Survival of the Fittest in the Workplace, and Myths about Fairness

We’ve all had different experiences at work, but from I’ve seen, the workplace can often be survival of the fittest. It’s like a jungle out there, where some of our basic beliefs of fairness and right or wrong don’t necessarily apply like we might otherwise assume.

I came across a recent article at US News that followed that theme, illustrating how some things people assume about the workplace aren’t necessarily true. They listed some workplace myths that are out there, which many people seem to believe. I’ll paraphrase them below, and include my own individual comments based on my own experiences as well.

  1. If the boss is a total jerk, you might have legal recourse. No. The boss can be a jerk if he or she wants to and can get away with it. If there’s discrimination involved, that’s different. But really, what’s to stop a boss from being a jerk? Only repercussions from his or her own bosses. I have had a less than ideal boss in the past, and I realized that the best thing to do is to get away from the person. Complaining isn’t the best move in my opinion – just leaving is better. That could mean finding a different assignment in the same company, or leaving your employer altogether. But get away. Bad bosses are what they are, and your working relationship with your boss can make a big impact on your happiness at a certain point in your life. If you’ve had a horrific boss, you know what I mean. Just move on to better things.
  2. The First Amendment protects your right to free speech at work. No. If you say something your employer doesn’t like, you can be fired. You have the freedom to say it of course, but they have the freedom to fire you. Best to understand the lay of the land, and avoid saying things that can get you in trouble or inflame the wrong person of influence.
  3. HR is there to help you, the employee. I can’t believe that people think that HR is there to protect employees. I have viewed HR as there to help employers manage employee-related risks, get more out of employees, and find talent. This can help you as the employee if you play your cards right, but remember that HR is not there to support you. It’s there to support the employer, and only there for you to the extent that it helps your employer in some way. It’s the way it is, might as well embrace reality and act accordingly.
  4. HR has to keep things confidential if you ask them to.  See #3 above. HR is there for the employer, not you. Again, keep that in mind and act accordingly.
  5. An employer has to follow some kind of due process before terminating an employee. No. They can’t discriminate, retaliate, or do things of the like from what I understand. However, for most other reasons, you can be fired anytime. As an employee, that needs to be kept in mind. There’s no “bodyguard” to protect the individual employee’s interests. Best to contact an employment attorney for specific advice, but my individual way is to keep in mind that if they don’t like you, they can send you packing ASAP. I’ve seen people pushed out, despite being likable (to me, anyway) and seemingly competent. Sometimes petty personality preferences can be all it takes for a boss to crush the career of an employee, just because. Not fair, but it’s the way it is sometimes!
  6. You can’t get unemployment if you’re fired. Not necessarily true, in reality. Again, employment lawyers might provide more specific information, but my understanding is that people can get unemployment if they’re fired (as long as nothing involving misconduct happened). If they don’t like you and fire you, why not try to get unemployment? Don’t let pride get in the way, get the money that you deserve.
  7. Employers can’t give bad references. This one surprised me, as I thought that it’s true that employers put themselves at major risk. However, apparently they can give honest and detailed references, even if tepid or flat out negative.  If they don’t do it so they avoid devoting resources to fight claims against them, that might be one thing. But apparently, an employer can give an unfavorable reference and not be doing anything illegal.
  8. Your employer can’t make you attend work events after hours. Sure they can. That they can’t is another myth. I know that as a salaried employee, I’ve had jobs in the past which required travel and the occasional off-hours meeting attendance. The meetings could be dinners with business partners, or other type of requests. Sure, it was past the 8 to 5 workday, but I still had to do it. Period.  Best to ask questions up front (after receiving an offer) about specifics related to work/life balance.
  9. You should refuse to sign a performance review you disagree with. I’ve heard of someone saying she would do that, but I never understood why. Even if you think the review is not accurate or fair to you, I don’t see what benefit there is to being difficult. Just have to change the boss’s mind about you going forward, learn and grow professionally from the review, or just plan your exit if you think you’re not getting a fair shake there (which can and does happen, of course). Being difficult by playing games with signing a review seems like a futile and potentially detrimental attempt at exerting power where there isn’t much present.
  10. Salaries are set fairly. Heck no, they are not set fairly in most cases. Fairness is not the way it works. For you sports fans, think about how some rookies come in and sign for big bucks, while proven veterans play for less. Or, how a mediocre free agent might sign for big bucks while a more talented teammate makes less. It’s the free market at work, with supply and demand at play. Get what you can, and realize that there isn’t a “system” out there to ensure you’re getting paid what you think you’re worth. It’s up to each of us to make sure that happens. I’ve experienced this in one job, where a person at a lower level than me was making more money than me. I was so mad about it, but over time I realized that it was up to me to do something about it instead of stewing over it.

