The 7 Dirty Tricks That Bosses Play (and How to Cope)

By Geoffrey James, MONEYWATCH, CBS News

BLOGGERS NOTE: Bosses who do these deserve a distraction ritual, to the point that kills.

This post is based on an ancient, dog-eared, xeroxed document that I recently discovered in the bottom drawer of the desk of a middle manager who died of a sudden ailment.

That document, which had clearly been passed from hand to hand for decades, contained seven secret ways to get employees to do what they’d rather not do, without the hassle of paying them more.

The document was stamped — in red letters — with the words “DO NOT REPRODUCE” and “FOR MANAGEMENT EYES ONLY.” Even so, I have decided, at vast risk to my career and life, to post its contents for all to see.

Fortunately, the document also contained (in the form of warnings to the boss) advice on how a smart employee can overcome the trick and even play it to advantage. So get ready to have your eyes opened, and learn how to make sure your boss doesn’t play you like a used accordion.

Method #1: The Development Opportunity

  • The Problem: You need an employee to take on an unpleasant assignment that he would normally avoid like the proverbial plague.
  • The Solution: Turn the onerous task into a “development opportunity.” It’s easy! Explain that doing the awful job will increase the employee’s value to the company and enhance long term career prospects. Paint a rosy picture of how impressive the project will look on the employee’s record and resume.
  • Helpful Hint: If you position the donkey-work effectively, the employee may actually feel grateful towards you… an emotion that you can later use to extract further concessions!
  • WARNING: If the employee in question is savvy, he’ll be suspicious the moment use the term “development opportunity.” He’ll ignore your blandishments and look at the intended work with a jaundiced eye and refuse to do it. If you force him, though, get ready for trouble, because he’ll insist that he can only pursue the “development opportunity” at the expense of other projects that are just as (or more) important. If this happens, you’re probably better off letting the employee off the hook and assigning the “opportunity” elsewhere.

Method #2: The Sacrificial Lamb

  • The Problem: You’ve got an important meeting where you want to float a controversial idea, but don’t want to get shot down by your peers or your own management.
  • The Solution: Find an employee who is ambitious but a bit insecure. Ask her to present at the big meeting, positioning it as way for her to “gain some visibility” with upper management. Help her prepare her slides, and neatly insert the controversial proposal so that it looks as if it is her idea. In fact, convince her to “own” the idea. Then, if the excrement hits the fan, the odium gets blown on her, not on you.
  • Helpful Hint: If the lamb gets shot down, act surprised that she presented such nonsense and apologetic for bringing her to the meeting. However, if by chance the proposal gets kudos rather than brickbats, immediately insert yourself into the presentation and make it clear that it was your idea all along.
  • WARNING: A smart employee may accept the invitation, but will refuse to be sacrificed. Instead, she’ll establish that YOU are the source of the controversial proposal and insist that YOU answer any questions about it. What’s worse, your top management will probably “get” what just happened… and consider your employee to be clever and savvy for not letting herself be sacrificed.

Method #3: The Rock Fetch

  • The Problem: Your employee is pressuring you to make a decision that you don’t want to make. For example, an employee has a pet project which, if approved, might raise his visibility to the point where it threatens your own. But if you don’t approve it, the employee may get pissed off and try to leave his job.
  • The Solution: Explain that you definitely plan on making a decision shortly, but before you do, you need some “additional information”, preferably something that will take a long time to gather. When the employee finally brings the requested data, ask for more informaiton, or for buy-in from somebody off-site, or for a detailed analysis, or whatever…
  • Helpful Hint: Pour on the praise every time something is correctly fetched. Think of the employee as a being like a dog who runs off and fetches things and then returns, panting, for a nice pat on the head.
  • WARNING: An employee who’s wise to this ploy will be aware, from the start, that a decision isn’t going to be made, no matter how many rocks he fetches. He’ll try to bring matters to a head by insisting that he needs a decision now, and that, if a decision can’t be made right now, he’ll assume it’s “no.” Then you’re stuck, because he’s forcing the decision that you’d rather not make.

