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How to Keep Someone With You Forever
June 16, 2010 1:08 AM   Subscribe

"So you want to keep your lover or your employee close. Bound to you, even. You have a few options. You could be the best lover they've ever had, kind, charming, thoughtful, competent, witty, and a tiger in bed. You could be the best workplace they've ever had, with challenging work, rewards for talent, initiative, and professional development, an excellent work/life balance, and good pay. But both of those options demand a lot from you. Besides, your lover (or employee) will stay only as long as she wants to under those systems, and you want to keep her even when she doesn't want to stay. How do you pin her to your side, irrevocably, permanently, and perfectly legally?

"You create a sick system."
posted by Pope Guilty (163 comments total) 299 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmm, I had no idea she worked at the same company I used to. Seriously, this article is practically a blueprint for where I used to work.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:22 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yup, sounds like my office too. Huh.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 1:24 AM on June 16, 2010


Sounds a lot like the contract I'm working on. Christ, I need a real job.
posted by orthogonality at 1:28 AM on June 16, 2010


yea, I've had that job, and been in that relationship.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:33 AM on June 16, 2010


We should all start posting "DTMFA" for appropriate workplace ask.mefi. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 1:44 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Definitely been in that relationship.
posted by kyrademon at 1:52 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


sounds like any customer facing sales job - the intermittent rewards, the pressure, the commissions, everything
posted by infini at 2:01 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


This seems fairly insightful, but has anyone ever convinced someone caught in one of these "sick systems" to get out?
posted by maxwelton at 2:14 AM on June 16, 2010


And yet, people run away from abusive relationships all the time. Sometimes our own brain just clicks and says "You need to get out of here!"
posted by vacapinta at 2:18 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


It clicked too slowly for me.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 2:19 AM on June 16, 2010


God, too many jobs over the years.

I need to get a hell of a lot better at realising what's going on earlier.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:28 AM on June 16, 2010


Parenting also fits this mold. Or so I've heard.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:41 AM on June 16, 2010


Sounds like capitalism...

(among many, many other things)
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:43 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ad agencies, design shops, any business dependent on the fortunes of their clients and often the easiest budget cut to make propagate these systems
posted by infini at 2:52 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


This kind of puts a new complexion on the phrase "the Bosses and their screws..."
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:57 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sounds like capitalism.

Wait'll you work in a government bureaucracy where controlling individuals aren't even disciplined by the market and the goal is to perpetuate the way things are done in order to do things perpetually the way they are done. Read Kafka.
posted by Faze at 3:37 AM on June 16, 2010 [19 favorites]


Wow, so you mean I'm NOT nuts?
posted by kidelo at 3:38 AM on June 16, 2010


the goal is to perpetuate the way things are done in order to do things perpetually the way they are done.

the irony of dysfunctional systems are that they tend to be the ones most vocal about implementing changes that they themselves rigidly tend to overlook as "not invented here" or "that's not the way its always been done"

like WTF people, you call yourselves responsible for change and innovation and drag your own feet and bludgeon your own people at the knees and then wonder why they cannot meet your dumbass targets

/end rant, walked out of a fulltime job described above for the last time exactly 5 years and two weeks ago, amen
posted by infini at 3:44 AM on June 16, 2010


disciplined by the market

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
posted by WPW at 3:45 AM on June 16, 2010 [39 favorites]


Tie their success to yours, so if you do well, they do well, and if you fail, they fail.

Ironically, this one specific characteristic is also true of good workplaces.

The others, not so much.
posted by rokusan at 3:45 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Tie their success to yours, so if you do well, they do well, and if you fail, they fail.

Ironically, this one specific characteristic is also true of good workplaces.


fair trade in labour, time adn effort?
posted by infini at 3:52 AM on June 16, 2010


Too many exec bonuses coinciding with employee cutbacks, is the usual example. Pyramid payrolls and so on. Being invested in your company's success/failure isn't a bad thing, not even from a single employee's perspective.
posted by rokusan at 3:57 AM on June 16, 2010


Wow this sounds like both my job and my relationship... what a downer.
posted by Joe Chip at 3:59 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sounds like grad school.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:59 AM on June 16, 2010 [21 favorites]


The real problem isn't' whatever emotional stuff goes on in the workplace, it's Health insurance. As long as people need to work to keep their insurance, especially for people with pre-existing conditions you basically have people chained to their jobs. They can't quit and take time off even if they had the money to do so.
posted by delmoi at 4:04 AM on June 16, 2010 [88 favorites]


Is it OK to click on the link? If it's about the Human Centipede I don't want to read it.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:17 AM on June 16, 2010


I have never in my life so fervently wished that something were about The Human Centipede.

*cries, bangs head on desk*
posted by louche mustachio at 4:24 AM on June 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


"Sounds like capitalism."

Wait'll you work in a government bureaucracy where controlling individuals aren't even disciplined by the market and the goal is to perpetuate the way things are done in order to do things perpetually the way they are done.

Thank you for providing a good example of why this sounds like capitalism.
posted by symbollocks at 4:25 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm really happy to say that nothing in my life currently resembles that.
posted by unSane at 4:30 AM on June 16, 2010 [7 favorites]



Did someone say the relationship between government and the media?
posted by notreally at 4:34 AM on June 16, 2010


was awake in the night and read this. Too true. Today is supposed to be payday, but odds are that I'll have to sit on the check for a couple of days. My one coworkwer and I are planning an immediate one day walkout if pay is delayed again. But the fucker still talks about how it will all be better soon.
posted by yesster at 4:37 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Traditionally, one used "barefoot and pregnant."
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:38 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


"with a camera in the kitchen, just in case"
posted by infini at 4:40 AM on June 16, 2010


Yeah...Every job I've ever had. Crunch time, all the time.

"Dynamic work environment"
If you see this term in a job announcement, run away, because that's just a code for exactly the work environment the article describes.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:43 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


Faze: "Sounds like capitalism.

Wait'll you work in a government bureaucracy where controlling individuals aren't even disciplined by the market and the goal is to perpetuate the way things are done in order to do things perpetually the way they are done. Read Kafka.
"

I work for the Federal Government, and it is, oddly, the sanest job I've had. People say "please" and "thank you," the rules are clearly spelled out and consistently applied, we seldom, if ever, get fake panics. It is such a nice change.

The problem is leadership. Do you take the easy way out, and manipulate people using the kinds of tactics in this article, or do you treat people like people and work to create an environment that is pleasant, filled with real loyalty and sane rewards?

The invisible hand of the free market rewards the former much more than the later.
posted by QIbHom at 4:46 AM on June 16, 2010 [41 favorites]


Damn, damn, damn. She worked at my job, too.

Thanks for posting this. As she notes, when you're trapped in that cycle it's very hard to see the forest for the trees. And the damned forest seems to be *everywhere.*
posted by zarq at 5:07 AM on June 16, 2010


The real problem isn't' whatever emotional stuff goes on in the workplace, it's Health insurance

I'd have to disagree. Sure it's a factor, but not the real problem. Living in a country with universal, free healthcare, this still rings pretty true.
posted by rhymer at 5:07 AM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Intermittent rewards....sort of like the 'favorites' feature on MeFi?
posted by spicynuts at 5:09 AM on June 16, 2010 [14 favorites]


Those are only intermittent for you, spicynuts.

Personally, I enjoy my job's constant feeling of crisis and excess stress.

(Lying)
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:18 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


tearing a page from "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China" by Robert Jay Lifton...

the "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform":

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences.
3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
5. Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.
7. Doctrine over person. Member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.
posted by Hammond Rye at 5:25 AM on June 16, 2010 [76 favorites]


"team building"
posted by Hammond Rye at 5:27 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


This reads like a strategy guide for Black&White. And like a job I used to have.

At least the job didn't have a giant monkey throwing people around.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:27 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


backseatpilot: "At least the job didn't have a giant monkey throwing people poo around."

ftfy
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:38 AM on June 16, 2010


So, Hammond Rye, you say that's China? Sounds like a Southern Baptist church to me.
posted by Malor at 5:38 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


lifton's work published in 1956 laid the groundwork for the methodology of cult deprogramming that applies to a wide range of abusive thought control environments

southern baptists, maoists, and your shitty boss all exploit the same charismatic principles
posted by Hammond Rye at 5:46 AM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think that there are varying degrees of sickness. and some departments can't exist without it as its a function of their operations such as the example of the sales department
posted by infini at 5:52 AM on June 16, 2010


At least the job didn't have a giant monkey throwing people around.

