As a recent college graduate, I’ve noticed numerous companies which attract lots of talent and interest in my demographic that market themselves as having “unorthodox” or “modern” organizational structures. In most cases, I feel like this carries positive connotations – not being a “stereotypical office job” is a common selling point during interviews, more relaxed dress codes and younger bosses indicates a more exciting and less imposing or stressful job, etc. However, after working in one of these work environments, I began to question whether these more modern organizational structures can actually hinder quality of management, both in terms of who’s doing the managing and what’s the output.
My experience with an unorthodox corporation
I worked at a large and quite profitable IT company which markets itself as being a fun, quirky place to work. While that’s good on the surface, one of their quirks was the organizational structure, which was largely driven by randomness and tenure. Applicants apply for a certain position, and if they’re offered the job they are then assigned behind-the-scenes to work on one of the company’s applications. The company claims they base these placements off of a personality test, but for the most part and certainly from the perspective of a new employee, placement is random. Once an employee begins working there, moving up in the company has almost nothing to do with merit; employees are all but guaranteed to become a “manager” within 2 years, as long as they don’t quit first. Good performance earns very generous raises or bonuses, but promotions are essentially just granted to those who survive their industry-leading employee burnout epidemic during their first year or two. While I may seem harsh or critical, I want to be clear that I do think the company was more or less fair to its employees – they pay well, have excellent benefits, and do a good job of maintaining a fun and upbeat attitude across the whole company. I think those things are necessary as well, since employees are expected to work fifty-five hour work weeks on average. It is certainly a tough job; if you don’t think it’s a fun job, at least they try hard to make your burnout fun and worth the while.
When you’re new at this company, your experience is heavily influenced by your manager – they’re supposed to serve as a mentor and help you get acclimated to leading projects with your application. Most new employees do get along fine with their managers and find them to be good managers, but sometimes new employees, myself included, end up being managed by a great employee without any solid leadership skills. To elaborate, I thought my manager on my project was a model employee: She was hard-working, focused, meticulous, and knew the ins and outs of our application quite well. She had been part of successful projects and had already proved she could handle the implementation of our application. She was personable enough to be able to build up a good rapport with our customers/collaborators. However, when it came down to helping me learn the ins and outs of implementing our application, she was never particularly supportive or helpful, but rather discouraging at times. She had never been a manager of any kind before. She would undermine me frequently during meetings. She would send short and passive aggressive emails, and she’d rather sell me out before helping me out. For example, there were occasions when she’d withhold my work to “approve” it before submittal (which wasn’t a requirement), which would cause me to miss the deadline, yet she would take no accountability for it, letting it only reflect negatively on myself. As a cherry on top, even her body language was unsupportive: she would never look me in the eyes when we’d have important conversations, and on many occasions I would see her mood and facial expression become sour when I’d approach her for assistance. To me, a good manager is someone who sticks up for those they manage and leads with a positive attitude, so per my definition and expectations, I did not have a good manager.
Potential impact of an unfit manager
I didn’t know anyone else who had a manager as flat out rude and unsupportive as mine, luckily, but my complaints of having a manager without leadership or managerial skills were certainly not unique. Per my observations, it was common to hear someone describe their manager as “good with the technical side but not much of a leader”. I also knew employees who had no intention of being at the manager level on a project, but were staffed as such anyways. While I don’t think these complaints of mine are exclusive to newer atypical tech companies, I’ve wondered since leaving how/whether the “make a manager out of anyone” approach helps or hurts the company and its employees. To answer my own question, I think it’s a little bit of both. On a larger scale, the company always delivers on its promises to its customers, dominates its industry, and makes a great amount of money, but it also has a reputation in the industry of abusing employees: the aforementioned high burnout rate and a 2018 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court deemed “a blow to worker rights” demonstrate that. On a smaller scale, many employees do enjoy the dynamic workplace, and there are many good managers who can balance managing both people and a project, yet there are many instances in which someone gets a manager who just isn’t well equipped to manage someone in their own age group, which, I believe, contributes to a large number of employees leaving in under 2 years. I know that employee burnout is not a new trend, but the fact that many young and fresh-out-of-college employees are beginning to experience burnout so immediately makes me question the efficacy of newer companies with what could be considered more modern organizational structures.
Since these “new-wave” companies are all newer and seem to be more tech-centric, I don’t yet expect there to be any firm answers to my thoughts and questions posed here, I just wanted to share my experience and opinions. I understand that this is an issue about which it would be inappropriate to generalize for an entire “industry” even. But I do strongly believe one thing: if a company actively tries to operate with a modern/unorthodox/quirky structure, it runs a higher risk of creating new and possibly unforeseen problems internally, and management quality is no exception to this.