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How to Leave a Toxic Firm

SouthCoast

Hello Everyone, 

This is going to be as anonymous as possible.  I am a recent masters graduate working at an unnamed firm somewhere in Colorado.  I have been employed for two years at my current office. 

Without getting into too much detail, the office basically doesn’t function, and I think it’s time to leave - though it’s not that simple.

This was a large and vastly popular practice before 2008, but contracted severely during the recession, and has remained at that size.  There are no benefits, no bonuses, and pretty much everyone (aside from the principals) is a 1099 (including myself) making below average wages. They refuse to hire any actual actual employees, the mindset being that the economy could collapse at any second.  They operate by obsessing over the operating ratio and focussing only on cashflow one month at a time.  It has destroyed our ability to efficiently respond to client needs.   

I think I’ve maybe experienced one meeting in two years.  We never meet to discuss goals or expectations.  Employees/contractors are expected to understand without communication; communication is seen as costly and time consuming.  Both principals operate in isolation from each other on the same projects.  The results are embarrassing for the firm.

There are frequent outbursts from principals, yelling at employees, expecting weekend overtime, and intrusive calls and e-mails through the night and on weekends.  Ignoring these things gets you in hot water.  They haven’t fired anyone because of how busy they are. 

I have been planning on leaving since November.  I have some exciting prospects to focus on.  However, I have become so entangled with the management of our clients/projects and drawing production that my leaving the office would cause workflow to stop.  They don’t know I’m planning on a change, but have warned me (and others) against leaving, knowing how disrupted the office would become.


What are some suggestions for respectively leaving a toxic office?  I feel very trapped, the only way out seems like a burned bridge.  

Thanks for reading the extremely long post!

 
Jan 15, 23 8:50 pm
b3tadine[sutures]

Their problems, and fuck if I worked there I would have been charged with assault already, are theirs not yours. You seem to have a version of Stockholm Syndrome. If you think by giving a standard two weeks is going to have a deleterious affect on your career, burn that bridge, today. Or, set fire to the office and save your coworkers.

Get out.

Now.

Jan 15, 23 9:11 pm  · 
14  · 
SouthCoast

I’ve been told that many younger employees who came before have blown up and stormed out of the office. Trying to avoid that myself, but it’s getting more insane every week.

Jan 15, 23 9:39 pm  · 
 · 

only will add - if other architects in the area know anything about the firm, they won't hold it against you for leaving. they'll probably know how bad an environment it is.

Jan 16, 23 12:34 pm  · 
2  · 
newguy

the cool thing about quitting is that their problem stops being your problem

Jan 23, 23 8:05 pm  · 
1  · 
proto

I’d go talk to the partner you get along best with and just tell them you are leaving. Be direct about your reasons - don’t worry about stepping on toes. That time has past. Give them a shot to propose some alternative, but don’t offer one. It’s not your problem, esp as a 1099.

Do not give 2 weeks notice.

Go invest in yourself and your exciting prospects. [In parallel, you may reach out to a client or two who may want to avoid the shit show by staying with you…]

Jan 15, 23 9:23 pm  · 
7  · 
reallynotmyname

I second all the above except for the part about not giving 2 weeks notice. You need to stay professional and classy, even when the bosses are not. Real asshole bosses will often just tell you to leave immediately the day you give notice, which probably wouldn't be a bad thing. Do be packed up and ready to walk out of the building forever when you give them the news. If you have any vacation days due, maybe use them to cut down on the amount of the two weeks you may have to spend in the office.

Jan 15, 23 9:42 pm  · 
3  · 
SouthCoast

Thank you…I should also add that the principal has not approved any of my hundreds and hundreds of AXP hours in the two years I’ve been there…I noticed this a few weeks ago, so it’s on me for not checking sooner. It’s not clear why this is the case. He may not be getting the emails from NCARB.

