From my first job until I retired, I worked 53 years.  My bosses ranged from horrible to great.

My worst boss was a man I will call Mr. Smith.

When I went to work for him, he was having an affair with the full-time checkout clerk at a small, old, run-down store that was part of a national supermarket chain. Besides having an affair with her boss, the clerk was stealing money from the store, and so were several other employees.

In a close work environment, there are no secrets. When things are not right, everyone knows. Everyone working at the store knew what was going on, knew who was cheating, knew who the thieves were and was convinced that Mr. Smith was fully aware of it as well, yet he did nothing.

When you think about it, why would he care? He was already cheating on his wife with an employee; stealing probably would not have caused any real crisis in his conscience.

There I was, a part-time worker at age 17, in a real bad boss situation.  Would you like a picture of how bad?

In 1953, that old grocery store located in a very low-income area of Atlanta, did not have refrigerated produce displays. Crushed ice was put in galvanized steel display trays to keep the fruit and vegetables cool and fresh.  Because we were not open on Sundays, when we closed Saturday evening everything that would be salable on Monday had to be put in the walk-in cooler over the weekend. It was a weekly chore.

As the sun was setting on my first Saturday afternoon at work, Mr. Smith came to the produce section and started pointing. He said, “I want this, this, this, and that gone today.”

I turned to an experienced employee and asked, “What does he mean?”  He showed me.

In those days, an employee weighed the produce, calculated the price, and with a crayon to wrote it on the brown paper bag used for the individual orders of fruit or vegetables.  We weighed and bagged up the “this, this, this, and that,” wrote the prices on the bags, and proceeded to walk around the store dropping these in the carts of unsuspecting customers when they were not looking.

If a customer at the checkout counter said, “This item is not mine,” we would simply pick up the bag and drop it in someone else’s cart, repeating the process until it was all gone.

At age 17, I did what the boss said. Later, when I was older and wiser, I would take a stand and refuse to do that sort of thing.

This is just one example of what went on in that store. Mr. Smith was an awful boss, but I learned a lot from him. A few months after I went to work there,  the company closed that store, and I was able to transfer to a good boss in another store.

An experience like mine in that store tends to stick in one’s memory. I have carried the lessons of my bad bosses with me all my life. Those lessons were very important later when I was the boss.

Working for a lousy boss means you are in a learning-rich environment. I learned from Mr. Smith, the worst boss I ever had, just as I did from the best ones, and you can too.  You will get insights about what not to do.  You certainly will learn more from what is happening to you than you will learn from watching them happen to others. In fact, the more engaged or personally affected you are, the more lessons you will learn and remember.

These firsthand negative experiences are not pleasant, yet they are excellent character-building opportunities. They are perhaps more valuable than the day-to-day lessons you could be learning from positive experiences because you are more likely to retain what you are learning and put the lessons into practice. The negative experience will make you a better person because you will walk away with determination not to repeat the boss’s mistakes.

You will have a foundation of understanding and personal wisdom that others, who have always worked for good bosses, will never have.  Although it is not pleasant, it is true; working for a bad boss can be a good character building experience.

If you are working for or ever find yourself working for a boss like Mr. Smith, you know what to do; learn all you can — while you are looking for a good boss.

Then fire that lousy boss and move on!

Choose your boss!

—Jimmy