When we think of cults, we usually think of the Manson Family and the People’s Temple or Scientology. But cults can be more than just that.
Even workplaces can take on the mantle of a cult and be just as harmful, especially since we all have a tendency to follow orders and try to impress those who help us put food on the table.
The workplace is a fertile ground for abuse and manipulation.
We are wise enough to stay away from these companies but what if it’s our friend who’s in a place that’s run like a cult?
Should we just hope they’ll figure it out or should we be more active in trying to rescue them?
But first, how can you tell if their workplace is indeed cult in the first place?
Signs the workplace is becoming a cult
Here are some signs the workplace is becoming cultlike.
1) Independent thought and dissent are punished
Independent thinking in life and at work is essential for a fulfilled life.
Everyone wants their team to go along but a good company would listen to dissenting opinions instead of shutting them down. Not only are they valuable sources of feedback, but it’s also just the way companies can grow.
A company run like a cult would discourage employees from disagreeing with company policy and will even punish them for it.
If your friend says she’s scared of voicing out her opinions, red flag!
2) There’s a lack of transparency
Every company, of course, needs a certain degree of confidentiality. You can’t just share corporate secrets with outsiders even if they are friends and family. That is how leaks happen, and the leakage of important secrets can ruin a company.
What you need to look out for is when the company isn’t being honest about things that should be everyone’s concern — where the company is headed, the parts everyone plays in the company, and the reasons behind any major change in operation.
Employees being extremely secretive to one another also counts.
3) They pressure their employees to join non-essential activities for “culture”
We know working 9-5 isn’t ideal for everyone. In countries such as France, for example, the legal number of work hours a week is 35. They also have a paid vacation of 30 days a year.
That’s because work is work and it can be exhausting. No?
So a company that pushes for non-essential activities to “bond” is pure evil! It should just be optional!
Company retreats can be fun. They can help employees bond and give them a sense of belonging. They can even make the management more approachable…more human. This can make us feel like we’re part of a family.
However, these activities should be optional especially if they take place during what would otherwise be the employees’ personal time.
If employees are penalized for refusing to participate in any way— like say, taking away some pay, or even threatening to fire or demote them, then something definitely stinks.
4) The company is everything to its employees
Outside of essential professions like fire-fighting, law enforcement, education, and medicine, there should be little reason for work to breach professional boundaries.
Intruding into an employee’s personal life is one of the most straight-up cult-like things a company can do. It’s literally one of the first things a cult does!
This can also manifest when a company forbids its employees from buying from competitors.
Let your friend think of their company as a lover. If the company is like a clingy lover…always jealous and manipulative and begging for attention, ding ding ding ding! They are working for a company from hell.
5) They have chants and rituals like reciting the company mission
Maybe they pray before they start their workday and recite the company’s mission and vision.
Maybe they do some sort of “Hep, hep? Hooray” kind of thing.
The management seems to put in their employees’ heads that they’re one big family who’s going to go to the top together, not leaving one person behind. We know this is totally untrue!
Okay then, what do you do now?
The thing to do, of course, is to help your friend.
You don’t want them to be hypnotized to make their work their top priority in life. You don’t want them to be abused in any way.
But a word of warning: Be careful in how you approach the subject with your friend.
The problem with cults, in general, is that they can be very dangerous. Corporate cults included.
You need to be careful and delicate when dealing with the situation in case you end up messing things up big time for both you and your friend.
One of the first things that cults and cult-like groups do is arm people with arguments they can use to deflect nay-sayers.
Often there is also enough of a “positive” influence, real or imagined, that reinforces these arguments in the minds of the people that have been roped into and buy their narrative.
Therefore, you should try with all your might to be as gentle, patient, and understanding as possible.
The thing with indoctrination, which is what cults do, is that it’s not something that can be simply dealt with in a short amount of time. It’s also often something that a single person can NOT handle alone.
It can take weeks for light indoctrination to fade away, and months or even years in the worse cases.
Never try to rashly and forcibly remove your friend from their workplace cult no matter how concerned you are. That might make them cling even harder to it!
You will instead want to simply be there for them — to stay in touch and offer your own perspective without being overly pushy about it.
Try to be understanding too. For example, they might want out but simply cannot afford to because it’s their work and it’s what’s keeping them afloat.
It’s not black and white. They’re not just dumb for staying. Be a good listener. Otherwise, you’d scare them like a fish when you wiggle your hands too fast.
What you should not say to your friend:
With that warning fresh in mind, it’s perhaps necessary to first talk about the things you should not be saying to your friend.
1) “You’re in a cult” / “You’re working for a cult”
It doesn’t help that people don’t generally think of work as a thing that CAN be a cult in the first place! But they can, and in fact, one well-known tech giant has been accused of being cult-like.
This line, while tempting to say, is straight-up one of the worst things you can tell someone who is in a cult-like environment. It would be like saying “your boyfriend is an a-hole!”
