As someone who has worked in the technology industry for 15+ years, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on corporate politics. I’ve had numerous jobs in the states and abroad, learning over time various signs of toxic environments that have made me jump from spot-to-spot. My post here will hopefully help others in making a decision when too much is just too much and to start looking before they get the Note themselves.
Management Spends More Money Than It Makes
This is a classic tale that I learned from the early Dot Com years. There’s a clear difference between rewarding employees and sheer extravagance. One of the classic Dot Com bloopers involved a company, Pixelon.com, who had The Who (and several other known bands) perform at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for a $12 million price tag. Although that probably is the most extreme case for any company in the history that blew up, the lesson is very clear: if you’re seeing non-stop partying and the company has little to no revenue to make up for spending, then you should leave as soon as possible.
Lack of Transparency and Communication From Top Management
One of the key things that motivates me as a worker is understanding where a business stands, especially with its employees. Upper management, to me, should consistently provide as much business to their employees as possible whether good or bad so that they can make decisions for themselves in either helping to improve the business or finding a new spot if they disagree with the direction/vision of a company.
I think when upper management communicates through monthly town hall style meetings the general health of the business, it can really help improve employee moral. The main reason is that employees want to feel like they’re part of something larger and having town hall meetings give them privileged insight as to how the organization fares as a whole.
Companies that never have such communication in place and keep the ongoings of its business strictly to senior management risk alienating their employees because they effectively imply that everyone has no value. If a company is doing exceptionally well, they should obligated to share that to the employees so the employees feel that they contribute something back. If a company is doing poorly, management also need to be forthcoming to mentally prepare people in case a layoff occurs.
The thing is that honesty carries a company a long way. While society on a whole is moronic, people individually have this instinct for survival and it’s very easy to pick up when a business is unhealthy. The business might be making money, but the operational aspect might be low because of moral issues. In either case, people will figure this out quickly on their own. However, management needs to recognize this not just with themselves but share this with their employees in order to improve upon these flaws.
When a company flat out refuses to share information with its employees, then you cannot trust the people in charge as they will consistently see you far beneath them. And when the chopping block comes, they will have no issue axing you off the list quickly.
The CFO Quits
A friend told me this one. While a CEO can quit or move, a company that has a CFO and quits demonstrate very ill tidings. The idea is that the CFO sees all financial aspects, which at the end of the day is what matters more than anything for a company’s survival. If a CFO quits on their own accord, it usually means that the numbers aren’t adding up and they have pretty severe concerns about the long term prospects for that company.
These days after the Enron scandal, both the CEO and CFO, for public companies at least, are legally held responsible for ensuring to the shareholders of the truth behind the numbers. So the stakes are that much higher for public companies and CFOs as they could potentially be sentenced to jail a la Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Obviously to avoid such a disaster, a smart CFO will bail. That’s your cue to get out as well.
Management Refuse to Promote from Within and Hire Managers Above You
Any company that refuses to promote from within clearly should demonstrate that there are no career paths for you. Usually, in these situations, company’s want someone with a higher pedigree to add to the flash of their overly bulked up resume of people. Unless you enjoy playing the Game of Thrones, you pretty much are guaranteed to stay at the level you were hired at. In fact, most companies that I’ve seen tend to look at employees as being static once they hire them just because they want that reliability. If you’re overly competent at your job, don’t expect that you’ll receive the management spot. In fact your competency might mean permanency because they can’t replace you.
At least when you interview with a company, one thing you should ask is career growth in that company. Any competent company should have some sense of long term growth for themselves and how they can help shape their employees as they grow alongside the company. But companies that frown upon such questions in interviews or don’t hire based on them because certain individuals fear for their spots mean that they do not deserve your abilities. So avoid these like aidschat from Twitch.
Another major warning sign that the company management are incompetent and that your job is in jeopardy is when the company hires a manager above you….but never ask you beforehand to at the very least greet the person and give a second opinion. I recall meeting an executive from Monster.com years ago who told me something very profound regarding developers: management doesn’t trust them. Now, I think because of all the tragedy that surrounded various Dot Coms, developers in particular ended up earning a very bad reputation early on.
However, despite the fact that software is everywhere and rules us, people still inherently have a very poor view of developers. This might extend to many areas of employment. But when a company lacks trust in their employees, that reveals a great deal about the mindset behind management. First, it demonstrates a clear lack of experience in being able to hire properly. Second, it reveals a great deal of insecurity behind the people who hire. Perhaps, the management ended up getting burnt a few times and thought they learned by toughening up how they view workers. Instead, they simply look at name brands, schooling and other forms of name dropping and are impressed rather than figuring out the true merit of the person.