You say this like it wouldn't improve a job.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:53 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


to tar all high stress environments with high degree of ambiguity and uncertainty would also by default kill the chaos necessary for creativity and innovation to flourish. its a sick vicious cycle but can it be designed to moderate the abusive elements of the system?
posted by infini at 5:53 AM on June 16, 2010


southern baptists, maoists, and your shitty boss

If could play an instrument, this would be my band name.
posted by Happy Dave at 5:58 AM on June 16, 2010 [22 favorites]


I hope my staff isn't on MetaFilter.
posted by njbradburn at 6:00 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Those rules are how modern capitalist systems of all sorts work. We all know that, right?
posted by clvrmnky at 6:03 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm really happy to say that nothing in my life currently resembles that.
posted by unSane at 4:30 AM on June 16 [+] [!]

Same here. Damn, didn't know how lucky I was!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:06 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, hello there, academia! (As mentioned previously, this sounds a lot like grad school, even in my relatively sane, comparatively laid-back program.)
posted by heurtebise at 6:09 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Learning the Status Quo:
Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put 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 will make an attempt with the same response - all of the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Keep this up for several days.

Turn off the cold water.

If, later, another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it even though no water sprays them.

Now, 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.

Replace the 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 done around here."

posted by zarq at 6:12 AM on June 16, 2010 [168 favorites]


It seems to me that a great deal of her points happen as a consequence of incompetence, bad luck and/or rapid growth (or the desire for such). Most organisms are extremely conservative and desire regular satisfaction of their needs, but few environments are so generous (and almost none over time). We're wired for pattern seeking behavior, particularly if it rewards us at all. It would be strange if we didn't live and work this way. No one needs to create the 'sick system' it emerged from all of us working together.
posted by wobh at 6:13 AM on June 16, 2010


louche mustachio: "I have never in my life so fervently wished that something were about The Human Centipede."

FTFA: "Don't fit the system to the person, fit the person to the system."

Sounds like good doctor Heiter's work to me.
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:18 AM on June 16, 2010


I was cleaning out a bunch of terminated employee desks last week and in three of them, I found a copy of "Who Moved My Cheese?" I don't know why this article made me think about that.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:24 AM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Like others, I've had that job, and came close to having that relationship. The article is really right -- if you want to be a manipulator, intermittent rewards are where it's at. Once you start watching, you will see people using that tool all the time.
posted by Forktine at 6:27 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I work for the Federal Government, and it is, oddly, the sanest job I've had. People say "please" and "thank you," the rules are clearly spelled out and consistently applied, we seldom, if ever, get fake panics. It is such a nice change.

The problem is leadership.




I have to say I totally agree with you, and will even take your last sentence slightly out of context and apply it to your preceding paragraph.
I work for the Government too, and it is totally sane. The only major downside of the government is lack of managerial leadership, and the culture of buck-passing instead of applying adequate discipline and documentation.

It is totally a sane place to work, and only goes off the rails when you have a lack of managerial backbone/control, which is unfortunately too often.
posted by Theta States at 6:29 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yep, this was exactly my last job. Getting pregnant and having a child sharpened my world view right the hell up and I got out of there. Now, every single day that I get up and go to work I am so grateful to be doing something positive and constructive in a nurturing environment; that positivity is reflected to everyone else I work with and from there I see it propagate out in all directions.

The sick system I moved from was a private industry/capitalist model. My new job is a government-funded non-profit. This is just my opinion I guess, but all competition-driven private companies in a capitalist system owe some degree of their "success" to being a really effective sick system and this is something USians would be well advised to be mindful of.

[NOT communist]
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:34 AM on June 16, 2010


I read this on a different site first, came to MeFi expecting lots of snark about the bad aliasing on the font or whatever, and got this thread instead. It's heartbreaking how many people I think of as strong and self-sufficient and independent have gone through, or are going through, a sick system, that all they can say is "wow, yeah, me too."
posted by Phire at 6:36 AM on June 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


This is totally depressing.
posted by bardophile at 6:48 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


While on a recent working holiday, I found myself in a small town within limited job opportunities, and a friend of a friend said she could get me a job in the inbound call centre she worked in. It's far from my preferred kind of work but I was running very short of money so I took her up on it.

The working conditions turned out to be terrible even for a job of that nature, but they had two tricks to keeping you there for a period. First, if you stayed in the job for four months, they would give the person who referred you $75. Second, if you didn't stay in the job for at least six months, they would have you repay your first fortnight's wages in "training fees." In practice the last point meant they wouldn't give you your final pay if you left within that initial period.

I wanted out within weeks of starting there, and would have put in my notice long before I did except I felt like I was screwing over the person who got me the job in the first place by not returning the favour by sticking it out until she could get her bonus, and then at that point it'd only be a matter of two months until I could quit gracefully. I was teetering, feeling depressed and trapped, until one day a supervisor pushed me a little too far and when I left I decided not to go back. They paid me electronically a couple of days later. Presumably they wouldn't have if I had've given them notice, and damn them for putting me in that position.
posted by chmmr at 7:00 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great gods above and below, my life is a bit of sunshine compared to the sick system. Sure, there are some bizarre issues with management switching their position from contentious project to contentious project, but they're competent folk, the pay is regular, and crises are intermittent at most. I feel like one of the happy clouds (warning: profuse animated bleeding, excerpt from Don Hertzfeldt's "Rejected" project).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:23 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


(note: I am not gloating, just surprised and saddened by the amount of sadness here)
posted by filthy light thief at 7:24 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


My workplace has been in dire financial crisis for over eight years, and boy did this article strike home.

Every six months or so, we go through a huge crisis which consists of: "We don't have any money, we laid off some more people, here's some more work, we closed another division, here's some work, you'll never get a raise, you're lucky to still have your job, oh yeah, and have we mentioned how much we appreciate your loyalty? Uh yeah, cuz we totally do."

And now I feel constantly pressured to cheerlead for passing the costs onto the people I was hired to advocate for and...

Damn. I need to quit.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:26 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


The real problem isn't' whatever emotional stuff goes on in the workplace, it's Health insurance.

These sorts of problems exist in Canada and the rest of the world too, and the rest of the world has healthcare. Well, basically. Healthcare in the US just seems like an additional reason things might suck.
posted by chunking express at 7:30 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm really happy to say that nothing in my life currently resembles that.

Heh, I had such a schizophrenic reaction to that essay. Half of the points made me sigh and say "Thank god I don't have to deal with that at my job! I can't believe people put up with stuff like that, they should just get some perspective and walk out!"

Then the other half would make me say "Oh my god, that's just like my job! I'm totally living in a sick system! I gotta quit, I gotta get out of here! (But I can't quit! I'll be unemployed! How will I buy things I need, like food and an iPad?)"
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:32 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting this Pope Guilty.

Tell the truth, I am bored in my job, but my job is not *this* job.

In 1999 and 2000, I had two jobs in a row that were like that. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. Instead, I left, and my work life has never been that bad again.

My only fear is of being so desperate for money that I will end up in a place like that again and really feel like I can't leave.
posted by emjaybee at 7:38 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm curious how many people (bosses and soon-to-be-ex-es) actually do these things on purpose.

Does it come naturally to misanthropes or is it learned?
posted by device55 at 7:38 AM on June 16, 2010


device55: "I'm curious how many people (bosses and soon-to-be-ex-es) actually do these things on purpose."

I'd like to think most people, as a rule, aren't malicious enough to intentionally cause this degree of misery. They just don't know better and don't know what else to do.

Corporations, on the other hand...
posted by Phire at 7:44 AM on June 16, 2010


Wow, this one really hit home for me. I was in a job for almost seven years that I loved at first, then burned out, then became too scared to leave because my husband had been laid off. Everyone was in constant crisis mode and it never got better. The intermittant rewards were sweet. The prestige was great, but unhealthy.