Jan 15, 23 10:27 pm  · 
 · 
JonathanLivingston

YOU REALLY NEED TO GET THAT SORTED OUT BEFORE YOU LEAVE OR GIVE NOTICE. LIKE SIT WITH THEM AT THE COMPUTER AND MAKE IT HAPPEN

Jan 16, 23 5:12 pm  · 
5  · 
JonathanLivingston

GO DO IT TOMORROW! bring them a cup of coffee and ask them to figure it out with you get anything you can approve now. the time limit (I think 8 months) applies for full credit. anything past that you can at least get half credit. SERIOUSLY I WANT TO HEAR TOMORROW THAT YOU GIT THEM TO APPROVE SOME HOURS

Jan 17, 23 12:47 am  · 
1  · 
square.

i dunno, 2 weeks seems incredibly generous when you're both not an employee and these people are terrible. 1 week max.

Jan 17, 23 4:04 pm  · 
2  · 
reallynotmyname

What you describe is a hopelessly broken operation.  You need to leave immediately.   What happens after you leave is not your responsibility.  Burning a bridge with toxic bosses isn't really a bad thing.


Jan 15, 23 9:27 pm  · 
5  · 
SouthCoast

Thank you all for the comments.  I should add that my principal has not approved a single AXP hour…I just realized this in the past few weeks.  It’s not clear why; he may not be receiving NCARB notifications for all I know.  That is something I definitely need to salvage if possible.



Jan 15, 23 10:29 pm  · 
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reallynotmyname

I hope that it's just a matter of missed emails. You need to get those hours approved ASAP. I'm concerned you may lose out under NCARB's 8 month reporting requirement. Contact NCARB and plead for mercy if you have to. Know that the boss can easily rob you of the hours if they decide they want to by claiming you did subpar work and checking the "disapprove" box. For that reason, get the AXP approved before you give notice.

Jan 15, 23 10:56 pm  · 
1  · 
b3tadine[sutures]

Are these fucks AIA? They've already violated about three AIA Code of Conduct rules.


Jan 15, 23 11:06 pm  · 
4  · 
SouthCoast

Yes. As of now I hadn’t thought about through the lens of AIA violations.

Jan 15, 23 11:16 pm  · 
 · 
JonathanLivingston

NOT approving the hours you submitted like that is a violation. People have been reprimanded in the past for this. It is a direct and very clear violation of AIA Cannon V rule 5.201 to withhold approval like that.

Jan 16, 23 5:16 pm  · 
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x-jla

man, we really need a Gordon Ramsey of architecture to smack some fools around.  

Jan 15, 23 11:17 pm  · 
2  · 
citizen

It sounds like he already runs the place.

Jan 16, 23 12:28 am  · 
 · 
chigurh

You are an independent contractor - none of the standard protocols of employer/employee apply.  You can simply stop whatever it is you are doing at any time.  You should have been dictating how and when you work the entire time.  They are paying you as an independent contractor and treating you as an employee.  

Jan 16, 23 9:59 am  · 
10  · 
pandahut

Agree with most on here. The way I put it is if you're a fulltime employee somewhere they will never give you the luxury of giving you a two weeks heads up you are getting fired but for some reason that is the norm for us as employees? If you are 1099, secure a better job and get the hell out of dodge. Talk to a principal you are close to and let them know you are leaving and that's it. It is their problem if everything comes to a grinding halt when you leave because their staffing seems to be a massive problem. 

Jan 16, 23 10:23 am  · 
3  · 
SouthCoast

I agree. Both principals are seriously in a different reality. This morning has been bad so far. Already there has been a re-hashing of client meeting last Friday, which went poorly due to a lack of communication beforehand. Let’s just say I’m not the only one who’s been called “mysteriously incompetent”. I’ll wait for the dust to settle, then I’ll likely resign. I’ve been wanting to talk to NCARB today about my unapproved hours (nearly 1000) but I don’t know if there’s much they can do.

Jan 16, 23 12:20 pm  · 
 · 

so, you need to make sure you have documentation (or that NCARB has documentation) on when you've submitted reports for them to sign off on. there are repercussions if they just refuse to out of spite. and i think it's important because you're establishing you've been consistently sending the reports in a timely manner, vs. forgetting to and gathering all the info together in one go (what NCARB's rule was intended to help prevent). you should be able to file an appeal to NCARB if it comes to that. AND.... this is why you should have an IDP mentor, who is separate from your supervisor. hopefully you do. if not, find one. now. they are also your advocates to NCARB in a situation like this.

