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There are few faster ways to tank a successful company than to forget that a good business is staffed by satisfied, energetic, and engaged employees. Happy workers are the lifeblood of businesses, and while employers can’t do everything to make employees stay, there are lots of things they can do to make them quit.
Much of what employers do to make their employees unhappy enough to leave altogether stems from some basics of human interaction. Treat people with respect. Don’t impinge on their personal space, privacy, or safety. Do what you say you’re going to do. And don’t take your employees for granted.
The door they walked through to come to work? It swings both ways.
We talked to people who worked at a variety of small- and medium-sized businesses, who often had direct contact with upper management and company owners, and who had many stories to tell about what drove them to leave for good. In the interest of not trashing a former employer (one of the best-known business no-nos), our sources asked to be kept anonymous. But the following are true stories and anecdotes about real employers who can stand as examples to all current and future entrepreneurs:
Don’t be like these people.
Sexual harassment and assault have dominated the news cycle lately. One positive thing we can take from the recently leaked comments made by a presidential candidate about forcing himself on women is that discussions about consent and respect are now taking place across the country. And women in the workplace can tell you that sexual misconduct is shockingly common, particularly by upper management against lower level employees.
“I worked as a nurse in a hospital just out of college,” one women says. “My creepy boss would always blow kisses at me and wink, and I often found him just staring at me through the little window in the door that leads to the Operating Room.”
“I worked at a small bar and restaurant/café as a server where the owner was my boss and often around,” says another woman, who now studies urban development. “He kept making moves, and while I was determined to not let it affect my work, my partner at the time was really upset by it and in the end I left the job.”
This one is particularly prevalent for younger women who have less recourse to take action and are perhaps less sure of whether they can do anything at all. “I used to laugh it off, because I didn’t know what else to do,” says the former nurse.
Paying employees only the legal minimum, or below what they might make at other companies, could seem like a good idea on paper. Paying people less costs less money. That’s just math.
But low wages can secretly end up costing business owners in the long run: It costs thousands of dollars to replace someone making $10/hour. And if you don’t pay well, you’re going to have lots of employee turnover (or “churn”).
“I worked for a digital media company where the boss was obsessed with keeping costs low,” says a man who has since moved on to another digital property. “All we’d talk about amongst each other was how miserable we were and how little we were getting paid. It was like a virus. Our mindset was always that were weren’t paid enough to do almost anything we would ask, and people were constantly in and out of the company.”
“It got to the point where we’d advertise a position at a certain price, invite someone in for the interview, then offer them the job but tell them ‘upon further review, we’d like to start you off at a trial salary,’ that was way lower than what we advertised. People were already coming into the business ready to quit,” he says.
If you don’t work at a startup or any other company trying to create a “young and hip” culture, you might not have heard of hot-desking. That’s probably for the best. This story comes from a woman who works in marketing:
“After a sizable round of layoffs that was handled poorly and resulted in more people quitting in the three months that followed than were laid off, they decided to try to lift staff morale with ‘hot-desking.’ This entailed everyone taking home all personal items—like pictures of your kids—so that people could sit wherever they want. We were asked to clean off our desks on a Friday and everyone was joking that it made quitting that much easier and maybe we should just walk out forever.”
Except some people actually did.
Independent contractors are not employees. Employees get health benefits and sick days, usually have required hours, and don’t pay self-employment taxes. Independent contractors should have some benefits to their designation as well, but not if you treat them like employees.
“My job has a bunch of us working there that they treat as employees but pay as independent contractors,” says a woman who works in IT. “So we end up paying a ton of money back in taxes, get no benefits, no sick days, no real lunch breaks, and unlike real contractors, we don’t get to choose our schedule or work from where we want. We’re required to come to the office every day, with our own laptops, and we have to ask special permission if we need to work from home—and we can’t do that too often because they get irritable about it. They limit how many hours a week we can work, and their idea of overtime is ‘allowing’ us to work over the cap at our same hourly rate. On top of that, they won’t give us direct deposit, so we frequently don’t get paid on time because the boss isn’t around to sign the checks.”
Not only is this illegal, but it’s simply a sketchy and unpleasant way to conduct your business. The same goes for misrepresenting how you use interns.
Maybe your husband, wife, partner, or other family member is a great person. Maybe they’re responsible and helpful and want to lend a hand around the office. Be aware that this potentially puts your employees in the unenviable position of dealing with someone who feel they are untouchable.
