Note: This post contains mentions of suicide.
When you think about cults, you might picture dangerous high-control groups like NXIVM or Heaven's Gate. But cult-like behaviors and tactics show up in all kinds of groups — including at work.
So we asked members of the BuzzFeed Community to tell us about the most cult-like things they've experienced while on the clock. Here are their stories:
1."I worked for a motivational speaker, and it was all verrrrrry culty. We were definitely expected to overshare emotionally at team meetings, we were policed on what we could eat at work (illegal!), and the list goes on and on."
2."The teaching profession has literally become a cult of toxic positivity. The gaslighting is so egregious and proliferates every single aspect of the profession. I actually tried putting in concrete examples of what I am referencing, but as I typed, I felt my shoulders begin rising to my ears and my muscles clenched. But my fellow teachers know exactly what I'm talking about."
3."I used to work at an amusement park, and that was THE weirdest place ever. On my first day, I had to learn the 'work song.' It contained lines like ‘Work hard, clean up vomit, always smile at all time.’ We were given names to that we would call everyone, and mine was ‘purple unicorn.’ Still the weirdest place of all time."
4."I worked for a telephone company's call center in the early '00s, and they really tried to make it cult like and would 100% gaslight us. 'You should be happy to even have a job!' and 'Many people have degrees; it doesn't make you special' were things I heard regularly. Everyone who worked there was either on antidepressants or had a nonprescription drug problem."
5."Worked for a large electronics big box retailer, at corporate. They had a program called 'WOLF,' aka Women of Leadership Forum. You had to be invited to join this group by a current member. This was a true pack-mentality group. Members were given a Tiffany bracelet when they were initiated and wore it to symbolize their membership in this 'elite' group."
6."I spent two weeks at a 'marketing firm' that was really an MLM [multi-level marketing] scheme run by a 25-year-old dude in recycled power suits. Every morning at 8 a.m., we would gather around in a circle in a freezing cold room and loudly chant to start off the day. I should've left after that first morning."
7."The dental office I had worked at for years was bought by a young dentist. Things were fine for the first five years, but she started going to courses at an institute across the country from our area, and the whole way of doing things began to change. Even the trash bags had to be purchased from the institute. And suddenly I went from being her go-to employee to being regularly criticized for my work. I left after about a year."
8."I worked for a toy company, and it was managed very similarly to Scientology. They really work on their employees to over-work themselves under the guise of 'making children's lives better.' Not to mention how much time they spend with internal communications really selling to employees how much good the company does through philanthropy so people feel better about working past burnout stages."
9."I worked for a car finance place that was a branch of a bank. I got the job through a friend that had worked there, and while it wasn't a red flag at the time, she was always boasting about how much she loved it. It just felt very Stepford — everyone as happy robots mindlessly doing their jobs. Everyone had an 'I love my job' cup, mug, sticker, or something of that nature on their desks or clipboards. And 80% of people wore the company logo as a hat, shirt, or sweater."
"What made it feel really cultish was any time anyone griped or said something negative, people would swoop in and say, 'No, you're doing great! This is a GREAT PLACE TO WORK! OMG, WE'RE ALL SO HAPPY, AREN'T WE? AREN'T WE?' with huge plastic smiles."
10."I did my first years of teaching at a very small charter school where the founder, owner, and principal were all the same person. It seemed amazing at first; everyone was warm and welcoming, and the culture seemed sweet and wholesome. However, soon I realized that if anyone said something out of line or didn't get along with a core staff member, they were gone."
"Adults were bullied out of positions due to how hostile it would get. I personally left when I refused to be okay with changing official grades to make the school keep up appearances of being a great academic place. Basically, no student was allowed to fail because the principal didn't want to look bad."
11."I worked for a video game company. When you join, you have a two-week course called 'Denewbification' where they make you wear a stupid lime green hat, and they hit you with all this cool flashy shit so that you drink the Kool-Aid. Their manifesto is super bro-y, and everyone quotes stupid stuff from it, like stay humble, stay hungry, and default to trust to cover up the toxic, fraternity environment."
12."My first employer after college definitely had cult-ish qualities. Its logo was a giant lowercase A, which was basically worshipped. We were often required to write false job reviews using all the same keywords and had mandatory parties every quarter that were called 'raves.' If you ever spoke up about or questioned anything, you would be effectively shunned."