Method #4: Promising the Moon

  • The Problem: You’ve got a valuable employee that you’re afraid of losing, but can’t pay what she’s worth. What’s worse, she knows she’s a valuable employee (uh oh!) and is beginning to see the disparity between the value she provides and the reward she gets.
  • The Solution: Management is all about having a vision, right? So you need to create a vision in that employee’s mind of a future where she’ll get all the wonderful things she deserves.
  • Helpful Hint: Your vision must be free of actual commitments, details, and timelines, but short of that, feel free to make whatever vague, wonderful-sounding promises you think will keep her happily working away for the peanuts you’re paying her.
  • WARNING: A perceptive employee will try to pin you down on details. When you make vague promises of a bigger salary, for example, she’ll want to know exactly how much and when her salary will change. If you say that you can’t make specific commitments, she’ll realize that unless you’re willing to talk specifics, nothing is going to change. In that case, she’ll probably start making future career plans based on the (entirely true) assumption that you were just making it all up anyway. Which you were, of course.

Method #5: The Boogie Man

  • The Problem: You understandably want your employees to work longer hours for less pay. However, you’re afraid they might leave for another job if you ask them to do so.
  • The Solution: Keep them in a state of constant fear. Distribute any and all articles you can find about high unemployment and the bad economy. At every employee meeting hint at the possibility of a layoff… by denying that a layoff is imminent! (It works!) Purchase a copy of “The Black Book of Outsourcing” and leave it on your desk where your employees will notice it.
  • Helpful Hint: Long term, be sure to support political candidates that are against universal healthcare, because God knows the last thing you want is for your employees to have health insurance if they dare to leave your company.
  • WARNING: Intelligent employees will figure out right away that you’re simply trying to amp up the level of unreasoning fear. Worst case, they may start to wonder why you’re attempting to manipulate them in this way. After all, why else would you bother, if things were really as bad as all that? Chances are they’ll start networking to find a new job. Of course, the rest of the dunderheads will remain quaking in their office chairs.

Method #6: The Professionalism Ploy

  • The Problem: You need employees to work 50 or 60 hours a week but you only want to pay them for 40 hours a week.
  • The Solution: Convince your employees that they’re “professionals” and therefore are expected to put in long hours. Even if they’re doing rote office work, or your customers are paying by the hour for their services, make certain that employees think that they’re like lawyers or doctors, rather than workers who’d probably be much better off if they formed a labor union and demanded paid overtime. Think of it this way: getting your employees to work an extra 20 hours a week is like increasing your staff by 50%… without costing you a thin dime!
  • Helpful Hint: Always position the demands for unpaid overtime in the context of a “competitive threat”. Makes sure they know that the extra hours are “standard practice” in your industry, as if that somehow makes it OK to steal time from people’s lives and turn it into profit margin.
  • WARNING: Some employees know enough about the world to realize that, unless you’re a doctor or a lawyer who owns his own practice, you ARE NOT A PROFESSIONAL. They realize that they’re being paid to do a job, and that their actual salary is the money they make, divided by the hours they spend to make it. They will feel that, since you are insisting on unpaid overtime, they have the right to reclaim some portion of their personal lives. They’ll make personal calls at work; take long lunches, etc., because, frankly, they feel you owe it to them. Which, of course, you do.

Method #7: The Tied Hands

  • The Problem: You have to power to give your employee something that she wants, but would prefer not to give it to her. Example: he wants and deserves a big raise, but you’d rather keep the bulk of the yearly salary increase for yourself, or for somebody you like better that the employee in question.
  • The Solution: Pretend that your hands are tied. Cite vague, unknown forces (e.g. “our salary guidelines for this year”) that prevent you from doing what you’d “really love to do if you could.” If that doesn’t work, cite your own boss as the “bad cop” who won’t play along. (e.g. “Bill says we have to tighten our belts this year and I can’t possibly confront him without possibly using my job.”)
  • Helpful Hint: Be as vague as possible, because (after all), it’s hard to pin jello to the wall.
  • WARNING: Even if you’re vague, your employee, if he’s smart, will demand the truth, in the guise of wanting to understand the situation more clearly. He’ll ask to see the salary guidelines in writing, for instance. Or he’ll ask exactly what the big boss said to you. Or he’ll demand to speak to the HR group. Or whatever. If that happens, you may end up truly helpless… when it comes to stopping him from getting his way.
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