The psychology of inappropriate workplace commentary: How not to be an idiot boss

The television is blaring “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart plays the character of George Bailey who is a despairingly frustrated businessman who wishes he had not been born.   His whole life he has sacrificed for others, putting his dreams on hold and even losing the hearing in his right ear when he saved his brother’s life when younger.  At the height of his despondency, he contemplates suicide and then an angel appears and the rest is film history.   George Bailey represents the good-hearted everyday man working to sustain his family. At this time of year there are many who are similarly despondent. Many individuals have vacation days during this time of year that they use to reflect on the past year. In doing so they often conclude they would like to quit their jobs.

A recent study found that stress and depression related to work are actually not closely associated with a high workload, rather are more associated with a sense of injustice and inequality in the workplace.  Thus, an “unfair” work environment and an unfair boss can have a major psychological and physiological impact.  Transparency and clearly laid out expectations and directives are one set of key recommendations for improving the sense of workplace justice and consequently decreasing employee stress levels.  Further, a sense of office injustice is related to a sense of taste according to a study released earlier this year. Specifically, the researchers found that the taste buds of those study participants who viewed a clip of “The Office” (a television comedy highlighting office injustices) were  10% stronger than those who did not watch the clip.  The explanation: a sense of injustice heightens your body’s alarm system. So, basically if you have a taste tester that hangs around with you (I assume most dictators do) then you better make sure they believe you are righting the wrongs of the world and that they are loyal to you.

All this got me thinking about workplace injustices. It is not the most uplifting thing to reflect upon during the holiday season, but it bears an accounting of.   There are many types of office injustices. For example, one can get passed up for a well-deserved promotion. Another example is that one can clearly define who are the office favorites (they tend to get the birthday flowers or taken out to lunch repeatedly) and see how they do way less work than others. One can note who gets punished for actually doing the right thing.  I could go on. Actions definitely are worth a thousand words. However, sometimes words speak very, very loudly.  There are some office utterances that just make your head explode with the level of idiocy as well as unfairness they signify. There are just certain things a boss should not say to or around their employees; even their fellow upper management.  Do you recall when the character of Michael on The Office noted “There are certain things a boss does not share with his employees. His salary, that would depress them. His bed, it— And I am not going to tell them that I’ll be reading their e-mails….”    There are also the times when the boss should not be vague. As Michael on the Office horrifyingly noted “Am I going to tell them? No, I am not going to tell them. I don’t see the point of that. As a doctor, you would not tell a patient if they had cancer.”

A just released study found that more than 70% of surveyed people said that in no way would they stand between someone with a gun and their boss because their bosses are essentially idiots. Below are some statements that when uttered by a boss may make you one of the 70% that won’t take a bullet for the boss.

1. “You are here to make me look good.”  Wow, what do you respond in that situation, particularly when it is your very first day on the job. That was the boss’ idea of a pep talk. That was the boss’ way of welcoming one to the team. That surely doesn’t sound like true team work.  Such a statement notes a high level of narcissism. When everything is about the boss, staff growth appears to be relegated to the back-burner and promotes a high sense of injustice.  Take heart, however. The best way to address such a statement is indeed to look good.  In the movie Men In Black, Jay (Will Smith) notes to his partner “You know what the difference is between you and me? I make this look GOOD.”  Your boss may want you just so that she or he can shine, but your own shine will eventually outshine the boss.

2. ”Anybody who doesn’t love what they are doing should look for another job immediately. ” I believe in that instance, the appropriate response is “can you define love?”   You may recall that the most famous line from the movie Love Story is the phrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  I take that to heart. It’s better oftentimes, especially when in an unfair work environment, to apologize than to ask for permission. Thus, if love means never having to apologize: win! Do you what you need to do in order to get the work done and show your love by not apologizing.
3. ”The Mexicans will be here soon; remember the Alamo.”  This sentence was uttered by a high powered attorney before we were set to meet with a Mexican treaty delegation.   Oddly, no one in the room reacted at the time. Let me just state upfront that race and ethnicity are hard workplace discussions, whether you’re a line staff or a manager. Certain  jokes might be common in some workplaces, but when you have to deal with a boss who makes a racist comment and doesn’t realize it, you are in a very tenuous situation. You could ask your boss to provide a diversity training in the workplace but we have all seen how that turned out in The Office.   In case you haven’t seen that classic episode here is one quote “Here’s what we are going to do. Why don’t’ we go around and everybody, everybody say a race that you are attracted to sexually to.”

4.  “Timesheets are not meant to be an accurate reflection of actual work.”   This quote came courtesy of the ostensible head of Human Resources.  Timesheets were once the providence of project management and used for payroll, client billing, and increasingly for project costing, estimation, and tracking.  If timesheets are not meant to be an actual reflection of work, what then? As a result, I have not completed a timesheet in over five months. If I had, most people would cry at the sheer number of hours my eyes bled out from work craziness.

5. “You look so hot in that dress your husband is going to go crazy tonight.” Yuck. I do not lie about this particular statement declaration.  I do believe that pretty girls in the workplace have a role and can be quite effective.   But being told something like that by what could be a parental unit of some sorts is just vomit-inducing.

6. “I’m disturbed that you feel burnt out, because I don’t feel burnt out.”  This is the most bone-chilling nauseating statement a boss can ever make, particularly when the boss doesn’t actually do much.

7. “Oh you worked all weekend long, here look at my pictures from my past weekend at the beach.”  See item number six above. Of course, you don’t feel burnt out.

8. “Did you like the restaurant I picked for the team dinner, it was good wasn’t it?” Besides again screaming egocentrism it was horrifically inappropriate. The person this statement was uttered to actually could not attend the team dinner because they stayed home working the whole time on a time-sensitive huge money-producing endeavor.  Yeah, you picked a great restaurant.

9. “Were you bleeding a lot down there?”  Do I need to go any further?  Well, I will say that working in a non-profit where people believe they are family often lends itself to people making very inappropriate health inquiries.   Such a statement actually doesn’t scream of injustice. It’s just plain icky; although oddly heartwarming.

10. “Why did you do that? Who did you ok that with first?”  –Employee Answer: You.

In this time of reflection many start to get depressed about their current jobs and look to the coming New Year as a savior bringing in a new beginning.  And with the current cadre of bosses out there, can you blame them?

5 replies »

  1. I worked for a global advertising agency in New York. The founder of the agency had retired but there were many of his sayings posted for the employees to review, consider and act upon. The one I loved the best is: Our best assets take the elevator and go home every night to someone. That sums it all up. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My least favorite bad-boss quote was a manager who was awful in all sorts of ways and would always say “Do as I say not as I do” which basically was her free ticket to just be all sorts of crap in her job.
    I definitely wouldn’t stand in front of her should a bullet come flying.


      • I agree, unaware is the key word here.
        She would mainly say it when she had made a mistake and tried to pass it off like it wasn’t a big deal; this was always amusing because if any of us ever made any “mistakes” she would always be very harsh with us. It was all sorts of odd.
        Needless to say it’s hard to conjure up an ounce of respect for anyone like that. Thankfully, I never had another horrible boss close to her after that.


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