Business Myths from the Lazy American Factory Worker to the Toxic Employee

Some amazing things were happening in the workplace when I first began my career. Productivity was at an unprecedented high and business leaders and HR departments (then called Personnel Departments) were seriously talking about the 4 day work week. Some of the talk ended up appearing in real business schedules. My first employer, a large advertising agency, implemented summer hours. During summer hours, we worked one extra hour Monday through Thursday and we got Fridays off. A high school friend of mine, then a junior architect, received a month long paid Christmas vacation from her company. America’s middle class was in full bloom and the standard of living was getting higher for many, automation and high productivity were going to provide great time-off benefits.

At the same time, darker forcers were rising. American auto industry CEOs had made some bad mistakes. They assumed Americans would always want to drive gas guzzling tanks and they snuck in some built-in product defects designed to make the American consumer purchase new cars more often. Japanese auto makers jumped in with smaller more energy efficient and better made cars. Suddenly, we started to learn about “the lazy American factory worker.” Articles and television news stories featured auto maker management laments about how lazy factory workers botched the job so badly that American cars were falling apart. They denied productivity was at an all-time high, denied management’s hand in the auto industry’s problems, and sold the public on the myth of the lazy factory worker. That deadbeat didn’t deserve health and safety protection, a good wage, good insurance or a nice vacation. This idea, designed to kill the notion of high productivity leading to a higher standard of living for American workers, was a great success. Its promoters even convinced American factory workers that they were lazy and undeserving. They voted to destroy their unions, reward offshoring, stagnate wages, float productivity profits to the top and decrease their benefits and workplace safety.

These same corporate managers who berated American workers and hid from their own mistakes applauded the hard-working Japanese auto worker. They neglected to mention that Japanese workers get Golden Week off and are guaranteed another 10–20 days off, depending on how long they’ve been in the workforce, plus the 14 or so other national holidays they take off.

In more recent times, workers in the EU get at least four work weeks of paid vacation. In Austria, workers are guaranteed a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days in addition to 13 paid holidays each year. In contrast, the city of Chicago recently passed an ordinance requiring businesses to give 5 paid sick days to cut down on the spread of flu each winter. Many Chicago businesses proceeded to take that time out of employee vacation days even if the sick days, with very strict restrictions and proof requirements, are not used. That brings me to the current myth of corporate HR departments (now definitely not Personnel Departments because employees are resources and not people.) The new myth is the myth of the “toxic employee.” The term is all the rage with countless articles and television news stories about it, reminiscent of the numerous articles and television news stories about “lazy American factory worker.” They teach managers to label people “toxic” and categorize them for different treatment, but all of it usually concludes with the same isolation, discipline and elimination no matter the category. Employees are encouraged to follow suit, setting their co-workers up for failure and firing. It’s a fun lunchroom game at the expense of others, ironically encouraging the behavior HR labeled toxic.

These categories can differ depending on the source. Sometimes there are five, sometimes eight or more. Most of the categories overlap. Since I’m a typical lazy American worker, I’ll describe only the five that seem a little more distinct.

