50 Shades of F**ked Up

being true

Many years ago, I had a coffee with a friend who was working in a really difficult environment filled with cut-throat politics, unprofessional leadership behaviours and low levels of trust and honesty.

He said to me, lowering his voice, “You know Cassie, from the outside, this place looks like 50 shades of blue, but inside, it’s really 50 shades of f***ed up.”

This small comment, whispered in a cafe over a decade ago, really stayed with me.

There is no such thing as a perfect organisation.

Every single organisation has shades of light and dark.

And like most things, figuring out which organisations have more light than dark is complicated.

I used to believe that working for a non-for-profit would be a pretty safe bet in terms of finding a workplace where people treated each other with kindness and respect. Then I discovered that some leaders in charitable organisations justify treating other people really poorly “in the name of a good cause.” To learn more about this unfortunate phenomenon, read the report In Plain Sight that examines the high levels of bullying in the charity sector.

I once had another friend who found himself unexpectedly dealing with unprofessional, hurtful behavour from a peer. He was working at an organisation that ranked towards the top of the Great Places to Work list. Interestingly, his manager at the time told him that the organisations stellar reputation made it really hard for her to get support from HR to face into pockets of problematic behaviours.

And of course, sometimes all it take to transform a great team culture into a terrible one is the arrival of one new leader.

So what do we do if we find ourselves working in an environment towards at darker end of spectrum?


When I am supporting coaching clients who find themselves in less-than-ideal workplace environments, I often ask them the following questions.

How are you looking after yourself?

It’s essential we stay committed to taking good care of ourselves when navigating challenges at work. My general advice is to start by doubling-down on the well-being hygiene factors. Avoid alcohol, get some more exercise, get at least 7 hours of sleep, make good choices around nutrition and hydration and stay connected to people you can speak to honestly. Get crystal clear on your well-being non-negotiables and don’t let them slide. To level-up self-care we can pay closer attention to our inner dialogue and develop practices to take really good care of the parts of ourselves that are struggling the most (an IFS coach or therapist can help with this).

What impact is this environment having on you?

The environments in which we work shape us. As much as we might like to think of ourselves as somehow immune to the environments we expose ourselves to when we are working, the inconvenient truth is that we are not immune. In the same way plants needs fertile, nutrient-rich soil in order to sustain growth and health over the long term, humans need this too. It’s essential that we are aware of the cost of staying in a less-than-ideal environment, from that place of awareness we can make informed choices about how long we can stay before the price gets too high.

How can you use your voice in a way that is safe?

Many years ago I was fortunate to hear Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison AO speak at a small leadership event. David’s words “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept” made a lasting impact on me. If we see or experience unprofessional, hurtful behaviors at work, I believe that we have a obligation to use our voice for good. If it’s not safe to share what we experienced with our leader or with HR, perhaps we can provide honest feedback in the employee survey, or post an anonymous review. I have posted a number of honest Glassdoor reviews over my career that have hopefully helped others make a more informed decision about the sort of workplace they are signing up to.


When I am supporting coaching clients who are considering a potential move to a new role in a new organisation, I suggest they do a 3-point check while guarding against confirmation bias (if they have already decided that the grass is greener at the new organisation they run the risk of downplaying any red-flags that emerge in the 3-point check).

Check 1: Who is the CEO, and to what extent do they genuinely care about people?

You will probably get the most accurate answer this question by talking to people who work in the organisation and from reading reviews on review sites like Glassdoor. The old saying the fish rots from the head down is true.

Check 2: Who would you be reporting to, and to what extent do they genuinely care about people?

To do this check, play close attention to what questions the person you will be reporting to asks you in the interview. Do you get a sense that they are curious about who you are as a person? Do you get a good feeling about them? You can also ask them questions like “How would you describe your leadership style?” , “What’s the biggest issue you are navigating in your role?”  If it’s possible to meet a future peer at the final stage of the interview process – take the opportunity.

Check 3: Who is in charge of HR, and to what extent do they genuinely care about people?

This check can be a little tricky, but again you can read the review sites, and talk to people in confidence. If you are interviewing for a senior role, it might be possible to request a 15 minute conversation with the head of HR, or another senior member of the HR team. The mindset of the leaders at the top of the HR function have a huge impact on broader culture and a huge impact on whether other leaders across the organisation are likely to do the right thing by people, even when it’s hard. I have personally found myself in very stormy seas in two different organisations over my career. In one organisation, the HR team felt like life-jackets and light-houses, in the other organisation the HR team felt more like ice-bergs and sharks.

By reconnecting to our deepest selves we liberate our highest potential and serve the greatest good. I’m a trusted guide for curious big-hearted leaders who want to honour the truth of who they are. I offer coaching, plus a range of programs, workshops and keynotes. 

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