Jan 16, 23 12:37 pm  · 
1  · 
sameolddoctor

My firm is nearly not as bad, but I still feel its Toxic AF. Seems like this a firm that you MUST burn bridges with.

Jan 16, 23 10:37 am  · 
 · 
SouthCoast

a new thought I had was this, and maybe it’s far too lenient:  


I could agree to complete the SD/DD phase of my current project ONLY if they agree to approve the AXP hours.  This would allow me to ensure some income stability until the new job starts.  But, it would mean that I continue to put up with the insanity and chaos of the office.  It also sets up the possibility that they could reject the proposal and decide that it’s better if I’m gone.




Jan 16, 23 1:10 pm  · 
 · 
reallynotmyname

It's fundamentally wrong that your rightfully earned AXP credits should be held hostage in exchange for performing exit-related tasks.

Jan 16, 23 1:36 pm  · 
8  · 
gual

I wouldn't tie it to the hours. The hours and your departure are separate issues. I would get harassingly insistent about those hours (escalate to the point of multiple daily reminders), secure as many of them as I could, then tell them I'm leaving. If you want the income then you can tell them your timeline and frame it as helping "wrap things up." Timeline is better than milestone because milestones have a way of moving. But it's fine to just quit outright. Be tactful but firm. You won't regret it a month from now.

Jan 16, 23 1:39 pm  · 
3  · 
reallynotmyname

If you do what you propose (which could well be the path of least resistance), make sure you have a written contract. This shouldn't be a problem for the bosses since they have you classified as a 1099 contractor, who, by definition, should be working under a contract. Approval of all AXP to date should be the first thing that happens under the agreement. Then you do the SD/DD work with the bosses incrementally approving your AXP hours for the SD/DD regularly, like on each payday.

Jan 16, 23 1:48 pm  · 
1  · 
x-jla

How can you get AXP hours as a 1099? I was under the impression that you had to be an “employee”. A 1099 contractor is technically not “under the direct supervision” of the employer per IRS classifications.

Jan 16, 23 3:04 pm  · 
 · 
x-jla

Furthermore, how can an architectural firm hire 1099 employees whom aren’t licensed? As a contractor, I can only subcontract/1099 others who are independently licensed. I can 1099 someone to do work that doesn’t require a license. I can’t subcontract someone to do work that does require a license, even though I have a license, because I can’t technically have direct control over unless they are an employee.

Jan 16, 23 3:11 pm  · 
 · 

It's different for professional licensure situations. In an architectural firm if you're not licensed then all of your work is under direct supervision of an architect.

Same thing with say a traveling nurse or doctor.  Both are considered 1099 contractors but both are under the direct supervision of another licensed medical professional.  

Jan 16, 23 3:16 pm  · 
1  · 
reallynotmyname

If challenged, the OP would need to prove to NCARB that they were misclassified as a 1099, which strongly appears to be the case here.

Jan 16, 23 3:17 pm  · 
1  · 

I don't think they would need to do that though. Anything the OP did at the firm would need to be under direct supervision of an architect. It's required by law. If the employer would say otherwise I'd think they'd get in big trouble with the state's licensing board.  


This happened to a architect in a city I used to live in.  This architect was a petty jerk and hired everyone as a 1099.  He tried to not sign off on AXP hours for an employee who was leaving.  The state regulatory board, NCARB, and AIA slapped him with a bunch of fines and he nearly lost his license.  

Jan 16, 23 3:19 pm  · 
3  · 
x-jla

Ncarb may handle it differently, but the IRS definition is clear. Independent contractors work independently, without direct supervision.

Jan 16, 23 3:22 pm  · 
 · 

Doesn't matter. You can be a 1099 and still work under supervision of someone if a regulatory board requires it.  AKA - the final work requires a licensed professional to sign off on it.    It's a grey area. In this type of situation a business is incorrectly classifying someone as a 1099. Hence why they get in trouble.

Jan 16, 23 3:26 pm  · 
1  · 
x-jla

Some discussion of that in this thread.

