TTLS S1 9 | Toxic Work Environment


Mako Miller is a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Kansas City. For over 14 years, Mako has made a commitment to higher education through her work for both two- and four-year colleges. Mako is the Career Services Manager for Kauffman Scholars, Inc., where she strives to remove barriers to career and social capital for students in the program. Additionally, she is pursuing her Ed.D. at the University of Kansas in higher education administration in hopes of serving in a role that promotes and supports DEI in postsecondary education.

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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.

Follow KEVRA: The Culture Company on Linkedin to keep up with your favorite behavioral scientist, Dr. Sansberry. At KEVRA: The Culture Company, we partner to effectively evolve your organizational culture by focusing on competency development, best practices, and leading research to deliver systemic and innovative solutions for company success.

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Toxic Work Environments And The Job Search Process With Mako Miller

Our special guest is Mako Miller. Mako was a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the Kansas City area. For over fourteen years, Mako has committed to higher education through her work for both 2 and 4-year colleges. Mako is the Career Services Manager for Kauffman Scholars Incorporated, where she serves to remove barriers to career and social capital for students in the program. Additionally, she’s pursuing her Doctorate in Education at the University of Kansas and Higher Education Administration in hopes of serving in a role that promotes and supports DEI in post-secondary education. Let’s get to it.

Welcome to the show. We have a special guest, Mako Miller, and I’m so excited to have you here. How are you?

I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

Before we get started, I really wanted to speak with you, especially related to your background in career, job search and stuff like that. Before we get to that, I would love to hear your story about what you have been working on, which we are working on now, and how you progressed.

Most of my parents, since graduating from college, have been related to higher education in some shape or fashion. Definitely, it was not the goal. When I went into college, it was something that I found as an undergrad, which I thought was interesting. Sometimes, if you are on that journey and you don’t necessarily know what it is, the job just finds you. That’s how I’ve got into working in higher ed.

I worked in admissions, going out and recruiting students. I have worked in academic advising, and I have done academic coaching. As I transitioned out of higher ed and working in the nonprofit space, I’m still working in education, a specific area of education, and still helping students who are in college. That’s how it all progressed for me.

It’s all stayed pretty connected, and then I have done my work from race equity, diversity, and inclusion type of lens because the students I work with primarily identify as Black or Latinx. Being a person who identifies as a Black Indigenous Person of Color, BIPOC, and going through that experience in college, going to a predominantly White institution and White spaces.

I was not understanding all of that as I was going through it until I started studying and researching it. I started to be more intentional and implement that in the work that I do. That’s what I have been working on, is how can I infuse that more in terms of helping our students see the intersection of their identity and the career piece along with it.

Everybody has an inherited ability to really want to be great. Click To Tweet

A lot of the work that I have been doing is on the organizational side of looking at the impact of the hiring process and experience on candidates and employees. You spend a lot of time on the candidate side, from what I would understand, helping people see resumés and helping them through that process. Tell me more about some different activities you have engaged in over the years.

In some of the things I have engaged in, I have realized have been steeped in White supremacy culture. Looking at doing professional dress workshops and thinking, “This is how you dress for an interview or a career fair,” never questioning like, “Who said that this is a professional dress and what are we basing that off of?” I found that as I have been doing more research in this area, I’m thinking about hair and how you wear your hair, especially as a female in the job space. It’s taught me a lot about how I have been so engulfed in this White supremacy culture, not questioning it and going along with it.

Those are some of the things I was like, “I need to readdress how I approach some of this work, and then understanding how representation is important has been a big piece.” When I started this role in career development, I actually started an event called Roundtable Represent. What that is I specifically recruit professionals of color to network and connect with our scholars in the program.

It’s very different than other career development events because it’s not your traditional career fair like, “You have an internship for a job. I need an internship for a job. This is a resumé workshop or interviewing skills.” This is about seeing somebody that looks like you are possibly working in a field you are interested in but that’s not the overarching reason why I’m hosting this type of event.