The bottom line with such workplace myths is that many people, particularly those with less experience, think that they are entitled to be treated “fairly” according to what their version of “fair” entails.  The reality is that while we each have our own narrative of how we should be handled, that narrative might not match what is actually in place in today’s workplace.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard was from a guy who asked a coworker of mine, who was complaining about something, the following question: “Who has your back?”. The correct answer, according to the guy asking the question: “You do. You have your own back”

My Questions for You:

What do you think of these myths? Have you experienced any of these types of situations in the workplace, or do you know anyone that has?

Do you have any more workplace myths to add?


    • Squirrelers says

      Pam – thanks, I think that many younger people could use some tutoring on how the working world works. Real world experience helps a ton, but getting advice ahead of time can be helpful as well.

  1. says

    There is only so much a law can do to protect you. You will have better chances by being nice, but assertive at a workplace.

    Of course, know your rights and that’s where this list comes in handy! Informative read Squirrelers!

    • Squirrelers says

      MoneyCone – that’s right, only so much that is done to protect people. Best to keep in mind that it’s often survival of the fittest.

  2. says

    Good stuff – and on number 10, “get it going in”. Raises for most jobs are a percentage, so whatever you earn your first year at a job will be what everything else in your future at that firm is based upon.

    And yes, HR is for the employer. It may help you if you find yourself having trouble with another employee, but only because it benefits the employer to have you both getting along.

    • Squirrelers says

      PKamp3 – yes, that’s very true I believe – most raises are based on a percentage so it makes sense to focus on that initial salary. It impacts your career going forward.

  3. says

    Quite a comical list Squirrelers! It’s amazing how some people believe they are entitled to a lot of things like these in the workplace.

    From an employer’s point of view, it’s can be challenging to deal with employees that believe in some of these myths. I consider myself fair and a good boss, but if you are salaried I will expect you to occasionally work more than 9-5 and go the extra mile so we can stay in business.

    • Squirrelers says

      Geoff – I think that it’s that sense of entitlement that keeps many folks from achieving as much as they could. I agree that it’s interesting how many folks believe they’re entitled to things – including a job.

  4. says

    On # 5- they might have to follow some sort of process. Read your employee handbook. The handbook is recognized to be a contract between employer and employee. If it says certain steps have to be taken, then those steps have to be taken. But almost all handbooks have an “out” for the employer which says something like “manager discretion”.

    As for # 7 – what would be the point of asking for references if people couldn’t legally say anything negative? Actually, most companies that I know that won’t give negative references won’t give positive ones, either. They will simply confirm that x person worked there for x dates.
    Working with HR, what I am seeing is that the industry is moving away from official work references and asking former managers/peers to fill them out more like personal references. This relieves the company of all responsibility and unless the person being asked for a recommendation outright lies, there’s nothing that can be done against private individuals.
    And # 9 – You can refuse to sign anything you want. It still goes in your permanent HR file, at least at my company. As manager, I simply place a note next to the employee signature line that states staff member refused to sign. Because it shows that the staff member is not being cooperative in the process, that actually makes it easier for me to let the person go.

    • Squirrelers says

      shanendoah – your comments on #7 really caught my attention. I haven’t yet heard of that newer approach, but it does make sense from an employer perspective. The burden of risk seems to be passed on to other employees, if there is much risk to begin with that is. Interesting. That makes it even more imperative to get along with coworkers and network well!

    • Squirrelers says

      Jackie – I would agree. The one that did surprise me a bit was the reference one, but the rest are clear to me. It’s the entitlement thing that is interesting about it all, and the feeling some have that they’re “owed” a job or the right to enjoy what they do. I do think it would be great if all people treated each other fairly with each other’s best interest and happiness in mind, but the world doesn’t work that way in practice! Best to be prepared to handle the workplace jungle, and be surprised if things are better!

  5. says

    You’re right, Squirrelers. It’s not illegal to give a bad reference, but it sure opens up the employer to litigation risk. Larger companies are careful to re-direct all requests for references to the HR Department — which is there for the employer, correct again. Most employers don’t pay for expensive HR staff to act as tribunes for the people.

