. Manipulation of communication – Using miscommunication, incomplete communication or lack of communication to “set up” situations which make a fool of other workers or put them in a bad spot.
  7. Smear tactics – Spreading malicious gossip, rumors and false narratives about others in attempt to damage their reputation and isolate them. A common variant on this is to deliberately provoke reactions and then sneak around gossiping about those reactions to others, trying to paint you as “going crazy”, or “difficult”.
  8. Creating division – Using false rumors, exaggeration and misrepresentation to set people off against each other, while the troublemakers sits back and watches the show. Dramatic personalities love to feed off drama and conflict.

See our article on psychopathic/narcissistic workplace troublemakers for more on each of these points.

How Psychopaths Ruin Companies From Within

Coping With Toxic Retail Work Environments

If the thought ever crosses your mind that the politics and drama that infests your current work environment is completely ridiculous and unnecessary, you are not alone. There can be a frustration there as you know on some level that this job could be simple, easy, fun and non dramatic, but it isn’t.

Be aware that 99.9% of the time, you are right! Stick to your intuition on this, and don’t let others rationalize the environment away for you.

Most retail jobs are simple and easy, and don’t require high drama and politics. It is only when you get the wrong people in these jobs that these things start to creep up. Disordered, overly dramatic personalities need to have drama and conflict in their lives to make themselves feel good, and this is why they over-complicate jobs and inject toxicity and politics into them when there is no need.

Nevertheless, here are some quickfire “best practice” tips for protecting yourself in toxic workplaces:

1. Documentation – The first and most important self preservation tip. In workplaces where toxic people and inappropriate conduct are common, you must thoroughly document everything you see that raises concerns. This includes inappropriate behaviors, texts, emails, conversation, evidence of gas-lighting and other abuse and evidence of breaking rules. Without documentation, HR departments cannot do anything.

2. State Management – Another crucial factor in coping short term in toxic jobs. You need to keep in as good a physical and mental shape as possible. This means keeping up good hobbies and habits outside of work, such as exercise, meditation, reading, consuming positive learning materials and so on. Toxic people feed off negative states; keeping yourself in as strong and positive a mental state as possible will help protect you.

Predators don’t go after hard targets; they seek softer and more vulnerable targets. Also if your self care habits keep you cheerful and optimistic, then the relentless mind games and politics that are common in bad workplaces won’t affect you so much. Keep your state positive to stop them getting to you. In the most poisonous and psychopathic of workplaces, even doing this doesn’t seem too help. In these cases just get out as soon as possible.

3. Get Strong(er) Boundaries – Workplace sociopaths and narcissists will go after people they can see have weak ego boundaries – an addiction to the approval of others and a difficulty saying no and standing up for themselves. To avoid being targeted by predatory and exploitative personality types, you must develop stronger boundaries and an ability to say no.

Oftentimes, this issue of weaker boundaries comes from co-dependency or people-pleaser syndrome, which itself often stems from unresolved childhood issues. If you think this applies to you, then 1) Get out of toxic workplaces quickly; and 2) Work through these issues with a suitable therapist.

Richard Grannon is someone who is well aware of this issue of weak boundaries, and how interlinks with abusive personality types. Binge watching his YouTube channel can be very helpful for those with this problem. See also the Boundaries section of our Resources page for some good books on the topic.

You must protect yourself by documenting all instances of inappropriate conduct in toxic companies

4. Reporting Concerns? – We put a question mark on this one because the very fact you are in a toxic retail workplace suggests that the bad culture is not just isolated to a few people or departments, but instead runs throughout the entire company. In these cases there isn’t always a lot of point in reporting concerns (unless there is evidence of blatantly illegal activity), since much of the time, nothing gets done and the victim of bullying can even get gas-lighted and blamed themselves.

Most times, if you are confident that the toxicity is endemic within the company, then it’s best to simply move on and save your time and energy. We have a section to help with this further below.

5. Be Careful What You Talk About – Avoid talking about topics where there is high potential for conflict and division. Politics is an obvious one to avoid nowadays, as divisiveness continues to increase between the political left and right. Avoid talking about this with people you do not completely trust. Stick to neutral, “grey rock” topics. You may be seen as a bit dull by more dramatic types but your job is protect yourself, not manage their state. Be “boring” and “safe” if you need to.

