Unpacking the Meaningless Phrases Your Boss Says

"You make more money than I do!" and other lies employers tell.

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I almost quit my last job when my boss complained that one of his employees made more money than he did.

Not only was it wildly inappropriate to comment on a colleague’s salary, but his claim was simply not true. My boss was the owner of the business, and no matter how much he paid himself or his employees, he would always be the owner. If he had to fire everyone tomorrow, he’d still have the business. He had assets, collateral, job security—innumerable options and immeasurable flexibility in case things went horribly wrong. 

This boss was not the first person to say some version of, “Feel sorry for me because my employees make more than I do,” to me. Yes, owning a business is hard, and is difficult in a way that I have not experienced. But all too often, business owners and bosses lose sight of the perspectives of their employees and say things to them that are untrue, demeaning, belittling, or downright manipulative. 

Here are just some of the things I’ve heard during a decade of service work: 

“You Make More Money Than I Do!”

I was inspired to write this piece because of this phrase. I note one example above, but I’ve actually been told multiple times that I make more money than the owners of the businesses I work for. 

The “more money” argument assumes that, because a business owner controls the means of production (they own the shop, the restaurant, the company, whatever), they should be compensated the most. However, I’ve worked multiple jobs where I spend more time at their business and I do more money-generating work than they do. 

Most service workers can relate. How many absentee bosses have you worked for? How many business owners waltz in a few times a week, grab free drinks and goodies, and then bounce? I’ve worked for coffee shops owners who could not make coffee. Whose work is more valuable in this situation? If you don’t show up to work, nothing changes. If I don’t show up to work, you can’t open the store. Case closed. 

If, as a business owner, you are truly struggling to make money, think about why that is—it’s certainly not because you’re paying your staff too much. What responsibilities can you take on that you are perhaps unwilling to learn (you know, like making coffee)? What does efficiency look like in your space? Are you open for too many hours of the day? Are you overstaffed? 

Whatever it is, don’t complain to your employees about not making enough money. It’s an unfair burden to place on them, and if they make more money than you do, that’s your fault. 

“A Fast-Paced Environment”

This is a phrase that is often code for, “We expect a whole fucking lot of work from you.” Unless it’s critical for workers to be fast (perhaps you operate a very high-volume cafe or restaurant), “fast-paced” isn’t a phrase that’s easily translatable for most potential employees. 

When I read the phrase “fast-paced,” I expect decisions to be made quickly and without argument. There are times when this is appropriate—if you work for a daily newspaper, for example. But being slow and careful often matters more, and a lot of folks benefit from a workspace where they can take their time to achieve the best results. 

Be clear what you mean when you say “fast-paced,” and gauge how that is measured. If you’re in an office and operate with a “fast-paced” mentality to get more work done or onboard more clients, does that offer any benefit to employees—many of whom are probably not compensated in step with their workloads increasing? Being “fast-paced” means there should be tangible payoff for workers; an acknowledgement of and reward for the effort employees put in to keep that pace. 

“Yeah, But You Get to Have Fun!” 

If you work in service, someone has probably said this to you.

From the outside looking in, service work is fun. Baristas look like they’re having a great time! Servers have smiles on their faces! But that’s because looking like we’re having fun is often our literal job.

Employers who pull the “work is fun” card are likely trying to leverage that fact as a way to underpay their staff—it’s a tactic we’ve seen every union-busting coffee shop pull. A fun work environment is sometimes described as a workplace benefit, but if it doesn’t translate to more money, time off, or tangible benefits, then it’s an unfair card to pull. 

“Self-Directed/Self-Starter”

One of the lessons I learned when I was a teacher is that, if a majority of students fail a test, it’s because the teacher didn’t adequately communicate what they needed to do to pass it. If your goal is for students to pass a test, you should start backwards—first write the test, then measure what’s needed to pass it, and finally give students the necessary critical skills and tools to do so.

Jobs are no different. 

Often, we hire when we need to fill a position, and we rarely give much more thought to the process than that. We hope—and more often expect—that we’ll hire someone who will thrive. But most workplaces don’t have a plan in place to actively help folks thrive. 

Yes, it’s certainly helpful to be a “self-starter.” In every classroom, there are always a few students who will pass a test no matter what the teacher does. But that doesn’t mean the other students aren’t self-starters. They just haven’t been given the tools they need to succeed. 

“Self-directed” as a job descriptor usually means that there will be minimal training, and that measures of success are arbitrary. It’s an excuse for ambiguity. If self-direction is truly an important skill in the job you’re hiring for, think of ways you can empower people to be self-directed. Realistically, a lack of self-direction is often more indicative of a lack of trust at work. If an employee doesn’t know how a boss will react to their initiatives and feels stymied as a result, their “lack of self-direction” is the fault of their employer’s. 

“We All Do A Little Bit of Everything.”

This often comes up among small businesses with lean staffing. I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with asking people to be dexterous in their job descriptions—but all too often, this blanket statement gets used to saddle folks with a pile-on of assorted tasks as they get more comfortable in their roles. In short: It’s a way to give people more responsibilities without paying them more. 

The mindset of the “small-business owner” can be harmful in these situations. Because a business is small, owners justify their need to have very skilled people by virtue of necessity—but they can also talk themselves into paying as little as possible for the sake of the business. 

Language like “we all wear multiple hats” needs to come with some acknowledgment that there’s a limit to what an employee is expected to do given their pay scale and job description. There also needs to be a way to measure when an employee has gone beyond their stated job title, and how they can be appropriately compensated for doing so. Being a small business is no excuse to take advantage of people’s time and skills. 

“We’re Like A Family Here!” 

You know how I feel about this line.

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