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The Office’s Jan - Victim of a Toxic Workplace

We tend to remember Jan Levinson (Melora Hardin) where no one wants to be: at rock bottom. But The Office’s unhinged antagonist was introduced as a reasonable professional, a serious woman who did her best to manage Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) — a task he doesn’t make easy. The most consistent part of Jan’s journey is Dunder Mifflin, a deceivingly hostile workplace that suffers from a serious misogyny problem. Jan’s story is really a kind of cautionary tale about how offices treat their female employees, and how internalized cultures of sexism can often have traumatic effects. Here’s our Take on how toxic work conditions led to Jan’s eventual downfall, and why a supportive environment is crucial to any woman’s success.


TRANSCRIPT

Jan: “My psychiatrist thinks that I have some self-destructive tendencies.” - The Office 3x11

Jan Levinson: Powerful Woman in a Sexist Workplace

We tend to remember Jan Levinson where no one wants to be: at rock bottom. But The Office’s executive turned unhinged antagonist was introduced as a reasonable professional, a serious woman who did her best to manage Michael Scott—a task he doesn’t make easy. Other Office characters developed quirks as they were given more screen time, but with some notable exceptions, few became the sort of unlikeable villain Jan was often made out to be. So, what changed?

In short, nothing did. The most consistent part of Jan’s journey is Dunder Mifflin, a deceivingly hostile workplace that suffers from a serious misogyny problem. Like most of the unprofessional behavior in the show, the treatment of female employees is meant to reflect and criticize real office environments, so Jan’s story is a kind of cautionary tale. She begins as someone competent and polished - maybe even aspirational. She then becomes unmotivated, toxic, and unstable. And her story illustrates exactly what long-term exposure to sexism can do.

Here’s our Take on how her toxic work conditions led to Jan’s eventual downfall, and why a supportive environment is crucial to any woman’s success.

Jan: “Michael, I am not the enemy, OK? Dunder Mifflin is the enemy.” - The Office 4x08

Sexism at the Office

Sexism can hurt women at every level—and as Jan’s story reveals, this is true even for those in charge. From underestimating female workers to resenting them for self-expression, workplace misogyny comes in many forms; what one person considers a harmless joke might be the breaking point for another. Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch offers a good example of how female employees are forced to contend with constant, unwanted sexual attention.

Jan: “Women today, though we have the same options as men, we often face a very different set of obstacles.” - The Office 2x15

Jan also faces sexism unique to being a woman in management. Women in positions of authority receive a specific kind of backlash for challenging the hierarchy that keeps men in power. As feminist author bell hooks writes, “Patriarchy [...] insists that males are inherently dominating [and] superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females.” This system relies heavily on a pecking order and having a woman in charge can feel like a threat. In Jan’s case, men default to two stereotypes to discredit her. Because she’s uptight and businesslike, she’s an ice queen without feelings. And because she’s conventionally attractive, she needs to be ‘put in her place’ through aggressive sexual commentary. These attitudes are thinly veiled methods of undermining authority she’s not supposed to have—at least not in a masculine business environment.

Because Dunder Mifflin’s corporate staff is primarily male, Jan is isolated in her position. The women at the Scranton branch at least have female peers to commiserate with, which gives them a united front. Without a group of women on her own level, Jan has to deal with the challenges of being a female boss alone—and going against a system without any backup can be so fruitless that people often don’t bother. Even Jan’s efforts to promote other women to corporate usually end in gendered scrutiny, from all sides.

Jan: “I never felt welcomed there, you know? It’s such a…boys’ club.” - The Office 4x12

Jan’s interactions with her male peers are also strained by their tendency to exclude her. With a gender ratio that’s disproportionately male, ensuring women feel included in corporate life is hard—and her coworkers often make it harder. Between the conscious and unconscious attempts to make her feel left out, Jan is essentially an island at Dunder Mifflin, with no support from peers, fellow women, or the company.

Positive workplaces are characterized by open communication, employee empowerment, and general compassion; we reach our highest productivity and fulfillment when we feel secure. Since the foundation of the human resources department, businesses have become increasingly interested in ensuring that workers feel seen and protected, not expendable. But to Michael, HR is simply a hindrance—a limitation on his own self-expression. Michael cares about his staff like a family, but paradoxically he marginalizes the department designed to support them—which explains why his branch has so many issues. This contempt isn’t limited to Michael. Many higher-ups see HR as glorified behavior policing. And this disempowerment lets inappropriate behavior go unchecked at Dunder Mifflin.

Jan strives to rise above this, but the longer she works there, she sees the obvious double standards she’s been forced to accept. She’s expected to coddle Michael through every unprofessional mistake. But she’s punished when she starts to slip herself. It’s really no surprise that Jan couldn’t survive without becoming more dysfunctional herself.

The Perils of an Office Romance

Getting romantically involved with a co-worker always carries some risk. Bias and proximity make for a mess if things go south. But among all of The Office’s various couples, none demonstrate the true dangers of the workplace romance quite like Jan and Michael.

Since Michael is defined by his unprofessionalism, he has no clue how to act when a romance develops with his supervisor. After their first drunken kiss, she makes it apparent—repeatedly—that she’s not really interested. But Michael can’t let it go. He ends up undermining Jan’s authority by exaggerating their hookup to anyone who will listen. He shares intimate details that are meant to stoke his own self-image, while carelessly disregarding how they make her look. Other employees take this gossip as another reason to mock Jan—which makes her professional life feel increasingly futile.

