My recent article about dealing with unreasonable bosses and unreasonable requests generated a lot of debate. Some readers agreed with me that you often need to simply grin and bear it until you can get a better job, for various practical and financial reasons. Others argued that the best course of action is to always fight back, to demand fair treatment, and to put your ethics above your wallet. One person even suggested contacting a union representative, but that really only works in the 1950s or in France (which amounts to the same thing).
Because this is such an important issue for the people it affects, I think it deserves a little more discussion.
In a perfect world, we’d never need to have this conversation. All bosses should be honest and decent and kind, and no worker should ever find herself in an uncomfortable, unprofessional, or potentially illegal situation. But this is the real world, and it is populated mostly by people, who can be anything from very nice to very cruel. And you need to recognize that birds of a feather flock together.
Some companies are founded by ethical, hard-working, moral, liberal, open-minded humanitarians. And they tend to surround themselves with similar people with similarly high standards and work styles. So if you are lucky enough to work in such a place, you’ll probably never find yourself in a compromising position. You won’t have enemies. No one will be trying to take advantage of you.
But in the off chance that a bad egg shows up at your heavenly office, everyone will quickly recognize that person as a problem, and everyone will band together to fix that person or remove them. So even if you are the one to start the ball rolling, you will probably have a good sense that you will have support and that you will succeed in correcting the problem.
However, if you’re in one of these wonderful places, I’m guessing you don’t deal with a lot of office conflicts and so you don’t need to be here reading my advice. So go back to work! (Unless you want to learn how the other half lives…)
At the other end of the spectrum are the terrible offices. These companies are run by old-fashioned, racist, sexist monsters. (Yes, they really do exist in the modern age.) And they also surround themselves with like-minded people. So your entire senior leadership could consist of people who are comfortable taking advantage of subordinates, and who will support each other if anyone tries to discipline them for it.
In these environments, how do you defend your rights, or even just your sanity? Common sense says to document infractions, save emails, and get everything in writing to present to a senior manager or to Human Resources in the hope that this person will take action on your behalf. The problem is that at these companies, there may not be a manager willing to take your complaints seriously. Which leaves HR.
Remember on Star Trek when the captain would get possessed by an alien and the doctor would step in and relieve him of command? It would be fantastic if HR could be as powerful as that doctor, but they aren’t. HR works for the boss, just like you. And the odds are fair that either HR is run by more of these like-minded ruffians, or HR is nice but unwilling to risk their job to take up your cause.
What really happens when you fight back?
I won’t bother telling you about situations that go well. (Spoiler Alert: They go well.) So here are a few examples of how they can go wrong.
I knew a man who was a member of a team of consultants who worked at a major corporation. The consultants worked with the senior managers to identify ways to improve performance throughout the company, and they met with the managers every month to report their recommendations. After 18 months of making various improvements to the company, the consultants reported to the managers that the largest remaining area for improvement was with the managers themselves. The following day, all of the consultants were fired.
I knew a young woman who was routinely insulted by her boss, forced to work nights and weekends to recover the boss’s fumbles, and publicly blamed for her boss’s failures. She documented these events and presented them to HR. HR said that starting an investigation into the problem would only make the senior partners mad at her and would never impact her boss’s job.
I knew a woman in a mid-level management position who launched a full-scale investigation into her boss, the senior director. This boss routinely and publicly insulted the staff, lied about contracts, lied about salaries, lied about promotions and raises, and made countless decisions that visibly damaged the organization financially. The campaign against him involved lengthy testimonials from two dozen current and former employees. It even involved aggressive support from someone who outranked the boss. After two years of proceedings (long after my friend left), the evil boss finally retired.
I knew a Human Resources manager who blatantly sexually harassed one of her administrative assistants. When he came forward with mountains of explicit emails and succeeded in suing the company, was she fired? No. She was a member of the inner circle, making her bulletproof despite getting the company sued. So her responsibilities were shifted onto other people and she maintained her six-figure salary, unpunished. (Note: After this event, most of the “good” managers left the company, leaving things even worse for the junior staff.)
Are you really risking your job?
I have personally witnessed employees fired after only 6 months, after only 3 months, and on their first day at work. People are fired for all sorts of reasons, some of them quite reasonable and some of them quite ridiculous. If you’re in a bad situation, then it probably involves bad people, which means you could be at risk for a ridiculously bad outcome.
So when I advise you to not fight back, I’m simply encouraging you to find the path of least resistance at that moment. But by no means am I suggesting that you stay and suffer forever. Get out! Find one of those angelic offices I mentioned earlier! Jazz up that resume, cruise the interwebs, and get your dream job.
Will that take time? Of course, maybe months. Will you have to suffer in the interim? Yes. But if you need that paycheck, then there’s probably nothing to be gained by risking your current job before you find a better one.
The Bottom Line
This advice may sound fairly cynical, because it is. But you are more than just a professional or a worker, you are a human being. You have other priorities and responsibilities outside of work. And the best advice I can give you is to carefully consider all of the repercussions of your actions before you do anything.