When I got my first job after college, I was supremely naive. I didn't feel like I had the world on a string as many do. Sure, I felt a huge sense of possibility as all fresh college grads should, but it was 2008 – I was just happy to have a job, to be invited to the work party at all.

I wasn't yet aware that each place had its own dynamics, pros and cons, and that I was walking into something called an "organizational culture." It's like stepping into a river moving in multiple directions. I met throngs of people in management as an intern at a large hospitality company in Las Vegas, people that had history with one another, agendas, and an unspoken pecking order that I was supposedly disrupting.

In order to succeed, I had to somehow figure out what that secret order was and how to inlay myself in the exactly the right spot without getting walked over or eaten. I couldn't be a threat, but I also couldn't hide – I had to rise up. It was tricky, and most of my cognitive energy went toward reacting to nuggets of toxic information higher ups would drop in meetings and mention to me casually in hallways.

"Brett is your assigned mentor, but he'll never make time for you"..."Don't trust Gina, she'll stab you in the back." Was this supposed to help me?

I realize now how toxic of a corporate environment that was, and how there was no possible way I, or even anyone seasoned in management, could navigate those waters with any kind of integrity without becoming collateral damage.

The unfortunate truth is most of us will encounter toxic workplaces in our lifetime, or toxic pockets within organizations where trust is low, where there is no inclusive environment that welcomes new blood or outsiders, and where invisible political headwinds dictate what happens rather than a wholesome strategy and merit.

It took me years after leaving this company to realize who my real allies were, and what the criteria for being an ally was. In this case, because I was so young and just starting out, I'll equate allies with mentors.

I now ask myself the following questions when assessing people, something we all should regularly be doing:

  1. Who at the company was most invested in my learning and growth as opposed to just the organization's?
  2. Who made time to meet with me and listen to my hopes and concerns?
  3. Who did I leave meetings or conversations with feeling more certain and self-assured, rather than doubtful of myself?
  4. Who is courageous enough to be honest with me?

I still use these questions to dipstick people in my life. The good news is, there will always be allies. Even if you find yourself in a less than ideal work culture, there are good people everywhere and you should align yourself with them as you search for a professional space that better embodies your values and nurtures your goals as a professional. Many of them will become lifelong friends and mentors.