When your great company isn’t actually that great a company

Photo “Stress” courtesy of Bernard Goldbach on Flickr

Lately, my friend has been telling me a lot about the “great company” he works for. At least that’s what he says: “It’s a great company; the problems are just in our department.” Yet there’s no evidence of the company’s greatness I’ve ever seen. In fact, everything my friend tells me suggests he works for a terrible company.

Under constant pressures, he is permanently stressed, and so are his coworkers. Many of the most talented and ambitious of the workers have left, or are thinking about leaving. The managers are in over their heads, and they are stressed to the breaking point. Morale is low. Worse yet, it’s well known throughout the company that things are terrible. And yet no one at the senior level ever addresses what’s really going on.

So how does this all add up to “a great company”?

Here’s how.

“Great companies” make great products. They go out into the world with an inspiring message that talks about treating the Earth kindly, loving nature, and making organic and cruelty-free products that everyone loves.

Their message is that they are progressive, thoughtful, conscientious, and all about loving people and the planet. And we tend to buy these kinds of messages, along with the products they are intended to sell. In fact, if I told you the name of my friend’s company, you would probably reply, “Oh, yeah—they’re a great company.”

We’ve all heard about the “great company” that buys pizza for its staff and even has dormitories attached to the office, so you never have to go home.

And you almost never do go home when you work in a “great company.” You eat the free pizza at your desk, and you work through dinner to midnight. Then you come back early in the morning, and do it all again, six days a week. Seven, when launch time is near.

The “great company” throws huge parties where everyone gets “free” beer. Forget that nothing is ever truly free if your time and labor paid for it. The company that gives you beer is always a great company.

The workforce of the “great company” is mostly young, impressionable people. They have no families and no life outside work. They don’t understand the fine line between working hard and being abused. They will give up their lives to work for a cool company that makes fairly-traded, Earth-friendly, biodegradable, organic, free-range, super-cool widgets that get featured in hipster magazines. Their employers count on it.

The people who work for the “great company,” and who have families, are filled with toxins that they take home with them each night. Some of them become alcoholics, some others spend their time at home depressed, exhausted, and miserable, dreading their return to the office or factory. They are never truly with their families and away from work. The toxins spread. Marriages and relationships suffer. The “great company” poisons everything.

In my experience these great companies are almost always paternalistic in nature. They hire young people and treat them like children—but in a cheer-leading way that, at least in the beginning, feels good. They say great-sounding things about how much they value you. Once in a while a door opens from above and the workers are showered with popsicles or ice cream or “staff appreciation day” stickers. The paternalistic “great company” only wants to talk about positive, happy things. There are no problems in the workplace, only the constant need to work harder. Everything in the “great company” is great. That’s because the paternalistic bosses carefully control the upbeat message, so that information only goes one way: from the top to the bottom. The real conditions, stresses, needs, and hazards of the workplace never filter upward, because the bosses are not that interested.

The paternalism seems less paternalistic when the official message is that everything is all great, all the time.

Great companies ask people to do unreasonable things, like give up their family life by working ever-lengthening shifts and work-weeks. When the stress fractures start to show, the manager orders pizza and gives a little speech about how great the company is, and what a great job everyone is doing.

What the manager doesn’t do is support the staff in a way that ensures they can meet their targets without burning out. The manager isn’t properly supported, either. You see, the rot—just like the propaganda—comes from the very top of the “great company.” The leaders of the “great company” tend to believe their own hype, when in fact they are running an operation that devours people and throws away their bones.

The company President is charming, charismatic, and fun. He’s so “cool,” people don’t notice he’s in charge of a highly dysfunctional workplace. For a while, the “great company” thrives on its hip image and high-energy, youth-oriented culture. Eventually however things gets so bad that even he sees the truth. By then it’s usually too late.

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