I Worked for a Dictator Boss Who Called Me A ‘Bad Influence’ Because I Smoke

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As an employee, you work hard to gain the respect of your boss. But what if your boss is not someone you can respect and work with? 

According to psychologists, there are 6 types of bosses: the Visionary, the Coach, the Affiliative, the Democratic, the Commander and the Pacesetter. My boss falls into the category of the Commander but with an added bonus of being a ‘Discriminator’.

It’s not a bad thing to have a boss that is a Commander but there are pros and cons: 

The pros is that the Commander gives clear instructions and directions, and he assuages fears with a powerful stance. The cons is that he expects full compliance, whether or not you agree to the plan.  

But there’s a 7th type of boss that hides their true nature in the shadows. That boss is the Cult Leader, and here’s how I didn’t realise I was in one’s clutches until it was too late:

It started when he found out I was a smoker

Image via Unsplash

It all started when I joined this boutique agency. I had quit my previous job in digital marketing, and really needed a job badly. I gave in to a slightly lower pay because of it. 

The first two months, everything went alright. The people were nice and friendly, work was running smoothly.

In the third month, I was told by others that this CEO does not like employees who smoke. 

He’d come into the office and announce to nobody in particular that the office stinks from the smell of cigarettes. Other employees in the office smoked too, but they were forced to hide it every time they went out for a smoke break. 

I was baffled, because I have never heard of a company that doesn’t allow you to smoke. It wasn’t stated in the contract, and anyway, it was my personal preference whether to smoke or not.

One time, he even called me and the other smokers into his office to give us a ‘health’ talk. During that talk, he offered to hire a hypnosis instructor or therapist to help each of us to quit. 

Soon, it started affecting my performance reviews. He’d judge me for smoking and give me a lower performance rating, claiming that cigarettes would kill my brain cells.

This was a whole new level of discrimination. How does smoking affect work performance? 

I received a RM500 pay cut because I asked for a day off

Image via Unsplash

The boutique agency prided itself on taking care of its employees’ mental health. They even offered therapy sessions on Fridays. 

One day, I was hit with a sudden wave of depression, and afraid that I would end up breaking down out of nowhere, I requested for a day off. They agreed. The next day, I made a few mistakes in my work such as typos or minor changes to the copy.

A few days later, the Commander called me into his office to speak to me. He told me point blank that because I was not performing well, he was going to dock my pay. 

Upset, I explained the situation again, that it was only 2 days that I wasn’t in the right mind, but he brought up the smoking too. Eventually, he forced me to sign a contract stating that there would be a pay cut of RM500.

For a company that says they care about mental health, this was the total opposite of what they were doing.

I tried to do better to make up for my “poor performance”, but every 3 months at my performance review, smoking was brought up, or my work was not good enough. My pay lasted that way for the next one year. 

When I asked for advice about this, most of the other employees told me to file a case with the labour law, because it was illegal for one to cut your pay unless it’s for really big reasons. 

Another probationary employee was told, at the end of her 3-month probation period, to take a pay cut if she was interested to continue on. It’s the first time I’d heard of someone getting less pay after probation rather than more. This was the start of such underhanded behaviour.

My CEO accused me of being a “bad influence”

Image via Unsplash

This same employee and I became good friends. During her probation, she would join me and another friend for smoke breaks. 

Eventually, we got accused of being a bad influence to other people because we smoke together. The dislike from The Commander grew bigger towards even the other employees that talk or spend time with us. 

They would get called into his office to be interrogated about what they talked about with us. During their performance reviews, topics about them “spending time with bad company” would eventually arise, and he’d claim that they “should not hang out with a ‘toxic’ bunch”.

People started avoiding us as they were afraid they would get into trouble. It seemed that he was afraid we were badmouthing him behind his back. 

Without attempting to check if that was true, he made us out to be demons who weren’t to be trusted. That’s the second sign — ostracising and assigning negative traits with no proof.

We were forced to apologise for a simple scheduling issue

Image via Unsplash

During Christmas season, there was a company dinner that we weren’t told was compulsory to attend. 3 months before Christmas, me and another employee applied for a week of annual leave — which was fully approved by the HR. 

We spoke to our direct supervisors about this scheduling conflict, but instead of understanding, they told us that we should cancel our plans and be available on that day. 

