If your mental health depends on a boss's "good day," you're in a toxic workplace.
On television, late night host Jimmy Fallon has cultivated a friendly, charming personality among guests and audiences. But according to an investigation by Rolling Stone that was published Thursday, behind closed doors Fallon created a toxic environment for the staff at “The Tonight Show.”
According to two current and 14 former unnamed employees that Rolling Stone interviewed, Fallon’s unpredictable behavior made the show a toxic workplace. The anonymous employees described a mercurial, moody boss who would belittle and berate staff with passive-aggressive comments and outbursts on “bad Jimmy days.” Eight former staffers alleged that his behavior at work “seemed to be dependent on if he appeared to be hungover from the night before.”
“It was like, if Jimmy is in a bad mood, everyone’s day is fucked,” one former employee told Rolling Stone. “People wouldn’t joke around in the office, and they wouldn’t stand around and talk to each other. It was very much like, focus on whatever it is that you have to do because Jimmy’s in a bad mood, and if he sees that, he might fly off.”
In an all-hands meeting after the exposé, Fallon reportedly apologized to staff. “Sorry if I embarrassed you and your family and friends… I feel so bad I can’t even tell you,” he said, according to two people on the Zoom call.
However you feel about Fallon after reading the report, know that you’re not alone if you relate to the anonymous staffers’ fears and frustrations.
An unpredictable boss who can reward you one day and punish you the next is the worst kind of bad boss to have.
“When you have a boss, the power center, that acts erratically and you don’t have any certainty, it actually impacts your fight-or-flight system, putting you on high alert all the time,” said Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group and author of “Managing Up: How To Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed With Any Type of Boss.”
In some ways, having mixed feelings about your boss can be worse than just having a consistently unpleasant boss.
“If your boss is always unpleasant, you almost have an easier time of developing some coping strategies for your interactions with them. You probably won’t care about them very much, gossip about them with your co-workers, and get out of that work situation whenever you can,” said Lauren Appio, a psychologist, executive coach and organizational consultant who specializes in mental health at work.
“But if your boss is unpredictable — sometimes warm or supportive, other times irritable, moody or demanding — you’re always a little bit on your toes trying to anticipate their mood and read their behavior,” Appio said.
When you have a boss, the power center, that acts erratically and you don’t have any certainty, it actually impacts your fight-or-flight system.Mary Abbajay
Research backs up how unsettling we find inconsistent bosses. Allan Lee, an organizational behavior researcher at the University of Exeter Business School, has examined what happens when employees feel conflicted and ambivalent about the relationship they have with their boss, meaning they feel sometimes supported and sometimes not.
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Management, he and other researchers found that employees who felt most ambivalent about their managers got rated with the lowest job performance. Feeling conflicted made good and bad relationships with managers worse.
“As humans we tend to like consistency and predictability in our environment. This is argued to be a fundamental motive for people,” Lee told HuffPost. “Ambivalence or mixed feelings create cognitive dissonance, and this is very stressful, especially when it is about something important like a leader-manager relationship.”
Ideally, when leadership at the top is chaotic and erratic, your direct manager can provide the certainty and support you need to do your job well.
“If I’m a grumpy boss, and then I have a manager working for me, hopefully that manager becomes a buffer for the people below,” Abbajay said.
But according to the Rolling Stone report, the ever-changing showrunners who reported to Fallon were not helpful to staffers.
As one former staffer put it: “Nobody told Jimmy, ‘No.’ Everybody walked on eggshells, especially showrunners. ... You never knew which Jimmy we were going to get and when he was going to throw a hissy fit. Look how many showrunners went so quickly.”
“When you have middle managers like their showrunners absorb that grumpiness and they spill that toxicity down, that’s what makes it really bad. Because they should be buffers,” Abbajay said.
Here’s how to deal with an unpredictable boss until you find a new job.
“Not having any idea about what you’re getting every day really causes stress on your mental and physical being,” Abbajay said.
It’s not going to be possible to thrive under an unpredictable boss with mood swings, but there are strategies to surviving and protecting yourself against their leadership until you can find a different job. Here’s how:
Look for patterns of what triggers a “bad day” for your boss.
The Rolling Stone report detailed how employees warned each other about Fallon’s less-than-good days around the office with the phrase “we’re up against it.”
That’s actually a good warning system to have when dealing with this kind of boss, Abbajay said.
“The more that you can be on the lookout for their patterns of toxicity, their patterns of being erratic, the better you can at least mentally prepare for it,” Abbajay said. “HR can’t help you. So it’s really kind of a thing where the employees have to band together to create their own support system for each other.”
If you feel comfortable, talk to your boss about how they are making you feel.
“If you can risk it, have a conversation with your boss about how you can best communicate with each other when stress is high, and then remind them of these expectations when they step out of line,” Appio said.
Join forces with co-workers, and be cautious about telling HR.
If talking with your boss is a nonstarter, focus on what you can control.
“Resist getting caught in the trap of always ‘trying harder’ to avoid negative interactions with them. It won’t work consistently,” Appio advised. “Instead, focus on consolidating your power: grow your network inside and outside of your organization, and keep trusted colleagues in the loop about your work. And avoid one-on-one interactions with your boss when possible.”
Ideally, human resources representatives can help mediate conflicts between management and employees, but they work in the best interests of the company, and may not be on an employee’s side. In the Rolling Stone report, former “Tonight Show” staffers shared that they did not feel supported when sharing their experiences with human resources.
Abbajay said to be cautious about going to HR. First, ask colleagues how human resources has handled situations like this in the past to see if it will make your situation worse, she said.
Set boundaries between your work and home life.
When work is hell, try to make sure that what you come home to is a sanctuary.
“In some of my more recent research, I found that people who have a more ambivalent relationship with their boss tend to ruminate and think about it outside of work,” Lee said. “This tends to have negative consequences, so I would generally say that it is important to try and separate work from home.”
Set a quitting date.
Abbajay suggested setting a date that you know you’ll quit by, so that you can detach psychologically. “Just knowing there’s an endgame can help give you the strength to not internalize that toxicity,” she said.
No dream job is worth ruining your health over. “It’s always OK to leave a job for any reason — you never have to wait until your mental health is ‘bad enough’ to justify leaving,” Appio said.