  1. The incompetent, hot mess or know-nothing-at-all: This person is described as confident, but incapable. This person might be better described as “the over-promoted white male.” This poor guy has no idea what he’s doing, but has been promoted over more competent minority people and women because he fits a favored demographic. He may also be deemed promotable, if not very bright, because he doesn’t threaten his supervisors and doesn’t question the status quo. Other people are stuffed into this category when they are deemed “resistant to change.” When I hear that term, “resistant to change,” I think of the older accountants at Arthur Andersen who didn’t like the changes they saw leading up to the Enron scandal or attorneys at lenders and title companies who didn’t like the mortgage fraud they saw leading up to the 2008 crash. Undoubtedly, they were deemed toxic workers, some isolated and others fired, but they were right. On the other hand, some change is not illegal, and is necessary or even good, and some workers will still be resistant. However, there are ways to help these workers acclimate to new processes and technologies. Management can show their employees why the changes are positive and needed and managers can provide plenty of ongoing training to make transitions easier.
  2. The slacker: This person is described as lazy, wasteful, lacking in motivation, frequently absent and frequently wasting time online. I’m sure you’re thinking of people you know who fit this bill and you may be inclined to look upon them with disfavor. Have you thought about what their jobs are like from their point of view? Do you know that there’s a trend in middle management to hire people to do nothing on purpose? Yes, look it up, it’s a trend. Do-nothing employees are often hired to fill in teams, spend budgets to prevent budget cuts and allow for the promotion of managers. Other “slackers” are created when there is insufficient management direction or job training. Maybe that slacker thought he or she was getting a real job and found out the hard way that the job is to do exactly nothing. Maybe everything the slacker did was buried or berated by management. Maybe the slacker was hired to do a job that management hasn’t quite figured out or hasn’t trained anyone to do. Maybe that slacker is trying to get out of the do-nothing job, but it’s already damaged his or her career by imparting no responsibility, no knowledge and no experience.
  3. The bad attitude, martyr, over-emotional: This person is unpleasant to be around because he or she is moody, short-tempered, angry. Remarkably, I have seen this stereotype label someone who comes to work when ill — as if management never demands employees come in when ill. In my experience, more often than not, this category of toxic employee is overworked, discouraged from taking time off, is taking on work from layoffs or planned attrition, and is in too low level of a position to be able to delegate. HR warns management to get rid of this person, but I think it might be smarter to consider this person as the canary in the coal mine. This person is telling management that there is something wrong and isn’t given an appropriate outlet to communicate that.
  4. The gossip or socialite: This person socializes at work, often berating others in the process. This person is accused of being unprofessional, creating office drama and disrupting work. I see this person as a combination of numbers 1, 2 and 3 above. This person doesn’t have enough knowledge, experience, direction or work and is envious of others or sees something wrong and has no constructive way of communicating that. Perhaps this person hasn’t had a performance review in 15 years and feels frustrated for not being recognized or heard. This person may also be a canary in the coal mine. Something bigger than issues from one problem employee is wrong.
  5. The sociopath: The sociopath is described as having issues with authority, interpersonal problems, manipulative and bullying. Certainly, there are people genuinely struggling with mental illness and if we had better mental heath parity in our health care non-system, those issues would be more easily resolved. Absent true mental illness, there are other circumstances that could cause people to inappropriately act out. For example, management pay structures may be the cause of some of the bullying. Managers are often under pressure to perform at unrealistic levels to earn bonuses that supplement a low base wage. They feel entitled to the bonus because they were sold on it as part of a compensation package. Some of these managers resort to bullying their subordinates into overwork, short cuts or down right immoral or illegal behavior. The 2008 economic collapse provides an example. Mortgages didn’t defraud themselves. Homeowners with no real estate and finance knowledge or experience should not be blamed. Policies and practices were put in place at lending and title companies that encouraged managers and staff to make and close inappropriate loans. Manager wanted those bonuses. Employees were under incredible stress to go along and those who refused were branded toxic. Even absent those specific conditions, some employers stress the fungibility of employees and create the situation where employees compete to keep their jobs, sabotaging and berating each other for survival. I’ve also seen too small workspaces create difficult interpersonal situations. Employees stuffed into small spaces can feel less than human.

After reading article after article written by HR professionals bemoaning “toxic employees,” I’ve come to the notion that the term is just another myth like the “lazy American factory worker.” A myth created to deflect management problems onto workers and create a more insecure workplace for workers so they tow the line even if the line is inefficient, ineffective, wrong or illegal. It promotes the attitude that everything is a labor problem and nothing is a management or policy and procedure problem. It also creates a self-fulfilling prophesy as those labeled or subject to labeling can easily become the label because of the isolation that goes with the label. This is bad for productivity, competition, and innovation. It promotes ethics and legal problems that harm owners, shareholders, employees and customers and damages the nation just as much as the myth of the “lazy American factory worker” did when it was used to weaken labor protections and promote outsourcing and offshoring. These descriptions of toxic employees can describe just about anybody on a bad day or in a bad job or with a bad boss or can describe a middle manager under pressure from upper management. If everyone is toxic in their own way and to be avoided, how do we maintain work groups or promote innovation? How do we argue against automating everything and losing human creativity? Surely that robot, programed to do a specific defined job, repetitively and without complaint or insight, isn’t as toxic as your co-worker. If workers are simply resources, and poor resources at that, how do we keep our jobs, productivity, work relationships, society and humanity? Maybe it’s time to roll out those old Personnel Departments. Focus on people, the workers, managers, customers and shareholders, as people. Limit Human Resources to actual resources, the inanimate and digital objects that people use to do their jobs. Inanimate and digital objects are fungible. People are not fungible and are not toxic.

Lawyer, Teacher, Mediator. Worked on many political campaigns and learned nothing will help until we enforce our laws, particularly laws against corruption.

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