How do Workplaces get so Bad?

I woke in a cold sweat around 2am last night. I'd been having a nightmare that I was stuck back in my old job – the worst workplace I'd ever been subjected to. In the nightmare it was slightly worse than the reality, I was actually stuck. My chair was made from some sort of goo that was swallowing me and like a tar baby, the more I struggled, the more it sucked me in. My cow-orkers were laughing at me. I wasn't sure if it was because I was being swallowed by my chair or because I had the audacity to think I could do better.

When I woke up I couldn't remember the nightmare at first, then pieces of it started coming back to me. There was an almost overwhelming sense of dread that went with the remembering because what was coming back to me was that the reality of this place was hardly any better than the nightmare. It was almost every stereotype of a bad workplace rolled into one: below average pay, boring work, no future, managers who enjoyed ruling through fear rather than leading, a focus on blaming rather than problem solving, staff with low/no aspirations, people who focused on having a job rather than a career that might lead somewhere, and supposed peers who were more likely to attack you than stand together against bad management and broadly speaking, everyone there had a fucked-up attitude.

Including me.

I was angry all the time there. And not in a good way like on this blog. It was deadening, soul-destroying, spirit-crushing tedium, day in and day out that made me hate the fucking world and hate myself for being there. I always felt like I was in a better place than the other people, I had the saving grace of a more positive outlook than the deadwood around me so things were OK. The trouble with shitty workplaces like this is that you lose perspective. You think "I'm better than these fuck-knuckles so I must be OK." Then you finally (Inshallah) escape and you realise fuck-knuckle+1 is not a very good place to be. In my case, I think it took about a year of working in more "normal" environments to get my proper attitude back.

Two examples to show how low on the aspiration/attitude front these cow-orkers were. One: upon hearing the sort of contract rates it was possible to get and I would be getting once I escaped (about double the rate you got as a permanent in this shit hole) one of these fucktards said "How can you justify getting that amount?"

How can I justify it??? The stars come into alignment allowing me to make a bit of cash for a change and I have to justify it? How about I'll take as much as I can whenever I can because when these bastards have a chance to screw me down, they'll do it without blinking. You're clearly getting what you're worth – what you can "justify". While there are executives out there making (stealing) hundreds of millions I can justify plenty for myself. Stay in your tiny little world and don't waste your fucking breath passing judgement on me. I'm not interested.

A second example: cafes around here often have these free promotional postcards that occasionally have nice images on them. Usually they are advertising some product or event but occasionally they are "art for art's sake." One that caught my eye was the following piece by Sydney artist Nick Bleasel

Cheerful Whistling Permitted 

I stuck in on my monitor as a bit of a lark, you know "lighten up people, have a bit of fun." Most people there actually got it (which surprised me) but one particularly dreary cow-orker took it down when I wasn't there. When I asked what happened she said she took it down because she didn't want people whistling because it would distract her. That was pretty much the only time I totally lost my shit in that workplace and vented at her for quite some time along the lines of "Don't ever touch things on my desk NOT EVER! Not under any circumstances! I don't care how miserable your life is, stay over in your corner! This is my desk and you have no right to touch anything on it ever!"

And she truly didn't see what was so fucked up with her attitude towards "cheerful whistling". I've been out of there for about three years now and every day that passes life seems better. I am still in contact with a former team member who escaped about a year after me and if either of us is ever feeling down about a given situation, the other always says: "Is it as bad as working in the shit hole?" To which the answer is always "No." So it served some purpose.

Nothing else ever seems as bad. I have contracted in a few places since then, each had their problems but none nearly as bad as this place. Upon leaving one place, a friend provided me with the following wisdom that explains quite well how workplaces get so bad in the first place:

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water.Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys which have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not?

"Because that's the way it's always been around here."

And that is how organisational policy begins.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “How do Workplaces get so Bad?

  1. Rick - a 'merican'

    The monkey policy is going onto a poster on my wall.

    The whole post was brilliantly written, Mr. A. You reminded me of my two worst jobs ever.

  2. Dude, I hope the post reminded you of your worst jobs. If I remind you of your worst jobs that doesn’t make me look real good ;)

  3. LOVE this post, as it reminded me of my current job 10 years ago. The only thing that kept me in the job was my love of the kids i work with. “Managers who rule through fear instead of leading” was the norm. Attitudes SUCKED the big one. I finally escaped by going to latenight for a year where there were only 3 people that I had to deal with, and they were great. Because of our “problem solving” attitudes we won a teamwork award. A new superintendent came in and told me I was coming back to days because I was being ‘wasted’ on latenight. With a month I was promoted to shift supervisor. Then ‘horror of horrors’ (to the dismay of many) I was the security supervisor. No one was threatened EVER. I made my expectations known, trained, trained, trained….then held people accountable to those expectations. I refuse to scream, threaten or intimidate. I ABSOLUTELY INSIST on having fun. Most of the ‘shitty attitude’ people had to leave because they could not stand the “new system”. To them I say: GOOD RIDDANCE!

  4. Pity you are in the minority Sandra. All we can do is what you did, or best, and hope it gets recognised. Or if you’re too far down the food chain wake up and get out – find somewhere that doesn’t crush you.

  5. sometimes loving what you do is not enough. esp. when people around gets to you and it’s real shitty when that happens!

  6. Rick - a 'merican'

    Right, right. The post was the reminder, no question. You are still looking as fabulous as ever, metaphorically speaking..

  7. Thanks rick, good to see you too!

  8. Salaamat,
    OMG! That Monkey cage thing was freaky!!!

  9. Laurie

    This article discribes my current job one hundred percent! The leadership is terrible ! I have been at this company 4 years and they pay me $7.50 an hour. I have missed one day of work in 4 years!The employees that suck get all the raises and are “pampered”. And I might add that I work for an alarm company as a dispatcher and have a very important job protecting peoples homes and lives. I am on my way out though! I can’t take it anymore! Too stressfull! And I love the monkey scenerio. It’s the truth!!!!

  10. Laurie: you need to protect yourself and get the hell out of that hellhole!

  11. Lynn D.

    Unfortunately in this present system, it’s usually the psychopathic/sociapathic, brown-nosing, control freaks , compassion for others and love of the truth end up at the bottom (or nailed to a cross like Jesus Christ). Just look at the kinds of “leaders” we have in the governments of the world, esp. America. Enough said………

  12. RacoonEyes

    Especially when you work in academic line of job. As long as the boss (Rector and the Owner) happy, then there will always be like bunch of people ready to lick their hairy asses… D:
    I feel so unproductive these days. I have insomnia. I only work three months here, and it feel already like the hell itself. When I tried to come up with something inventive and new and challenging, they will stand in chorus and whisper “licker” at me…
    :< I hate this place. I hate this place. Once I got my Master, I am goin to wiggle my ass at them.

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