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What I Learned From My Worst Job Ever

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Even a terrible work situation may leave you with something positive.

Nearly everyone who works has at some point had a bad job.

Sometimes it's the tasks you have to perform. In other cases, what might have been a good job can be ruined by toxic coworkers or a terrible boss. Having a bad job can be pretty miserable, but no matter why it's so lousy, some good can still come of it.

Even the worst jobs can teach us things. That may be very little comfort while you hold the job, but perhaps it offers a bit of solace if you're reading this in the midst of the worst job ever.

A man appears to be yeling in an office.

A bad boss can make a job tough to take. Image source: Getty Images.

Learn what not to do

Selena Maranjian: Enduring a terrible job can be painful, but it's not without some rewards. For example, it's a great way to learn what not to do in the workplace.

A bad boss, for example, can enlighten you about what a good boss should look like. You may be a manager yourself, now or in the future, and you'll know not to play favorites with your subordinates, micromanage, have unrealistic expectations, communicate poorly, fail to listen to your workers, or take credit for other people's work. Having had a bad boss, you'll also know some red flags to help you spot potential bad bosses.

Working in a poor environment can help you know what to look for in future workplaces -- and if you ever find yourself in a position of power in a company, that background can help you know what kind of culture and environment you want to foster, too.

Ideally, you'll want your workers to feel heard and respected, and to know that there's a path to promotions. They should feel supported by their managers, and guided in how they might improve and advance. They should feel like they're treated equally and fairly, and they should be inspired by leadership to help propel the company forward. Know that when employees feel respected and trusted and rewarded and have some autonomy, they're likely to be productive workers who stick around.

Go ahead and seek a better job if you find yourself in a terrible one -- but learn from your toxic workplace, too.

Quit while you're ahead

Maurie Backman: During my hedge-fund days, I reached a point where I was miserable more often than not. Part of it stemmed from the fact that I'd been doing the same job for years and was just plain getting restless. But it was the toxic work environment that bugged me the most. The majority of my coworkers were not nice people. And my boss, though an extremely smart individual, was perpetually difficult to please and get along with.

But rather than up and leave that job in favor of a better one, I forced myself to keep at it for not just months, but years longer than I should have. And toward the end, my work started to suffer, to the point where it became noticeable.

That's when I realized I'd let things go too long. During the almost five years I was at that firm, I always did the best job possible; while the people around me were mostly rude, they at least respected my work ethic. But there I was, letting things fall by the wayside simply because I no longer had the mental energy to keep pushing.

I quit my job a week or so after that point, but in hindsight, I should've left before my work started suffering. Thankfully, my years of solid service were more than enough to make up for a few weeks of lackluster performance, and my boss, curmudgeon that he was, even offered to serve as a reference for me (provided, of course, that I didn't go to work for a competitor).

I'm grateful I had the good sense to jump ship before things got even worse, but I learned an important lesson: If you're truly unhappy at work, leave. Otherwise, you'll only end up hurting yourself in the long run.

Nothing has to be forever

Daniel B. Kline: I've held a lot of jobs since I started working, around age 14, stuffing envelopes and counting out boxes of things at my family business. I have even held dream jobs (running a toy store, working for Playboy, writing and editing for the newspaper I grew up reading), but my worst job ever taught me that it's OK to admit your mistake and move on.

When I took a job working for an internet start-up that helped launch internet start-ups, it seemed like a good fit. In reality, the (now long-defunct) company lacked a business plan, and while its founder-CEO was a very smart man, he was not experienced as a boss.

This created an uncomfortable environment, and many of my coworkers and I were unhappy. Most of us had left good jobs to join this new venture, but many were reluctant to leave at least partly because we had joined with high expectations.

From my first few days I knew the company had no chance, and that it was going to experience a long, painful demise. That was not a ride I wanted to go on, and fairly quickly, I quit.

Many of my coworkers wanted to do the same, but didn't. They were miserable and no more optimistic than I was, but a surprising number were unwilling to do anything about it. That's actually a trend I have seen in many workplaces -- people being unhappy because there's no chance their jobs will get better, but staying for years anyway.

Leaving a bad job can be hard, and how fast you make the move can absolutely be affected by your finances and your prospects of landing a new position. But whether you stay for a few months or quit right away, it's important to remember that you can leave.

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