Jan 16, 23 3:58 pm  · 
 · 

Yup. As I said above . . .

Jan 16, 23 4:59 pm  · 
 · 
b3tadine[sutures]

You're confusing two things. Independent Contractor doesn't mean that your employer doesn't have a supervisorly role in your work effort. How could you be independent in that way, it's not your client, and the labor is still provided on behalf of the firm owner. Independent means that all of responsibility for paying taxes and social security is yours to bear.

Jan 16, 23 5:57 pm  · 
2  · 
x-jla

I’m construction we have the option for employees or subcontractors. Sure, many contractors illegally hire independent contractors and treat them as employees, but it’s not legal. If it were, life would be a lot easier and more profitable for most contractors. I’m pretty sure the laws are consistent across professions, but probably more heavily enforced in construction because of workman’s comp, dangerous nature of the work, etc.

Jan 16, 23 8:35 pm  · 
 · 
b3tadine[sutures]

You're completely misconstruing what that link states.

Jan 16, 23 9:23 pm  · 
 · 

Sorry x-jla - you are incorrect about this. It's easy to do with the wording of things. If you speak to an accountant and or a lawyer you'll see that a 1099 employee can be under the direct supervision of someone.

Jan 17, 23 1:35 pm  · 
 · 
x-jla

Chad, I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this, as it would make my life much easier, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not. The term 1099 employee is misleading. A 1099 is a independent contractor providing a particular service for the company. An architectural firm may choose to hire a freelance web designer or rendering company for instance. Anyone who is paid over 600$ to provide a service must be issued a 1099. If a company has 1099 workers, whom they treat as employees (see the outline below), and that is discovered upon an employee audit by the irs, that company could face significant fines. Uber recently had to pay (not sure if they got out of it) 100mil for this type of violation. Independent contractor and subcontractor is synonymous. Independent contractors are hired to provide a particular service that they don’t need supervision for. They do it on their own timeline. They can do it for one or many companies. They don’t have their name on company cards, wear company logos, etc.

Jan 17, 23 2:05 pm  · 
 · 

X-jla - I'd recommend you speak to your accountant and or lawyer on this. 

 You're talking about 1099's in a non professional service job and if you can be a 1099 and still be under direct supervision of someone else in a professional job that requires licensure. 

The two are very different and have different tax rules that can vary by state.

Jan 17, 23 2:08 pm  · 
 · 
x-jla

I’m not sure if ncarb cares or not. They may not care. The irs and Department or labor definitely draws clear lines however. To me it sounds like this firm is operating illegally.

Jan 17, 23 2:10 pm  · 
 · 
x-jla

Chad, read what spacecraftbureau linked below.

Jan 17, 23 2:15 pm  · 
 · 

I have and I did. I'm not going to debate this with you x-jla. 

 You need to contact your accountant and lawyer. Have them explain the difference between contract employees, independent contractors, and how you can be classified as a 1099 for either.  

Specifically see myth #3.  

Jan 17, 23 4:01 pm  · 
1  · 
spacecraftbureau

This firm isn't just toxic, misclassification as a 1099 employee when you're obviously not is illegal and extremely shady. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/w...

You absolutely don't deserve to be treated the way you've described. You absolutely don't owe them anything including a single second more of your time. There's never going to be a "good" way out of a toxic relationship. Cut off all contact with them and don't go back. I mean tomorrow. Run, don't walk.

Jan 16, 23 9:27 pm  · 
3  · 
b3tadine[sutures]

This right here. All of this really gets to the crux of the issue.

Jan 17, 23 4:40 am  · 
2  · 
SouthCoast

update as of tonight:  This is my last week, and I am extremely relieved - though there will be a little financial pressure before the new job starts.  Today’s achievement is that I’ve been able to get the AXP hours approved.  There was actually no malice - just incompetence and disorganization as I had assumed.  Still leaving as soon as I can.  


Per the 1099 comments:  This has become extremely common in architecture, according to other friends/peers of mine.  Often times it occurs with very skittish/paranoid managers who were burned badly in ‘08 and have anxiety about taking a chance with a full hire.  Of course, it’s unethical, and will only damage their business. 

