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What I’ve Learned from Misbehaving Bosses

The only experience I’ve had with a mentor is through its opposite: the anti-mentor. I’ve been counseled through the hard-knocks career of journalism by office devils who have taught me all about how not to conduct myself.

Sure, there are a couple of inspirational English teachers in my wake, and a female or two ahead of me in a company’s hierarchy who have been kind and supportive. But the reality is that almost every lesson I’ve learned has been in the form of “what not to do.”

Here are the five most valuable lessons I’ve learned:

1) Don’t dress a bag of trash in a prom dress and call it pretty. Picture this. I was a young, naïve babe out of journalism school and had been at my small town newspaper job for less than a month. The human resources director called an all-company meeting and said she had something great to tell us. With an evil grin, she said the “great” news was that the company had decided they could give zero vacation or sick days to employees until they had been at the company for a year. (There was some sort of silver lining about vacation days once you’d been at the company ten years, but I tuned that out, as turnover there was sky high.)

I was heart-pumping incensed, and raised my hand and told her, and I quote: “If you have a bag of trash, you should just call it a bag of trash. Don’t try to dress it up in a prom dress and call it pretty.” I understood immediately that my angry comment made no sense, but I was instantly famous around the office for standing up to the mean HR lady. From that point forward, I vowed never to lie about what kind of news I delivered to people.

2) Don’t throw things at employees. I had a boss who did not approve of the volume of stories being churned out one Friday. He typed out a list of uninspired story assignments that had to be turned in before 5 p.m. that day, made copies, and then threw the sheets of paper at us. It made those of us with paper cuts on our cheeks that much less motivated to do our work.

3) Don’t treat all employees the same. There is nothing worse than working your tush off, doing twice as much work as others, and being forced to sit in a meeting in which the boss tells everyone what a terrible job they’re doing. It’s bad for morale and makes even your best employees want to quit.

4) Don’t pay less than the Waffle House. If you recruit and hire professional, college-educated (and beyond) employees, don’t pay wages that:

a) Force employees to eat Ramen Noodles every night;

b) Mean your employees qualify for public housing;

c) Pay less than Waffle House. This comes from experience. Late one night I was enjoying hash browns scattered, covered, and smothered at a Waffle House when I spied a “help wanted” brochure that advertised higher hourly pay than what I received as a reporter. I seriously considered a career change.

5) When scolding an employee, don’t accidentally call her by your child’s name. When the boss subconsciously projects his domestic drama on subordinates, it’s embarrassing for all involved. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s not pretty.

Despite these experiences, I don’t feel sorry for myself. Rather, my skin has thickened and I have figured out how to comport myself by observing negative examples. Perhaps if I’d had a nurturing mentor, I would be soft—a ready victim of future office devils.