What to do When You’re Faced With a Total Dumpster Fire at Work

dumpster fire

By Brooke B. Sellas, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Everyone reading this has encountered a dumpster fire at one time or another.

I’m coming off one of the worst dumpster fires in my business history. The past 30 days I’ve been putting out fires left and right.

And while we’ve all had to put on our ‘fire putter-outer” hat, I’d like to share with you how I managed to get through this dumpster fire without third-degree burns.

Defining A Dumpster Fire

We all have bad days. That is not a dumpster fire. This disastrous event goes well beyond just one little thing going wrong.

Believe it or not, this serious snafu even has a definition in Dictionary.

dump·ster fire
a fire in a dumpster.
“fire crews responded to a dumpster fire at the North End Community Center”INFORMAL
a chaotic or disastrously mishandled situation.
“last season was a dumpster fire, and it didn’t get that way overnight”
And gifs and memes, like the one below, depicting dumpster fires have gone viral.

July Was Hot & Hellish

My personal foray into this dumpster fire started with a team member who decided to bail and not complete several project deliverables. Like, went completely MIA (aren’t people FUN?!).

I swooped in to inform the clients about the dumpster fire at hand, get the projects completed, and get someone new in place to take over the project’s continued tasks.

During this time …

  • I had to write blogs, create & schedule content, and tend to other tasks I hadn’t been responsible for in years
  • We closed a celebrity client who needed all hands on deck (including me)
  • The team lost another member to her long-time passion for cooking and on-boarded her replacement
  • We were interviewing for five other potential job openings

Simultaneously, a large account I’d been courting for months let me know that it was down to B Squared Media and one other agency and asked me to fly to meet them the following week for an in-person pitch meeting.

That, folks, is an all-out dumpster fire. Sure, some of the fires were good. But when there’s one of you, your team is at max, and you have to lead the charge, what do you do??

Seven Ways To Fight Fire With Fire

There are fluff pieces out there that will tell you to “take a break” when things get bad. But in a dumpster fire, that’s not possible.

Yoga isn’t going to save you.

When you have to juggle everything, here are the things that help.

  • Fess up on the mess up. Immediately. My first to-do was to notify projects that were missing or getting late deliverables. There was no better explanation than the truth (#1) and how I was going to fix it (#2).
  • Call for reinforcements. We were already in “all hands on deck” mode, but if you’re facing the fire alone, call for help!
  • Create a checklist. Secondly, I went through and created a list of ALL the things I had to get done, no matter how small. Even personal stuff made it on to the list, like booking my flight and renting a car for the pitch meeting.
  • Assign due dates. And mean it. In a crisis, you need to assign due dates to everything on your list. Start with the most critical to-dos and work your way down to non-critical items. Underpromise and overdeliver.
  • Nix personal items. Though it’s not fun, it’s probably best to move any personal items back until the embers are out. I had to cancel a couple of date nights and miss a birthday dinner.
  • Alert everyone affected. This not only includes co-workers but significant others as well. Everyone needs to know that your time is taken and you need all the support you can get.
  • Consider an away message. I chose to work late nights to get my deliverables done, but if you have children, a family, or a lifestyle where that’s just not possible, consider putting an away message out that notifies people of your condensed schedule and a way to book time with you when you’re back to breathing.

When The Smoke Clears

Lastly, perhaps my biggest advice is what to do after your dumpster fire is put out.

First, perform a post-mortem. Meaning look back at what went wrong and see what processes you can put in place to prevent so many fires from popping up at once.

For our team, I found that overdue tasks went unchecked for over two weeks, allowing deliverables to get out of hand. I also realized that not having a Coordinator on all projects ups the risk of missed deliverables.

Secondly, you have to reward the other fire putter-outers! For me, that meant buying three team members who went above and beyond a dumpster fire enamel pin. True story. See the pin below (or buy them here!).


I didn’t want to sugarcoat what we went through. And I figure this little pin is a funny reminder of our feet getting put to the fire that we can wear as a badge of honor.

The ladies loved it. And really appreciated the gesture.

Other (Non-Solicited) Advice

As the owner of my business, I wasn’t allowed to give up. But maybe you’re just in a really bad work situation. Or work for really yucky people.

In some situations, it’s okay to give up.

If like me, you don’t have that luxury, I have two pieces of advice that you probably won’t like:

  • No whining/complaining (because no one cares)
  • No panicking (because that only fans the flames)

We’re all likely to face a dumpster fire at one point in our careers. Suck it up, make a plan, and find the grit you need to get through it!

Feel like venting about your own recent hell on earth? I’m all eyes! Post a note in the comments section below!


Brooke B. Sellas is the CEO & Founder of B Squared Media, an award-winning done-for-you social media management and advertising agency. Recently, she joined Mark Schaefer as the Co-host of the Marketing Companion Podcast. Brooke’s marketing mantra is “Think Conversation, Not Campaign” so be sure to give her a shout on Twitter!

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