By some divine intervention I landed a new, better (even better paying) job with happier co-workers. A couple of years after I left I went back to meet up with some old co-workers for lunch in the company cafeteria and it was painful...nothing had changed. Most of the same people were still there. The co-workers I met up with spent the whole lunch bitching about projects and co-workers and had nothing nice to say about anything. It scares me that I was ever like that.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:49 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Been cycling these excuses in my head for months now:
Things will be better when...
...this project is over and I can work on something with a less aggravating client/less stressful schedule. But the project has been "in development" for more than two years, and I'm most likely going to be the only one supporting it when it goes to production.
...the economy stops sucking. But that will never happen, and I'll never get the raise I was supposed to get with my promotion.
...our benefits plan changes and we can move to somewhere cheaper/closer to work (it's complicated). But that's at best 8+ months away and we're sick of moving once/year.
...they fix the damn roads and my commute doesn't take an hour or more. But in DC, the roads will never be fixed. In fact, the one road that was "fixed" recently actually made my commute LONGER.
...I get a better-paying job closer to home. But I'm terrified of losing my job security and don't know if I can meet a new employer's expectations.

It makes me sick to my stomach.
Oh, and I can't forget the "I can't get a new job *now* because I'm the main resource on this project and if I leave the world will end. And if I did quit, we don't have enough savings to wait on me to find a new job."
posted by lash at 7:59 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm curious how many people (bosses and soon-to-be-ex-es) actually do these things on purpose.

Most managers I've had in poisonous environments weren't self-aware enough to consciously implement such a system -- or any other system, for that matter. They just blundered around and happened to find a certain set of behaviors that worked and kept people hanging around. I'm not sure they had any idea why it worked, in the same way that I doubt many employees (myself included) knew why they stayed around so long.

My feeling is that what's described in the article are basically emergent properties; they're things that come out of complex systems even though no single actor in the system is consciously aiming for them, or even has visibility of the whole system. Everyone does their little part, reacting to only the other people around them, but the net result is quite nasty and displays a sort of personality all of its own.

This is why it's possible to have a totally poisonous (or even downright evil) environment, even if the individuals populating it aren't actually all that bad taken by themselves.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:59 AM on June 16, 2010 [35 favorites]


Crap.

This is both my workplace and my marriage. Although we've been working on the marriage.

Now we need an article telling us how to make this stop.

I still think this is better than the Human Centipede.
posted by cereselle at 7:59 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Of public sector jobs, for me, those in education resemble this essay most evidently. Listening to my friends and family who work in the field, it resembles the monkey allegory more than any other job I've ever encountered.
posted by fook at 8:02 AM on June 16, 2010


Damned good article. This is true about politics as well. A constant crisis, as in the Middle East or some dictatorships, makes some politicians thrive - the sick system personality described in the article.
posted by Termite at 8:04 AM on June 16, 2010


A Sick System
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:07 AM on June 16, 2010


This article reminds me of a horrible office job I once had, but it also reminds me of those stupid ass shows on TV where some team is building something every week in an impossibly short time (cars, houses, etc).

You see the leader in charge on screen and he's a total dick yelling at his employees and every week everything is a crisis and he's demanding they work during weekends and through the night before a deadline and I watch and keep asking myself why on earth do people keep working there and then this essay perfectly describes how to fool someone into staying.
posted by mathowie at 8:09 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]




"I can't get a new job *now* because I'm the main resource on this project and if I leave the world will end. And if I did quit, we don't have enough savings to wait on me to find a new job."


I walked out on a project on a new continent in a new country and having been able to negotiate housing waited out the time it took me to develop a whole new project and raise some funding.

here is what is funny

now I'm doing this to myself - putting myself under extreme pressure to perform, to raise funding, to achieve some tiny milestone every single day

what are we all, sick mofos?
posted by infini at 8:10 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


So I think what we've learned, from the fact that everyone recognizes this description as accurate for some job or relationship, is that it's possible to write a horoscope for shitty institutions.

Capricorn (organizations or marriages incorporated December 22 - January 19): Wow, it's been a really hard few days, hasn't it? But big things are on the horizon! Watch for a crisis sometime later in the week, and avoid outside distractions. As frustrating as it's been so far, by next month, you-know-who is finally going to start recognizing everything you do around here. Remember: you're in this together!
posted by condour75 at 8:11 AM on June 16, 2010 [10 favorites]


I'd like to think most people, as a rule, aren't malicious enough to intentionally cause this degree of misery. They just don't know better and don't know what else to do.

I think you're right. I tend to think that most folks fit comfortably into whatever they think works and don't try to break out of it.

To build a little on my "monkey" comment above... over the years I've recommended the book "Dinosaur Brains" to many friends who were having difficulties with coworkers. It's a quick, easy and superficial read, but it's also very practical.

The idea is that most people react instinctively rather than intellectually to new situations, and fall back on what the author (psychologist Albert Bernstein) calls "Lizard Logic." He gives some basic responses, classifies them according to hindbrain instincts, and tells you what to look for and how to handle or counter them:
FIGHT, FLIGHT OR FRIGHT - when attacked respond with immediate arousal and the tendency to fight back, run away, or be paralyzed with fear.

LISTEN FOR: Explanations that are really disguised forms of fighting back or running away.


GET IT NOW - all Dinosaur Brain patterns are immediate and automatic. No thinking or planning is involved. This leads to impulsive behavior and focuses on what is most exciting rather than what is most important.

LISTEN FOR: Sports Metaphors.


BE DOMINANT - Fight your way to the top of the hierarchy so you can pick on the people below you.

LISTEN FOR: Different interpretations of the rules for the people at the top.


DEFEND THE TERRITORY - Mark and defend whatever is yours--your office, your title, your job functions. NEVER SHARE. Protect your interests no matter how small the issue.

LISTEN FOR: Why wasn't I consulted?


GET THE MATE - On noticing somebody attractive initiate courting response. Love comes first, career second.

LISTEN FOR: Invitation for drinks after work.


IF IT HURTS, HISS - When something goes wrong cry out in pain and warning. Look for someone to blame, never mind that that does nothing to solve the problem.

LISTEN FOR: "It's not fair" repeated endlessly.


LIKE ME GOOD, NOT LIKE ME BAD - Divide everything into two categories that always break down into good and evil. Your side is always good.

LISTEN FOR: SERMONS.
A couple of other books I've recommended over the years:

Emotional Vampires (also by Bernstein)

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work [Prentice Hall Press] by linguist Suzette Haden Elgin. Her LJ is worth following, imo.
posted by zarq at 8:11 AM on June 16, 2010 [52 favorites]


I'm curious how many people (bosses and soon-to-be-ex-es) actually do these things on purpose.

This is pretty much the same system that pimps use to keep their stable in check, and they are completely aware of what they are doing.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:11 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Was about to comment on the parallels to cults, but Hammond Rye did it much better than I ever could...
posted by fungible at 8:12 AM on June 16, 2010


It is totally a sane place to work, and only goes off the rails when you have a lack of managerial backbone/control, which is unfortunately too often.

As a local government worker, the only gripes I have about my job (other than the schedule) is that management likes to take the clearest, easiest, path - the path of least resistance. Thats not always the best path, especially when it comes to being innovative and doing more for (and with) less.
posted by SirOmega at 8:15 AM on June 16, 2010


I didn't like this piece. It felt manipulative in its own way, forcing me to view my work and relationships through a poisonous prism of mistrust ("oh _that's_ what they really mean!") and victimhood ("oh _that's_ how I should be feeling!"). In a way it feels like a horoscope: entirely too seductive and applicable to too many people to be real.
posted by eeeeeez at 8:15 AM on June 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


I just moved from a sick system (grad school) into a remarkable workplace (an R&D lab headed up by some amazing people).

The sad thing is that I'm so trained into expecting a sick system response, that I keep expecting the roof to collapse, as it did at my university, a place so sick it manifested architecturally.

This was a great piece, thanks for the link.
posted by fake at 8:21 AM on June 16, 2010


I didn't like this piece. It felt manipulative in its own way, forcing me to view my work and relationships through a poisonous prism of mistrust ("oh _that's_ what they really mean!") and victimhood ("oh _that's_ how I should be feeling!").