This was a Christmas party on a Saturday, a non-working day. We were not paid to attend that party. We have to have a valid reason to skip that party or else it would piss the Commander off. 

Since we couldn’t cancel, we couldn’t attend the party, and offered to cover the cost of our food instead. Regardless of that, he was very angry, and our supervisor forced us to personally apologise to him in order to make him feel better. 

It was not our fault at all as we applied 3 months in advance, but His Majesty did not want to speak or even look at us.

Later, I found out that there were others who were allowed to skip the Christmas dinner, and were easily given annual leaves as they wish. 

Some were given a whole month of days off to recover from their breakups, some were given bonuses, which I didn’t even get once after working there for more than 2 years. 

It was very obvious that there was so much unfairness among employees but no one dared to say a word or correct it. This was the third sign — favoritism for some, discrimination for others.

When the Commander becomes the Dictator

The Commander always had three or four of the same people on his management team. They would follow every creative idea he had, no matter how out-of-touch or boomer it was. Any creative ideas from the juniors were shot down and mercilessly deconstructed. But his ideas were always above criticism.

The risk of being the Commander is that, when you start believing the praise your subordinates constantly shower on you, you turn into the Dictator.

The Dictator is the “Dark Side” of the Commander. The Dictator oversteps their power, abuses their authority to get their way, and maintains a “secret service” of close underlings who are their eyes and ears.

When I first started my job, I overheard two employees joking that everyone said their boutique agency was a Cult.

At the time, I thought maybe it just meant they were a tight-knit family. But it really was like that. They would claim that everyone in this company is a ‘family’ and it was a culture that employees will need to follow. They would somehow get involved in your personal life by finding ways to give you advice, or tell you to reconsider your decisions etc. 

One of my colleagues that had met a new guy was told that she was not performing well, and she was spending too much time with this guy, hence the changes in her work behaviour. I do not think it is right for an employer to even question your decisions or judge you based on your personal life outside.

Looking back on it now, that was when I started being ostracised from the rest of the team. I realised I was spied on, reported on, and turned into a convenient scapegoat.

I knew it was time to move on. 

No matter how much work I did, it didn’t change his mind about me. Everything I did or say was wrong.  

Over the two years I spent there, I lost my confidence, thinking I could not do my work well anymore, and eventually hated what I loved most doing. 

Finally, I could not stand it any longer. I took months to save up some money and decided to send in my resignation. 

Thankfully, I found a better job and they had offered me more than 50% on top of what I was earning. I had better learning opportunities, people were nice and understanding, the bosses and even the CEO was caring and nice. 

6 signs your boss is a dictator

[“The Source Family,” explores the life of Jim Baker, his followers and the life that they shared. Image via KPCC (NPR).]

If this story feels familiar to you, here’s how to spot the signs and get out before it’s too late. Do they:

  • Have unspoken ‘rules’ that you have to guess

Whatever strange rules they have, they wouldn’t be upfront about it — you’d have to cross the line to find out, and by then, you’d be blacklisted as “problematic”.

  • Discriminate against you based on personal lifestyle choices 

This is similar to sexism, ageism, and racism, and constitutes discrimination based on how someone looks, acts, or speaks which has no correlation to work performance.

  • Give you unsolicited advice about personal matters

They will regularly overstep the boundaries of work and feel entitled to influence your personal life, which is a clear violation of privacy.

  • Assume you have ill intent against them when there is none

Assuming malicious intent when it could have been due to a simple misunderstanding reveals a fragile ego that needs to be soothed all the time.

  • Isolate you socially and impact your mental health

Ostracizing employees is a backhanded tactic to reduce their mental health to tatters. Ironically, this company placed a strong emphasis on taking care of mental health

  • Have a thin skin whenever their opinions or beliefs are challenged 

Coupled with the Yes Men around them, this creates an echo chamber where only their own thoughts and ideas take centre stage.

Moral of this story, never let someone bring you down or tell you otherwise and know your worth in your company because you are replaceable. 

And for employers out there reading this, if you think that getting results require you to be a Commander, be wary of becoming the Dictator.

For more stories like this, read: Horror Boss Stories: Here Are Some Stories of the Worst Bosses in Malaysia and Are You Working Under A Bad Boss? Here Are 5 Signs To Look Out For.

Have a story you’d like to share with In Real Life Malaysia? Submit your story here.

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