Noelle Crooks, a Sacramento native, is generating a lot of buzz for her debut novel, “Under the Influence,” dubbed “The Devil Wears Prada” for the digital age. Although the book is a work of fiction, Crooks admits it was inspired in part by her own experiences working in a toxic environment.
According to research published in March 2023 in the MIT Sloan Management Review, women are 41 percent more likely than men to experience toxic corporate culture. The researchers defined a toxic workplace culture as one that is disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat or abusive. Toxic bosses often bully employees, micromanage and refuse to accept criticism.
After graduating from Rocklin High and the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, Crooks worked for Sephora, Dolce Vita, and as the brand director at The Hollis Company. “HoCo,” as it is nicknamed, is run by self-help influencer Rachel Hollis, whose book “Girl, Wash Your Face” is part of the #girlboss canon that proliferated in the late 2010s. Hollis and the company lost fans after a series of scandals poked holes in the wholesome, hardworking, family-values facade that defined her brand.
“I was in my early 20s and, looking back, I didn’t have my priorities straight, and I fell victim to the hustle culture early on in my career,” says Crooks, describing the modern workplace environment that emphasizes hard work and long hours as the keys to success.
Her journey shares similarities to that of Harper Cruz, a struggling writer and the protagonist of “Under the Influence.” After Harper lands a job that sounds too good to be true, working for self-help guru and social media influencer Charlotte Green, she learns there’s more to the job than layers of pep talks and relentless optimism.
“I did a lot of healthy discovery and realized that I was sacrificing my relationships as well as my physical and emotional well-being,” Crooks says. “I decided to stop building a life that looked good and instead pursue a life that felt good.”
Today, Crooks lives in New York City and makes balance a priority, ensuring that she has time for the things she loves, including friends, family and yoga. She also learned how to recognize signs of a toxic workplace early on in the job search.
“When you interview for a job, it needs to be a two-way street,” she says. “It’s important to be inquisitive and mindful during the interview and ask how they would describe the workplace culture. Before you accept a job offer, ask if you can talk to some of your peers, not just the hiring manager.”
Janine Yancey, CEO and co-founder of Emtrain in San Francisco and an expert in healthy workplace culture, says women can feel undermined when they encounter a toxic female boss.
“It can feel more hurtful if a woman thinks they are being devalued rather than supported by their female boss,” Yancey says.
In some cases, Yancey says what’s perceived as toxic behavior might in fact be women leaders, who have long been a marginalized group, fighting for their seat at the table.
Several studies have shown that female leaders are judged more harshly than men due to societal gender expectations that result in bias. Where male bosses may be described as “assertive,” a female boss who demonstrates the same qualities are often called “unlikable.”
Yancey says in some cases, it’s possible for leaders to create a more positive workplace culture. Her company, Emtrain, offers online education to businesses that want to improve ethics, respect and inclusion.
“By enrolling in these types of courses, a leader who lacks skills can learn new techniques that teach them how to better interact with their teams,” she says.
Yet for many employees who work in a toxic workplace, Yancey acknowledges the solution is often to find another job and leave a dysfunctional environment.
In those cases, Yancey says employees can choose to request an exit interview to share their feedback.
“As you explain why you’re leaving, stick to the facts and provide constructive feedback on how the company might improve,” Yancey says.
In Crooks’ novel, her main character, Harper Cruz, also learns the personal cost of working in a toxic culture.
“My hope in writing Under the Influence is to create conversations that look at what it means to be a high-performing woman in the workplace,” Crooks says. “I hope women will ask themselves whether ‘having it all’ means letting the stress of a toxic workplace stand in the way of achieving true happiness.”
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