“You thought. Do me a f*cking favor. Shut up, listen and learn….You don’t really know how things work around here, so I will tell you. You. Have. No. Brain. No judgment calls are necessary. What you think means nothing. What you feel means nothing. You are here for me. You are here to protect my interests, and to serve my needs. So while it may look like a little thing to you, when I ask for a packet of Sweet ‘N’ Low, that’s what I want. And it is your responsibility now to see that I get what I want. Am I clear?” - "Swimming with Sharks," 1994
It may seem strange now, but in 1994 this boss-to-assistant monologue delivered by Kevin Spacey largely played as comedy, albeit a bit dark. Out of its original context and placed in our current one, this reads like the workplace abuse it arguably is. And as too much literature on abuse points out, abuse is largely learned, and tragically cyclical.
The prevailing winds in workplaces however, have been slowly shifting. We are arguably now witnessing, as a struggle across three generations, a redefinition as to what acceptable abuse in the workplace may be. “Swimming with Sharks” is 25 years old, and while Spaceys may still be out there, they are likely fewer and more subtle. Evolving human resources policies, #MeToo and whistleblowing culture all rise from a climate that rejects emotional, intellectual and obviously physical abuse as a way of doing business. To the despair of many old-school abusive bosses, the rising tide against them is numerically inevitable.
Millennials are becoming the largest working generation. From my direct experience working with them, and from surveying other literature regarding this, questions of the rightness or wrongness of an old-fashioned chew-out of one’s employees may now be largely irrelevant. Millennials and the generations that follow them may simply not tolerate this cultural practice any longer. Their cultural and political position will be fought for through lawsuits, workplace coups and public shaming both online and offline.
And yet, abuse is cyclical. While direct verbal abuse by a supervisor may become less common as we all move forward, shaming culture may simply move the abuse from individual to collective (and less accountable) agency. Leadership, especially that of older leaders, still has a role in setting tone in workplaces. I have seen fantastic examples of leadership turning their back on abusive workplace culture with no loss of value in the enterprise. Older leaders, while avoiding pandering and coddling, owe younger workers nurturing spaces in which to thrive. If we don’t provide them, our juniors might just provide them for themselves.