It’s more of talking to a professional who has had an experience of being the only one that looks like them at their organization or has felt they didn’t have that support from an identity standpoint, or a space micro-aggressions in the workplace, and speaking on what has that experience been like? How have they navigated those spaces? How have they advocated for themselves? What have been some great supports that they have seen for themselves working in particular spaces? Just having students think about those things and how those connect to their career journey.

It’s one of my favorite events and for sure, the representatives who come love it because they love to reach back and talk to students because they said, “We didn’t have these conversations when I was in college.” It was more of, “Work on your resumé, work on your interviewing skills. This is how you apply for a job.” The surface-level pieces of career development versus how does my identity plays a role in this.

The race is something we definitely need to recognize. It affects the process. We have seen it for sure, and so they love going back and talking to students on, “This was my experience, and I’m here to support you in your journey and to be an advocate for you, possibly like a mentor.” For students to see somebody that looks like them and understand that process is really important.

TTLS S1 9 | Toxic Work Environment

Toxic Work Environment: You have to create a better belief to be able to start taking calculated risks around relationships. Toxic leadership is a lack of systems and talent management within organizations.


One of the things that I talked to people about is when we talk about White supremacy or White dominant culture, people don’t see it because they have been in it, so it’s like, “Your hair has to be neat.” Neat by whose standards? When you are working on that from a candidate’s end, how do you have that conversation with a candidate? They have probably heard this their entire time growing up. “You’ve got to go to the interview. You’ve got to wear black or blue.” How do you start that conversation with candidates?

It’s also started from a standpoint we have done work about being your authentic self. We have done work with young professionals of color in Kansas City and brought in folks to talk about what does that means to be your authentic self. As we get into the conversation about toxic work environments, when you feel a process where you feel you are not bringing your full self like, “This is not the representation of me.” That’s what you are supposed to do when you are preparing for an interview. You are supposed to bring the representation of who you are and who you are going to bring to the workplace environment.

If you are already second-guessing that as you are putting on your clothes like, “Is this something they are going to think if I’m female wearing a suit and I’m not wearing a skirt, a dress or something like that to go off the traditional?” If you are second-guessing it like, “This is what I feel comfortable with but maybe this isn’t appropriate,” then maybe you feel comfortable moving forward, and going into that interview space, and then seeing how they take it.

If you feel like it goes well, and there’s a great conversation happening, then maybe that’s good like, “I feel comfortable with it.” If you feel like they are judging you based on that, then maybe that’s not the right work environment for you, and already off the bat, you are getting a feel of what the culture maybe like once you get into that workspace.

Ask them to ask questions about, “Is there a casual dress Friday at your workplace? What do people typically wear?” Of course, I coach my students and anybody who asks about talking to people who work at that company or organization to get a feel of, “This is what it’s like.” I always encourage people to be who they are, show up as who they are.

If somebody has a problem with that, then that’s their problem. You can move on to the next interview. We talked through that piece. You don’t want to show up half undressed or not covering your body, your clothes are ripped off or whatever. You want to talk about clean put together but what does that look like for you.

You had said something that I say all the time. Your hiring process is a window to the culture that provides that. One of the things that a lot of organizations that I have seen, some organizations tend to window dress during that process, and they put on their best self but then you get hired and you are like, “This is not what I saw in the hiring process.” You answered this a little bit but I want you to go a little deeper on, let’s say I’m a candidate, and I am conducting a job search process. I’m looking at different organizations to apply to. What can I do to learn about how the climate is in that company or the culture?

Those are the ways to avoid going into an environment that may potentially be toxic for you. Asking about the culture during the interview process, checking company sites. I have looked at Glassdoor myself, and I have heard some of my students using Glassdoor to get an idea of what people have written about the organization that works there or formerly worked there.

People invest in liabilities as long as they churn assets. Click To Tweet

LinkedIn is by far one of the best resources. You can find somebody. You can go on there and say like, “I’m applying to company X.” You can type in company X, and then you can click on people, and then you can see people, who either work there or formerly work there, and they can speak about the company. You don’t want to talk to someone that worked there 10, 15 years ago because the culture might have changed in that timeframe for better or worse. You want to talk to someone who just worked there or is still at the organization, so look someone up.

