‘The worst job I ever had’

How backstabbers, evil bosses and dumb rules taught our top firms what not to do
Jason Kirby and Ken MacQueen

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The worst job Robert Meggy ever had, bar none, was working as a “pea-viner” in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. A pea-viner, for the uninitiated, takes the unholy tangle of harvested pea vines and pods, and shovels them onto a conveyor belt where the peas are mechanically separated. It was the summer of 1962. Meggy was 15 and the pay was $1.05 an hour for a 16-hour day. He still remembers the stink of rotting peas and mud. “It was just a terrible job, the most boring thing I’ve ever done,” he says. If nothing else, it cured Meggy—now the president, CEO and owner of the Great Little Box Co. of Vancouver—of any desire to pursue agriculture as a career.

That’s the thing about awful jobs, there’s always a lesson in there somewhere, though usually it’s a lesson in what not to do. Everyone has a story about the worst place they’ve ever worked. For some, it was their very first job, be it down on the farm, or slinging fries over a greasy, hot stove. Others spent years building up their careers before stumbling into that perilous mix of a dunderhead boss and a poisonous work environment that marks so many terrible-job stories. Either way, when you find yourself working in an organization where exhibiting creativity and demonstrating independent thinking are akin to contracting bubonic plague, it can be a downright soul-destroying experience.

Just ask the people who were fortunate enough to escape bad jobs for the infinitely brighter prospects of working for one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers. Actually, that’s exactly what Maclean’s did this year: we quizzed Top 100 executives, managers and employees about the worst jobs they ever had, and the lessons they learned along the way. Perhaps it’s relief at leaving their crummy jobs behind, or the experience of knowing what a rich and rewarding work environment can really be like, but the people who work at Top 100 organizations seem to have keen insights into the bad habits, lousy management styles and employment pitfalls so many other companies seem to fall into. Sometimes the problems are caused by a few individuals. Other times they’re systemic and infect every part of an organization. And almost always, there are no easy fixes. As those working at the Top 100 employers might say: happy work environments are often alike—miserable jobs are each terrible in their own way.

Few things are as bad as having a boss you know is completely incompetent at his job. But when that boss also happens to own the company, after inheriting it from dear old dad, the experience is much worse. That’s what Meggy discovered after leaving the pea vines behind to become an accountant. In the early 1980s he landed a job as controller of the B.C. arm of a failing American forest products company. It was a family-owned business run by the third generation, a notoriously dangerous phase. The company made things—like cedar shingles and telephone poles—though not terribly efficiently. They lost things—like money—with much greater success. Meggy worked for the grandson of the founder. “He actually had a degree, which blew me away, but he had no concept of anything,” says Meggy. “We were going broke and he was looking at trying to buy a company plane.” Meggy buckled up as management flew the company into receivership, and eventually bankruptcy, thinking all the while: “I could do better myself.”

In fact, he has. He walked away from the wreckage with many lessons learned. The result is the Great Little Box Co., which, with 170 employees and a sprawling new 250,000-sq.-foot facility on the Fraser River, isn’t that little anymore. Meggy typifies the innovative thinking that characterizes so many Top 100 employers and sets them apart from the rest. For instance, when building his new plant, he changed the architect’s plans so that employees could gaze out over the scenic Fraser, where he built a park-like river frontage, with a volleyball court, basketball hoops, a gazebo and a dock for kayaks. He instituted a profit-sharing plan some 15 years ago, and regularly opens the books to employees. Above all, in fostering the Great Little Box Co.’s corporate culture, Meggy drew on the lessons he learned at his former employer, which was beset by arrogant leadership and a volatile environment. “One moody or negative person can just destroy a whole department,” he says. “I’ve seen that, and I always swore I would never have people like that here.”

But what happens when there’s not just one negative person at an organization, but a whole army of them, ready to cut each other to shreds at the first sign of weakness? Ciabh McEvenue was plunged into just such a cesspool when she took a job working at a major health care organization a few years ago. Like many of the people Maclean’s spoke to, McEvenue is careful not to reveal too many details that might identify her former workplace. Given what she witnessed there, a little self-preservation is probably in order.

Her workplace was in the business of helping people improve their health, but it was run like a military dictatorship. Employees formed ranks, and each level took every opportunity to crush the one below it. The only way to advance was by playing dirty politics, which in some cases involved planting lies about rivals to bolster one’s own ambitions. “It was Machiavellian in a crazy, backward way,” says McEvenue. “There was always some kind of witch hunt going on and you never knew if you were the target or not.”

Aside from fostering a hostile office environment, the culture of paranoia often led to mistakes. McEvenue recalls how underlings were never allowed to present their own work to superiors. Instead, as a project made its way up the food chain, successive levels of managers would take credit for it themselves, often inadvertently inserting wrong information into the presentations along the way. When things inevitably went wrong, senior management could always claim they were wrongly informed. “Then all of a sudden you’d come to work and Judy, who’d just done the project that we all thought was great, would be gone,” says McEvenue.

Her experience as managing director of Tamm Communications, a full-service advertising agency based in Toronto, couldn’t be more different. McEvenue immediately liked what she saw at the small company of 30 employees, which operates from a converted knitting mill overlooking the city’s downtown. For one thing, people actually talk and share ideas openly. On big advertising projects, she says, everyone from the creative team to the finance department—even receptionists—are asked for their ideas. “There’s a huge difference in terms of your voice being heard,” she says. “It’s run more like a family. I’ve never in my life had such intense relationships with my co-workers.” And going forward, that sense of belonging is likely to grow even stronger. The firm’s co-founders are in the process of distributing nearly half of the ownership of Tamm Communications to its employees.