Then once this person slides in it’s pretty much too late. Rather than having a team agree whether or not this person is a good fit, a few select individuals will make that decision. More often than not, the situation never will pan out well because the people on the team didn’t have a chance to really weed the person out and instead deal with an ironfisted rule that will split the team and cause tension.
But the situation gets worse. Usually, the new manager type will attempt to build up political capital. What is political capital? Political capital is a term I learned during an interview when I spoke with ValueClick years ago. Essentially, it’s the amount of clout an individual has within a company to be able to sway people (usually upper management). Political capital usually is gained through earning the trust through quality work, years of endearment and the connections a person manages to create while at a company.
By definition then, a person starting a company virtually has no political capital. If this were a point system, I would argue that a new manager actually starts off with a negative amount because they are seen as authoritative figures and must earn the trust of the team in order to become effective. Most managers I’ve seen are pretty horrible; they often times have little to no real talent themselves, spend most times in useless, unproductive meetings and have a great deal of insecurity. That’s why they end up becoming managers as their only self-perceived effectiveness is in their ability to manipulate and/or bully others into performing their bidding.
However, some of the most insecure and ambitious managers will find out quickly that their toxic personalities have a negative stigma against a team because they weren’t the ones who built up the team nor the personality of that team. So to gain political capital points, they often times fall back on calling old friends and putting them into key positions to do all their grunt work. These managers never liked being questioned and only want yes-men to advance their careers as fast as possible. So if people of their newly acquired team disagree vehemently or even have a certain amount of clout with other critical people within a company, they will do whatever it takes to replace that member and/or silence them so that they can retain control.
Whether or not this type of manager succeeds is in the scheme of things irrelevant. But the real issue is that management allowed the person inside the company in the first place. Once again this points to larger organizational issues and things just won’t improve without massive change from above. More than likely, that will never happen, certainly not by you because you are the hired peon rather than the investor/stakeholder. So just leave and/or start looking before chaos starts to erupt around you.
Lack of Internal Recognition and Rewards/Perks for Employees
There’s a lot of bullshit articles floating around the internet these days about how passion should dictate everything about a job. Part of these bullshit articles started from Ted Talks where someone discussed how the productivity output differed between someone who was truly vested in what they were doing vs people who were provided material incentives for increasing their productivity. A lot of the productivity psychological analysis demonstrated was along the lines of creative type of jobs where passion dictated the increase in productivity whereas menial labor showed monetary incentives were favored.
But if you look at things it makes sense from a certain perspective. However, the problem with articles like these is that they end up becoming distorted and abused as evidence to allow management to continue to abuse employees by effectively being cheap. Instead, they convert the word “passion” into a euphemism to mean “free overtime,” which in reality is unethical and somewhat illegal.
I will be the first to admit that when I do something I like, people don’t have to pay me or give me anything because I love what I do. For instance, my writing is something where I can work on for hours because I enjoy it. The reality about jobs is that at the end of the day, unless you’re the owner of a company, a job still is a job. Never let employers manipulate you into believing otherwise. Unless you are dictating what you want to do, it’s a job. No amount of passion can ever replace the feeling of being a wageslave.
However, even with pay, a company needs to recognize and properly reward people rather than treat them as perpetual slaves. You don’t need something as remedial as an elementary school recognition program with crayon drawn personalized stamps of approval. Yet you do require verbal appraisal periodically.
And if a company does make good money, there should be no excuse to not have a poor environment to work in. If management are collecting the interests and not returning anything to the workers, then they don’t deserve to have you. Let them find some wageslave off in a 3rd world country and let their company fall to pieces once they find out that you get what you pay for in this world.
Your Job Stops Moving You Forward
Life is about learning and progress. Also, life is far too short to spend your time pretending you’re busy at a desk just to appease some asshole in accounting who wants someone’s butt in a seat within a set period. The worst thing though is if you feel that you’re no longer growing within a company and that you have nothing to do. Should you be worried about your job? Damn straight!
Imagine if you aren’t doing anything or growing and the company starts going downhill. Who will be the first people they will let go? Anyone who appears useless and not contributing to the bottom line. I know there’s what I like to call the Wally Syndrome (Wally is the Useless character from Dilbert) and it’s fine for certain people in this world who are content stagnating while collecting a paycheck. But if you came to my blog in the first place, you probably aren’t a Wally type in the first place. At any rate, the key in this matter is that you probably won’t be around for much longer one way or another. So either get a head start or be ready to receive that Pink Slip.
