*A few identifying details of said boss have been changed. Because you just never know.
Donald Trump has only been in office for four days, and already the federal government (and his own staff) are in total chaos. Millions of people marching in the streets (and sending Trump into a rage), thousands of government scientists now barred from doing their jobs (i.e., doing unbiased scientific research that is reported to the public). Greenpeace is hanging “Resist” signs over the White House, the President is threatening cities he doesn’t like (Chicago) with federal invasion (a violation of the 10th Amendment), and charging journalists with felonies (a violation of the 1st Amendment). Multiple reports are circulating that Trump’s own staff is terrified of him, and said staff is already leaking stories of his uncontrollable rage to the press. He appears abusive to his own wife and son on camera, in public. He disrespects the CIA in public, on camera, and brings his own “applause” section. His default governing strategy appears to be chaos, rather than the “he’ll do whatever we tell him to” conservative-dream-team delusions the GOP leadership must have had when they allowed his nomination to go through.
Oh, we’re restarting torture, reopening black sites, and now supposedly the election that put Trump in power was a fraud. (No evidence of that assertion, either; it’s yet another one of Trump’s alternative facts, which his own party does not support).
Sh*t is seriously effed up. I mean, it’s effed up to the point that the likes of Lindsay Graham is freaking out and publicly rebuking a Republican president. So is John McCain. And we are only four days in.
We are now probably the closest to civil war that we’ve been in 150 years.
Nobody should be surprised. Least of all me, because I once worked for a boss who was a lot like Trump.
Trump is a shallow, lazy narcissist with no creative ideas of his own — -to the point that his modus operandi appears to be fraud and plagiarism of, well, everything. (Speeches, cakes, fake universities designed to defraud, and failing to pay his own construction staff, among other things). This is a typical personality type for many people who rise high in Corporate America. It’s especially true of people who found and run their own companies (large or small) and are accountable to no one. I should know.
I’m a creative media person (with scientific knowledge, since I do science/technology content, among other things). I’m very good at what I do. I’ve won multiple national media awards, and I have a reputation for excellence in my industry. I have ethics as well as the self-respect to say “no” to bullies who want me to compromise my professional ethics and standards. I can problem-solve on the fly, I can call BS from a mile away, and I expect everyone to be held accountable for everything they do.
Which means that many top corporate executives hate me.
Back to my ex-Trump-like boss. A few years ago, I was facing the end of my very long and successful stint as a full-time, self-employed media consultant with multiple Fortune 50 clients. I’d had a great and lucrative run, but changes in the industry led to the drying up of my revenue stream practically overnight. I had a shelf full of national awards and a portfolio of top-tier professional national media content, but no more income. When it became clear I couldn’t stay profitably self-employed anymore, I had to go looking for a job. Which in today’s media climate, wasn’t easy. Almost nobody was hiring at all at the time, let along hiring at a senior-level salary and wage that was commensurate with my talent, experience, and level of financial obligations. Once I was about to give up and consider switching careers, I got an offer from a small media company that developed healthcare content. That was what I had done for years, and the salary/benefits they offered me were decent. Not great, but decent. I’d be reporting directly to the C-suite of a small-yet-established company with (supposedly) stable revenues. The CEO hired me himself, while insisting the whole time that his very-startup-looking-company-office was absolutely, positively, not a startup because the company had existed for over a decade. (Note: I do not work for startups. Been burned too many times. While I never said this aloud during the interview process, I’m guessing the CEO picked up on the fact that my long consulting resume had no startup clients listed and made that correct guess himself.)
I was offered a job almost immediately after my first face-to-face interview at a company where I noticed almost no one was over the age of 30. Those that were, I later found, were either the CEO’s longtime personal friends (a bad sign) or so technically and professionally incompetent they were not capable of being hired anywhere else (an even worse sign). But the CEO did a good job of putting his best foot forward and getting me to take the job, so I didn’t learn the reality of things until after the fact. Plus, I needed dollars to keep mortgage paid and kids fed. I took a chance.
I was less than a month in when I sensed something was awry. My boss the CEO was almost never in the office. Despite this, he gave me no discretion to head up the “new content department” that I’d supposedly been hired to lead. As a senior-level content consultant/writer with an awards/accomplishments resume nearly 20 years long, I am accustomed to making autonomic decisions about content strategy, administration (things like editorial calendars, workflow processes, and content assignments), and personnel management myself. (And, I’ll mention again, the CEO had hired me to do just that. My job was to build out and professionalize a content department that was in disarray, and make it better.)