I have had people do that to me, they look up and see where I work, and they ask me like, “What is it like to work there?” I’m thinking like, “That’s great.” I’m glad you are asking me that because I want you to have the full picture and not the website version where we show all the great things that our company does and look how awesome we are. Of course, you are not going to put the bad stuff on there.

The employees have the insight, so if you can do those pre-pieces beforehand, if that’s important to you, and knowing I can go into this space, knowing what the culture is going to be like, you will do some of that pre-research to get a better understanding. You then can speak to those things in the interview because, at the end of the interview, they are always going to ask like, “What questions do you have for us?” It’s always great to come with questions because it looks like, “You are prepared. You have done some research on us.” You can speak to those things during the interview.

My second question to you is if we are in the interview process and I’m at the last 10, 20 minutes or whatever, where I get to ask the interviewer questions, how am I going to formulate these questions where they are most impactful or most effective? What do you think about that?

Some specific questions to ask me, “How does the company engage and supports their employees, how our employees engage and how they feel?” They can’t speak to that, and then maybe they are not doing climate surveys or not checking in with their employees, which is a red flag. If you are not checking in to see how they are feeling engaged, how they are feeling, then like, “Do you really care about your employees?”

This time that we have gone through with COVID, asking questions about how did you handle the situation with your associates, “Were they able to work from home, how did you pivot, were there flexibility in the work,” and things like that. Things shifted, and so asking specific questions like that, that companies can speak to immediately because we have gone through it and we are still going through it.

We will give a candidate some insight into how employees are treated at the organization, asking what growth opportunities are there for employees, how does the company deal with conflict? That’s a big piece. What’s the day-to-day work environment? Do you recognize people’s achievements? Do you celebrate the success that you are recognizing the contributions of your employees? Those are some pieces that a candidate can tap into and ask during the interview to get a sense of the culture.

TTLS S1 9 | Toxic Work Environment

Toxic Work Environment: Everybody has a big, shiny sign on their forehead saying, “how do I become successful?” As a leader, you have to guide your people to do that.


One thing that has me thinking about, I wanted to gauge, is what do you think about these candidates of color who are going into environments where they are unsure about the organization’s true stance on race equity or diversity equity inclusion. I have always guided people that I coach to be asking questions about, what is your strategy or how are you working in that space to gauge like, “Did they just start? Do they have a committee or something?” That’s all they do or the only people of color who work in the organization are the DEI people, things like that. What do you think about asking questions about that at the interview stage?

I had watched some universities had posted a bunch of videos on different ways students with different identities can go through this process. One of them was speaking to race, and not when you look at a website and you see their diversity equity inclusion statement but how are they acting on it. You bring up a great point of is this something you just started? Is this something that you have had in place for several years since your company was founded?

It’s good to see when companies can be transparent and authentic, and we have been very ignorant in this space and not understanding what people with different racial identities have gone through in the workplace environment. We’ve got together and we wanted to put together a statement that would speak to what we want to do and represent as an organization. I then would ask like, “What are those pieces that reflect those words that you put in place?”

When looking at the website, we are going to always tell the candidates to go to the website first, look at the mission and the vision statements. All of that connects with the diversity equity inclusion, belonging piece because sometimes there’s this disconnect where, “We wrote this diversity equity inclusion statement over here but here are our mission values.” It’s all they say it has to connect.

That’s really important looking at that, and then going on and looking at the leadership at the organization and seeing, “Are there people that look like me in leadership or is it entry-level folks that look like me? What types of opportunities and supports are in place? Are there affinity groups? Are there these ERG or Employee Resource Groups for us at the organization? What’s the racial makeup or what’s the demographic breakdown? How do people progress through the organization?”

You feel comfortable bringing that up and saying, “You have written this statement and I see your leadership.” What are you doing to help change that and change that look when we look at your leadership and make sure that it does reflect those values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that you are speaking about?

One thing I want to lift up for the readers is we talk a lot about how do the candidates show up in the interviewing. We want them to show up authentically but then the organization doesn’t. You ask the organization about DEI, and they want to act all perfect. I like to tell people it will send a way better message to people of color or to whomever you were serving was underrepresented that we are on a journey like put that on your website, “Here are some mistakes we made.”

