The worst morale boosting gesture I've experienced

I promise you this story is true.

Many years ago, when I was very young and you were even younger...

Work was not going well. Our recently launched product was a flop. Rumours of job cuts were swirling. Things were tense.

I was sat in work, headphones on, trying to drown out the sound of the open-plan office. Grinding through emails. When suddenly someone tapped me on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," the vaguely familiar woman said, "do you work for Vodafone?"

I was wearing a Voda lanyard, typing into a Voda laptop, with great big Voda posters around me. Because we were both in Vodafone's London office.

"Errr.... Yes? Why?" It wasn't uncommon for angry customers to make their way to the office, sneak past security, and loudly grumble at marketing managers about their billing problems.

"You're brilliant!" she gushed, "Wow! Everything you do is great! Your customers love you!"

I looked around the office, there were several strangers heaping out effusive praise. I rang building security - because I literally thought it was some kind of weird prank / invasion.

"Ah yes," said the security guard, "you're not the first person to call..."

I looked up. The half dozen strangers had formed a line and started doing a little song-and-dance about how lucky we were to work for Vodafone, and how our jobs improved people's lives every day.

Work had paid for actors to come in and, literally, sing our praises.

I'd love to know the thought process behind this "initiative."

If it had been actually senior managers emerging from their offices to walk the open-plan spaces - that would have been pretty nice. Sure, it might have been slightly hollow, but having the CxO stop by for a little chat and word of encouragement is a hell of a lot less synthetic than paying people to pretend that you're doing well.

I don't know how much it cost (thanks shareholders!) - but I'd much rather have the cash. Or a book token. Or a free lunch. Or anything material. It's hard to fake a sandwich.

So, what's the most misplaced gesture of support you've received from your employer?

20 thoughts on “The worst morale boosting gesture I've experienced

  1. Hilary says:

    That is hilarious! Mine is not as funny but in the early days of a startup there were about 20 of us and the MD decided at an away dinner to individually thank each person for something they had done that helped us do great things - except half way through he forgot the name of his own staff and it backfired spectacularly.

  2. My then manager once closed a team meeting with the words, (literally):

    "Thank you, and whatever other motivational stuff l'm supposed to say".

  3. When our company decided to rent the floor of our building, they were given a few floor plans that would work quite well. They turned down all of them. They wanted ALL the managers to have their own office, and those offices had to have windows. The building engineers warned that this would mess up the HVAC, but management wouldn’t be deterred.

    So, in our office, you either froze or you burned up. I know many offices are like this, bit this was the first office where people would wear their winter gear in the middle of summer, and where people brought several changes of shirts because they’d sweat through them throughout the day. Management kept insisting that it wasn’t a problem and that it was all in our minds.

    Then, one Christmas, our company bought everyone desk clocks… that also displayed the temperature on them. Needless to say, management got LOTS of pictures of our clocks over the next few months. Not that it did anything, of course. Management just banned the sending of pictures through email…

  4. Drew says:

    I was working on a computer game, an industry notorious for the idea of “crunch” where staff work insanely long hours for months to meet some predestined shipping date. We were in crunch, had been for a while, and the deadline was rapidly approaching.

    I saw an email pop up from my manager, marked high importance with a subject line of “Your Priorities”.

    So I opened it. It read:
    “If you are reading this email you’re not focussed enough on your work”

  5. When I was working for a state government agency, we had all-staff meetings about once a month.

    On one occasion, our boss, the head of IT, while standing in front of everyone, said "Our number one job is to maintain appearances."

    After that, when the time came for another meeting, I went down the hall toward the restroom and out the door on opposite side of the building, and then home. No one noticed.

    1. shitty tech monkye says:

      I did similarly in Citibank. After my first quarterly all-staff meeting in the Budapest office I just went for a walk for 1.5 hours and noone noticed.

  6. Dan A says:

    Not using my real name as I don’t want to risk legal action being taken against me.