Except my boss wouldn’t let me do what I’d been hired to do. Instead, after my first week on the job, I was summoned into the CEO’s office during the single hour he was there that entire week and told that every single decision I made and every single task I did, no matter how minuscule, had to be routed through him. I was not even permitted to copyedit a story (let along assign or publish one) unless he personally reviewed and approved it.
This came from a guy who spent most of his time skiing in Colorado and almost never responded to emails or calls, let alone actually ran his company.
Which made my job flat-out impossible to do, unless I just ignored his directive and did what I was going to do anyway. I tried that for a while, and managed to get a lot accomplished. (For example, I increased new publication output by 450% in two weeks, which wasn’t exactly hard when you considered that a supposed online content company hadn’t published any new online content in almost eight months.) That worked for a bit, until the CEO called me into his office and told me to stop working on anything until he gave me permission to resume. (I never got said permission).
For one, I was given the task of supervising the work of a longtime freelancer who seemed to get paid for not working and/or gossiping in the CEO’s office on the rare occasions he was actually there. What little content this freelancer did was usually ridden with spelling errors and medical inaccuracies, but I was not permitted to edit any of it. (Meanwhile, my and my regular staff’s content had to be routed through the always-absent CEO, which meant none of it got published. The freelancer turned out to be one of the CEO’s personal friends.)
It gets worse. I had no office supplies (neither did my staff), no office phone (we were expected to use our own cell phones, without reimbursement), and a broken desk chair. When I raised the issue of purchasing adequate materials, I was told to use the company credit card. (I was not permitted to buy anything myself and then request reimbursement). Since I hadn’t been issued a corporate card, I had to find out who actually had one in the company. Turned out only the control-freak CEO had a corporate card (big surprise), who was almost never in the office — -and when he was, he would invariably send me around to various flunkies who supposedly did have the corporate card that day (they were “just borrowing” it, he said.). They didn’t have it (ever), and they weren’t borrowing it (they said that wasn’t allowed), so they’d send me back to the CEO, ad nauseum. This musical-chairs routine would sometimes go round and round for days.
The CEO especially seemed to enjoy these kinds of games and often sent his staff around on similar wild-goose-chases for things like cubicles (no budget to pay for them), spare laptops (ditto), a plan for a “nap room” in the office (there was nowhere to put it), another plan for a “roof deck” (the building’s landlord wouldn’t allow it) and the like. When you inevitably failed at whatever nonsense task you’d been given, you’d get a nasty email or call from the CEO at his ski-resort or his yacht or whatever he was doing that week. I even suffered the humiliation of having the CEO destroy a longtime, carefully cultivated business relationship I’d built during my consulting career with a major research hospital behind my back, all because he wanted them to buy some ads on his chintzy website — -ads he later insisted he didn’t even want in the first place. (And after that he insisted that I was lying about those supposed ads, he’d never wanted to do that, he didn’t buy ads from freaking loser hospitals.) Then he’d change his mind again and want me to try to find him another hospital from my fat consulting Rolodex for him to hit up for ads. Then he wanted me to write a healthcare book (I was to do it in a single week) that we would surely sell thirty million copies of via his website (which wasn’t going to happen; that would require making a book on an obscure surgical procedure somehow become more popular than Harper Lee overnight) — -and if I didn’t make it happen, I would be fired and replaced with a microbiologist whom he could pay double my salary, and what a bargain that would be, because I was an incompetent piece of shit. Then I was supposed to write another book (also in a single week), and get corporate sponsorship for it equivalent to thirty million dollars (also never going to happen), and after that, I needed to write thirty more books, overnight.
After I had a major panic attack, the boss changed his mind yet again and told me to go write some more articles, that he was planning on editing/reviewing that night after work (he didn’t, and wouldn’t), and the ad revenues those keyword-optimized ads-slash-articles would generate (which would in fact generate no pageviews because they didn’t exist) would save the company’s fast-sinking bottom line (not happening, either). Then, the boss ripped off one of his own ad clients’ trademarks, slapped it up on the site thinking it would boost traffic, and summarily got sued in federal court for trademark infringement. (Not surprisingly, the ad client also pulled its ads.) With revenues in the toilet, the CEO just asked his rich parents and brother to front him more money. (They did.)