“My boss’s husband hangs around the office, sometimes when she isn’t there, and makes extensive, dominating, explicitly racist small talk with whoever he can find,” says a man who works at a flight school and has no way to explain the uncomfortable situation to the person responsible for it.
If you’ve got a business, you’ve likely got a vision for it. The worst way to achieve that vision is to throw it away in search of boosting numbers for a month or quarter. Not only will that make reaching your goal more arduous, it’ll be a drain on those who work for you—who likely came aboard in part because they believed in your vision.
“We were ostensibly a news media company, but we chased after anything we could get our hands on that we thought would get views,” says the former digital media employee. “We wasted all kinds of time posting rumors, live streams to random events, and Twitter beefs instead of focusing on reporting. No one had any idea what the goal was besides ‘get hits’ or ‘make money.’ It was a lot of short-term wins that didn’t add up to anything and it drained all of us.”
It should be fairly obvious that religion, like politics, has no place in the workplace. But if it’s going to come up, it should be done respectfully. And a disagreement about it shouldn’t lead to anyone’s dismissal. Here’s a story about that from a Pennsylvania gelato shop.
“This may not count since it got me fired rather than made me quit, but it still made for a really uncomfortable workplace,” the former scooper says. “One day, my boss began to talk about her religiousness and described herself as very pious. She said she knew the world was against people like her—society, education, all that. She said that God put tests in front of us every day, and mentioned dinosaurs in particular. She didn’t believe in dinosaurs, thought they were either a hoax or a test from God.”
“Well, I laughed. It just kind of came out. I wasn’t sure if she was serious and it was funny, at least at the time. The rest of the night she was cold to me, and the next day she called me to tell me I’d been replaced. I knew it was going to be uncomfortable from then on anyway. ”
These kinds of conversations almost never end well. Keep personal beliefs and practices to yourself and let your work speak for you.
There are a number of hard economic reasons why a diverse workplace—in regards to gender as well as ethnicity—is a more productive one. It’s also more creative, innovative, and representative of U.S. society as a whole. That’s what makes a failed promise of a diverse office, particularly in positions of leadership, so disheartening.
“After discussion of ‘diversity as a priority’ at a staff meeting, a company-wide email announced yet another white male joining the senior leadership team,” explains one woman at a consulting firm.
“But don’t worry,” she adds sarcastically, “three minority interns start the next week.”
Social media channels like Twitter and LinkedIn have made building a personal brand seemingly as important as building a business. In the echo chamber that is the internet, don’t lose sight of the reason you became worth listening to in the first place.
“During the early years of our company’s history, the CEO became an ‘Industry Thought Leader’ and gradually shifted his attention away from running the business, helping with projects, and acquiring clients,” says a former employee of a software startup. “While the team would work long hours, deal with difficult clients, and struggle to acquire new business, the CEO would travel the world speaking at conferences and having extravagant dinners with other ‘thought leaders’—only to pop in every few weeks to give us a hard time about how things weren’t going well with the company. Our revenue was unstable, and everyone was underpaid by about 50% compared to our industry peers.”
The ensuing ramifications of a boss paying himself well before others shouldn’t be surprising. “The company had a huge problem with turnover, with more than 30% employee churn each year,” he says.
Again: Mixing business and personal matters usually doesn’t work out. Take this prime and horrifying example.
“I used to work at a guitar store. My boss would often go out with this younger woman while he was at work. Where they went? I don’t know,” says a woman about recounting a job from her high school years. “They would come back roughly an hour later. He would explicitly tell me that if his wife called while he was gone, to tell her that he was at Starbucks.”
Happy ending? Not really. “They got a divorce shortly thereafter.”
Being a compassionate and understanding person to your employees isn’t required. But it’s certainly appreciated and noticed—ditto for the reverse, when you appear to treat an employee like a commodity rather than a human, even in times of tragedy.
“I lost two people close in my life within days of each other, which was obviously upsetting. Rather than providing support they kept questioning when I’d be back in the office, and made me take unpaid days even though I had two funerals to attend within days of each other on two different continents,” says a woman who now lives in the U.K. “On top of that, the same week back they were making jokes about the best way to die and if they’d ever euthanize themselves, after hearing David Bowie might have done this. Not cool. Why would I want to work for these sort of people?”
Great question. As she puts it, “People who lack compassion are the worst.”
The ways large and small that employers make their employees want to flee for good are likely limitless. Do you have a story of your own? Share it with us!