You have to have trust, and having trust is to have a crystal clear vision of where you want to be as a leader. Click To Tweet

It’s a two-way street. You have to come competent knowing like, “I’m interviewing you, too. This is about you wanting me to show up as my authentic self. I want this company to show up as its authentic self. Tell me how it is.” I appreciate that more when a company can admit to that like, “We have made some bad mistakes in the past and we are trying to remedy those. This is what we are doing, and this is what we want to do with that.”

Don’t just write it. Write it because everybody else has written a statement but what is that you are wanting to do to make that impact with the groups that are most affected, these marginalized groups that you are speaking about. If you come in with that mentality of, “I know you are interviewing me but this is also making sure that I’m a good culture add to this organization.”

We are candidates and we are wearing the candidate hat now. What are some warning signs during the job search process that a workplace may have a toxic culture, toxic leadership is prevalent? What are some things to look out for?

When your gut says a lot, follow that instinct and that feeling. I have had those feelings before I interviewed or went to a website, read through a job posting. The way sometimes the job description is written, I’m like, “This doesn’t sound like this is a good fit for me and what I want to do. It doesn’t reflect my values and what I believe in.”

If you are talking to people who work there, that’s when you are going to get an idea because sometimes, as you said, they are going to come with this facade of, “Look how perfect we are.” Sometimes you can’t tell. They do such a great job with candidates. They have done these millions of times. They might make it seem like, “We are a great place to work. Come work for us.” That’s why that piece is the employees that work there. You can speak to 1 or 2 that are in that environment if there’s no support for employees, there’s no recognition of the work that employees are doing.

If it feels like people struggle to go to work, they don’t feel passionate about the work. That’s the big thing. I know some people are passionate about the work they do but the environment they are in, either the leadership, their colleagues, that space is very negative, makes it hard for them to appreciate and love the work they do. That’s a bad sign because you want those two pieces to come together like, “I’m passionate about the work and I love the people I work with.” That’s where I’m at now.

That’s the dream right there but when we are like, “I love this work but these people I work with and this environment is not working for me.” When leadership can’t be transparent, they pump fear rather than trust into a space, “I shouldn’t be fearful of my supervisor or leadership.” When they are not willing to listen to feedback, they are not willing to do the work themselves it speaks to that negative culture. Those are some pieces where you are like, “This isn’t sound.” As I’m saying these, you can definitely formulate questions based on that as you are interviewing.

TTLS S1 9 | Toxic Work Environment

Toxic Work Environment: When people get feedback, they often forget that that’s a gift.


Why is this role vacant?

That’s number one. It’s funny because when I’m applying for jobs, they always ask like, “Why did you leave?” I feel so bad. When you call to do my reference check, I probably wouldn’t, of course, mention why I’m leaving. Luckily, I have always left because I was moving or something. That’s what the organization did but I know that’s the case sometimes and I’m like, “Do people really write the next other applied for like, ‘This is why I’m leaving?’”

One thing that I want to lift up for readers that you said was helpful is to know your values. Before you start talking to people about a new job because people get infatuated with money, title, and that prestige, they are going into workplaces and don’t even know what they value. I don’t know about you. It’s hard to work in a space where you have to put on that mask and not even work in a place where you can be your authentic self or do the work the way you value doing the work in a way if that makes sense. That was a good call-out because that dissonance is very jarring.

It’s hard because if you have been in a bad environment, then maybe you know what you don’t value, like, “This is definitely not the type of leadership, support or the way we do things around here. This is not what I want.” Even if you have been through those toxic experiences, at least you know this is something you don’t want. Maybe that helps you like your job searching to find the things that you do want, looking at what’s the opposite of what I went through that I don’t want to go into my next role.

I love that because I have actually used that with a lot of clients who are in toxic work environments and they want to get out but they’ve got to go to work, and I have worked with a client where I’m like, “You want to write a book?  This is your book writing fee. You are getting data for your book. This is your gift.”

