fresh voices from the front lines of change







The CNNMoney piece on "firing horror stories" that inspired my previous post offered the employers' perspective on what's all too common story in this economy. Since then, I've found a few similar pieces, like this one from Fortune magazine, which once again suggests that being the terminator sucks about as much as being the terminated — or at least that it's tough being on either side of the table

Line the CNN piece, the Fortune item (which appeared just a few months earlier) suggests that the pink slip recipients were "bad employees," and each vignette makes a point of how painful it is to fire someone; even "bad employees." But there's another phenomenon that's become more likely in this recession: Bad bosses.

Bad Bosses

Since work was "invented" people have had to deal with abusive and even crazy bosses. (Yet most of the writing I could find focused on how to deal with such bosses, and little suggested that perhaps they should, y'know, stop being so crazy and abusive.) The first person ever to land the first job, whatever it was, probably went back to cave and griped to his or her spouse about the what the boss did or demanded that day. It has always been thus because, as one writer put it, "Managers definitely have a way of being intimidating, and there's a very good reason for that. It's because they can."

Boy, can they. Like firing and layoffs, horrible bosses have long been fodder for books, television shows, and movies — from the recent and aptly named Horrible Bosses to Office Space, The Office, Nine to Five, The Devil Wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries and beyond.Working America hold an annual "My Bad Boss" contest, in which participants share their "horrible boss" stories, and the worst one wins. It's difficult to think of what might top this year's people's choice winner, chosen from 700 entries.

Boss with No Heart

Bad Barista, California

I had just returned to work at a corporate coffee shop after having a heart surgery and a subsequent hospitalization for my heart, and about half a day in, I felt my heart strained again. The heart problem I got hospitalized for is literally life or death, so when I felt the symptoms arise again I called an ambulance immediately. In the ambulance, my boss called me several times, threatening to fire me because I was unable to do my job. She continued to keep calling me, specifically harassing me about how my health problems were causing scheduling problems for the business, until my mother picked up my phone in the ER and told her to leave me alone. (She didn't). A few weeks later, I returned to work, and weeks later the entire coffee shop lost their health insurance--we were given twelve hours' notice until it lapsed. When I put my two weeks' in a month later, my boss was astonished and said to me, "What am I supposed to do?" Which was the exact same thing I've been saying to my stacks of medical bills for years now.

The other entries are equally disturbing — from the boss who took away everyone's chairs (staff pick grand prize winner) to the most-shared story of the boss who can't put her granny panties away, and this heartless SOB (semi-finalist.

Last year I was transferred by my new boss in the last 2 months of the year from a position that I loved to a supervisory position that I did not want. There was no additional money or title to go with the position. It became clear after just one day that I had been put into my new role to deal with a 'problem employee' whose performance had recently deteriorated. I was instructed by my boss to "get rid of this problem". I sat down with the employee and asked if anyone from management or human resources had spoken to him about his performance. Thay had not. I also discovered that he and his wife had recently watched from the bleachers as their teenage son died before their eyes while playing in a high school game. Their boy had suffered a heart attack from an undetected heart condition, and the employee had recently discovered that he also had the same hereditary heart condition. He and his wife were privately mourning and dealing with their grief, and it had justifiably affected his concentration on his job.

I approached my boss with this important new information and insisted that we must put this employee on a leave of absence and connect him with our employee assistance program.

My boss replied, "We didn't have this conversation. I don't give a sh*t what's wrong with him, I told you to get him out of here". When I refused, he called the employee into his office later in the day and fired him without my participation. He transferred me to another department after giving me the worst performance review of my life - for having "poor supervisory skills" and not following orders.

The entries and the contest itself are intended underscore worker' lack of rights in the workplace, they also highlight a problem that's only gotten worse in this recession.

At a time when the economic crisis and unemployment continue to plague the country, those lucky enough to have jobs still face astonishing mistreatment at the workplace. A recent survey found 50 percent of workers are unhappy with their jobs.

"We have heard the stories, but we are stunned by the extent of the problem out there," said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America. "Some stories are funny – at least to the reader – but many more are painful, even tragic. They all drive home the point that workers are vulnerable, and without workplace protections have virtually no rights on the job."

Like I said before, it's always been a problem. But, as I wrote a while back, workplace bullying gotten worse in this recession.

So, it's hardly a surprise that the recession brought with it a rise in workplace bullying, as an increase in verbal abuse, disciclinary discharge, attendance crackdowns, surveillance, forced overtime and greater productivity demands as employers gain by squeezing more out of fewer employees for less than they might in a better economy.

The treatment of workers by American corporations has been worse far more treacherous than most of the population realizes. There was no need for so many men and women to be forced out of their jobs in the downturn known as the great recession.