    I have working in the software industry for about 5 years now. The first job I had (for about 18 months) was at a small company of no more than about 15 people at any one time, and we had an extremely large backlog. One day the MD went into the office where we have all the devs and said that if we cleared the backlog by Christmas, we (the 5 or so devs we were) would get an iPad each. They didn’t want to give us a bonus as it would be taxed. Sounds good and fair respectively, right?

    Except that it was like a month or two until Christmas. And we had well in excess of a year’s worth of work in the backlog.

    I could see right away that they were just dangling carrots in the hopes that we would bust our nuts and work a huge amount of unpaid overtime, but the other developers went right ahead and did probably a half to two hours of overtime every day for weeks after. To be fair to them, I think they were already doing overtime, which I didn’t partake in most of the time because I had a life to get back to.

  7. Alex J says:

    I worked for about 6 months at a very poorly managed software consultancy (we regularly laughed at our MD behind his back for being a clueless idiot). The company is now going out of business (this was clearly the trajectory, even when I left a year ago).

    Once when he'd agreed to a totally unreasonable feature request from a client (that wasn't in the spec) we pushed back on him and he started grinning like a lunatic and shouted 'In the 60s they put a man on the moon!'

    'Er, what?!'

    'In the 60s they put a man on the moon!'

    'Mark we're a software consultancy with like 5 developers, not NASA'.

    All the people who were there during that conversation have now left for better things.

  8. Rob says:

    On my first day at a new job I made 2 small checkins and pushed a bug fix into production. My manager and a senior teammate pulled me aside and asked me to slow down – we didn’t want to set the owner’s expectations too high and make them think we’d be this productive every day.

    I would learn that they weren’t lazy but the owners had no sense of direction. Every day was a hot new idea and yesterday’s priority was forgotten. Why bother making progress towards a goal that will change tomorrow?

  9. Anon O. Mouse says:

    My large department held quarterly meetings to celebrate the work that had been completed. Team members on large year-long projects which were completed on or before schedule were presented with an envelope containing a check. Usually a few hundred dollars, on rare occasions up to a thousand dollars. It was a nice little gesture that showed that management appreciated the extra effort. And it was enough to go out to a nice dinner, and put some away for later.

    The project I was working on had recently been completed on schedule, and I had worked a ton of overtime to help make that happen. I was trying to keep my expectations down, but I was still hopeful that my contribution would be recognized.

    Well, I was called up to be recognized. My manager announced to everyone that due to budget cutbacks, from this point forward, there would no longer be checks as part of the recognition. But in it's place, I was presented with... a large candy bar.

    I stood there in shock for a few seconds, and then loudly and clearly announced that I could not accept it, and returned to where I was sitting, even though my manager kept trying to stick it into my hands.

    That was the last meeting of that kind my department had.

  10. Max Mustermann says:

    When I was in a large engineering company associated with excellence among people who don’t know them first hand, we were told that a program for recognising engineering efforts was about to go live; as we had been mightily annoyed for years with the fact that just about any other function – management, finance, HR – had cash bonus schemes, we were quite hopeful that finally, the message had sunk in that we’d appreciate being let in on the fun. (Earlier, the standard response when we broached the subject was that working as an engineer for $COMPANY was so prestigious that we would be able to land jobs anywhere after leaving them, so why were we requesting more?)

    Anyway, the scheme was launched. In the form of a small notice in the division pdf magazine with a circulation of a few thousand and a readership of none, acknowledging that $ENGINEER had contributed to the success of $PROJECT, where the names were seemingly drawn at random.

    We tested out the “You’ll be able to land a job anywhere!” hypothesis en masse shortly thereafter. They were right about that part, anyway.

  11. An On says:

    A couple of years ago there was a pretty bad crunch that had me and my coworkers at the company working all day, every day, for a few months straight. This was all due to ludicrous promises that our latest revolving-door Executive Vice President of Some Bullshit had made without consulting engineering. We were bringing on an existentially important partner and it was a make or break moment for the company so we were all on board, but it was a brutal slog that caused an immense amount of stress and general human suffering. Management was cool as far as management goes, and once they realized what trouble we were in they did their best to support us.