I get what you mean, but I still like it. Just because some of what they describe could not happen maliciously but through incompetence doesn't mean it doesn't have the same effect.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 8:28 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


eeeeeez, I don't think that's true. Reading this I felt only "Oh thank god, my relationship and job are nothing like this." It doesn't seem applicable to too many people to me.
posted by audacity at 8:28 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was in a relationship where my partner employed these tactics, and I think deliberately. From a romantic relationship standpoint, it's really hard to get out of something like this. It feels like abuse, but you usually cannot explain why it feels like that, because they're doing things a bit differently from what people think of as abuse, and they're not really that bad and things will get better when they're not so stressed and they need you and sometimes they can be so sweet...
posted by audacity at 8:35 AM on June 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


I didn't like this piece. It felt manipulative in its own way, forcing me to view my work and relationships through a poisonous prism of mistrust ("oh _that's_ what they really mean!") and victimhood ("oh _that's_ how I should be feeling!").

I also understand this, but I think the point is not that any relationship or company exhibiting any of these behaviours is a 'sick system', but rather where all or most of these behaviours are present, chances are you're being manipulated. As noted upthread, some incredibly great places to work have one or two of these behaviours, just to different degrees and with different (positive) outcomes because they're surrounded by positive assumptions and practices.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:38 AM on June 16, 2010


I've worked in a call center environment that definitely felt like what the link in the OP describes.

I currently work for a county library, and although I can't say things are perfect, it certainly isn't the emotional drain that the call center was.

I'm trying to decide whether or not I was ever trapped in the sick system of the call center. I never felt any sort of loyalty to the company, and the only thing I was worried about as I was leaving were economic concerns. But I know some people who worked there who totally bought into it. They were company players, even despite the bullshit the company did.
posted by codacorolla at 8:40 AM on June 16, 2010


Who's forcing you to do what, now?

Certainly, models of social situations can be easily misapplied. That doesn't reduce their value as a tool for understanding.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:41 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Did someone say the relationship between government and the media?

Actually, in my experience the media - the conventional daily news business, anyway - functions on many of these lines by design. Everything's chaotic and urgent all the time. There's almost never time to rethink a snap judgment or follow up on an anomaly. Awful behaviour - tantrums, drug use, whatever - is excused as a necessary byproduct of the tension of getting the paper to bed or the broadcast to air.

And the thing is, for those inside the maelstrom, it's addictive as crystal meth. There's the sheer adrenaline of it, of course, but more than that there's the (mostly false) sense of self-importance around it all. Because the deadlines are absolute and everything's needed right now, it all begins to seem crucial somehow. Which, if you're reporting on the BP spill or a firefight in Afghanistan, might be at least somewhat justified. But the same structure governs the most mundane lifestyley crap (at least in more conventional news outlets).

I know an entertainment reporter for the local rag who is required to file his concert reviews the night of so that they make it into the next morning's paper (because heaven forfend if Joe & Sally Reader had to wait an extra day to find out that Puddle of Mudd put on an electrifying show). Anyway, I run into this guy at shows from time to time, and he's always dashing off three songs into the headliner's set to file his vitally important take on how the show was going. Obviously, the resulting reviews are mostly worthless (even by the why-do-these-even-exist? standards of rock concert criticism generally). The worst of it, though, is the sort of puffed-up pomp with which this guy marches around the venue, gathering his handful of telling details or whatever. You'd think he was front row at the fall of the Berlin Wall for all the gotta-hurry, can't-miss-that-deadline brusqueness.

This - as much as ideological bias or corporate shenanigans - is why the media's as plug-dumb and gullible as it is. You need a tidy quote now. You need it so bad you'll let anyone you bump into on the street stand in for all of public opinion, and you'll let anyone with an institutional name behind him be your expert witness. And so if some organization or other - say an Exxon-backed advocacy group disguised as a public interest campaign - can supply just the zinger you need or there's some reliably quotable blowhard at the Rightwingnut Institute on your speed dial, that's what you run with. And you've mostly forgotten what you wrote an hour after it's filed, because the next day's deadline crunch is already looming on the horizon.

Broadly speaking, the main reason why the right wins at this game more than the left is that it plays by these rules. The right (whether corporate or political) doesn't bemoan the lack of depth or handwring about artificial equivalencies. It simply feeds the deranged monster its favourite food, prepackaged in bite-sized containers. This is how blithering idiots come to provide balance opposite credentialed scientists and so forth.

Sick system indeed.
posted by gompa at 8:52 AM on June 16, 2010 [50 favorites]


I'm curious how many people (bosses and soon-to-be-ex-es) actually do these things on purpose

In the job I had that fit this article's description exactly, there was definitely bad management but mostly it was sort of an entrenched aspect of the culture that came from I-don't-know-where. We put out a bi-monthly magazine. Every issue was a little bit late so we started each 2-month production cycle behind, so there was never any time to upgrade systems we knew were outmoded. I was hired to relieve the pressure but spent most of my first year doing useless makework like interfiling the thousands of old index cards on which subscribers' previous addresses were recorded (current subscribers had current index cards--yes, in the age of computers we were still hand-writing these index cards because we'd always done it that way. Then, after they were handwritten, somebody entered them into the database) because nobody had a spare minute to train me.

Adding to the pressure to stay was that this was a lesbian magazine that was quite well-known; everywhere I went, when women heard what I did for a living, they'd say, "Oh, wow, that's totally my dream job," and I'd think, "Oh, baby, it was mine, too, until I actually got it." There were signs before I even started of how bad things were--they pushed my start date back two or three times because nobody had time to orient me. But being on the "in" at a cultural icon kept me there for over three years.

And, yes, once I left I totally had that "why the hell did I stay so long?" feeling. That's how I learned that sometimes when you think you're going crazy--anxious, depressed, irritable--it's not you and thinking about how to improve your craziness is less productive than getting out of the crazy-making situation.
posted by not that girl at 8:56 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Grad school is by far the sickest system that I have experienced. Sheer torture. And to be the spouse of a grad student is to experience a very special kind of sickness.
posted by No Robots at 9:05 AM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


The real problem isn't' whatever emotional stuff goes on in the workplace, it's Health insurance.

I agree. My husband and I are moving on to a new life stage soon mouseover for LIFE spoilers so he can attend graduate school. We're lucky enough that he'll be able to buy us health insurance and extra lucky enough that his mother is wealthy and helping us pay for that and also helping to pay off some of my student loans, which is another way that I think people get stuck in the grind. I've had the opportunity to do some okay paying work-from-home in the interim between our move and whenever I find a job that might actually be enjoyable and rewarding, not just a matter of subsistence. If it were for these things, I'd be rushing to take a job, any job, I could find. Which is how I've found my jobs so far. To less than fulfilling results.

My mother told me that she thinks I shouldn't work from home, that I'll be bored. I told her that it's better than being bored in a place that also makes me feel drained and weary about life, a place where people have so transparently gotten stuck, without raises, for decades. And where I have to wear dress shoes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:05 AM on June 16, 2010


Grad school is by far the sickest system that I have experienced. Sheer torture. And to be the spouse of a grad student is to experience a very special kind of sickness.

Ha! Weird timing.

Graduate school was weird for me. The system itself was inefficient, but I also found it fairly rewarding and learned a lot.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:07 AM on June 16, 2010


I'm not saying that going through grad school isn't worthwhile. But it is sick. Sometimes we have to go through a sick system. We just don't have to pretend that it isn't sick.
posted by No Robots at 9:11 AM on June 16, 2010


Repeat after me: Organizations are just groups of people. People are flawed. Hence organizations are flawed. If you expect perfection, or even rationality you are not thinking rationally yourself.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:17 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Meh. I have to say that I think that's highly dependent on the school and the program and the discipline--I got an MFA in writing, and the problems I experienced weren't anything like those in this article. And a current student was just telling me that my program's increased funding in the past year while decreasing both course and teaching load. The only thing that the students tend to be exhausted from is drinking. But this never seemed true of the PhD students within the department, and I certainly don't think it's true for the academic world generally (I think the system gets even sicker when you're, say, trying to juggle adjuncting, or trying to get a tenured teaching position).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:20 AM on June 16, 2010


Well, I think the whole premise of grad school leads inevitably to systemic sickness, but that's a whole other debate, perhaps. For the sake of this discussion, I would just say that grad school is the institution that we look to as the reflection and source of cultural values, and that if there is sickness there, we should not be surprised to find it elsewhere.
posted by No Robots at 9:24 AM on June 16, 2010


Of course a system can actually become so sick that it breaks down. My most recent client (a major CPG advertiser) is so dysfunctional that we continue to burn out associates and supervisors, and have no way to replace anyone with experience (anyone who has worked for any time in this particular market knows to stay far, far away). I used to describe the client relationship as carrying a person on your back who keeps hitting you with a switch. You say "hey, I don't mind carrying you, but could you stop hitting me? It's really not helping." The person says "OK" and stops hitting you. Then, five minutes later, THEY START HITTING YOU AGAIN.