Many of those workers were cashiered for no reason other than outright greed by corporate managers. And that cruel, irresponsible, shortsighted policy has resulted in widespread human suffering and is doing great harm to the economy.

The recession officially started in December 2007. From the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by the gross domestic product, fell by about 2.5 percent. But employers cut their payrolls by 6 percent.

In many cases, bosses told panicked workers who were still on the job that they had to take pay cuts or cuts in hours, or both. And raises were out of the question. The staggering job losses and stagnant wages are central reasons why any real recovery has been so difficult.

They threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output, said Professor Sum. Heres what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.

If you're a worker whose already been dealt a demotion and a pay cut, and the boss adds abuse to that list? What are you gonna do?

Fired, In a "No Quit Economy"

Well, what are you gonna do? Inevitably, someone reading the stories above is tempted to ask, "Well, why don't they just quit if they hate their boss/job so much?" And there was a time when that might have been a very valid question. Back in 1978 a little ditty called "Take This Job and Shove It" topped the Billboard charts and even spawned a movie. As recently as last year, you could still find compilations of the best job-quitting stories. You know, like those really "Epic Quits" by employees who just couldn't take it anymore?

Well, gone are the days. We're living in a "No Quit Economy."

The implications of the court's ruling are even more troubling when you consider that the women who joined Ms. Dukes' case are, like millions of Americans who (for the moment) still have jobs, living and working in what Matt Yglesias called the "no-quit economy" that this recession has created.

Matt Cameron wrote a good post yesterday about the toll of high unemployment on the employed majority. When the economys at or near full employment, then quitting your job is a very credible threat. You, as a worker, have some real leverage over your employer that lets you bargain for better wages or working conditions or find them elsewhere. When unemployments at 9.1 percent, its a very different world. Unless youre Dwight Howard, you need your job more than your boss needs you.

Cameron's post, which Yglesias references, stems from a BusinessWeek article noting that 1 million fewer Americans per month have quit their jobs than in recent years.

From the factory floor to the boardroom, few Americans these days are willing to tell the boss to shove it. Many of those who have weathered the recession with their jobs intact are now sheltering in place, either fearful of risking a change or simply lacking the opportunity. Since January 2009, an average 1 million fewer Americans per month have quit their jobs than in previous years. Through April, the most recent data available, that adds up to 28 million Americans stuck in jobs they would have left in ordinary times.

That's a lot of careers slowed and dreams deferred.

...The willingness of employees to quit their jobs "is probably the best single indicator of how confident workers are," says Lawrence Katz, a Harvard University labor economics professor. "When people are unwilling to quit, they don't have the leverage to press for wage increases."

Right now, the buying power of paychecks is slipping. After inflation, average hourly earnings for U.S. workers fell 1.6 percent over the past year through May. For the first year and a half of the Obama Administration, real hourly wages had been flat.

You don't need a Mensa membership to figure out most people who are fortunate enough to still have a job, aren't likely to quit even if work gets harder and the boss gets tougher. We know that unemployment, perhaps even long-term unemployment, would be tougher. So, we tough it out, put up with more, and even take fewer vacation days. In fact, we gave up about $67 million in those earned benefits we call vacation days in 2010. (And 72% check in with work when we do take vacations.)

What worker's know about the state of the job market, employers surely know, as the Dilbert cartoon above illustrates. Mike Konczal explained it earlier this month, after reflecting on the latest jobs numbers:

One doesnt have to be a strict proponent of game theory to understand that if your boss understands you can quit and find another job easily, he or she is more likely to create a respectful job atmosphere. And if your boss understands you are locked, they are much more likely to create an environment where domination is the norm. And what makes it easier to quit your job? Full employment.

It's unlikely that tomorrow's unemployment numbers are going to change that much. A bump of 100,000 jobs or even less isn't going to make much difference to the 28 million Americans who are staying stuck in their jobs when they'd rather tell the boss to shove it, or the workers sacrificing $67 million in vacation days, often just to keep the boss happy.

We live in an economy of desperation, where:

We live in an economy of desperation where the unemployed take on debt just to stay afloat, and employers use credit reports to screen job applicants.

In an "upstairs, downstairs economy" where dollar stores are too expensive but sales of luxury goods are up, and almost all the jobs being created are low wage but corporations are paying their CEOs more than they pay in taxes, most of us know where we're going to land if we get fired, and thus know we can't afford to get fired, no matter how bad the job or the boss is.

Sure, it may suck to fire someone, but it sucks even more to be fired or layed off in an economy where desperation is rising faster than the number of new jobs. 

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