Hey y’all, here’s another wild story from my previous awful job. My last post is here, for context: https://www.askamanager.org/2021/09/open-thread-september-24-25-2021.html#comment-3561715

** The Employee Survey of Doom **

This being the government, there were a couple of big annual employee surveys. The surveys asked the typical questions on a scale of 1-5, such as “I feel the work that I am doing contributes to my office’s mission,” “My colleagues treat me with respect,” etc. Those answers got aggregated into an overall happiness score, which then got published broken down by agency and office.

One day, in our weekly staff meeting shortly after that year’s survey, the Director flipped out at us about our survey results because our overall happiness score was too low. That’s right, she literally got mad at us for saying that we were unhappy. The Director spent around 35-40 minutes just ranting about the survey results. This is not an exaggeration; I was texting my colleagues throughout the meeting and I have the timestamps.

We later found out that the average happiness score for the overall government organization (~10,000 people) was 70% that year. The average happiness score for my office was 33%. For reference, the office with the next-lowest happiness score got a 57%. We were 2.6 standard deviations below the mean happiness. That’s exactly how unhappy we were.

We were unhappy for the various reasons that I alluded to in my previous post: the workload was overwhelming and unsustainable, management kept piling on unnecessary procedures and menial tasks, and most of the managers themselves were incompetent, unprofessional, and/or just mean. (I say “we,” but I actually didn’t take the survey because I got hired after they’d collected the surveys for that year. I mean, I was still unhappy. I just didn’t get my response recorded.)

The Director said, among other things:

– We have heard that you’re unhappy because of the workload. We are listening; however, the workload will not change in the foreseeable future.
– If you cannot handle this work environment, the environment will also not change.
– We have put so much into keeping you all happy and engaged. We gave you 12 Days of Holiday Cheer. Was that not enough to make you happy? (Please kill me.)
– We buy you birthday presents and holiday presents, when we don’t have to. Should we stop buying you presents?
– If anyone wants us to stop buying you all presents, now is the time to speak up. (Cue long, awkward silence. Obviously, nobody took the bait here.)
– We don’t have to give you performance bonuses either. If you tell me these efforts to make you happy aren’t working, we will stop and put that money towards something else instead. (Again, nobody took the bait.)
– If you are unhappy, you should think hard about if this office is the right place for you. (Two permanent employees, out of a ~20ish person office, quit in the first 3 months that I was there. One of them literally went back to her same previous job after only 8 months in our office.)
– Life ain’t no crystal stair. This was a refrain that she kept repeating. It’s a line from a Langston Hughes poem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_to_Son In the poem, a black mother says to her son that “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” but she’s still climbing, and encourages him to keep climbing as well. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently invoked this poem as a metaphor for civil rights — however difficult things are for the present generation, we should honor the struggles of those who came before us by continuing to fight for equality. I hope Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve been proud to see it being used to say, “If your working conditions are bad, just STFU about them.”

Everyone who had their cameras on for this meeting looked extremely uncomfortable. At the end of the meeting, the Director went down the list of each person in attendance and asked them one-on-one, “Is your heart and mind clear, or is there something making you unhappy in this office?”

I said no. https://i.imgur.com/DEyCkDg.mp4

To her credit, some people, when put on the spot in front of everyone, did mention concrete actionable changes that they felt would improve the office. As far as I can tell, none of those changes were ever implemented in the six months between this meeting happening and me quitting.

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