  6. says

    All true. The HR department is not like the guidance office in high school. Laws in individual states make a difference and are often only applicable if the business has at least a certain number of employees. For example, in California, if a business has less than 12 employees they are not obliged to provide maternity leave. Of course a union can educate its members as to their rights at a particular company.

  7. Canadian says

    A lot of this is not necessarily true if you have a good union. Some of these sorts of things can be spelled out clearly in your collective agreement.

    For example, if I disagree with a performance review and can’t come to a compromise with my supervisor, I can have my own comments added to it. As for salaries, for each job classification there is a salary range, with various “steps” on the ladder. Your step is determined by your education level and number of years of professional experience. You go up the ladder over time because you are accumulating more experience.

    • Squirrelers says

      Perhaps that’s the case in those particular situations.

      To be fair, I didn’t write this post with a strong union environment in mind. Rather, I based it on non-union environments, and on most general workplaces which represent the majority of employment opportunities that I know of. Based on such employement – say, in general corporate type jobs – there is simply very little to no protection. It’s a jungle out there!

  8. getagrip says

    Two points:

    1. As mentioned above a lot of these “myths” come from folks who worked union jobs where in the better cases employees did have some protections from really crappy management.

    2. HR really does not work for your benefit. They aren’t typically evil, but you have to remember the minute you are on the road to being a liability to the company, they are told and pressured to find a way to cut you off/out/loose and you have to know what the company policies really are (don’t just take their word for it) and what the law is in your state. I had a friend who had worked for a large engineering company for over 15 years, multiple patents, top performer, then he got cancer, chemo, surgeries, etc.. Within months his own boss and department head were fighting with HR and the financial group as they started pulling all kinds of manuevers to get him off their health insurance, disability, life insurance, and cut him from the company and any benefits he qualified for. They likely spent more money on hours worked trying to avoid their responsibities per company policy and state law than they would have saved by succeeding. I can only envision how difficult it would have been for him had his immediate boss and department head not gone to bat for him.

    • Squirrelers says

      To your points:

      1) Interesting observations. I think that with our economy transitioning and evolving over the years, many people had gotten used to a union type of environment and passed down these expectations to their kids too. As people move into different types of jobs, the expectations on what’s fair or not might be based on a different era to some degree. These days, from what I can tell in most situations, it’s survival of the fittest out there. These days, people generally need to prove their value on a continuous basis, or be at risk – even if they’re oblivious to such risks.

      2) That’s a sad story you relayed. Well, it’s good and positive in the sense that the friend of yours got support from his boss and department head. However, it’s disheartening in that apparently others tried to pull the rug out from under him in his time of need. That really stinks, and it’s sad that things like that happen. It’s really not fair, and people ought to have some basic decency. Unfortunately, we simply can’t count on that in the workplace when it comes to jobs and employment, so it’s best to expect that it will be tough out there and that business is business for many. Bottom line is that we both seem to agree that HR doesn’t really work for the employee’s benefit, in general.

  9. ChrisD says

    It’s crazy that they are allowed to pull the rug out. Obviously from a financial point of view every employer would want to do that. Of course with the NHS in the UK the employer does not bear the cost directly so it is no skin of their nose.

    Re job pay. This is really crazy and unfair. Also if an employer had specific levels based on time with the company/level of responsibility it would give them a stronger negotiating position to say no to new people and future costs would be predictable (which has some value in itself).

    Well that’s neoliberalism for you, the market red in tooth and claw. If you want to live the American dream, move to Sweden.

  10. Barbara says

    I no longer believe in FMLA or EAP either. It can delay the inevitable, but once they decide you are too much trouble, it does not matter how good of a job you do, the relationships with workers in the field, or anything. Many large employers would rather replace you than work with the employee who is having difficulty out of their control.

    • Squirrelers says

      Barbara – wise words, about there being a preference to replace an employee rather than working with he or she when such difficulties arise. It’s too bad, really. Best to just be aware and navigate things accordingly.

  11. Tina says

    The bigger suck up gets all the spoils. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I busted my rump in college. When I landed a job I did everything by the book. I was on time, polite, was doing extra work, and stayed on task. Everyone who came after me received more money and benefits. One eventually became my boss. They best way to get a ahead is to put on your fake face, agree with everyone and everything, and laugh at everyone jokes. If you have any opinion that’s different that the others it’s not welcome and you will be hated.

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