This article also makes me realize why I can't stand really dedicated sales types. They've taken this system and completely internalized it, to the point of taking a perverse pride in the sickness. They tend to be super outgoing and somewhat charismatic, but you can see the hunger and desperation behind their eyes.

Of course, my own response to this type of environment is passive aggressivity in the classic US Army sense, which explains my own stellar career track.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:28 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Repeat after me: Organizations are just groups of people. People are flawed. Hence organizations are flawed. If you expect perfection, or even rationality you are not thinking rationally yourself.

I think there's a fairly wide margin between the natural imperfection of a human organisation not composed entirely of hyper-rational automatons and actively dysfunctional organisations that create genuine stress and unhappiness. Especially when they are intentionally created that way under the guise of 'retention policies' and such like.

You're seeming to imply that anyone who expects to be treated reasonably well by the organisation (or lover) that they pour huge amounts of time, effort and emotion into is, like, expecting perfection and is totally entitled. Apologies if I've misread that, but that's precisely the attitude that enables dysfunctional organisations (and relationships).
posted by Happy Dave at 9:30 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't think this is my job, but I'm exhausted and pressed for time so I'll think about it later.
posted by grobstein at 9:34 AM on June 16, 2010 [8 favorites]


Didn't Machiavelli have something to say about this?
posted by Afroblanco at 9:36 AM on June 16, 2010


One of the things I find really frustrating is that I have made a great deal of effort to keep myself organized and oriented. I studied GTD methods, keep copious to-dos, maintain an idea of what I need to be working on at any given time—and it doesn't matter. I get more and more work, get more and more behind, and periodically someone notices that one of my projects hasn't been completed yet and complains about that. If the system is dysfunctional, it doesn't matter how organized you are as an individual. It will just continue as it is and make you look like an incompetent.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:38 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh hell no. I felt genuine nausea and chills reading this article. It was like watching Alien for the first time. This piece describes, to the letter, my former life. Having liberated myself (at the expense of every single thing I had / loved) I will never, ever, ever go back to this. Furthermore - and I really don't care how much an asshole this makes me sound like - I will work tirelessly to get my friends and loved ones out of this kind of system. It's demonic.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:40 AM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Repeat after me: Organizations are just groups of people.

Repeat after me: There's a whole field of social psychology, plus related disciplines in business schools around the world (usually under the rubric of "Organizational Behaviour"), that would stridently disagree and augment that disagreement with piles of data, voluminous studies, and historical precedents from Jonestown to Nazi Germany.

Organizations have cultures, habits, logics and dysfunctions that are entirely separate from any given individual in that organization. Milgram's classic authority experiment (in which people under direction were willing to give what they believed to be lethal shocks to test subjects - something unthinkable to them as individuals) is just one of the best known examples of a broad and deep literature built on the premise that organizations are not just groups of people.
posted by gompa at 9:47 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


The real problem isn't whatever emotional stuff goes on in the workplace, it's Health insurance.

Maybe that's how they got her.
posted by weston at 9:53 AM on June 16, 2010


I'm pleased as punch to be able to say that, despite having jobs like this in the past, I no longer have a job like this. I don't think I've ever been in a relationship where someone treated me like this.

However, I am ashamed to admit that I do some of this in my parenting; specifically Rule 4: Reward intermittently and Keep real rewards distant. If I'm being honest, I've also been in relationships where I've been the guy doing some of this stuff to other people.

Looks like I have some more introspection to do. Thanks (again) for the humility, MetaFilter!
posted by davejay at 9:53 AM on June 16, 2010


Not all grad schools are like this, and there's no inherent reason why they should be. The liberal arts and Eastern classics programs at St. John's are nothing like this, and I look back on grad school as one of the happiest times of my life. It's the expectation of a sick system that people have even before beginning graduate programs that allows academia to treat people like this. If everyone went in expecting to be treated with dignity and respect academia would be different. But since everyone expects this and everyone puts up with it and everyone feels like it's just part of paying your dues, it's the norm. Life doesn't have to be like this.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:55 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, hey, I had a job like this once, a long time ago. I put up with it, as people in such jobs tend to do, until the boss made a fatal mistake: he got us all in a room together and abused all of us, one by one, in the same way.

In retrospect, it was pretty funny, but at the time we were all pissed off. Where before his abusive behavior seemed to be aimed only at each of us individually, suddenly we could see that he was treating everyone this way.

After the meeting, I asked the CFO what that was all about, and he said "[the boss] told me he was going to 'kick everyone's ass back into shape'" now that we'd completed a huge project. I was the first to quit, within an hour of the meeting, and what I heard was that the company CFO did as well, and others spent the rest of their day doing resumes.

So, remember, to have an effectively sick system, each individual must believe that they are being uniquely targeted, and so it must be a flaw with them rather than a flaw with the system.
posted by davejay at 10:00 AM on June 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Malicious psycho management or floundering incompetence? I don't think it matters, if the effect is the same, to the people in the system.

Management is hard. Managing people is difficult to do well, and managing a business is hard to do well. Fail at either one, and the system sickens quickly.

We've had the grad school thread, the law school thread, and even there the "winners" are driven like sled dogs.

Something in our society has gone off the rails.
posted by dglynn at 10:17 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Repeat after me: Organizations are just groups of people. People are flawed. Hence organizations are flawed. If you expect perfection, or even rationality you are not thinking rationally yourself.

I think describing this it a sick "system" is a very useful metaphor. I've worked in organziations with very competent, compassionate people yet the organization as a whole would fit the description perfectly. And that's what's really "sick" about it all -- you can't pin the blame directly on any one person or any one flaw; you just accept that this is the way things have to be and you can't really see how it could be different until you break free from it.

I am very skeptical that there is a way to heal a system like this from within. At least in my case, I spent years working with a group of motivated, introspective, intelligent people trying to do just that. But when you are so constantly in survival mode trying to perform your job, there's just no time to fundamentally reform *how* you do your job, especially when so many people within the organization are too busy protecting themselves and resisting change. At some point, you just have to acknowledge it: "Sorry, no hard feelings, you all are good people, but this place is broken and I'm out of here."
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:30 AM on June 16, 2010


Hmmm? Good basic breakdown of the evil beast that any organization can devolve into ... except where's the torture? Not the torturous demands, dissonance etc. No, the actual torture, electrodes to the genitals, waterboarding, slivers up the fingernails. That stuff always inspires the sickest love.
posted by philip-random at 10:38 AM on June 16, 2010


I have been in these jobs, and these relationships. To the point where, now that I'm not in either, I keep feeling like something is wrong, and the world is about to collapse back into its normal, sick shape at any moment.

I do have issue with dglynn's "Something in our society has gone off the rails" comment, though. It's apparent from the comments in this thread that this issue is cross-cultural, and apparent to me that it's historically universal as well; I can see early Industrial Revolution factories being run this way, and it also seems like a pretty good description of feudalism.

It seems to me that this is simply what human relationships do when they're broken. They don't crash and burn, they degenerate into an unhealthy holding pattern, and stay there for as long as it takes for something to change, or someone to realize that change won't come, and break out to do something else.

I find it inspiring, in fact, that we're recognizing these things now; perhaps if this idea, which has apparently prompted enormous reactions from the web in general, becomes widespread, we'll get better at recognizing these sick systems sooner. Maybe we'll even figure out a way to fix them, now that we've gotten better at recognizing the problem.
posted by MrVisible at 10:38 AM on June 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


Organizations are just groups of people.

I think "just" is the wrong word here. First because people are often unjust. But that's not the main reason because that's not the meaning intended. The meaning intended is that organizations are comprised "only" of groups of people. I would contend that "groups of people" are about the most complicated thing there is, on every level. A "group" of two people can create so many complex interactions with intended and unintended consequences that the mind boggles. Three, even more complicated. For values of N, well -- that's why the traditional solution has been brutally hierarchic organization, military-style, to manage the sheep. And still the interactions are unthinkably complex. And so often someone, or many someones, in a group will harbor and nurture some small grievance, or bizarre emotional attachment, or personal belief, or or or that eventually blows up with all the destructive effects of a depth charge on a boat's hull. I suppose that in most cases there's some kind of satisfactory (or unsatisfactory) denouement. And sometimes there's going postal.
posted by chavenet at 10:48 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


To the point where, now that I'm not in either, I keep feeling like something is wrong, and the world is about to collapse back into its normal, sick shape at any moment.