6. Work on an Exit Strategy – If your retail job is clearly toxic, then avoid falling into the trap of hanging around somehow hoping for it to improve, when all the evidence suggests it won’t (toxic passivity). Simply work on moving onto a better job. Our next section below covers this.

It is true that being around really toxic people in the worst workplaces can drain you of energy and enthusiasm to the point where it’s difficult to even find the motivation to look for other jobs in your spare time. I’ve been there myself; I understand this.

In these cases, try and muster up the effort to do something, even just one small thing, every single day to work towards leaving. This coule be looking for new jobs for a short while, applying to just one job in a few minutes, or updating just a small part of your CV. Be gradual about it if you need to be, but stick whatever is going to serve you better long term.

Finding Better Work Environments

It is all very well knowing what kind of work environment you don’t want to be in, but it’s also important to consider what lines of work it would be better to move towards.

Here are some professions generally considered less toxic and more vocational:

  • Carer (see the caveat to this down below)*
  • Nurse
  • Therapist
  • Craftsperson
  • Beautician or stylist
  • Charity worker
  • Teacher
  • Creative artist
  • Doctor

More vocational and creative lines of work are generally less toxic and political, with some exceptions

 *Caveat – Care/Nursing is another line of work seen as more vocational, and for sure it is sometimes, but even this is less clear now. There are more and more reports of even nursing, especially in care homes, not being the caring profession it is thought to be, with lots of staff there who don’t really care about the people they are “caring” for, but are only in the job for flexible shift patterns and/or the availability of overtime. Nursing/care work is a mixed bag. Can be vocational but also pockets of it are filled with a lack of real empathy and “care”.

It is also a good idea to work on side gigs and independent, online income. If you can get to the point of being financially self sufficient through online earnings, you may be able to leave this nonsense behind altogether. Look into blogging, YouTube, freelancing and so on – they are all very viable ways to make money in the 2020s.

Alternatively, you can look at this issue differently, and simply aim to work for commercial retailers who have a better reputation in terms of general work culture, treatment of staff, conditions and so on.

Here are some resources for this:

  • US Readers – see here and here for some “best retail employers to work for in the USA” guides.
  • UK Readers – see here and here for some “best retail employers” guides for the UK.
  • Canadian Readers – see here and here for some guides on good Canadian employers.
  • Australian Readers – see here and here for some good retailer employers in Australia.
  • Also Indeed & Glassdoor are good sites for checking out employer ratings.

Personal Opinion – If when applying for any job/interview/assessment, you hear the phrase “There’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you can justify it”, or something equivalent, then get up and leave immediately. They are telling you their general ethos and work culture is one of moral relativism. This mindset is leading to some of the most toxic workplace environments possible, as psychopaths and narcissists hijack this idea to justify doing anything they want to others as long as they can rationalize and “justify” it. Instead look for employers who have some kind of moral standards and “line in the sand”.

What Can Be Done Long Term?

Unfortunately, reports of toxic workplace cultures in retail as well as corporate environments only seem to be growing year on year, not lessening.

More and more, we find people reporting that they have the worst of everything – their job is low paying, and the atmosphere is toxic and oppressive to boot. There is a horrible feeling of being trapped with a poor quality of life and unable to escape.

Added to this is the fact that in many countries, employment legislation is not always exactly in favor of lower level workers if they feel aggrieved by their treatment by a company and want to fight their case legally.

The financial and psychological costs of fighting litigation and “constructive dismissal” cases are often simply too high for it to be worth it for people who aren’t exactly earning great money to begin with in many retail jobs.

For this reason, many workers find themselves having to back down and move on from toxic workplaces where they have been unfairly treated, and this injustice can sit with them for a long time.

For the time being then, until legislation improves, there is not much that retail workers can do except be proactive and decisive in the individual decisions they make in their own lives.

In other words, if your retail job is clearly showing signs of having a toxic workforce and culture, then it is important to simply quickly accept this and move on before these blow-ups and smear jobs happen, and before it starts to have too much of a negative effect on your wider life.

We recommend following the advice and resources we give above to move towards better employers and lines of work.

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