Today we have a guest post from my wife, T.
I offered to write this post on this topic because I am already in research mode with my graduate classes. I hope you read the entire post; I know it’s long, but I’ve written it for you. You who are in the trenches of the workforce, you who are becoming tomorrow’s leaders, and you who are ready to strike out on your own. I want to start by looking at the damage done by abuse, both for the individual and the company. I will provide some examples of what that abuse can look like, and how deceptive it can be. Finally, and most importantly, we’ll discuss going about making things better.
The current employment rate is at 4.1%. This means people who want to work generally can find it. But this number is deceptive in a few key ways. It does not account for turnover rates, part-time jobs with no benefits, and does not differentiate between a job and a career. High turnover rates harm continuity, which costs time and resources. New hires need training and time to get up to speed on whatever projects they’ll be working on. This is as true of a frontline job at McDonalds as of a corporate job at BIGINC accountlawmedinstitute. Companies lose money when they are constantly having to rehire for roles.
The employment rate doesn’t take into account when your job is killing you. Professions such as lawyers and doctors have depression rates of at least 15%. Substance abuse, a symptom of struggle, runs rampant among the professions, (see here and here for more detailed information) High stress environments with little to no support for the workers is creating a negative feedback loop of struggle, suppress, success, where workers struggle with the workplace’s natural and coworker/boss made stressors, suppress the symptoms of the stress to get the project done, patients seen, students taught and reports filed, so that the assigned task is deemed a success so more work is given. Is it any wonder so many young people are looking at the current model of getting an education (incurring debt), finding a job that takes up all of your waking hours and leaves you stressed and tense until you drink or drug it away, and saying, Nope Nope Nope?
In my graduate studies, we are learning about how much the mind and body are connected, such that a physical illness can impact one’s mental health and a mental illness can impact one’s physical health. Employees who are subjected to regular high stress levels are more vulnerable to diseases, from the common cold to cancer (find links to that here). The common cold alone costs the U.S. economy $20 billion a year from loss of productivity and absence. In some situations, companies develop an expectation of presenteeism, where showing up to work regardless of health is the norm, either because the work load is such that there isn’t time to take off or because the salary is connected to being present. This spreads germs and causes higher levels of stress. If work is abusive with time and health, it could be costing the company money, and could eventually cost them the worker.
For the purposes of this post, let’s leave out sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Let’s focus on the kind of abuse that is not dependent on gender, because anyone regardless of what bathroom they use can be abusive. What is kind of abuse we’re talking about? Beginning with Miriam-Webster’s Definition of Abuse:
1: a corrupt practice or custom
2: improper or excessive use or treatment
3: language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily
It could be considered a custom to have the newest lowest ranked associate, professional, or employee do the scut work. Of course you don’t want your top billed personnel spending hours combing through records or doing data entry or researching obscure things. That would be misspending the client’s funding. But, where the custom becomes corrupt is when this practice is combined with the other two definitions. Demanding the work be done in short order because of an artificial deadline, or because the leader didn’t plan properly so it must be done this moment, is an abuse of time. Requiring someone to work later hours, miss a company function, or lose out on personal time because of a task that could be planned better is often a power play designed to place stress on the worker and make the worker feel on edge. Excessively messing with someone’s personal time is definitely abuse.
Sometimes tempers run high in the office and someone gets snappy or yells. It can happen in high temp high stress situations like a filing or an audit. But in some offices, it’s accepted because the one doing the cursing and yelling brings in the money. Emails with all caps. Phone calls where a worker can’t get a word in edgewise to explain the situation, meetings where the worker is called on the carpet when there is no need. Making it that nothing the worker does is without harsh critique, even going as far to insist on changes to spelling or wording that equate to the “happy to glad” kind of changes. Or worse, insisting on changes then accusing the worker of messing up all the changes and demand everything be changed again. If this sounds familiar to you, you’ve likely experienced or witnessed abuse.
Another example of improper treatment is undermining the worker’s credibility. For instance, assigning tasks that will be doomed from the get go because the leader doesn’t want to say no to the client. The worker’s name is on the product that goes for approval at the higher level or to court, so it’s the worker’s credibility that gets tarnished when the inevitable happens. A leader more concerned at pleasing the end user or client or boss by showing an effort is being made or making promises that are impossible to fill is abusing those who work on the doomed project.
I could continue with examples. Instead, feel free to comment below on the experiences you’ve had where you’ve been exposed to a corrupt practice, improperly or excessively used, or unjustly treated to a barrage of bad language. The challenge with many cases of workplace abuse is that, at least in the moment, it would appear to be just… normal. People can write the behavior off on bad management or some other excuse. Or brush it all under the same rug of, this is just how this profession is, get used to it.
Having your voice heard is a starting place. But we need more than that. We as a society need to start making changes, and no one else can start it but us, unless of course we want to let it go on. We will be the generation running the companies soon, if we aren’t already. This could all within our capabilities. It is my firm belief that there is one thing that those of you in the workforce can do to bring about change, and it’s all about EXPECTATIONS.
In my first job for the military I was part of the team that would determine how many people were needed for any particular job. There was an equation that determined how many hours per month one individual could be expected to work under normal circumstances, and another equation that made the determination under surge circumstances. This equation accounted for training time, sick time, and vacation time. From the very first day on the job, workers should be trained on the expectations of use of their time. There should be room for the surges all offices face, but ideally the normal operating conditions would have expectations set out, with no hidden messages (I’m thinking of the kind where you hire on and they say, hours are technically 9-5 but no one leaves before 6). There should be an outline for what to expect when a surge occurs. Vacation days, sick time, family leave, these should be made clear but also sacred. When someone is on vacation or sick, they should not be bothered. Time should be treated as a valuable benefit, cordoned off and protected.
Young professionals need mentorship. They need more experienced professionals to help them learn what to expect. Instead of hoarding information, the older workers should try to impart best practices, help boost confidence, and make sure that the younger workers are getting the training and support they need. Many younger professionals have been through extensive training on how to think, maybe how to perform specific tasks. But knowing when to do the task, when to delegate, where to turn to for help, when to ask for help- these are not taught. Expecting younger workers to be able to perform at jobs they have studied but not necessarily performed is setting them up for failure.
Finally it should be made clear that the culture in the workplace will have certain expectations about behavior. It’s time to attrit the assholes. They may be money makers, deal closers, or somehow wizards of their field, but it they cannot abide by the expectation of respect then they do not belong in the workplace you are in charge of. There are far more pleasant people out there who are smart and exceptional workers and are about to jump ship because the abuse in the workforce isn’t worth their health and happiness. And if you’re not in charge? Then it’s time to notify the boss that an abuser is putting the company at risk, financially and possibly legally depending on the severity of abuse. Silence is not an option, as it implicitly places you on the same side as abuser. Professionals are expected to behave Professionally. It’s time to step up to those expectations.