To me, this is the worst part. Even when things are going well, I think that there's something wrong with things being well, or I think that there should be something wrong in order for things to feel normal.

Even when I'm relatively content, I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

For me, this is not a function of any one situation or set of situations, it's a personal condition that dates back to childhood.
posted by blucevalo at 11:14 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a chilling part in the Sicko documentary where Michael Moore is talking to an NHS official about why the poor don't just vote their interests. The official talks about how keeping people tired, afraid and in debt makes them easier to control.

You'll find the full exchange here if you search the page for the word "shackled."
posted by borborygmi at 11:28 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The official talks about how keeping people tired, afraid and in debt makes them easier to control.

Works for the Church of Scientology.
posted by philip-random at 11:32 AM on June 16, 2010


You see the leader in charge on screen and he's a total dick yelling at his employees and every week everything is a crisis and he's demanding they work during weekends and through the night before a deadline and I watch and keep asking myself why on earth do people keep working there and then this essay perfectly describes how to fool someone into staying.

Not to derail too much but you'd love "Cake Boss" (and by "love" I mean you'll want to punch these people in the neck). Picture some 22 year old with a shitty faux-hawk, lip rings and harsh tatties, running around screaming at migrant workers because THIS CAKE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD!!!! If I had a boss like that, I'd be on the evening news by day three.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:32 AM on June 16, 2010


MrVisible, your description

"early Industrial Revolution factories being run this way, and it also seems like a pretty good description of feudalism"

exactly describes why I think we have somewhere gone off the rails. Those institutions and societies were reformed, so those abuses were curtailed. Usually because the victims of the abuse got to the point where reform was going to happen or people(abusers) were going to get hurt.

Maybe what we have is a swinging of the pendulum, with today's abuses being modern manifestations of traditional power disparate situations, and we just happen to be at the end of the pendulum's swing towards maximum "sick". If this is a societal issue, what does reform look like, and what are the tipping points?

And my concern would manifest itself mostly because the previous circumstances you describe did not resolve themselves without varying scales of societal disruption.
posted by dglynn at 11:40 AM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Starting my new job (1 month tomorrow, yay!) has made me realize how my last two jobs were abusive relationships. So this article comes at the right time for me. I never realized how bad it was til I found I felt like flinching every time my current (awesome!) boss came over to talk to me. I realized I was wincing like someone in an abusive relationship (not to trivialize) expecting the worst; thinking, "what did I do wrong this time?"

My last full-time job (with benefits) came with a terrible price. Everyone in the company liked me, got along with me, and generally respected me with the exception of my direct boss. For some reason, Sales & Marketing decided they should own (and I do mean own) the technical writer. Despite the fact that I consider myself a documentation engineer/information developer (though I'd never use those terms; suffice to say my job is much more technical than sales), despite the fact that the majority of my work was with engineers, and despite the fact that I got into this field in the first place because most of my friends in college were engineers and my special skill is translating Engineer to English (I'm like xkcd but funny!). I work with engineers, I think like an engineer (though my language is English, not C#/Java/perl), and I work like an engineer (complete with estimates, bugfixes, and reporting to a project manager).

Despite all this, I'm working for Sales. I came to this field (making quite the career change) from Sales because I hate the treadmill. But I was really thankful for the job, so it's not like I bore a huge chip on my shoulder coming into the job. I came in humble, eager, and energized. And right away, I knew something was up. In a very laid-back, startup atmosphere, my boss did not fit the culture at all. Which led to conflicts between departments be played out through me. And then there was the micromanagement.

Because my cube was the only one backing onto an open hallway, there was a privacy screen. I kept it open except at lunch. When taking lunch at my desk, I figured it was okay if I weren't continually looking over my shoulder at the people walking behind me. No, I wasn't doing anything inappropriate, I'm just twitchy and don't like not being able to see who's coming up behind me. My boss demanded I keep the screen open at ALL TIMES (then why is there a screen in the first place if you're not meant to use it?). I talked to him first, then to some other folks at the company, the result of which was that I got moved to an empty cube in Engineering (yes! small victory!).

But then I had my PHB moment when he asked me to change the wording in a document, then hated it on revision and came up with a brilliant idea which was (surprise) the way I'd originally written it. He was needlessly nitpicky when editing my writing, almost like he was suggesting changes so it would look like he was contributing, changing, controlling, or just all-around doing more work than he needed to do. The net effect was that he created busy work for both of us (which, at least with regards to my time, slowed down the projects I was on). Fastidiousness in written communication is important, don't get me wrong, but editing is not just suggesting changes for change's sake.

And speaking of net, the business-speak jargon got to me. "Can you net-out your learnings from that meeting?" I'm not going to turn this into a rant against MBAspeak, but suffice to say that stuff has no business (heh) near documentation written for clarity and simplicity. It's just not a fight worth having every. single. time.

My next real job was abusive in a different sense. My boss was evasive, absent. The micromanagement was still there, but it was different. I would be left alone for long stretches of time before my boss would appear and ask to see what I was working on. She would review my current draft of the guide, disappear again, and then come back half a day to a day later requesting I do the whole thing over but in a different style. At one point, she handed me a glossy brochure (obviously produced by a professional company using something better than the MSWord I was saddled with) and asked me to make it look like that. If you're anywhere near publishing or technical writing, you probably have an idea how laughably impossible this is.

In the intervening year, I'd been going to regular therapy, so I was able to push back a bit at this point. So I explained to my boss about desktop publishing software and how while you can do lots of cool stuff with Word (it's not bad software, but it's the wrong software; she was asking me to pound nails with the butt of a screwdriver), that there's a whole different echelon of stuff out there for doing what she was looking for. And it turned out what she was looking for in a tech writer was a hybrid between desktop publishing graphic design virtuoso and glorified typist. With regards to the latter, it was a case of asking me to typeset a cross between the existing developer documentation and her dictates. I finally had to ask her why she hired a technical writer when she didn't want me to, y'know, write. About a week later, she was fired.

But my job didn't end there! I spent about two days trying to figure out what had happened. I was only in communication with one other person (project manager, very nice guy I used as a reference at my current job) who was on several different projects. It wasn't until the following week's group conference call where I got more of the story, and even then it was a few days (over a week total time now that I'd been "stuck" without the ability to go forward or do meaningful work; time spent sitting on my hands on the company's dime due to poor organization—and not for lack of trying on my part!) before I was reassigned to another manager. This fellow was overworked, but still made time for me, though he pawned me off a bit on the project manager. And through the project manager, suddenly I was awakened to this whole other world. There was a whole ecosphere of people working on this project that I had been kept from. And they were so happy to have me, and so eager for my feedback. It was like a new job, a great job! But it wasn't perfect, as soon my contract ran out and they renewed me for another 6 weeks on an "as needed" basis. Basically, they were 6 weeks from the next project milestone but only had the budget to pay me for another 4 weeks. It was a shitty economy. What could you do?

Now, several months later) I'm in my new job. And it still takes some getting used to. It's pretty much what the first scenario for how to keep someone describes. But I keep waiting for the facade to fall away (which is part of the dark side of the "hope" the author mentions... you're perpetually afraid of good times ending). So even though I've left those bad situations, in a sense, they're still with me.
posted by Eideteker at 11:44 AM on June 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ha! I've been in that relationship, I am in that job. It's not like I can't see the dynamic - the perpetual crisis/delayed reward system is pretty transparent. I've often wondered how many bad managers are employing the "global financial crisis" as a useful control technique. I think one element is ego - you (or at least I) want to be the one that gets told "it all depends on YOU, YOU are the one keeping things together in this emergency".

I think the escape codes are questions: "Is this REALLY an emergency? For who, and how severe? What caused it?", "When exactly am I getting the reward, and how much am I getting?", "Who is benefiting from my work?", "Is this MY problem?", "Is this MY job?", "How did this problem become MY problem?".