"Anyone that didn't completely drink the Kool-Aid would be blamed for anything and everything until they had enough 'reasons' to fire you. If your co-worker was saying anything that wasn't deemed 'raving fan' material, you were encouraged to rat them out to your superiors. In fact, it was the fastest way to get ahead.Happy hours, team outings, etc. were never optional, and it was frowned upon to have plans outside of the company. Coming in a half hour early was considered late, and leaving before 6:30 was similarly considered slacking. Effectively, we were isolated from friends and family, because we were simply always at work.They are currently being investigated by the IRS for questionable business practices, and every former employee I know is watching for updates with a bowl of popcorn."
13."I worked in a call center for a fancy furniture company. They made it seem like a welcoming place that supports equality, its employees going to school, and was 'fun.' The orientation included a theme song, and then we’d hear it at every meeting, but it all felt very fake. They had lots of phrases and mottos they wanted everyone to live by and expected no one to show any emotion other than happiness while in the building."
14."In a supervisory training, we were given a scenario to 'teach' us how to properly fill out the write-up form. The scenario? An employee is shy, eats lunch alone, and doesn't socialize with coworkers. We were supposed to come up with a plan of correction for the 'problem' of shyness."
15."I was a buyer for a clothing company after I graduated college in 2018. It's a well-known 'joke' in Columbus (where the headquarters are based) that corporate is a cult. They only hire young, good-looking people who are then encouraged to live and breathe the culture. Everyone drinks together, hangs out together, and dates each other."
"HR actively encourages intra-company hooking up because it makes people less likely to leave if your partner also works there. People that do not participate in the drinking and drug culture with their coworkers are given poor reviews, and promotions are withheld.
I've even had friends that were let go because they told HR they were uncomfortable with the company culture on their team. If you didn't drink the Kool-Aid, you were a 'problem' associate."
16."Therapist here. I worked for a mental health organization where I had at least 14 half-hour sessions with clients every day. While this was the model of treatment we were expected to work with, what bothered me the most was senior management's attitude toward overworking staff and normalizing the amount of work that we did, creating this incredibly toxic working environment, but also pushing the message that we should all be proud and happy of the organization."
17."I worked at a lead generation marketing company in a Midwestern city for nearly three years, and there were SO many cult-y things going on. Their whole thing was 'growth' (generating more money for clients and the company itself). We would have monthly company meetings where we had to recite a 'growth creed' and chant the company’s name at the end of the meeting."
"We even had to chant the company’s name at the end of an impromptu company meeting that was called because a young employee had committed suicide. The CEO said we may not feel like chanting, but we needed to do it for the late employee.They also got the graphic designers to design 'swag' (T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, etc.) and then encouraged us to buy as much swag as we could. They would take the money out of our next paycheck. More importantly, they treated leaving as a sign of betrayal. I had a wonderful manager who found a new job where they would give her great maternity leave and cover her and her spouse’s health insurance. (Our company had no real maternity leave at the time; people had to apply for short-term disability and hope HR approved it, which they didn’t do for my manager.) When she put in her two weeks, they forced her to leave a week early. A little over a year later, a coworker put in her two weeks notice, and the higher-ups made her leave THAT DAY. We didn’t even get to say goodbye to her.As you can imagine, competent workers kept leaving after a couple of years. And this company was obsessed with promoting people, so they focused on promoting people who drank their Kool-Aid and believed in everything the company did. This meant that leaders were very zealous about enforcing company policies, but they weren’t very capable.The CEO was from a small town in Iowa, and he seemed to want to run the place like it was a small-town high school. That made the company’s culture really toxic and cult-ish because we were supposed to have all this school spirit type of pride in our company, but we had extremely heavy workloads and not-great benefits and compensation."
18."Regularly being sent to 'interesting' lectures about being positive where the bottom line is that if you're unhappy about being treated like shit at work and making minimum wage in the process, it's your attitude that's wrong; you choose to be unhappy. Honestly, by now I just wish they'd shell out for the full lobotomy they try to give us by psychological means."
19."I was raised in a cult (that I escaped from), so I feel like I had a leg to stand in when I noticed my job decades later felt like a cult. I worked for a prominent figure in wildlife conservation who demanded blind loyalty from staff. Wildlife jobs are highly competitive, so people are primed to go pretty far against their morals to stay relevant in the field — it's cutthroat."
Have you ever worked somewhere that felt a bit like a cult? Tell us about it in the comments.
Note: Responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.