Upper Management Lacks Vision
This is pretty obvious but it can be tough to see in larger organizations. Usually, a mission statement at the very minimal is required and you can typically find that in a business plan or on the corporate website. But what’s more important is understanding how upper management plans to execute that vision. A good upper management team can articulate what their business is about (and this is why monthly town hall meetings are so crucial).
Even if upper management does not provide a clear mission statement, you can see over time whether or not there is a true vision that leads to better things for the company and most importantly, yourself. Once you start seeing odd pet projects crop up that no longer align with what the company you interviewed for, then it’s an almost sure sign of a dangerous ego involved somewhere. What makes these pet projects dangerous is that they are vague and are more for the “passion” aspect rather than bottom line or practical.
Worse yet in cases like these you end up doing a death march. Death marches are anti-patterns in that they signify long hours without any relevance. The end product isn’t articulated well and probably cannot be sold by the sales team. Yet the person pushing for the product won’t hear any opposing views because it’s their baby. So whether it’s feasible or not, you’re forced to go along with it.
But here’s my test at the end of the day to see whether a company and/or product has a true vision. Ask whoever is in charge this question: “What does it do?” The person must answer the question within a single sentence (no run-ons allowed). If they cannot do this in a concise manner, that means they have no idea how to explain it to their investors and their sales team cannot do much better.
Over in Hollywood, movie producers follow a similar method when evaluating scripts. Pretty much you need to summarize a script within a single sentence. If the idea blows, they simply will chuck the script, like a million others, out the window. If management cannot precisely explain what the company or product does, that means they’re winging it. Being an entrepreneur and failing are fine for the entrepreneur. But it is not fine for the worker who wants to get paid and retain their sanity.
Management Are Unwilling to Listen to Others
Vince McMahon runs the largest pro-wrestling company in the world. Although he brands it as “entertainment” these days, any long time pro-wrestling fan will know what McMahon has done for the business of pro-wrestling. Whether you agree upon his specific methods or not or his current and past products are irrelevant in this discussion because at the end of the day, it’s undeniable just how successful and powerful Vince McMahon is.
One key thing about Vince McMahon is that early on he surrounded himself with people who were smarter than him or at least those he could trust enough to delegate aspects of his business to. Certainly, McMahon has his moments of stubbornness as documented in numerous accounts from insiders. But many people will state that at the end of the day, he still listens.
The thing is that management do not have to follow your suggestions. They don’t have to do anything for you. But at the very least they should hear what you have to say, especially if it concerns improving their business. Some of the best businessmen are those like McMahon who have managed to figure this out early on and surround themselves with people who are smarter than themselves in certain (or maybe all) areas. This demonstrates that the person (or people) in charge have trust in others to help them build their vision and mold it.
Management who are insecure refuse to allow criticism and hide themselves in their offices are the worst types. I recall working at a life insurance company in Japan how we hired a CIO. For the first month, he stayed inside his office and refused to talk with anyone who wasn’t at a high managerial or executive level. I felt it was quite offensive because it showed that more than likely he was over his head and looked down upon everyone as subordinates rather than trying to figure out how things currently operated and spend enough time making allies. And of course he brought in his cronies down the road too and put them into managerial spots. That didn’t last long nor did he. But he made out like a bandit long enough while those in tech suffered.
I feel that given his circumstances of not being a tech person nor someone with the business domain knowledge, he should’ve been spending his time at the very least, speaking with everyone to find out what they were doing and how the core systems operated in relationship to the business. Instead, he went out and got yesmen to feed him irrelevant information because they too had no clue. In the very least, a good executive here would allow for criticism and create forums to allow everyone to offer their insight and create a discussion on how to improve things rather than using a cheap managerial tactic to build a fake army.
Death March, Health and Personal Reasons Off
I talked briefly about this behavioral anti-pattern. But let me provide an anecdotal to back up what I mean by this. Back in 2001, I returned from Japan to a changed economy in America. Gone were the well paying mod_perl jobs, all replaced by Python and Java. However, being foolish in believing that the Dot Coms would be around forever and having better monetary opportunities, I found myself instead in debt, struggling to find work. So I ended up taking an 80 hour/week job where I toiled for a few months working from approximately 2pm until 3am every day, including weekends.