Come to think of it, if you don't work in the emergency services, emergencies at work are a warning sign on their own.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:51 AM on June 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think one element is ego - you (or at least I) want to be the one that gets told "it all depends on YOU, YOU are the one keeping things together in this emergency".

that worked on me till i was about 30 or so and then it got old, fast. now I question where and why the pressure is there and how much of it is valid. as I find myself pressuring myself to perform right now, without any "boss" so to speak, I question how much of this sickness is something we are conditioned towards and we tend to perpetuate

oh dear, this just might be the next "Ask vs Guess" epiphany
posted by infini at 11:59 AM on June 16, 2010


We need an "everyone needs a hug" on this thread. I'm sorry this is so pervasive :(
posted by NoraReed at 12:26 PM on June 16, 2010


you called?


could you resist the opportunity?
posted by hugbucket at 12:30 PM on June 16, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure this is an "everyone needs a hug" situation. This isn't some terrible act of nature, this is something our fellow Americans are doing. This is an evil with a source and hugging it out isn't going to make it better. This isn't a whole bunch of GRAR that people just need to calm down about. This is something we should stay angry about. Until this gets fixed, I don't need a hug. I need justice and equality.
posted by stoneweaver at 12:37 PM on June 16, 2010


Er, that's um a wildly disproportionate response. I think I'm grumpy today. NoraReed, can I be first in line for hugs?
posted by stoneweaver at 12:39 PM on June 16, 2010


It's not the grar, it's the sad. I've seen a lot of people go through this, been through parts of it myself, and to see it all laid out and to see so many people have gone through the same thing... I'm really glad someone wrote it up so eloquently, but it's so sad to see that so many people have been in these abusive situations.
posted by NoraReed at 12:52 PM on June 16, 2010


yesster: was awake in the night and read this. Too true. Today is supposed to be payday, but odds are that I'll have to sit on the check for a couple of days. My one coworkwer and I are planning an immediate one day walkout if pay is delayed again. But the fucker still talks about how it will all be better soon.

Pretty similar here; haven't been paid, no realistic expectation of regularizing the payment schedule soon, but with three days' notice there will be an emergency visit from over-seas (on Saturday no less) on which all our futures hang.

I'm browsing for apartments in another state and mentally preparing in case I have to sue.
posted by paisley henosis at 12:52 PM on June 16, 2010


dglynn:
exactly describes why I think we have somewhere gone off the rails. Those institutions and societies were reformed, so those abuses were curtailed. Usually because the victims of the abuse got to the point where reform was going to happen or people(abusers) were going to get hurt.

Maybe what we have is a swinging of the pendulum, with today's abuses being modern manifestations of traditional power disparate situations, and we just happen to be at the end of the pendulum's swing towards maximum "sick". If this is a societal issue, what does reform look like, and what are the tipping points?

And my concern would manifest itself mostly because the previous circumstances you describe did not resolve themselves without varying scales of societal disruption.
I don't think a pendulum is really a good analogy. For that to work things would have to be close to a worker's utopia at the other end of the swing. I'm thinking more of a slippery slope; the reforms you talk about just put us somewhere further up the slope, but not necessarily higher than previous times through.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:07 PM on June 16, 2010


I think one element is ego - you (or at least I) want to be the one that gets told "it all depends on YOU, YOU are the one keeping things together in this emergency".

Reminds me of Ralph, an old University era friend-of-a-friend, slacker dude, somewhat of a slob, but he did have wisdom ahead of his years. "I refuse to be indispensable at work," he'd say. "Because to be indispensable is to be corrupt. Because as soon as you're indispensable, you've got too much power, and too much power always corrupts."

And then he'd light another joint, play another Kate Bush album and NOT study for his mid-terms.
posted by philip-random at 1:15 PM on June 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Whenever a boss or pseudo-boss tells me I'm necessary, I do a mental double-take and try to decide if that's really true, and if so, how.

Too much time working and living in this kind of a system, I suppose.

I've worked at precious few places that didn't function on this basis. I've worked with two bosses and one project manager who actively subverted this kind of regime through reciprocal loyalty, and real openness and honesty; they were the exception.

I've known a lot of people in advertising for a number of years, and have been working in it for the past 4, and I've been convinced for some time that the Ad biz just couldn't function any other way. It's like those monkeys with the banana: All the other agencies would tear you apart if you made any kind of success out of being human....
posted by lodurr at 1:17 PM on June 16, 2010


After seeing phillip-random on submit, I realize I should also have quoted my old boss (not counting her among the 2+1, though she was good in her way):

"Nobody is indispensable. Including me."

Then she retired. And guess what? She was right.

And quite happy about it.
posted by lodurr at 1:20 PM on June 16, 2010


"I'm not sure this is an 'everyone needs a hug' situation. This isn't some terrible act of nature, this is something our fellow Americans are doing. This is an evil with a source and hugging it out isn't going to make it better. This isn't a whole bunch of GRAR that people just need to calm down about. This is something we should stay angry about. Until this gets fixed, I don't need a hug. I need justice and equality."

Yeah, like J-Lo in Enough! I'm thinking of the scene where she's training in kickboxing by beating the snot out of a heavy bag.

MetaFilter is our heavy bag.
posted by Eideteker at 1:52 PM on June 16, 2010


I've seen companies with employees at all echelons that were indispensable, either out of necessaity, or because the employees themselves engineered it to be so... but employees, however competent, or however controlling, are still fallible. The lack of succession planning usually results in some pretty unhappy situations for the organization when something inevitably goes wrong. It's nerve-wracking to be part of organization like that, but also interminably frustrating when the only really effective thing you can do is to get out.
posted by Phire at 2:04 PM on June 16, 2010


My god, it's my parents' marriage. Down to the last detail.

I'd like to throw up.

they wonder why i never visit

posted by frobozz at 2:47 PM on June 16, 2010


My former company has been doing this for the past twenty years. It recently hired a programmer below the age of forty five for the "new blood" effect. He spent about two years implementing 'agile' development practices that are designed to increase productivity and eliminate crunch time by evening out the pace.

The CEO's reaction was "More productivity? Then we can have more crunch time!". I obvious to me this would happen, and my cynicisim was well-rewarded.

Have you ever perceived a non-management colleague's enthusiasm for productivity improvement as naivete? Have you ever wanted to punch that guy in the face? Have you ever loathed yourself for getting on board?
Good. You were still human, then.
posted by clarknova at 3:25 PM on June 16, 2010


There is a long story behind the time I got out of my job that was JUST LIKE THIS, but if I tell it, I'll probably have a panic attack on the spot, like I did for weeks after I escaped. And "escaped" is really the only proper word for it, too...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:40 PM on June 16, 2010


I had a job like this for a while. The interesting part was that people would bail in waves --- once one or two people made the wise decision to jump ship, it would get a lot of the fence-sitters who knew they should but hadnt for one reason or another to leave as well (I was part of the catalyst for one of the waves).

Another type of person who can get easily trapped are those with immigration considerations, especially those waiting for green card / citizenship. The % of people left in the job who fit that bill increased dramatically as those who could leave, did.
posted by wildcrdj at 4:04 PM on June 16, 2010


wow - It really is an eye opener to see how many others have been in these sick systems. So damn glad my current life is free of this kind of nonsense. It took me 2 jobs in a row to wise up and get the hell out. Only 1 relationship, though.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:35 PM on June 16, 2010


The sickest systems I have ever been in as a worker were the ones most analogous to the over arching sick systems of our culture, society and civilization. Add Foucault's Panopticon and Debord's Spectacle references here. Sometimes alternatives are the only alternatives.
posted by bonefish at 5:31 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really can't decide if this describes my job. Much of this rings true.

On one hand, our department leadership has refused to define consistent processes for the fundamental tasks and responsibilities for our work, which creates constant crises which don't need to exist.

On the other hand, everyone where I work is very nice, the leaders are constantly heaping on praise, we have a lot of parties and fun, and we cheerfully help one another.
posted by jeoc at 5:39 PM on June 16, 2010


Heh. I posted this after work today:

"I feel like going home and looking at pictures of traffic jams."

I managed to bypass a developing jam on the drive home, you see, and for a moment, I felt so good—much better than I'd felt all day, in fact. I puzzled over why I suddenly felt better, and then it hit me: schadenfreude. Speeding away from all of those people, trapped there in their cars, itchy to move and going nowhere, made me feel great. So I thought, maybe if I go home and find more pictures of highways like this, I'll feel a lot better.

