Don't Trust Your Boss

It's a blanket policy—and it's a good one for you, your work, and your well-being.

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Don’t believe anything your boss says.

On September 19, 2017, La Colombe CEO Todd Carmichael wrote a strongly worded op-ed for the Philadelphia Enquirer claiming he paid his staff $15 an hour. In the piece, Carmichael admonished companies that didn’t pay their staff a living wage. It was only revealed two years later that he actually paid them “more like $9 an hour.”

On July 4, 2020, Augie’s Coffee, amidst weeks of discussion among workers about unionizing, closed all five of its retail locations in Southern California. The company announced on social media that its closure had nothing to do with the union efforts. Rather, it said, it was due to the challenges of operating a business during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is despite the fact that Augie’s did not close any outlets or reduce its hours prior to shuttering all five of its retail locations.

On September 30, 2020, the entire staff at Intelligentsia’s Austin location were laid off and told their store would be closing. They were given no notice.

What do all these incidents have in common? They’re all shitty, obviously. They all involve broken trust and lost livelihoods. All these stories were big enough to be reported, or shared widely.

But something doesn’t have to happen on this scale to be harmful. I’d guess nearly everyone has had a moment when a boss told them one thing, and then did something else—something unhelpful, or misleading, or actively detrimental—later. No matter how small these moments might seem, they are all still violations of trust. And their damage adds up.

It’s easy to chalk up Bad Boss Behavior™ to a Bad Boss—the one problematic person in a company whose actions reflect their individual character flaws. But even if you have a great relationship with your boss, you still shouldn’t trust them.

All too often, we assume that our bosses will do the things they say. At the very least, we assume they won’t screw us over. In turn, we allow for verbal agreements to sub in for written and signed-upon transactions. We hope for goodwill that might not be there at all.

To question trust shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. Instead, examining trust should be an invitation, and a reminder to ask further questions:

“Is my boss actually going to give me a raise in six months? How do I know this will happen?”

“Will my job afford me the flexibility I was initially promised? How can I get this in writing?”

“If I’m told I’m going to be promoted at the end of this quarter, will my boss honor that agreement? What will I do if they promote someone ahead of me?”

Questioning trust means removing ambiguity and making verbal and tacit promises tactile and real. It feels deeply unnatural to do this—most of us want to take people at their word. Unfortunately, the incidents outlined above show us that bosses don’t always do what they say they’re going to do, and it’s almost always to the detriment of employees.

It’d be easy to argue that you shouldn’t trust your boss because all bosses are bad. However, I want to remove morality entirely from this. This isn’t an argument about liking or disliking people, but rather a framework for approaching workplace interactions.

People we like—our friends, our colleagues—violate our trust all the time, and generally we get to make choices about whether or not we forgive them. If a friend pisses you off because they shared a secret you told them in confidence, you can choose to forgive them or ghost them for a month.

When your boss breaks your trust, the stakes are different, and generally much higher. Being overlooked for a promised promotion is a measurable monetary loss. A leader misrepresenting your wages—the baristas at La Colombe reported that they feared customers would tip them less since Carmichael was so vocal about his “stance” on paying people a living wage—could change how much money you take home.

Not only are the power dynamics different between friends and bosses, but the solutions are, too. You can’t ghost your boss if they break your trust. There aren’t a lot of options to rectify the situation. At best, you have to keep trucking along. At worst, if you bring it up, you could get fired in retaliation.

Workplace dynamics have always been tricky for employees—for less-empowered parties generally—to navigate. That’s especially true now, when COVID-19 has demonstrated that employers are willing to let go of workers the moment they sense instability (or use the pandemic as cover for all kinds of mistreatment). Ultimately, it’s important to get in the habit of asking questions and doing your best to ensure you’re protected. Just because a boss says they’re going to do something doesn’t mean they will.

Don’t trust them.

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