Sound familiar? (Trump does this too. All of it.) My ex-boss suffered from “shiny object syndrome,” constantly flitting from one ridiculous idea to the next, with none of them ever panning out, and then just committed fraud (a poor attempt at fraud, to be sure), followed by nepotism-slash-graft just to keep the lights on. I wasn’t even sure how the company stayed afloat, since the ad revenues were dwindling every day and the CEO’s family was supposedly running out of money. The office building landlord came in more than once wanting to know where that month’s rent was. Printers stopped working and nobody would fix them, nor were we allowed to call for repairs. The office WiFi was unreliable. (Did I mention we had no phones?) But we were not a startup. We were an established company. (Alternative facts, again.)
It gets worse.
One day I came in to work and was told by one of my staff that the company had run out of room on its servers to store content. In fact, the servers had been beyond storage capacity for some time, and were on the verge of crashing and losing all of its content, which had taken over ten years of work to build. (The company’s entire valuation was in its site content and related ad revenues). I wasn’t even an IT person (much of our IT staff was also either absent or incompetent, to the point they were hand-coding HTML a la 1998 when they could have just done everything on WordPress instead), but I was the only person in the office who cared enough to try to fix the problem. After running around like a crazy person, I called up Google’s corporate office and with a Google staffer’s help, migrated a bunch of the company’s content storage over to a cloud server until the company could procure more hard server storage. Doing that saved a big chunk of the company’s intellectual property.
You’d think the CEO would have been appreciative of this, but nooooo. I caught hell for it. Because how dare I (how dare anybody!) make a decision that he wasn’t involved in (because he was never around, natch), and which made me look smarter/more efficient/more responsible than him. In the end, he didn’t care if his whole company crashed down around him so long as his ego was intact.
I could list another forty-odd anecdotes about this comedy of errors (I lasted only a few months on that job), but I won’t. I hightailed it out of that company as fast as I could, but none of the other staff there ever left. Many of them had been there, putting up with this kind of crazy treatment/incompetence/chaos day in and day out, for years. There were web developers who didn’t know how to use automatic-coding programs (didn’t even know what they were), medical writers who didn’t know AMA Style (kind of the minimum requirement for the medical writing profession), accountants who didn’t know how to keep track of company credit cards or pay taxes or even pay rent (I can’t even), and a corporate counsel who thought federal trademark infringement on the part of a tiny underfunded startup (at least the lawyers admitted it was a startup) was really no big deal.
None of these “professionals” were in any way professional. They kept their jobs and paychecks simply because they put up with the boss’ abuse. They never questioned anything he did or any order he gave, no matter how ridiculous. They walked around the office looking like caged animals, or even hostages, most of the time. They didn’t believe that other companies did not operate in this way. (I told them so, and they thought I was nuts). It was like working with an office full of Patty Hearsts at the height of her Stockholm Syndrome attack.
In that way, they were like President (I use that term loosely) Trump’s White House staff. I’ve seen the look on Sean Spicer’s face during the “alternative facts” press conference before on my own former co-workers. He’s an abused, terrified hostage who thinks there is no way out. Ditto for Kellyanne Conway, who has taken on the expression of an automaton of late. They might as well wear signs around their necks that say “NEED BS? INSERT MONEY HERE. NO QUESTIONS ASKED.”
Nobody with an ounce of self-respect puts up with being gaslighted. At least, not for long. I didn’t. I got out of the bad job situation after only a couple of months and never looked back. I make no mention of the job on my resume today, and just consider it a bad freelance gig and valuable lesson learned. I’m better off, both personally and professionally. My career did not suffer due to that poor and desperate career choice a few years ago, and a tiny unsuccessful startup run by the scion of a rich family isn’t going to bring down the whole economy, or the world, down with it out of the CEO’s fear of losing face or the staff’s fear of losing income.
But I’m afraid that Trump’s staff (and America) will not learn from this mistake. They and the country may just keep on putting up with chaos and abuse day in and day out from an untalented narcissistic madman until it’s too late.
For all of us.