Your Employer Is (Likely) Not the Worst Employer Ever

Your Employer Is (Likely) Not the Worst Employer Ever

Angry Businessman Yelling into PhoneOften, sensational stories about horrible employee experiences come down to an awful boss who makes employee’s lives miserable. Conventional career wisdom focuses on the relationship between an employee and her supervisor. Is she a leader? With a good boss, work that challenges and rewards, and being on a good team, you will be happy in your role.

But what if the company is a bad place to work? What if it is Enron, and you could end up in prison? What if it is just awful?

When I was a young college student, I responded to an ad for a job in “sales.” I got to the “office,” which was an empty store of a rather empty strip mall, with a few dilapidated chairs and a desk that was literally in pieces. Wearing my best college-student business casual, I discovered that we were literally walking door to door, to businesses on busy streets, selling cheap products that no one needed or wanted. I did it for more than eight hours, because I am not a quitter. But one day was all I could take. At the end of the day, they took down all of my information and informed me what my pay would be (minimum wage, despite how much I sold). But then a funny thing happened. They didn’t pay me anything. And when I came looking for them a while later, the location was abandoned. Yes, the red flags were there. I could have avoided that experience with a few questions. But I was 18. My only “real” job (other than jobs at school) was working at Marshalls. It was one of those “life lessons” that suck but make you stronger. It was also illegal.

It turns out though, that this model, of using college students and not paying them, was how this company did business. And a few years later, I learned they had been sued out of existence. Owners personally liable. The biggest “owner” had done all of this before, and that guy is probably in prison now. Because they knew what they did was wrong, but didn’t care. Truly bad employers are like that.

I’m going to ignore the companies that are poisoning people, or selling products they know to be dangerous and defective without any regard. They may actually not be bad places to work. Mad Men made the tobacco industry sound not that bad. My focus in solely on the employee experience. And while bad employers tend to be most adept at hiding their awfulness, I’ve noticed they have a few things in common:

1. Bad employers are secretive and dysfunctional. In truly bad companies, you don’t even know who is making the decision. It seems that actually making key decisions is in no one’s job description, and all of the employees feel uneasy about doing their own jobs. They know they were hired for a reason, but that reason becomes less and less apparent as time goes by. And no one knows who it is that is at the “top.” The CEO leaves. Then the interim CEO leaves. There are lots of empty board seats, and board member turnover. The company is likely under a few audits and investigations, but it’s all very hush-hush.

2. Bad employers are vindictive. No employer likes to lose employees. It is costly to replace someone, particularly after an employee has been trained and learned how to meet the requirements of the specific employer. But if an employer is angry long after the person leaves, or if they fired the guy and are still angry and willing to break the law to sabotage the former employee’s career (unfortunately, I’ve seen this), you have encountered a nightmare employer. And if they treat someone you know like this, they treat everyone like this.

3. Bad employers are soul crushing. One of the side effects of having an unclear job description is that you are really easy to blame. But, you know it isn’t the case of a bad boss when your boss is equally as fearful of the blame, and also walking on eggshells. It’s a bad company when you look and see this type of fear and concern goes all the way to the top. You go to work every day feeling that you did something awful in a past life and this is your penance. You also find yourself feeling physically ill at the sight of your employer.

4. Bad employers have really really high turnover. Certain industries have high turnover. The work is hard and/or the pay is low. But some companies buck industry trends in a bad way. They have unreasonably high turnover, even in well-paid roles. There is a new “Vice-President” every other month. Every time you talk to your HR representative, it’s a new person. You have been there for two years and you have the most tenure in your group. Or your department. You find that there is little continuity in anything. You find yourself looking at the jobs on LinkedIn after only six months in your role.

5. Bad employers have really really weird and offensive traditions. Using “graduation” as a euphemism for terminations, a behavior Dan Lyons reveals in his book “Disrupted,” is bizarre and cruel. But unfortunately Hubspot, the company Lyons worked for, isn’t the only company that likes offensive traditions. Drinking games that cause physical discomfort, a culture of “jokes” that are hurtful, or “trust exercises” that are dangerous are other examples. The sign of a bad company is these “traditions” continue for years, and the company defends them as “culture.” Bad company policies can lead to rape or assault, and are often policies that employment attorneys warn about to no avail. Instead, leadership refuses to stop them because they don’t have the power to, or because those who report them are considered too thin-skinned by the company. Then comes the lawsuits.

Ironically, a bad company isn’t a bad client for an employment attorney. But I do pity the people who work there. Because maybe they came there for the money, or maybe they came there because they had no other options, but they all leave the same way: demoralized and angry. And that outcome is avoidable.

What can a company do to not be a bad employer?

It is actually not hard to not be a bad employer, but it does take some accountability and some intentionality. Be accountable for the people you hire. Try to make them succeed, and if they don’t understand where the hiring process failed. Train your managers adequately. Train everyone adequately. Be intentional with your employees. Give them duties that help them grow. With bad employers, intentionality and accountability are in short supply. And it shows.

beth-robinsonBeth Robinson lives in Denver and is a business law attorney and employment law guru. She practices at Fortis Law Partners. You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @HLSinDenver.


Published at Wed, 15 Feb 2017 00:05:01 +0000

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