When I first graduated from college, I had a degree in Political Science, some retail experience, and no connections. I spent months searching for a job. I applied to every job on Craigslist that I was remotely qualified for. Every entry-level job I could find. Finally, I stumbled on a temporary position filling in for a receptionist who was going out on medical leave for three months. It was a position in my father’s office building, working for another company. There is nothing quite as demeaning as Daddy finding you a job.
So, I went to work for $10 an hour, four days a week, to answer phones and open mail. And when she came back from leave, I stayed on full time as a Marketing Assistant (for which I readily admit I was poorly qualified).
I really enjoyed those few months, actually. I had been bored to death from having absolutely nothing to do and no money of my own. Now I had some structure and at least minimal purpose to my days. And I liked some of the people I got to work with. There was only one problem: Ken.
Ken was the director of the office, which was a subsidiary of a much larger corporation. He really enjoyed being in charge of the office. As far as I could tell, he mostly enjoyed moments when he could assert his power over others and shame them into submission. I watched him do it with a number of the scientists and technicians that worked there. They were sweet and smart guys who enjoyed their work, but they were also easy targets. When Ken got mad he would tell them off in front of everyone until they physically shrank, embarrassed and afraid.
He told me once that when he got really angry with people, he would type out nasty, horrible emails, get every bad word out, and then hit ‘delete.’ Once, he wrote one of those messages to someone in the corporate office and accidently hit ‘send’ instead of ‘delete.’ Lucky for him, he recalled the message and told me this story with relief and humor. Just 22 years old at the time, I remember thinking he was the very picture of mismanagement and incompetence.
There came a day when this all came to a head. I did something he didn’t like. I can’t even remember what it was I did, but I’m sure it was stupid and insignificant. I took a break at a time he didn’t like, sent a call to his office when he wanted me to take a message, or some other silly little thing he could have simply disagreed with me about. He came to the front of the office to pull this shame game. But unlike the other employees that would cower in front of him, I had something important on my side – I had nothing to lose.
I was living in my parents’ house and my job paid close to minimum wage. Getting fired meant little more to me than my parents’ disappointment. I didn’t cower as he yelled and tried to demean me. I stood up and yelled back. I told him he was wrong and the way he spoke to me wasn’t okay. To be fair, I’m sure the way I spoke to him was wrong, too. And there were probably some other words in there that were a lot worse than that.
I grew up in the ‘80s when we were taught that bullies were a fact of life. And the only way to deal with a bully, all the educational cartoons and after school specials told us – was to stand up to them. And that’s what I did. I stood right up to my bully and told him to shut up.
That night over dinner, my father told me that one of his employees had walked by during our spat and was really concerned. He said that if I were his employee and spoke to him that way he would have fired me on the spot.
My father asked, “What were you thinking?” And I told him the story; I told him that I was sure I was completely in the right. And then I told him, “I don’t care if he’s my boss or anyone else. No one should get to treat other people that way!”
My parents were not impressed. The message went something like, “He’s the boss. Most bosses are terrible. That’s how it is. And you don’t get to talk to them that way.” But while they were lecturing me, I saw my dad’s face show something else… something that looked like pride. Something that said, “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
Looking back, I roll my eyes at my know-it-all young self. But I also have a twinkle of pride for that young woman. I just don’t buy that “the boss is the boss” argument. In fact, just the phrase, “That’s the way it is” never sat so well with me. Why is that the way it is? Why do some bosses get to be horrible?
Office hierarchies should be established for clear decision-making purposes. They should exist for efficiencies and effectiveness. But too many people take advantage of this position for the benefit of their own power and ego. What in the world makes us think that that’s just how it is?
What if our standard was to bring something better to the workplace? What if the secret ingredient was really love? Love in its true sense, meaning honesty, compassion, discipline, motivation, and deep care. What a different world we would all live in if we spent our working hours (which, lets face it, is a huge chunk of our lives!) caring for others and feeling cared for.
Ken only gave me a hard time once after that. He was mad at me for sure, but he was also like a child – he desperately needed people to show him the boundaries. In other words: he needed a boss.
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