    Christmas was coming up and with it there was talk of bonuses, which were otherwise not normal for us – big bonuses, on the order of 20% of our annual salary for the hardest workers. Since the team I was on was working harder than anyone else, and everyone knew it, I instantly assumed that would include me. My eyes filled with dollar signs. It felt really good that my work would pay off, and not in a “10-20 years when we IPO” sort of sense. I felt less like a chump who was being taken for a ride so that some investors could get rich, and more like a valued member of the team.

    The Christmas party came along, and the VP who caused this mess stood up to make a speech. With a strained smile she expounded on how much she appreciated how hard we were working. “And in recognition of your hard work, I’d like to specifically call out a few people to come up and receive a ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR AMAZON GIFT CARD.” My jaw fell open. And I was called up by name in front of the company to receive my gift card. I specifically remember that when she shook my hand and thanked me, I merely let out a kind of strangled squeak and took my gift card and sat down without a word.

    Several more months of demoralizing crunch time later, we did end up getting the promised bonuses. But that gift card stunt has to be the most pathetic possible token of appreciation she could have offered. I think I bought half a pair of shoes with it. One shoe.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Years ago I was working in the I.T. department of a large retail chain. During an all-I.T. meeting, the vice president of I.T. told all of us that were were a “cost center” and that we should all be grateful that we had jobs. Also, he told us we were overpaid.

    He was wrong on all three counts. Proving the last one false was most excellent when I left that job for a job in a technical company and doubled my salary.

  13. Beto Dealmeida says:

    We were working on a very important paper that had a very strict deadline. Half the team were climate scientists, the other half were engineers. My boss told the whole team that it would require a lot of work, but if we made the deadline everyone would get a week off.

    The whole team worked like crazy. We generated 400 TB of climate simulations, analyzed everything, wrote a paper and prepared the data to be shared with the community. We made the deadline on the last day!

    My boss then told everyone that the scientists could take a week off, but that the work of the engineers wasn’t as hard, so they could take a 2 or 3 days off instead — up to them to decide.

    They all decided to take the whole week off.

  14. John Smith says:

    While I was working at Symantec, answering customer tickets by the hundreds every week, we were stuck in a “pay freeze” for over two years. Every couple months the next vertical job opportunity opened up and a dozen people from our team would apply…. and they would hire externally.

    As a support center we always work holidays. To our surprise, in late December we all came into work and there was a bonus was waiting for us: A single serving packet of hot chocolate with a card from the company.

  15. Justin D says:

    My manager invited everyone to the largest meeting room to hand out our performance raises for the year. She put all of the slips of paper into a hat, pulled the papers out of a hat and then gave the paper to the employee. After all of the papers were handed out, my manager asked me, "have you been here for a year yet?" I replied "No." She then said "Oh, well you'll get one next year. You don't get one unless you've been here for a year." Everyone stared at me in absolute horror. My coworkers took me out for lunch and then I went home.

  16. No Thanks says:

    CEO back rubs. It was at a Series A startup. He would walk around office doling them out whenever he was stressed.

    So fucking creepy.

    Oh, and this is redundant, but he's in crypto now.

    Fuck that guy.

  17. says:

    My previous company had engineering team lunches once a month. As financial hardship fell on the company, the quality of these lunches degraded. We worked in an office park where, at the time, the only walkable restaurant was Subway. We called it the walk of shame after having been subjected to it for 1-2 years.

    One of the lunches towards the end was a Subway platter. Most of the engineers grumbled a little bit upon seeing it. My coworker, let’s call him $DAVE, walked in and said “Subway? GOD DAMNIT!”

    It still cracks me up thinking about it.

  18. Kurt Guntheroth says:

    Our company sent us a “paycheck” in the kind of envelope usually used for paychecks. It was an itemized list of all the “extra” pay we got: several kinds of payroll taxes, health care premiums, social security, etc., and a braggy note saying that this state-required payment was like a paycheck. We were not amused.

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