14 March 2009

The Myth of Workplace Boundaries

As I continue thinking about boundaries my focus has shifted to the workplace.

In that context, I've been staring at an ugly truth - for about ... 25 years.

Fair warning: what I'm going to share here upsets me, and I'm the one bringing it up; it isn't pleasant; it goes against all the comforting myths that we're told and sold. But based on a quarter century of direct experience, in the US and elsewhere, it's not merely true, it seems to be global.

Here we go:

Most enforceable boundaries at work exist primarily between peers, on the same level of a workplace hierarchy.

Boundaries between levels of a workplace hierarchy are generally respected only from the bottom up.

In other words, any person of lower status and power in a workplace is compelled to respect the boundaries set by any person of higher status and power. However, the person of higher status and power is under no compulsion to respect the boundaries of his or her subordinates.

In fact, in many workplace hierarchies, violating the boundaries of subordinates is often considered a 'perk'; meanwhile, subordinates who attempt to set and maintain boundaries with their superiors run a serious risk of being branded 'insubordinate'.

A direct example: I worked for years in a field in which projects typically had to meet critical year-end deadlines. And in every instance I can recall, those year-end deadlines were never met by the actual executives whose annual ratings and bonuses depended upon meeting them. Those executives were in the Caribbean, or the Greek Islands, or Hawaii; it was the people reporting to them who were expected to cancel holidays, give their families short shrift, and work nights and weekends to finish the job. Quite often, these same year-end deadlines were moved up by said executives, by a week or more, just before they hopped on their planes. Net result? Unconscionable stress and wretchedness for the subordinates and their loved ones, while the bosses baked their backsides in the sun.

Another example: I once observed a highly competent female manager in another department being repeatedly 'set up' by her male supervisor. He would decide, apparently at the last minute [but don't you believe it!], that he didn't want to work on the Friday before a given Federal holiday. His last official act before leaving work that Thursday would then be to write an autoreply email announcing his absence on Friday - and dumping all responsibility for running the office in this woman's lap. She would then come in on Friday and find that she'd been sandbagged.

Of course, he never asked her, or even told her, before foisting his job on her - he just dumped on her, which left her with the delightful choice of spending her entire workday doing his work, or being accused of malingering if she had the gumption to leave early. The setup was sickening, and she wasn't going to get any of her work done anyway, under the circumstances; who would blame her for going home?

But she never did. She rolled up her sleeves and endured his abusive exploitation. And every time he pulled this stunt, something nasty and time-consuming would happen. His failure to brief her - or even inform her of his intentions - was almost certainly no coincidence.

She only had to be sandbagged twice to see the pattern, but it took her about four sandbaggings to amass enough evidence to mount a counteroffensive. When she did, though, it was a beauty.

What she did was extremely simple. She requested leave, in advance, for every Friday before a Federal holiday, and for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, for the next three years; and she brought this request to her boss' direct superior for approval, while covering for her boss on the Friday before a Federal holiday. She showed her boss' boss the calendar, showed him the autoreplies from the sandbagging series, said nothing about being sandbagged, but explained that it was now 'her turn' to get these days off. Amazingly, this worked.

With leave pre-approved by her boss' boss, she was now protected from future sandbagging, but still had the freedom to come in if she needed to work. When she did come in, she simply revoked her leave request upon arrival, so that she could get her own job done, go home at a reasonable hour, and not forfeit leave.

The fellow doing the sandbagging, of course, tried to criticize her, telling her that she was being inflexible. In fact, she was being quite flexible and creative, and had come up with a very ingenious defense to counter his bullying and sabotage. Her work was excellent; she was extraordinarily competent; her work ethic was admirable. None of this mattered. She was a woman, over 40, and therefore, in this man's mind, a target for abuse.

You will note the semi-passivity of this man's superior. While he was willing to grant the woman leave, he did nothing to intervene directly with her supervisor. It's hard to believe that he didn't recognize what was being done to her, but she was essentially left to fend for herself.

Cynical types, and those who identify with the oppressor, might here interject that all this just means that "it's good to be the King."

I think it means something quite different: few monarchs are truly benevolent, bullies love hierarchies, and many, many workplaces have never emerged from the Dark Ages.


Blogger CZBZ said...

Great Story...absolutely brilliant and inspiring! So often, people don't see alternatives to victimization. And yes, the woman was being victimized by a man who saw himself as entitled and superior to her. But rather than doing nothing, she used her intelligence and protected herself.

I think that's key to our survival in the workplace: looking for alternatives and not putting up with abuse from 'a superior'.

I also agree wholeheartedly with your point that Respect is a bottom-up hierarchy.


14 March, 2009 11:48  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home