At a certain point, I felt the insanity roll in and I began questioning my existence. Already I had worked at another job where I felt that management had little clue about the burgeoning internet and here, while my manager was far more competent on the tech side, he was too young and unable to negotiate for a balance to our awkward work weeks. Unfortunately, because the market was so bad, the management knew they could manipulate us into these long hours.
For myself, the thing was that there was this girl, Yumi Fukawa, a former pro-wrestler, whom I had purchased an airline ticket for as a retirement gift (I had an unhealthy obsession for Japanese female pro-wrestling back then). She had visited my friend in the Bay Area and I intended to visit them as I was forced to miss her show due to my work schedule (and debt). She would only stay up there for a few days but the great thing would be that I had the opportunity to hang out with her and my friend personally and closely. That meant the world to me back then.
Of course, management didn’t see it that way.
Management only cared about making money and didn’t care whether I was sick, dying or in serious trouble. They only cared whether the product was done. For myself, anytime you cross the line between personal and business then you’re out. It’s that simple. Anytime a business only cares about money, you’re out. The people in charge aren’t human and couldn’t care if your family were all on their death bed.
In this case, the real issue wasn’t that I went to see her. I went to see her on a weekend. My personal time off that I did not receive for a few months straight. Sure, there are people in this world who probably work far more. And for whatever reasons if they have no issue they can continue. But for me I had to ask myself, “Is it worth the risk quitting and getting into worse debt while scrounging around for my next job?”
Well, the part about the speech on caring whether I was dying sick in my bed was exactly what I heard over the phone. It was obvious that there would be no light at the end of the tunnel with this group. On top of that, one of the partners left so that demonstrated bluntly how much confidence he had in the business.
But no matter what the issue, never compromise on your health, sanity and personal life unless you get something back that makes the experience worth it. Make people write it in blood if you have to but never compromise on the quality of your life because they won’t give you a dime if they had that option.
Nothing Left for You
When you sign up with a company that you call a career move, it’s far different than when you sign up for a job. The career move means you have plans to move upward or that the company provides something that aligns with what you’re about. In short, you should think of working at a company as a partnership. You both mutually have need for each other and hence you should be together.
However, when that thing is taken away from you, should you just sit around twiddling your thumbs collecting a paycheck? Again, this boils down to life being far too short. Yes, I’m an idealist in that I want the best possible environment for myself. I demand that quality because I know no one in this world will ever give it to me. I have to claw, scratch, bite, kick someone’s nuts in to get every little scrap thrown at me. But at least I make the attempt.
Most people are content not even getting scraps but the moldy remnants of feces. How can people look in the mirror and find that acceptable? I think this attitude is why this world sucks. People don’t demand that much from themselves, especially about their own standard of living. You don’t need to live like a rockstar but take pride in what you do and have a purpose every day you step into your office seat.
Recently, this happened to me as well. Sure there were other factors playing a part in my decision but the main thing is that I had no purpose anymore. Before that happened, Robin Williams committed suicide via hanging himself. For me, Robin Williams was a childhood hero, one of my two favorite comedians and top actors of all times. How could a person who inspired so much love and had very few people say spiteful and negative things get so depressed that they would want to leave this world? He had everything to live for but chose another direction.
Every day since a certain person joined our team, my health and sanity were depleting. I was comfortable prior to that point and allowed myself to get a little complacent. But at the very least I had a purpose in showing up to work every day. I wanted to build the app I originally was hired to create and the idea that it would be showcased and used for a good cause gave me a lot of pride in my work. Maybe it was far from perfect but anyone in software understands that perfection is something you strive for but never achieve.
Then this person walked in one day and announced that my project was canned. I knew what would happen next. Yet it was a slap in the fact in the light of all that happened. How could I show to work knowing that I effectively have lost the purpose for showing up in the first place? I could swallow my pride and hope that the worst would pass quickly.
Yet I’m a veteran in this industry and experience has taught me that swallowing ones pride only leads to the slow decay of one’s sanity. As a single person, I have no obligation to anyone outside of myself. So with that in mind, I left. And after I left I was the happiest person. At home, I’ve been working on my novel, playing Diablo 3 and working on my blogs. Sure I have no income pouring in at this very second, but the mental contentment of being able to write something that has been burning at my soul makes this experience worth it.
The thing is that life is just too short to worry about a paycheck. You have to live life for yourself, not for the whims of others. Once people stop respecting your life you should stop respecting theirs and move on to higher grounds.