Seeing it gets her nowhere, Jan eventually gives up on fighting her feelings. Despite his boorishness, Michael seems genuinely affectionate toward her. And his track record of trying to defend her is somewhat endearing—though the execution isn’t always perfect. His earnest (albeit misguided) efforts in pursuing her make Jan feel more human and loved.

Jan: “I overcome my nausea, fall deeply in love, babies, normalcy, no more self-loathing.” - The Office 3x17

Yet as we see with Jan, deeper self-esteem problems can’t be solved by dating someone who makes you feel better about yourself. It’s hard to believe that the emotional benefits of Michael’s attachment could outweigh the intense embarrassment she gets from being near him—and her downward spiral seems to reflect that she’s pinned too much hope on their relationship to ‘fix’ her. Jan gets objectively worse, both at work and in her personal life, eventually conflating the two. She treats Michael like she’s his boss in every context, confusing the important boundary between their personal and professional lives. Her work identity hides her weaknesses, but it’s also made it impossible for her to be vulnerable when she needs to be. Feeling superior to Michael just allows her to justify the way she treats him, which only ends up hurting them both.

As her work life becomes more chaotic, Jan tries to regain control with unhealthy coping mechanisms. And eventually, Jan’s inner turmoil translates into behaviors that shift her incompatibility with Michael into an extremely toxic situation. Some of the less ideal Office pairings parallel Jan and Michael’s problems. Kelly and Ryan, for example, are driven by drama and sexual tension. They reaffirm how a purely physical interest, like Jan’s attraction to Michael, is not always a basis for emotional connection. Erin’s failed relationships with Andy and Gabe explore similar hazards of a workplace romance with uneven power dynamics.

But not every office romance goes down in flames—and they can illustrate exactly what didn’t work with Jan and Michael. Through ups and downs, Jim and Pam’s epically ordinary love story succeeds because of the respect they have for each other. They address feelings of low self-worth by pushing each other to be better—even when it’s not the easiest thing to hear. Even when those insecurities threaten to overwhelm them, Jim and Pam have always been friends—which makes them want to put in the effort to save their relationship.

Michael’s relationship with Holly after he lets go of Jan suggests that the best predictor of a lasting connection is having important things in common. A shared sense of humor, comparable values, or simple warmth and appreciation for one another offer a much more productive basis for love than loneliness, frustration—or proximity.

Pam: “It sounds like you’re just wrong for each other.” The Office 3x21

Life After Dunder Mifflin

The impact of a negative environment is more than discomfort or decreased productivity. Regular exposure to toxicity normalizes it, which can permanently change your perception. By the time she’s fired, Jan is undeniably a terrible employee, and an all-around unpleasant person to be near.

In some sense, she starts behaving like the male management around her, only putting in effort when she wants to, and being more lax about what constitutes sexual harassment. Yet Jan’s punishment is disproportionately severe—especially considering that her work environment plays a major role in getting her to that point. From a productivity perspective, firing Jan was reasonable. But analyzing the whole picture shows us that it’s also unfair to blame her for becoming the person that Dunder Mifflin made her.

Long after her termination, Jan still exhibits behaviors that can be connected to her time at the company. We find two common themes in her post-Dunder Mifflin arc. First, she becomes a full-blown narcissist. Her arrogance can be a little off-putting—but it can also be seen as an understandably unhealthy response to those years suppressing herself at Dunder Mifflin in hopes of remaining ultra-professional.

Jan’s increasingly antagonistic behavior can also be seen as a grab for control after losing the authority she once had. The shift from being identified with the status of her job to having no power at all—and then getting fired anyway—is detrimental to Jan’s self-image. Clinging to her shallow relationship with Michael drags her down further still; this is what leads us to the unhinged Jan we most remember. Her entire world is reduced to the confines of Michael’s condo, where she exercises what little agency she has left.

Jan: “This could be perfect! You know, my full-time job could be our relationship. I could wear stretch pants and wait for you to come home at 5:15.” - The Office 3x23

Jan’s efforts to regain control eventually become even more destructive. She spends Michael’s money carelessly, leaving him bankrupt. She treats other women with hostility over her unfounded jealousy. And even after they separate, she tries to interfere in Michael’s love life, still bossing him around.

Her interest in younger men—rather than being in spite of the uneven power dynamic—is deliberate. It forestalls vulnerability and ensures that she remains superior. But taking advantage of those with less power isn’t the solution to feeling powerless. Instead, Jan just absorbs that toxicity, ensuring she will perpetuate the same attitudes wherever she goes.

Blaming harmful behavior like Jan’s entirely on external factors oversimplifies things; in the worst situations, we still usually have some agency over what we choose to do. But without absolving her, we can recognize that many of the factors in Jan’s downfall are reactions to what she’s put through. Her actions grow more harmful during a highly vulnerable period of her life. By the end of her arc, most of what Jan does is unacceptable—but there’s also a distinct possibility she might not have turned out that way if she had at least been respected by the people around her.

Instead, we see her suffer through environments she never really moves on from. She answers her termination with a lawsuit against Dunder Mifflin, which she pursues while risking her relationship with Michael. By the end of the series, she’s still seeking her revenge.

Ultimately, Jan shows us just how challenging it can be to ever get over a formatively bad experience. With the right support, her ambition might have taken her to the top. Instead, her job took Jan right to rock bottom and left her cold, vindictive, and incapable of growth. Jan might be difficult to sympathize with, but she’s a victim of her circumstances. She’s a cautionary tale about what an unhealthy workplace can do to women. It’s no wonder she’s terrifying.

Jan: “And I guess that makes me the devil!”

Michael: “You are! She is! She is the devil!” - The Office 4x09