Stepping out of line
Why it's necessary to call out bad working conditions
I’ve been thinking about this Substack a lot lately and, more specifically, what I’m trying to say each week. It has changed a lot since I wrote my first issue back in October 2021. Back then, employees had the upper hand. They were still quitting bad jobs and bad bosses in droves.
Then came the mass layoffs of 2022. We got quiet quitting as an alternative: do the expected work and nothing more when your options are limited. Companies have ordered people back into the office, based on nothing more than wanting to regain power.
I write about crappy work culture, outdated and discriminatory work practices, and downright shitty situations. Why?
Last week, I listened to a commencement address that tech journalist Kara Swisher gave at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Swisher said:
I’m not someone who, in fact, apologizes a lot which is perhaps one of the key distinguishing characteristics of my success over the years. Other attributes include obnoxiousness, persnicketiness, a distaste for lies, a proclivity to call out nonsense, no matter the person uttering it — in fact, especially if the person is powerful. This is most commonly called speaking truth to power and I highly recommend it.
While it can be risky in most cases, the benefits are manifold and the rewards both psychic and sometimes financial. It’s worked for me to step out of line, and to do so frequently.
After hearing Swisher’s words, I thought: that’s why I write in my Substack. I’m calling out lies and nonsense, and speaking truth to power — even if power is not listening.
I’m fortunate to be in a position where the risks (at least, career-related risks) are minimal for me. I’m self-employed, with no intention of ever working for a company again. I don’t care if a potential freelance client sees what I write. In fact, if a potential client sees this work and opts not to hire me because of what I write, that’s not someone I want to do business with anyway.
And I can use my freedom to give a voice to others.
Stuck in an outdated mindset
I saw a comment on LinkedIn the other day (one of the best places to find people spewing nonsense). The person wrote: “Stop trying to escape your workplace. Start aiming for excellence. You’ll be surprised at what can happen when you quietly and strategically do good work.”
I pointed out that this assumes the employer is acting in good faith and rewards hard work. If that’s not the case, people should absolutely look to escape, or put in the bare minimum if escape isn’t an option.
The guy replied, “For me, there’s still an integrity piece. Integrity means we work hard even when it’s not easy.”
I rolled my eyes and didn’t reply further, maintaining my boundary of not picking fights with strangers on the internet. And what would be the point? The person has clearly never worked in a toxic environment, the kind that sucks you dry and leaves you questioning your sanity. It was also mind-boggling that he expects employees to act with integrity even when employers do not.
I was part of a three-person executive team for five years: myself, the COO, and the CEO. The COO and I would bitch incessantly about the CEO during our 1:1 discussions: his obstinance, his arrogance, how out-of-touch he was with parts of the company, his unwillingness to consider ideas other than his own.
But when we had our weekly executive meeting, the COO would cower. She would pander to him. She told me that we had to plant ideas slowly and gently, so — eventually — the CEO would think the idea was his. We weren’t a team of equals: it was his company, he could do whatever he wanted — even if the decisions drove the company into the ground.
As the junior member of the team, I expected the COO (and my direct boss) to speak up. I realized over time that she wouldn’t. Throughout 2020, as I grew more and more frustrated with the situation, I began to push back. But I spoke my mind in short, direct statements of opposition. When the CEO shot me down, I didn’t fight back.
Because there was no point. I couldn’t change his mind on anything. So instead, I left.
The system is broken
Mr. Integrity and the CEO of my former employer aren’t the people I want to reach with my writing anyway. They hold the power, and the people in power aren’t usually willing to let go.
Instead, I write for the people who know something is wrong. They’re an employee who is being asked to do more for the same pay, or who has been burned by an employer, or who witnesses truly awful workplace practices. They’re the managers who see that the “old way” of working isn’t working and are committed to learning and changing. They’re part of the next generation of workers who have “Noped” on a lot of the established norms from the onset.
We’ve reached a pivotal moment in late-stage capitalism. The system is breaking down. The people at the top are squeezing harder and the people at the bottom are saying, “Wait a minute… aren’t we the ones doing the work? Don’t we have strength in numbers?”
Shouldn’t we put ourselves first? The people in power certainly do.
I write to call out the vast number of problems with how we work, everything from hiring to promotions to inequalities.
Sure, there are some companies out there trying to treat their employees well.
And there are well-meaning employers that are still problematic, without realizing it.
And there are swaths and swaths of terrible employers in the world. And their employees can feel isolated. Stuck. Defeated.
Sharing stories and perspectives
The wide world of work stories extends far beyond my experiences. I’ve committed to sharing the stories of others (through the Perspectives series), whether it’s through an interview, a guest essay, or some other format.
If you have a story you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you. Please fill out this form and I’ll be in touch. I’m committed to protecting the people I speak with: I’ll anonymize your story, if that’s your preference, in any way that makes you comfortable. Or if you’d like to be identified, I’ll link to your website, socials, your own Substack, etc.
Not everyone can “step out of line” because they would face repercussions at work — but I can. Many stories are never given a voice, and I want to give those voices a place in the world.
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Threads for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.
If you want to support me as a writer, you can buy me a coffee.