Worried you might be working in a business cult? Understand and spot these signs in your organization to be sure. These come from real experience interviewing and working with businesses that exhibit cult-like behavior.
You can follow the steps at the bottom to escape your toxic company, too.
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Some business cults push a book on everyone
Cult-like organizations love to use books to justify their behaviours—like this one, which hints that people can become millionaires in 90 days by focusing yourself at the gym.
Yes, I interviewed at a company that tried pushing that book on several people in a group interview.
Shady organizations treat these like gospels, dictating company culture and policy based on what it says. The company’s lingo might even come from a book like this.
As you listen to the recruiters and leaders of these companies tell stories about their successes so far, you begin to realize that their entire understanding of business comes from their favourite book. It’s like they just cannot conceptualize anything that isn’t written in those pages.
And you’re expected to read it.
You don’t just read it, actually—you’re supposed to love it. Meetings and workshops revolve around its core concepts, and you’re pressured to buy into it to succeed at the company.
If you’re really unlucky then it might even be a self-published book from the business cult’s CEO or founder. It’ll be the leader’s pride and joy.
I’ve encountered this twice in real-life situations:
- I was invited to a group interview at a lawn aeration company where they handed out the owner’s book on business success, and then tried to hire everyone for door-to-door sales on 100% commission.
- The CEO at my first full-time job after college had a self-published book that tried to merge time management and leadership into a single concept. His other ideas weren’t much better.
If it’s self-published then you will notice a few things about it before you ever open it:
- You’ve never heard of this book before.
- You’ve probably never heard of the author before.
- Legitimate stores don’t sell this book.
- It exists solely for employees to read.
Take note of those red flags, because they signal a serious problem at the top of the organization.
ALSO READ: Interview signs of a cult mentality in the workplace
You’re constantly being marketed to within the company
It’s normal for companies to want some kind of morale boost now and again. Holiday parties and award ceremonies are all well and good.
Some companies take this too far, though. They use every gathering or announcement to keep you hooked on the sense of belonging you get from “being in the tribe,” as well as the promise of a reward for all of your hard work (to be delivered in the near-yet-unspecified future).
This is a possible sign of a business cult. Being sold “the dream” incessantly may be a tactic to cover up the lack of appropriate compensation, toxic culture, or bad decisions.
You can identify this sign fairly easily by spotting messages like these:
- “This could be you.”
- “Look how this person’s hard work paid off.”
- “Keep at it and you’ll succeed.”
These rallies have other telltale signs:
- They prop up company poster children as idols of success.
- They use language framing you as an entrepreneur or future partner.
- Messages are usually delivered in group talks rather than email or a conference call.
This is a tactic used by actual cults, like NXIVM’s infamous “executive success program.” Shady companies adopt the same tactics because they need to attract people who join without paying attention to the company’s drawbacks.
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That’s why you’ll find this tactic used so frequently by multi-level marketing companies (MLMs), pyramid scheme hustlers, and “commission only” sales jobs. They need to keep employees fed on emotion and drive, since they don’t offer much in the way of compensation or professional fulfillment.
If your company holds these hype sessions frequently instead of discussing things like operations or strategic direction, then take a step back and ask yourself why.
Every business cult has a poster child
Business cults love to hold up examples of success frequently because they keep employees transfixed on their potential rewards. Poster children serve as their tools to accomplish that.
These poster children get trotted out in some form or another on a regular basis to convince employees or candidates that they can make a lot of money by sticking with the company.
Their stories are usually the same:
- They had no previous experience in the industry.
- They “had nothing.”
- They started at the bottom.
- They worked super hard.
- They followed the company’s cultural values.
- They ended up making a lot of money.
That narrative arc is important because it shows the crowd that anyone can replicate that success, in theory. Business cults bank on convincing employees that they can succeed without connections or prior experience, just like the poster children.
Note: this strategy is designed to target the most vulnerable people in society who lack financial security, experience, and access to job training or education. That’s why you see these tactics employed by door-to-door sales agencies that pay 100% commission instead of an hourly wage.
You may notice a few things about these poster children, though:
- There are very few of them—sometimes only one.
- You’ve never met or worked with these people before.
- They might not even be with the company anymore.
- If they’re still in the company, they are in the CEO’s inner circle and out of reach.
This is classic marketing: selling someone a better version of themselves to people who are emotionally, financially, and professionally vulnerable.
If it seems like no one can reach the same success as these poster children, then it’s probably not just your imagination. Something is likely wrong.
Rituals are commonly used to manipulate the crowd
Rituals are important for us. They help us consciously begin and end everything from a regular day to major phases of life, so it’s important not to villainize them outright.
Like most tactics, however, some organizations take this one beyond a healthy practice toward a fairly extreme level of participation.
If you’re in a business cult you will notice that rituals are held often—sometimes daily. Watch out for these signs:
- Morning hype sessions before starting work.
- Evening debrief sessions that guide the narrative of the day’s events.
- In-person promotion ceremonies that add pageantry to advancement.
- Forced social events for team cohesion.