Nothing kills motivation faster than the knowledge that no matter how hard you work, or how much you produce, you’re going nowhere. It’s a depressing realization that all too many employees face at one time or another. For Scott Orth, that dark time came—literally—during a stint at a metal fabrication plant. As a young man 20 years ago, he was stuck on the night shift, manufacturing steel carts in a searing factory. As Orth describes it, his typical night at work was “boring, hot, laborious and oppressive.” It’s obvious there’s no love lost for the place. Why should there be? “There was zero recognition or reward for what you were doing,” he says.

Orth left to pursue a career as a hydrologist and landed a position at Golder Associates, a consulting and engineering firm with offices around the world. If stamping out metal frames was a dead-end job, at his new employer the opportunities seemed endless. Before long he was sent for tra
ining to become a manager. And when he began to show an aptitude for dealing with employees, he was offered a position in the human resources department, eventually becoming head of “human development” for all the offices in Canada. “We try to play to people’s strengths here,” he says. “I showed some natural talent and was very well supported through training and coaching.”

For some workers, the problem isn’t necessarily that there are no options for advancement. It’s that the opportunities that do come up are just as bad as the job they already have. Back in the 1980s that was the situation Patty found herself in. (The reason for not using her last name will become apparent in a moment.) As an office temp, arguably one of the most thankless jobs around to begin with, she printed documents for 25 salesmen. They were all run ragged trying to meet their quarterly quotas, working through lunch breaks and many weekends, too. Patty wasn’t sure she liked such an overwhelming work environment, so when the company offered her a sales job, she balked. Thinking she was after more money, the company sweetened its offer. But it wasn’t a question of pay, it was that she didn’t want a job that entailed giving up her life.

As it turned out, the company went bust a year later. But by then Patty had started a position with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, a newcomer to this year’s Top 100 list, where she now works in the agency’s personnel division. (Even though she’s not a spy, CSIS refuses to allow the full names of its employees to be disclosed publicly for security reasons.) CSIS encourages employees to try different jobs within the agency, offering training programs to anyone interested. And because it attracts people with a sense of duty to protect the country, Patty says there’s a positive work environment. “We’re unique because of the nature of the type of work we do,” she says. “People want to come work here because they share a sense of patriotism.”

When a company is angering its customers, it’s often the front line workers who hear about it first. When that company happens to be in the highly competitive consumer goods market, it’s important that senior management consider what those workers have to say. But try as he might, Stephan Arsenault could never get his old bosses to listen. “I didn’t have the right to speak to the manager to tell him the strategies they were following were not the right ones,” says Arsenault, who now is vice-president of sales for L’Oréal’s consumer product group. “Every time I brought up a customer complaint, they’d just say, ‘You’re paid well, so fix it.’ ” As with several of those interviewed for this story, Arsenault described his former employer in militaristic terms. Orders only ever went in one direction, from top to bottom.

So when Arsenault showed up for his first day of work at L’Oréal five years ago, he was stunned when his manager asked him to write up a strategic plan without talking to any other employees. “He wanted me to take an entrepreneurial approach and not be pressured by anybody,” he says. “There’s so much freedom to express opinion here. I could go see the president of this company if I didn’t think he was doing the right thing.” The higher-ups clearly value his candour—three months ago they offered to promote him to take over responsibility for sales in Asia (Arsenault had to decline because he didn’t want to uproot his young family).

It’s not just front line workers who have felt the sting of frustration at having their suggestions ignored by higher-ups. Even senior executives, such as Gord Johnston, who now works in human resources at pharmaceutical giant Bayer, often see their initiatives stymied. At four previous companies he tried to introduce employee feedback surveys and progressive benefit plans, but there was never any interest. “They kept saying ‘Why do we need to do that?’ ” he says. “Just because our competitors are doing it doesn’t mean we want to.” Bayer listened to Johnston, though, and after 80 per cent of its employees responded to a survey, the company installed perks such as a driving range, lounge, pool tables and a quiet room. The reward was almost immediate. Since 2005, Bayer’s turnover rate has dropped from 10 per cent to five per cent.

Things were looking up for Edoardo De Martin. He had just completed a big project for the tech company where he worked, coming in three months ahead of schedule. What’s more, his project was being hailed as the company’s crown jewel for the year. So you wouldn’t blame him for expecting accolades—but instead, his boss tore a strip off him for breaking company rules to get the project done. In De Martin’s view, the business was drowning in rules. There were edicts governing every conceivable situation. For instance, a team of contractors that played a key role on a big project wasn’t invited to the wrap party, because the rules forbade outsiders from attending. “It created an environment that was a death march,” he says. “There were tons of policies aimed at the lowest common denominator that blocked people from getting their work done.” But any hopes De Martin had that the company might see the error of its ways were dashed when his boss read him the riot act. “From now on,” his supervisor said, “we’re going to do it our way.” Three months later, De Martin quit.

When De Martin and the founders of Vancouver-based Next Level Games, a fast-growing video game developer, sketched out their vision for the company six years ago, they set out to create a different kind of tech company. There are rules governing against sexual harassment in the workplace, but little else. The result: in an industry famous for grinding down its workers, Next Level is emerging as a versatile and vibrant workplace guided by common sense. “Unfortunately, common sense is not very common in business these days,” says De Martin, who is now Next Level’s studio general manager.

It wasn’t just the pointless rules that drove De Martin to frustration at his former employer. In the same way the barrage of corporate bylaws often got in the way of his job, many of his previous employers spoke using buzzwords that allowed them to say nothing at all. Phrases like, “Let’s run that idea up the flagpole and see which way the wind blows” or “Let’s bottle what that team has” dominated strategy discussions and allowed executives to sound authoritative without making decisions. And so nothing ever got done. “When someone says a buzzword here, they’re immediately ridiculed for the next hour,” he says.