This will shock them and make them defensive. Remember, these people are hypnotized.
Chances are you’ll get an answer along the lines of “A cult? It’s just my work! You’re exaggerating” and then “Let’s not talk about this again”.
Accusing someone of being in a cult also has a sort of implication that you think they are dumb— because who the hell is dumb enough to join a cult?
So if your friend thinks of themselves as a pretty intelligent person, then they might even be more offended because how dare you insult their intelligence!
Of course, if it’s your friend who outright tells you that they’re working at a cult, then this all flies out of the window and you two can complain about their work together.
2) “You’re brainwashed”
Like accusing someone of being in a cult, accusing someone of being brainwashed is a good way to shut down conversation and have your friend on the defensive. You don’t want that.
You should be careful with your words like you’re convincing someone to leave an abusive, manipulative lover.
The term is largely used by the public to denounce beliefs, ideologies, and political stances that they disagree with and, if your friend is indeed in a cult-like workplace, chances are they have been told that everyone else is brainwashed.
Furthermore, nobody who is being brainwashed will think that they are being brainwashed.
3) “(Reputable source) says…”
Let’s say your friend is working for a company that sells health drinks that you think are somewhat overpriced (hello MLM) so you decided to look it up on the internet.
They turn out to be “exotic”, but nothing special compared to what is already on the market, confirming your thoughts that they’re indeed overpriced.
As an added bonus, you see people coming out with evidence that your friend’s company is a scam!
You might think you can just bring these up to your friend and it would change their minds?
But that is almost never going to be the case.
See, cult-like groups and most especially corporate cults are prepared for that. They tell people that “mainstream” sources of information are being manipulative or evil, or otherwise behind their “cutting-edge research” and then point towards their own “reputable sources.”
They’re always 10 steps ahead of critics.
So if your friend buys the company’s word on the whole thing?
Good luck with that! You’re not going to convince them no matter what.
Things you should say and do instead:
1) “How is work going?
Ask questions like “How do you feel about work?” and “How is work going?”.
Make sure you pay close attention to how your friend acts whenever the topic of work comes up.
Keep things slow and steady. Don’t show any sign of judgment, please. No smirks, no sarcastic remarks.
You do not want to cut your cord by pulling them too hard.
Just be a good listener and share your thoughts only when they ask you.
2) “What do you like about work?”
Try to understand what is motivating them to stay at work.
Is it the support? The pay? If you want to help your friend, then it’s in your best interests to try to learn your friend’s reasons for loving their work. Or, in case they dislike it, their reason for sticking with it.
Self-deprecate a little then drop hints that there are other ways to make a living and you wish to have a meaningful life and career too. This way, they won’t feel too awful because you’re not sitting on a high and mighty chair.
Don’t act like you’re a career coach or savior because no one wants that!
3) “Work is just work.”
When they start complaining, be very gentle and firm in reminding them that their work is not their life. Try to use yourself as an example. Think of a time you worked your ass off but it wasn’t worth it at all.
Tell them to be skeptical and professional — their coworkers are not their friends no matter how much the company tries to make it that way. And if something isn’t right, it’s probably not right.
While it would probably be in their best interests in the meantime to play along, if they don’t exercise due caution, it’s possible for them to be swayed by the corporate cult with enough time.
They must put their foot down the moment their work starts intruding on their personal life.
4) “I’m here.”
Let your friend know you’re there for them and do your best to stay in touch. Something that cults love to do — work-based or otherwise — is to isolate people from friends and family to make them more and more dependent on the cult.
Some businesses do this by trying to push for familiarity and friendship among its coworkers at the detriment of outside relationships.
Some even outright encourage abandoning friends outside of work.
By doing this, the business makes its employees more and more invested, cuts off their outside support, and traps them in. Leaving becomes so painful it’s almost inconceivable.
By being there for your friend, you will at least have played your part in foiling the business cults intentions. Your friend will have someone to turn to in case they ever start questioning it.
5) “I can help.”
If your friend needs you, don’t be afraid to offer help!
If they have been wanting to leave, but could not afford to because they needed the money, then you can help your friend look for work they can jump into when they do leave.
Maybe offer your couch if they’re scared they can’t pay rent if they quit.
If they’re afraid because they’ve invested too much into their work that if they leave they won’t have anything to live for — give them a reason. Hang out with them, watch a movie, or play games together to remind them that there’s more to life than their work.
Your presence and support can go a very long way to helping your friend break free…it might actually be one of the things that can save them.
Do what you can to save your friend but in the end, there is frightfully little you can actually do to help them if they had bought into the cult at their workplace.
Be their listening ear.
Be their good influence.
And if things get progressively worse even if you did all the stuff above, you know what?
Talk some sense into them!
Because that’s what friends do before it’s too late.