It’s normal to have a monthly or quarterly meeting that celebrates the team’s achievements. That’s a reasonable way to provide recognition and to raise morale by celebrating the employees’ hard work.
What’s not normal is to hold meetings all the time that control the organization’s internal narrative, or to use promotions as a tool to dazzle other employees into thinking “that will be me if I just work harder.”
You’ll be able to spot recurring themes in these ritualized meetings if you listen closely:
- Promotions usually revolve around dedication to the organization.
- Sacrificing personal time for its organization is considered a virtue.
- People who devote themselves openly receive more attention and respect from leaders.
- The speaker will reiterate how the organization’s values were the reason for success (in addition to hard work).
These rituals reinforce the culture with human connection and use employees as social proof to keep the rest of the team hooked on the promise of future rewards.
The company has specialized lingo for everything
Working at a movie theater was my first job in high school. They didn’t have “customers,” though. They had “guests,” and the managers actively corrected us whenever we mistook those guests for “people paying money in exchange for goods or services.”
It turns out that Disneyland does this too. That’s probably where the theater got the idea.
Target does it, too (I worked there for a short time). Some companies are even worse: apparently IBM has a corporate “songbook” that employees were expected to recite. More recently, Facebook has decided employees will now refer to each other as “metamates” instead of “coworkers.”
Having a specific vocabulary doesn’t necessarily make a business a cult, but it might be a valid signal if that terminology obscures reality—like pretending that customers briefly visiting a billion-dollar retail chain are actually family friends staying for a few hours.
Rebuilding an employee’s entire understanding of a job or company using “in-group” language reinforces the sense of an exclusive community. In turn, that gives people belonging and purpose, which can overpower a person’s dissatisfaction or desire to find a new job.
Cults use this tactic for the same reason.
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Even more insidiously, forcing people to learn a new professional language imposes a “student” mentality on every new hire. This creates a psychological power imbalance in favor of the employer. This makes you feel like an acolyte instead of a trusted member of the team.
That’s by design.
Expecting blind loyalty
All of this adds up to loyalty, and business cults want you to provide that without getting much in return.
This can manifest in many ways. Here are a few ways such organizations expect loyalty from employees:
- Working for paltry wages because “you should do it for the passion.”
- An expectation to work late all the time to prove your dedication.
- Being reachable 24/7 and feeling shame for unplugging.
- Pressure to praise the company on your social media profiles.
- Encouragement to write positive company reviews somewhere.
- A prevailing attitude that advancement is selfish.
- Being told how “great” it would be to say nice things about a leader.
- Being told to keep the company’s interests in mind when you move to another one.
- Being expected to attend after-hours events to promote your company.
The belief that losing your job is the worst thing that can happen to you makes it easy for managers to underpay you, overwork you, sexually harass you, discriminate against you and mistreat you in 100 other ways.
You need A job but it doesn’t have to be this job
— Liz Ryan, CEO, Human Workplace (@humanworkplace) February 21, 2022
This expectation of loyalty can be so strong that you might actually be punished in some form if you decide to leave.
Here’s a real-life example: one of my old bosses excluded me from just about every meeting after I gave notice, even though the meetings were supposed to be about how I could transition my workload to other people.
ALSO READ: I was fired from my first job after college. This is what I learned.
How to escape a business cult
Recognizing cult-like behaviour at your organization can be a heavy realization that will probably leave you with the desire to get out. Follow these tips to accomplish that.
Scrutinize company reviews
These give you extra perspective. Companies are savvy, and the bad ones have realized that they can flood review platforms with fake reviews to boost their ratings. However, you can still keep an eye out for the telling reviews with specific and critical details.
Look at this example review from Glassdoor and you can see that the company has deep cultural problems that start at the top.
Contact ex-employees for insights
Reach out to ex-employees through direct messages on LinkedIn to ask them about their experiences. You’ll probably need to explain your reservations about the company’s culture before asking them to share their own.
Find out if the company “punishes” people for leaving. This would look like:
- Pretending to be a reference
- Gossip from the leaders
- Some form of career sabotage
- Being escorted out of the building unceremoniously
Use paper trails to protect yourself
If you decide to leave your company, you may be “held responsible” for things out of your control. It’s best to keep important documents on hand, as well as to get approval and specific directions in writing. All of this can offer a degree of protection in case someone inside the organization wants to tarnish your reputation or to pin responsibility on you out of convenience.
Launch a stealth job search
It’s up to you to leave a toxic company, even though it’s far more difficult than it sounds (speaking from experience). That’s why you need to start looking for new jobs immediately. Applications can take time, and you may even want to start building relationships with people inside your ideal companies beforehand.
Tell no one at work unless you trust them implicitly.
Block business cult leaders after upon leaving
You don’t want these people keeping tabs on you. They fear the things ex-employees might say about them and their organization, which drives them to spy on people who leave. Some even threaten people who leave for benign reasons.
Working in a business cult creates a constant tension between being yourself and keeping your job, so you want to get out of their orbit at just about any cost. Remember to evaluate the signs together (not just in isolation), and get a second opinion from someone you trust.
Start protecting yourself and escape these organizations by playing it safe.
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