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Editor's Notebook

Reshaping a Cynical Workplace Salutation

There are plenty of reasons so few workers are energized by their workplace. I lay blame at the feet of their managers.

During a visit with friends over the holidays I was privy to a conversation between their teen daughter and her uncle. She was complaining that her manager at a local pizza joint tells her to do something, then after she does it the manager tells her she did it wrong.

Said the uncle in a too-familiar tone of resignation: “Welcome to the working world.”

We’ve all been there. A fresh-faced teen is eager to do a good job, excited to be earning a paycheck and begin to break away from the folks. In fact, a recent Robert Half survey shows that those in the first year of a job are among the happiest people in the workforce. Too often though, that enthusiasm is crushed by a manager who:

  1. Doesn’t know the first thing about slapping sauce on a slab of dough.
  2. Is clueless about communicating how to take an order.
  3. Promoted to manager because they are family.
  4. All of the above.

I’ve heard tales of terrible management and shady paycheck practices from my four now-grown kids, too.

So why is our fallback advice, “Get used to it”? Perhaps it’s because so many of us have developed a workplace immunity to inept supervision thanks to years of recessions, consolidations, downsizings and rightsizings. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

And lest you think this is a “coddle your millennial employees” lecture, no generational gibberish here. Through strong economies and bad, no matter the political climate, disengaged employee numbers — old and young — historically hover just under 70 percent. There are plenty of reasons so few workers are energized by their workplace. I lay blame at the feet of their managers.

Engagement must begin with young employees. Whether it’s a local eatery or a global agency, building a generation of engaged workers starts as soon as they enter the workforce.

Unfortunately it is clear that there are workplaces that treat young workers like gristle on a steak — chew ’em up and spit ’em out. But before you think all is lost once an 18-year-old is berated by an overbearing boss, they know there is hope for workplace nirvana.

No matter how many crummy pizza joints or shifty direct-marketing companies young people work for, there’s a fresh sense of optimism once they graduate from the hallowed halls of ol’ State U. They exude anticipation to finally join an organization that respects their talents and treats them as professionals. Like that first job in high school there’s renewed excitement — especially if they land a gig at a prestigious Nashville PR firm representing country music stars like Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.

Kirt Webster Publicity was described as a “publicist boot camp.” The bulk of their in-house talent was young people, as Webster would hire graduates or provide internships to young people straight out of college. That’s commendable. Hire a bunch of eager young people, work them hard then take great pride as they move on and blossom.

Then last fall allegations surfaced of Webster’s sexual assault of Austin Rick, a young country singer. And the lurid stories of a sickeningly toxic workplace seeped out. Or perhaps better to say gushed like blood from a stuck pig. Work your ass off took on new meaning at Webster Publicity.

Numerous published stories from ex-workers reported that Webster “employed a mix of bullying and career rewards to dominate them emotionally, making shockingly inappropriate comments in the workplace and even openly sexually assaulting them by fondling them, both male and female subordinates,” according to one report.

One anonymous employee told the online music site Taste of Country, “He would grab me by the hair and air hump me, he would caress me. As a young woman straight out of college in the music business, you’re already facing so many challenges, and he didn’t make it any easier.”

Webster and his terrorized young charges clearly had talent. PR News named him publicist of the year in 2017, an honor it later rescinded because of the allegations.

Those PR chops were not enough to keep star clients including Parton, who parted ways with Webster after his toxic leadership became public and he too stepped down.

Dolly famously sang about working “9 to 5” — her 1980 lament about a chauvinist, disrespectful boss. We’re finally saying enough as a society to workplace sexism. Let’s go several steps past that to make for a genuinely welcoming workplace, no matter the generation. So that “welcome to the working world” is an earnest greeting rather than a callous warning to hopeful young people entering the workforce that hey, you just have to deal with it.

Rick Bell is the editorial director for Workforce. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.