You Can't Beat The System: Unfair Power Plays In The Workplace
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
I've heard it several ways: "You can't beat the system;" "You can't fight the system;" "You can't beat city hall;" or "You can't fight city hall."
Any way you say it, it means there is a power structure in place and you can't win against it.
In the workplace, the "rules" are simple. You have only the power assigned to you by the people above you in the structure and those above you in the structure have power over you. The "powers that be" above you (and those that they protect) can lie to you and about you. They can cheat in relation to you. They will be believed instead of you, if your story is even allowed to be heard. They can punish you, justly or unjustly. They can ignore you. They can get rid of you.
Furthermore, under the "rules," you can do what you're told by the powers that be. You can align yourself with a higher member of the powers that be for protection or to get around lower members. You can cheat. But getting caught is costly. You can try to fight. But you will probably lose.
Once upon a time, a client of mine was in a rage about the unfair treatment she received in her workplace. The short story is: she got fired after she quit. Huh? Yep. After being harassed for over a year by another employee, she had tried twice to quit and been talked out of it by her immediate manager. The manager had words on several occasions with the bully and the bully's boss, but had not been able to permanently solve the problem.
Finally, my client got fed up with one more harassment session and told the bully where she could go and what to do with herself when she got there. Then she turned in a letter of resignation, giving two weeks notice.
The next day, her manager's boss -- who was also the bully's boss -- called her into his office and fired her. His reason was that the bully had accused her of a fireable wrongdoing. The bully's work was good enough for the boss. When she protested she had not done what she was accused of and in fact had already quit, he told her that there would never be any record of her quitting and that her termination would be recorded as involuntary. She promised to sue if he tried to publicize that and he asked her where she thought she'd get proof, since even her copy of a resignation letter could be faked.
The bully won. She had an alliance with a higher member of the "powers that be."
Of course, after telling me her story, the next words out of her mouth were, "That is so unfair!" I carefully avoided reminding her that life isn't fair and just agreed with her.
So, is that it? Do you just have to accept that life is unfair, the workplace is unfair and the "powers that be" will always run everything you do and can do? There's no use fighting because you can't win?
Not at all. Here are some options:
a. You can recognize and learn to play the system. That's called politics.
b. You can find a workplace with a more beneficial power structure and nicer people and work within that.
c. You can opt out and create your own workplace power structure by going into business for yourself.
d. You can make a career of fighting the system. And you can win. It can be exhilarating and it can be exhausting, but think of Ralph Nader and Martin Luther King and admire their standing up for their beliefs and fighting the system -- with many victories. You could work for or start a competing power structure such as a labor union or some other employee rights association. You could become a labor attorney and represent employees. You could work for the ACLU.
Yes, you can fight the system and beat the system, in the workplace and in the world. You can also learn to live with it and use it to your advantage. Just don't make my client's mistake of expecting it to work fairly. It doesn't.