We can always learn from those. I have been through negative things in my life, and I have definitely gone into the next thing, knowing I did not want that again for sure. Sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know but remember that you have gone through experiences, and make sure you are thinking about those pieces as you are formulating your values and going into your next job opportunity.

I know you know of this. There are plenty of free online resources for people to take a values assessment test to understand, and then spend time contemplating. In my opinion, when you know your values, put that in your cover letter, write your cover letter values-based, based on your values. Don’t give me that stock Google cover letter that everybody gets. Write that cover letter and be able to showcase your values because that’s who you are.

Of course, match those up if you have been reading that you read the job description and you have gone to the company website and you are like, “This seems to match up well.” Connect those pieces together in that cover letter, too.

Trust is character and competence. Click To Tweet

Another gift you are going to have if you do it that way is you are not going to get a call back for a job that wasn’t right for you. That’s a gift.

My students get so down like, “Why haven’t I heard anything?” It’s hard, they are just getting started, and knowing that this wasn’t the role, it will come, be thankful because I have seen people get jobs that I didn’t get, and then later hear about what’s happened and I’m like, “At least there’s a reason for that.”

You dodged that bullet. This has been great, and you have given us a lot of insight, especially related to job searching and matching up one’s values with an organization. Before we depart, are there any words of wisdom that you want to leave our readers with?

I know the conversations that you have spoken to it. I love that you speak from that toxic leadership piece because we hear about all the good and great things about organizations, and I loved that piece of it. If you are in that toxic environment, the one positive is that even though you are in a job or space that you may absolutely hate and dragging yourself out of bed, you have a job. Now you have that space to do a little research and find an environment that will support, recognize, and reward your talent because for many of us, I know me, for example, I can’t up and quit a job I hate, and then take that time to look for a new job.

I don’t have that type of privilege in my life to be like, “I’m good. I can leave now.” It’s more like, “I have a job. I’m in this environment. I’m learning from this experience as to what I don’t want in the next job.” As I’m taking this time to job search, I know what I’m looking for and what I don’t want. Take stock in that knowing, “I have a job. I’m getting paid. I can pay my bills. I can feed my family.” That’s important because some people don’t have a job and now have to take the first thing that comes along and feel like, “I’ve got to take this job,” and then feeling rushed in the process.

I want people to know that if you are in those environments, take stock in that and step back and think, “Here are the things I’m learning but now I’m going to start that process of hopefully finding an environment that matches up to my passion for what I love to do, and doing that with people that support me in that work.”

How can readers reach you if they have any questions or want to share some insights and things like that?

Definitely, LinkedIn. I have that same on popping all the time. It’s on my computer, on my phone, so I’m constantly getting notifications. Real quick too, if you are trying to reach out to folks on LinkedIn and connect with someone that works at an organization, just know some people aren’t as connected to their LinkedIn like me because that’s my job, that’s what I do, so don’t take that personally.

TTLS S1 9 | Toxic Work Environment

Toxic Work Environment: Invest in your people to mitigate risks because your employees control a lot of your company.


If you reach out to someone like you Direct Message like, “I see you work at this organization. I want to talk to you more about it,” and then they don’t respond, they might not ever check their LinkedIn, so keep digging. I wanted to put that out there. I’m on it all the time but some people might not be on it as much as I. They might have created their profile and then walked away, so keep that in mind. If you are like, “I’m so sad. I contacted people on LinkedIn but nobody is responding,” keep digging.

Mako, I really appreciate talking with you.

Thank you, Dr. Sansberry. This was great.

I hope to bring you back in the future. We can definitely dig in some more.

Yes, for sure.

Thanks for reading. Until next time.


Important Links


About Mako Miller

I am always looking to connect with organizations and individuals who value diversity, equity, and inclusion and supporting a more diverse talent pipeline into professional working spaces.

I am an advocate for first-generation and multicultural students and believe in intentional student engagement and experiential learning opportunities. Having experience as a first-generation, student of color myself, I want to support our FGS/multicultural students and close the opportunity gap by partnering with those in the community who have a passion for helping all students succeed.