Jan 16, 23 10:19 pm  · 
17  · 
JonathanLivingston

Really glad to hear it. Nice work

Jan 17, 23 11:04 am  · 
1  · 
przemula

"my leaving the office would cause workflow to stop" - you should never worry about that. I agree with everyone here, you need to get out ASAP, and since you are 1099, 2-weeks notice is not even needed. My principal in previous job had some toxic elements too, but it wasn't as bad as yours, and since I was a full time employee with health insurance and small package of benefits, I just handed her two weeks and politely rejected the efforts to keep me in. EDIT: just saw that you're actually leaving the firm in a week, good job.

Jan 18, 23 10:44 am  · 
1  · 
geezertect

IF they were laying you off, they wouldn't worry about the effect it might have on your plans or needs. Employment is an economic relationship. Act as professionally as you can, but make your self interest the first priority.

If they have everyone on 1099's even though they are supposedly a relatively prominent firm with plenty of work, they sound shady as Hell.  I'm from Colorado and I'm curious about who they are, but I understand why you don't want to out them right now.

Jan 20, 23 12:17 pm  · 
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reallynotmyname

People working as 1099s really need to make sure that their employer is paying them somewhat more than other firms that actually play by the rules.  The additional expense for a 1099 person to pay the full amount of self employment tax, health insurance etc., adds up fast.  You are also not getting paid vacations, sick days, retirement matches, etc.

Jan 20, 23 1:55 pm  · 
3  · 
x-jla

Absolutely!

Jan 23, 23 12:58 pm  · 
 · 
edwardsinger

I would wait to give your notice until you have secured another position, Then give them a professional letter of resignation and walk.  If they give you any shit I would turn them into the IRS for illegally classifying employees as 1099.  I guarantee that you and your coworkers don’t meet the definition of a subcontractor based on your description of the office environment and it doesn’t matter if you accepted the job as such.  https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-8919

Jan 22, 23 7:00 pm  · 
1  · 
edwardsinger

Sorry here is the correct IRS form: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/fss8.pdf

Jan 24, 23 5:16 am  · 
 · 
edwardsinger

For reference, here is a definition of what an independent contractor is:An independent contractor provides a good or service to another individual or business, often under the terms of a contract that dictates the work outcome, but the contractor retains control over how they provide the good or service.[2] The independent contractor is not subject to the employer’s control or guidance except as designated in a mutually binding agreement. The contract for a specific job usually describes its expected outcome.[3] Essentially, independent contractors treat their employers more like customers or clients, often have multiple clients, and are self-employed.

Jan 24, 23 5:19 am  · 
 · 

Sorry to hear your current situation sucks. I didn't have a chance to read all the updates, but if you're still looking for a position, find me on LinkedIn, and I'll do what I can to help! I'm in Denver.

Jan 23, 23 9:28 pm  · 
4  · 
spacecraftbureau

I have some good contacts on the Western Slope if you're still looking for a position in Colorado as well.

Jan 25, 23 2:07 pm  · 
2  · 

I think I know you. :)

Jan 25, 23 4:03 pm  · 
1  · 
spacecraftbureau

It's entirely possible! I was in the RFV for a while, and left in 2021 due to rising housing costs..

Jan 25, 23 5:13 pm  · 
 · 

I'm in Grand Junction so a bit farther west than that. Honestly I've never heard the RFV called the Western Slope. It always seemed like that area wanted to be its own (expensive) thing. ;)

Jan 25, 23 5:15 pm  · 
 · 
pandahut

Also CO here. Curious where you're at that has that bad if a reputation....I know if a few firms hiring right now.VDTA, ZGF (just opened here), Gensler,  Arch 11, Goettsch Partners just opened an office here as well to name a few.

Jan 25, 23 7:13 pm  · 
 · 
architecturepinecone

Leaving a toxic architecture firm can be a difficult process. Reach out to colleagues and mentors for advice and support. Make sure you have a plan for how you will transition out of the firm and take steps to protect yourself legally and financially!

Jan 27, 23 3:23 pm  · 
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