There are bad bosses, manipulative managers, and toxic coworkers… but career predators are the ones who really sink their teeth into you and hold on for as long as they can.
This is the story (and analysis) of my first encounter with exactly that career predator. It’s a true story and it’s all about a single person, believe it or not. I’m writing about my experience so that you can learn to identify these tactics that ensnared me early on in my career.
And yes, all of this behavior came from a single toxic person.
Promotions are granted before it’s appropriate
Within 2 months of starting my first job out of college, my first boss came up to me to encourage me for my excellent work as a textbook writer. I had a modest raise by the third month, and then a surprising promotion to “Lead SEO” (search engine optimizer, a digital marketing specialty) by the sixth month.
What was a textbook company doing masquerading as a digital marketing agency? Good question, but that’s a story about poor leadership for another time.
Anyway, I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know anything about digital marketing at the time, and the Lead Writer for the company’s textbooks was way in over his head (both in the “leading” and “writing”). My lack of experience in that new role made me woefully inadequate; I needed to learn constantly, and I wasn’t technical enough to deliver real results—neither was my boss, but it never crossed his mind.
So why did my boss promote me to a new role so soon? As I came to learn over the year, he was in fact a career predator—and he wanted cronies indebted to him. He didn’t want to create a stellar company as much as he wanted people who relied on him to save the day. What he wanted was a far cry from “success” as we envision it.
- He wanted employees who would request his presence at meetings because they didn’t have the right expertise.
- He wanted employees who would compete for his time on project details.
- He wanted to look good in front of clients he’d landed by leveraging his “investor” status at their companies.
In short, he wanted to be the star of everyone else’s show—and he did that by putting them in situations where they couldn’t function without him. That’s why the “Lead Writer” couldn’t do his job properly and, despite doing great work earlier, wasn’t suited for my second role.
Incompetent people are kept around
“I keep unqualified people around because I know they’ll never leave.”
My first boss actually said that to me, and I think the subsequent expression on my face may have been why he let me go.
You may wonder why some companies don’t fire the incompetent people. There are plenty of reasons why this can happen, though none of them are good:
- The manager might not have visibility into the employee’s work.
- The manager might not be experienced enough to recognize poor work.
- The manager might be pressured to make it work from higher-ups
But, as you read above, career predators can also keep incompetent people on board for selfish and unhealthy reasons, too. The career predator I worked for was a narcissist, so his decisions fed his ego instead of his revenue.
He measured his employees’ worth by the loyalty or fear they felt toward him rather than what they achieved or how they supported others. Instead of promoting any of the capable and hard-working entry-level writers at the company, he continued to invest in the team leader who spent half his days on reddit, even bringing in his own wife to tutor this team leader in basic writing and oral communication skills that others had in spades.
Why? Because that team leader did sketchy things for the boss, like spying on other employees (three of us caught him staring at our screens through their reflections).
This career predator didn’t want a functioning company… not really. He really just wanted a position of power. In a low-key sense, he also wanted to “own” people, so he engineered situations where people became almost comically dependent on him.
Only desperate people will put up with that because they have no other options, and on some level he knew it. That’s how he created a crony culture in the office.
You’re held responsible but given no authority
Have you ever found yourself running in circles to get things done, but nobody listens? You’re not the only one. Career predators love to put their employees in this situation because it shifts the blame for failure onto the employees’ shoulders while still requiring their involvement for employees to achieve success.
My first boss did this to me constantly:
- He made me responsible for running the only profitable part of the company, but I had no authority to hire, fire, or make decisions about clients.
- I was responsible for generating revenue but I wasn’t allowed to see our income statements or client invoices (or to negotiate with clients).
- The boss ignored my hiring recommendations and then made me responsible for mentoring unqualified employees.
- He promoted me to a semi-technical role I didn’t sign up for, but wouldn’t provide appropriate training for the role.
He also just told me to “go out and do sales” when he didn’t feel like doing it anymore, knowing full well that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial network like him (or even a professional one).
I had long since started questioning his leadership by that point, but it was his company and I had no other options at the time. I went with it, and it led exactly where you’d expect: failure.
That’s the point. Career predators set you up for failure while using social norms and pressures to keep you silent about the bad situations in which they put you.
You’re asked to do questionable things
In my first job, the owner pulled a decidedly sketchy move: he successfully applied for a business grant to enroll his employees in a professional writing course, but then just shuffled one of his employees over to the company supposed to conduct the training.
The boss tasked that “former” employee and the rest of us to create the slides and lead the lessons, although we were all instructed to sit down and let the instructor (our coworker) “resume” leading the lesson—and all so that he could justify keeping around the unqualified writers who “he knew would never leave.”
Does that sound like fraud to you?
My coworkers and I thought so, but our jobs depended on success… so we were forced not to question the arrangement in order to keep paying our bills.
Being a business owner and fairly well-known investor in the region, this career predator would only get a slap on the wrist if he was caught, but this would have been incredibly damaging to the careers of any employees. He knew that, and he used that dynamic to exert downward pressure on the rest of us to make sure that his scheme worked.
You’re punished for not worshipping at their altar
Career predators follow the clear pattern of exerting power over other people through sinister means, and they fire people who they don’t think they can control any longer. But sometimes they don’t stop there.
My boss let me go when I had just started my job search, coincidentally, and even thanked me for how well I was taking the news. He offered to act as a reference and I accepted because I didn’t really have any other references.
That was a bad move on my part, and it kicked off 9 months of unemployment.
For the first two weeks he made a few email introductions for me with HR people at companies where he was an investor, but they all became dead ends after the first interview. It was strange, to say the least. I picked up on the pattern and stopped using him as a reference, thinking I’d solved my problem.
Then, after coming within an inch of a job offer (two interviews and a successful freelance project), the potential employer asked if I knew my old boss. Reluctantly I said that I did. When the interview ended he pulled out his phone and walked behind the building. It was radio silence for two weeks until I followed up.
All of a sudden, “there was no job opening at this time.”
I knew exactly what had happened. Worse, I couldn’t explain it without starting a “he said/she said” argument with someone who already had an established reputation in the region. The career predator used his clout to tar my reputation whenever I’d used him as a reference, and even a critical application where I didn’t.
Not only that: he leveraged his own reputation to limit my employment prospects after letting me go.
That’s what career predators do. The “garden variety” ones take advantage of you at work, but the most toxic ones will try to bind you to them as lackeys. Some of them will even go out of their way disparage your reputation after you part ways. Don’t stop putting trust in your team, but stay vigilante.