An Honest Conversation Between an Employee and Boss

What employees and higher-ups wish they could say to each other.

Posted Aug 02, 2016

Subhashish Panigrahi, CC 3.0
Source: Subhashish Panigrahi, CC 3.0

Most people feel they can't tell their boss or supervisee what they really think. What might a completely honest conversation be like?

The employee asks his/her boss

Supervisee: Do you really care about our company (or nonprofit)?

Boss: A little. I couldn't make myself go to work in the morning if I didn't believe in it. But if all our profits went to our competitor, I wouldn't care that much—except that I'd have to look for another job.

Supervisee: Do you really think you deserve to make twice as much as I do?

Boss: Yes, I'm smarter, harder-working, and lower-maintenance than you are and I add more than twice your value to the bottom line. I do think that the small percentage of top executives who make a million dollars a year or more should voluntarily give back part of that to the workers or to charity. If someone is smart, hard-working, and well-adjusted enough to reach that lucrative a position, not all that is his or her doing. S/he had the benefit of good genetics, good upbringing, and some luck. S/he has the obligation to give back.

Supervisee:  We used to be paid based on our individual performance. Now it's partly based on the team's. Why did you do that?

Boss: Some of the reason is legitimate—I want to incent team members to help each other. But some of it is merely to conform to the current societal norm: replacing individualism with collaboration, teamwork, sharing, the it-takes-a-village philosophy. Most employees are happier with that. Deep down though, I do worry that all the emphasis on team demotivates high achievers who have to pick up the slack for the weaker employees and, for their trouble, get paid less than they would have if paid only on their individual contribution. Conversely, group-based pay rewards the weak employees who get more than they would have on the merits.

Supervisee: How likely is that we employees who have full-time benefited jobs will get replaced by part-time/temp just-in-time employees, or get our jobs automated or offshored?

Boss: Sooner or later, that will happen to most positions. I don't see it happening widely for a while. But for us to stay in business, we must be price-competitive and we can't be if we're using mainly full-time benefited employees while our competitors are just-in-timing, offshoring, and automating. If we resisted that, we'd all be out of a job.

Supervisee: When you have those private meetings with executives, is what you decide to do as ethical as in your public pronouncements?

Boss: There are ethical lines we won't cross—We try to minimize polluting the air and water but we usually don't go beyond the letter of the law. With less life-and-death issues like using cheaper quality parts than we probably should, or short-cut product testing so we can get to the market faster, yes, we sometimes do that.

Supervisee: Why won't you let me telecommute at least part of the week? You'd save office space and instead of my being stressed by the time I get to work from the ever longer commute, you get a fresh employee. Are you afraid I'll shirk?

Boss: Yes. There's only so much work-product we can check. In addition, while, of course, you could communicate with coworkers by email, Skype, and phone, there is additional benefit, if only psychological, for your being together. But on reflection, another reason I don't allow it, is simply that I never have, habit. You're right. Certainly with employees who've proven themselves intrinsically motivated, I should at least allow them the option of a trial day-a-week of telecommuting.

Supervisee: You tell us you want us to have work-life balance but you're here late most nights. So we're afraid that you're just mouthing the work-life balance mantra but when you're deciding whom to promote, whom to give a bigger bonus to, and whom to terminate, employees that leave at 5:00 are at risk.

Boss: Truthfully, I stay late because I'm happier at work than at home. Home is stressful and the problems are mundane. Here, I work on interesting problems and feel my efforts make a bigger difference than making dinner, cleaning the house, and addressing my family's little issues. Yes, in my heart of hearts, I wish all my employees had my work ethic but I'm a realist and if I fly in the face of the zeitgeist and even imply that my employees should work 60+ hours a week like I do, there'd be too much unhappiness, perhaps insurrection, and I could lose too many employees.

The boss asks the employee

Boss: Do you like me?

Employee: Sort of.  You're pleasant and show at least a little interest in us as you walk down the halls. But you behave quite differently than a worker bee—more formal and, as I said, you're always working. And maybe I'm a little jealous of your position or threatened by your ability.

Boss: How do you justify expecting me to look the other way when you essentially steal from me: chat a lot and play on the Internet during work time, take longer lunches than allowed, and take "sick days" disproportionately on Mondays, Fridays, and before or after a three day weekend? And I've had some employees who, knowing they were weak employees and about to be terminated, filed a bogus ADA, harassment or discrimination claim, knowing that if I fired them after that, the court would likely consider it retaliation.

Employee: The truth is that, within limits, many people do they can to get extra time off, free money, whatever, especially from an organization with deep pockets. They're motivated more by exigency than by ethics.

Boss: How can I motivate you to work more?

Employee: Money won't do it. You need to both praise me when I do something legitimately good—like put a letter in my file and print out a copy for me to show to my family. But when I'm screwing up or even just skating by, you need to be on me. Being scared of reprisal works.

Boss: What's one more thing you want to ask or tell me?

Employee: I like working here and I'd feel terrible to lose my job.

The takeaway

If you're an employee, is there anything honest you want to say to your boss that you haven't yet?

If you're a boss, is there anything honest you want to say to a supervisee(s) that you haven't yet?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.