Who’s the Boss?

This letter to Annie’s Mailbox really hit home for me:

Dear Annie: I work for a family company and am grateful to have a job in this economy. But while we employees have had benefits drastically cut, the owners have bought new luxury homes and cars and just returned from an overseas vacation that included a safari.
I am a loyal employee, but it seems we are the only ones making sacrifices for the good of the company. Morale is low, and I can no longer be the cheerleader I once was.
I want my employer to know that, despite how they have treated us, I will continue to do my best, but there are other employees who don’t feel this way. How can we get the boss to take a closer look at the message he is sending before everyone walks out? I still love this company and want it to succeed. — Unappreciated

Dear Unappreciated: The problem is, your boss knows that no matter how he treats his employees, it will be difficult for them to find another job in this economy. He takes advantage of the fact that, despite the grumbling, they are not likely to leave. This is a terrible way to treat the people who work for you.
Since you care about the health of the company, appoint yourself the spokesperson for the staff and see if you can get a few people together to speak to the boss privately. (There is safety in numbers.) Tell him he deserves to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but you’ve noticed it lowers morale when he appears to be flaunting his wealth at the expense of his struggling employees. Say that you want his company to be successful and a great place to work, and consequently, you worry when your fellow employees don’t feel valued and appreciated. Then ask how you can help.

While I understand why this person would feel frustrated and resentful, I see this situation from the other side, as well. My dad owns a small business and over the years has had many tough decisions to make about providing benefits for his staff, supporting branches in one, two, or three locations, all while keeping the company afloat.

At the end of the day, does he take home more than his employees? Yes he does. He also assumes all the risk, all the responsibility for keeping the company’s head above water. It’s his name on the lease, or the deed. It’s his catastrophe if the building floods or burns down (he’s been through both).

This writer’s situation is not the same as that of a bitter middle manager not caring to support the luxurious lifestyle of a high-powered exec. making 10-times his salary when they work at the same publicly traded mega-corporation. The rules are different.

This writer mentions a drastic cut in benefits–my dad personally feels the weight of trying to fairly provide benefits for his employees and their families. For small businesses, this is not easy, and it’s not cheap. He negotiates the best plan the company can afford, and no, it’s not great. And, yes, I’m biased, but to me that doesn’t mean he should put his personal investments and family savings–whether they be for the mortgage payment or for a vacation–into providing a cheaper insurance policy for 15-20 other people. (Not to mention that the cost of one personal vacation hardly equates to covering such business expenses over any ongoing period of time).

The business owner is not your parent, personally responsible for your expenses. He or she is your boss, and their first responsibility in that role is to the company. The line between a small business and its owner is a tough one to define. The owner takes on a great deal of personal investment and risk, and hopefully has a personal and personable relationship with his or her employees–but the owner’s number one job–at the risk of everyone’s unemployment–is keeping the business afloat.

Benefits have not been cut so the owner can pocket the extra cash and take a safari vacation. The fact that he took a vacation and has a nice car does not mean he’s “flaunting his wealth” at the “expense” of anyone. Almost certainly, benefits have been cut in order to make rent, utilities, and payroll. In other words, benefits have probably been cut so that jobs won’t be cut. And by the way, if the business owner is on the company plan, HIS benefits have been slashed, too.

In the end, it’s not the employees’ place to tell the owner how to spend his own money–just as it’s not the owner’s place to tell the employees how to spend theirs.

If the pay and benefits offered at this position aren’t enough to get by on, or are no longer worth the work, then it’s time to start looking for a new job. Yes, times are bad. But if your job is unworkable, that’s what you do. But if you like the job, the company, and the boss, you might try losing some of the bitterness.

K&M’s advice to ask the boss how to help boost up fellow employees and make sure that everyone feels valued is good, but it comes on the tail of stating, without any evidence, that the owner is Mr. Potter-like, sneering ironically from his wheelchair about his employees’ job-paralysis–it’s misleading (not to mention just made up), and certainly doesn’t give the writer the right attitude to take back to work.

Personal rant aside, what really bothers me about this is the way the employees seem to have turned on their boss. The boss has almost certainly always made more than the employees, so it’s not fair to be upset that that’s still the case. If he or she was fair-minded, honest, and treated employees well in good times, it’s also not fair to suddenly grow bitter and suspicious when things get rocky. If, on the other hand, the boss was a tightwad and a jerk all along (and that could be the case), they would have known that already, too–it’s not the vacation that makes that relevant.

The only specific change in the workplace that these disheartened employees have noted is the cut in benefits–which affects the boss just as much as the employees. Things are bad, but that’s not their boss’s fault. They seem to be looking for a scapegoat, someone to take the fall for the fact that things are rough all over. And unfortunately, that’s yet another common downside to being the boss.

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