Everybody Has These Stories

It’s Friday morning, so now I’m going to hold forth!

I am constantly amazed by how many people I encounter have “scary boss stories” or other human resources related nightmare tales. I mean, verbal abuse, not being allowed to take vacation, power struggles, manipulation…all the stuff that sends people crying to the bathroom. When I was a young person, sexual harassment was a serious workplace issue that I heard about all the time, but nobody ever taught me to be as aware of other kinds of power abuse.  When I hear these stories, I am always shocked and saddened. A few observations:

1) Bad managers exist in all industries. For-profit, nonprofit, arts, everywhere. These stories are not confined to “crazy artists,” but crop up in a variety of fields.

2) Workers do not know their rights. The power imbalance created by this lack of knowledge is problematic. Understanding the terms of your employment contract, what all the clauses mean, what you are entitled to, and what your grievance procedures are is important. Knowledge = power, people, as seen on Sesame Street and beyond.

3) Human resources departments, where they exist, are viewed with skepticism (at best) and contempt (at worst). Attitudes towards HR are frighteningly dismissive. HR is seen as unhelpful and lacking in the power to effect change. It is seen as a repository for complaints and problems, but not a generator of solutions. So, who actually has the power to control, or ultimately fire, a bad manager? Is lodging a complaint with HR ultimately a futile effort? Who really protects workers?

4) Bad managers are tolerated for months and years, despite high rates of employee turnover, reduced productivity, and worse, the threat of lawsuits. This is what shocks me, always. Bad managers are identified early on in their tenure, and then kept. Forever. Why? Isn’t it hugely wasteful to have to hire and train new employees constantly because a manager drives away (good and bad) workers? Doesn’t morale count for anything?

5) The after-affects of working for an abusive manager (or in an unhealthy work environment) are long-lasting, and can be really intense and self-destructive. I was talking with someone just yesterday who gave voice to that inner fear: “What’s wrong with me?” Trying to please and placate an angry person takes so much (too much) energy, and boundaries begin disrespected also takes its toll. I have read about workers (in office jobs!) suffering from exhaustion and stress-related illness, up to and including hospitalization. Unacceptable!

So, what do we learn from this? Know your rights and know your boundaries. Don’t take this stuff personally. Be a great manager, whenever you get the chance. Respect yourself, because the way you treat yourself shows other people how to treat you. Learn from every experience, especially the bad ones.


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