This letter came from a reader who is experiencing a toxic work environment. Here’s her story:

I am looking to get advice on my current work situation. I have been very sick due to my work place environment. I took a STD (short-term disability) for 4 months. I went back, but to the same thing all over again. They are now documenting me and trying to find things where they think I have been dishonest. I told them it’s untrue and unfounded.

This company is known for bully bosses and mean girl mentality.

I have since hired an employment lawyer. He has asked for a separation agreement in hopes they will provide some unemployment benefits. Is it in my best interest to go back to work while they/lawyer hash this out? Or do I have my doctor write-up a letter saying I cannot return to work. She wouldn’t have to lie. I have had 3-4 doctor appointment since my return due to the hostility at work. I am sad, confused, and need to escape with a good reputation. I fear they will give me a bad reference.

Being in a toxic work environment is a very difficult situation, for a number of reasons. First of all, you are working under less than desirable working conditions and your employer does not seem to be working pro-actively to get you back to work.

The tactic the employer is taking to document anything that may give them cause to terminate you is common when they believe forcing you out is a better solution than keeping you. It’s unfortunate because everyone experiences hic cups from time to time.

However, if the situation that originally caused your illness is something that they do not want to fix, it begs the question, why stay? Aren’t you better off leaving – which is why your employment attorney is trying to negotiate the best separation package he can for you.

Many doctors will write a letter giving you more time off especially if returning to the same environment is causing the illness to regain momentum. Understand that taking this option will solidify to your employer that keeping you or trying to work with you to return to your job is not in their best interest.

You are in a difficult situation about how to leave under the best conditions. On the one hand if you return, it will further aggravate the company because they have a “problem” to resolve, however, if you take a leave they may think of you as someone who is taking advantage of the system (even if you are not).

In my opinion, the lesser of the two evils is to take the leave as long as you intend to leave the company. You will be in a better place to explain why you left to a new employer than why you were fired. Your attorney can negotiate what kind of reference is given upon your departure.