Can you guess what kind of system I work in that seeing a traffic jam felt like a triumph? God.

suddenly I was awakened to this whole other world. There was a whole ecosphere of people working on this project that I had been kept from. And they were so happy to have me, and so eager for my feedback. It was like a new job, a great job!

I had a moment like this on a job once, when a new guy started working next to me. I'd previously been in charge of the project he was working on, but had been kept so busy on other projects (as was everyone else) that none of us knew what was actually going on—just that we'd been asked for months to contribute sporadically to something that for all we knew would never even come to fruition. Imagine how happy I was to find someone who actually had a use for all of my expertise on the project—and who in return was happy to tell me what the fuck was going on.

I was so happy to actually have some information that I decided to change up my routine and walk to lunch with a coworker and share the news of what was really going on. For once, I had some knowledge! Then, along the way, my sandal broke and I got hot and sweaty and I paid too much for lunch and by the time I got back to work, I was behind again.

That's how they do it.
posted by limeonaire at 7:03 PM on June 16, 2010


That's the way it is at my workplace too jeoc.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 7:05 PM on June 16, 2010


paisley henosis: Pretty similar here; haven't been paid, no realistic expectation of regularizing the payment schedule soon, but with three days' notice there will be an emergency visit from over-seas (on Saturday no less) on which 'all our futures hang'.
I'm browsing for apartments in another state and mentally preparing in case I have to sue.


So, as a direct result of this thread, I spent an hour today typing up a bill of time I have spent and for which I have not been paid, and marched into his office at 5 This evening, handed it to him, and told him that I will not be put into this position and that it is unacceptable and I do not accept it.

Long dramatic story made boring and short: he has verbally confirmed that he will pay this money and tomorrow will sit down with me to make an concrete plan.

Hopefully this will work out, and I won't have to move in with my parents. (But my wife is still apartment hunting out of state.)
posted by paisley henosis at 7:10 PM on June 16, 2010


I am in this situation at work for the first time ever. Even worse, I am HR, so I am the one alternately carrot-and-sticking, with the occasional grimreapering to boot. It's awful. I'm first-mate of a sinking ship, and every single person who works there (including me) knows it's just a matter of time before their branch is closed or their position is eliminated. In between crises we do the best we can, until the owner gets another BIG IDEA that is monumentally stupid. I was originally hired to write policy and I've done just about everything but that. Five months in and I feel like I have used up all the good karma I ever had, and I am just there now to run interference between the mercurial boss and his employees, and to draw a paycheck. It's a pretty good paycheck and I won't have it for long. I've been fortunate in life to always feel like the work I'm doing is doing some good in the world. This is the first time I haven't felt that way, and it's hollow and pointless. I will be relieved when it's my turn to be fired.
posted by headnsouth at 7:11 PM on June 16, 2010


. I was originally hired to write policy and I've done just about everything but that. Five months in and I feel like I have used up all the good karma I ever had, and I am just there now to run interference between the mercurial boss and his employees, and to draw a paycheck. It's a pretty good paycheck and I won't have it for long.

You sound like me about four years ago except I drew the line at "running interference", earned the boss's enmity for it and eventually got fired (or maybe I quit) over something he did but someone else had to take the fall. A bullshit end to a bullshit chapter in my life and the only thing I've remotely missed about any of it is the pay checks, and even those weren't much good for me (too much high end booze, food, drugs).
posted by philip-random at 7:42 PM on June 16, 2010


The video game industry is exactly like this.
posted by Vindaloo at 4:29 AM on June 17, 2010


he has verbally confirmed that he will pay this money and tomorrow will sit down with me to make an concrete plan.

I hope it works out well for you. OTOH, I can easily see "pay this money" and "concrete plan" being a take-it-or-leave-it severance check and your dismissal. That would certainly fit-in with the general tenor or this thread. As I said, I hope it works out for you.

As an aside, I think this sort of management is what we get for venerating/lionizing the type-A personality.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:27 AM on June 17, 2010


An old boss of a boss used to describe people getting fired as them getting "shot in the head." As in: "Bill Smith got shot in the head this morning. Did you get the accounts locked in time?"

It was internal IT dept gallows-humor. The guys had a checklist and they were disciplined to work that checklist and not discuss it outside the department: Back up the machine, change the email password, change all the network passwords, etc., don't talk about it outside the team, and don't speculate on the reasons (unless they were financial, which they usually were). At least they didn't do the 'walk you to the door' thing and it was a hell of a lot better than what the old company owner/president used to do, which was to change the key codes over a weekend and only give out the new ones to people who weren't fired. (Not surprisingly, that frankly evil bullshit nonsense behavior was usually chuckled over in reminiscences of the the good old days....)

That company mostly ran on the type of system described here. Not our department, though. I was -- thankfully, in that case -- part of IT/finance, which were the only sanely-run departments in the company. Real camaraderie, careful planning, honest to god mutual respect. "Shot in the head" represented putting people out of the misery of working for that company, in no small part. The rest of the company was positively schizophrenic. The personality-cult CEO hired & fired three Sales Directors in the 9 months I was there (this with a product that typically had 1.5-3 year sales cycles), and there were at least two major changes in overall product strategy in that time.

My boss's boss did not miss the irony or humor of it when he and the HR director got 'shot in the head' a few weeks after I left. I met them at a networking function and they were raising boisterous toasts all around. I asked how things were going; they looked at me with big grins on their faces and the boss pointed to the back of his head and pulled an imaginary trigger.
posted by lodurr at 6:35 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]



Ad agencies, design shops, any business dependent on the fortunes of their clients and often the easiest budget cut to make propagate these systems


This article describes exactly every creative department of every advertising agency I've ever worked for.
posted by thivaia at 6:51 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ran across this in something else I was reading today, felt like it fit in well here.

“It’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." - Jiddu Krishnamurti
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:52 AM on June 17, 2010 [9 favorites]


I have been in that job - multiple times - and in that relationship - multiple times. I am in neither now, and while it wasn't always done with malice, at least in the case of the job I had one boss where it was at least partially conscious. We were constantly under absurd deadlines, and then of course no one was satisfied with the quality of our work yet they kept coming back and asking for more - with yet more ridiculous deadlines.
posted by medea42 at 8:02 AM on June 17, 2010


I was laid off by a sick company last year. Happiest day of my life.
posted by catlet at 9:28 AM on June 17, 2010


Well, at least I know I'm not alone. And nobody deserves either toxic workplaces or toxic relationships...
posted by rmm at 9:13 PM on June 17, 2010


Malor: So, Hammond Rye, you say that's China? Sounds like a Southern Baptist church to me.

That's just fucking eerie you say that. One of the worst and most manipulative, crazy making bosses I ever had fully in the mode of the sick system, except he also loved to blur the lines of responsibility so people were always bickering and having confrontations and in a state of crisis, was an ex-southern baptist minister.

I kid you not. Holy fuck. Is it part of the dogma or something??
posted by Skygazer at 5:28 PM on June 18, 2010


Thorzdad: I hope it works out well for you. OTOH, I can easily see "pay this money" and "concrete plan" being a take-it-or-leave-it severance check and your dismissal. That would certainly fit-in with the general tenor or this thread. As I said, I hope it works out for you.

Well, we worked out a payment plan hat I can live with and my wife can live with (there is a bit of a backlog involved here.) Previously, I let him know that I won't be doing any work until I can count on being compensated for it, now I know when I can count on that compensation. Whether or not he will want me to work then is up in the air, but I'm sending out apps either way.

Thorzdad: As an aside, I think this sort of management is what we get for venerating/lionizing the type-A personality.

Exactly this. How did "domineering, hyper-critical asshole" become a management qualification?
posted by paisley henosis at 8:56 PM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


paisley henosis: Exactly this. How did "domineering, hyper-critical asshole" become a management qualification?

Erm, that isn't a fair description of my current boss, even if my current situation is a mess. Just to clarify.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:57 PM on June 18, 2010


Jebus H. Between this and the "I'll never be a grownup" fpp, I pretty much need to reexamine my entire life.

*sigh*
posted by Space Kitty at 12:34 PM on June 19, 2010


They tend to be super outgoing and somewhat charismatic, but you can see the hunger and desperation behind their eyes.

This sentence is going to stay with me for a while.
posted by mecran01 at 5:45 PM on June 20, 2010


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