Updated on 09.15.14

My Worst Job – And What It Taught Me

Trent Hamm

When I was nineteen, one of my college professors wanted me to stick around campus for the summer to help him with a large project. Unfortunately, the project would really only employ me for about fifteen hours a week, so to supplement that time, he helped me hunt for another job on campus. Eventually, he connected me with another job, one that seemed really intriguing on the surface and seemed like a lot of fun for the first week or so.

It turned out to be the worst job of my life.

My job was largely to perform menial tasks in a plant research lab. Most of my work initially centered around making large batches of agar – basically, I followed one of several recipes to make a particular type of gelatin upon which bacteria could grow in petri dishes. This was fun – I actually enjoyed it and I learned quite a bit from this. I asked tons of questions about why I was making this particular agar, what people were doing on their projects, and so on.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm and expressed interest was a big mistake. Most of the other low-level workers quickly disliked my enthusiasm. They would glare at me when I asked questions (even though the scientists were usually very happy to answer them) and make comments like “Why do you care?”

After a few weeks, this resentment turned to sabotage. Several batches of the agar I made turned out completely wrong – and eventually I realized that several of the ingredients in those agars had been stored and labeled incorrectly. Obviously, the scientists in the lab were fairly upset with me for wasting a lot of time and quite a bit of lab supplies, so I began to be given worse and worse tasks. Most of the other workers in the lab basically refused to speak to me because I had been deemed a “favorite” early on because of my enthusiasm. So, what began as an exciting job started to really turn to drudgery.

Eventually, I found myself in a basement at midnight shoveling dirt into a sieve and shaking it to produce finer dirt for planting – and I realized that I hated this job. I was expected to get through several hundred pounds of dirt a night, go home, get some sleep, and be back at work in the morning for my morning tasks, followed by some afternoon hours working for the professor that originally got me the job. I was essentially working about fifteen hours a day at this point spread out through a twenty four hour day in such a way that I couldn’t get more than two or three hours of sleep.

It finally came to a head one morning. I was exhausted after a long night of shoveling dirt. At about four in the morning, I fell asleep on a bench outside of the lab, which is where I slept until about seven or so when one of the scientists came bursting out of the lab, yelling at me. Apparently, someone had spilled one of the chemicals all over the lab and, since I had obviously been there for a while, I must have been the person that did it. I didn’t know what the chemical was, but I was pretty concerned that it was carcinogenic. The scientist, however, was so irate at the mess that he ordered me to start cleaning it immediately.

I refused.

I was fired.

To this day, I don’t know why the chemical was there, but I’m vaguely sure that one of the coworkers who disliked me was responsible for it – and may have even planted the idea in the scientist’s head that I had done it. But that’s water under the bridge now.

Lessons I Learned from a Terrible Job

Build strong relationships with all of your coworkers as early as possible

Sure, we all want a strong relationship with our boss, but we also need a strong relationship with everyone we rely on in the workplace. Spend time getting to know all of these people on a personal level and make an effort to take a genuine interest in who they are and what they’re working on. The people around you can make or break you in countless little ways.

There is value in doing even the most menial job well

Many people, when charged with tasks that they think are “below” them, don’t put real effort into doing that simple task well. I fell into that trap with some of my later menial tasks at that lab. I felt like I should be doing interesting stuff in the lab – actually assisting on projects instead of down in the basement shoveling dirt. So I didn’t bother to put any pride in my work. I’d shovel around dirt in a sloppy fashion, letting big chunks miss the sieve entirely. I’d spend the absolute minimum amount of effort I could when moving the dirt, often making a big wheelbarrow of the dirt into an obstacle instead of putting it in a place where it was useful.

What I didn’t see is that doing sloppy work on these minimal tasks did nothing more than make me look far worse than before. Simple tasks are a great opportunity for you to show your excellence, because you can easily go far beyond the minimum.

Procedures can be annoying, but they can also save you in a pinch

One big problem with the lab was the lack of standard procedures for many tasks. I would be told how to do something, but the procedure was rarely documented at all. This came to a head when I was ordered to clean up the substance – there was no procedure in place at all for handling cleaning up an unknown chemical.

If you are charged with a new task that will be done regularly, take notes on the procedure you follow, document it, and share the documentation. This will virtually never be a bad thing. Even if you’re the only person doing it, it can help demonstrate how you’re making the workplace better, but the best result is that it gets others to document things. If there had been documentation on how to clean up the mess, I could have easily turned to that documentation. Instead, I was forced to make a choice and refuse to clean it up – and that resulted in my firing.

Every experience we have in life teaches us something if we’re willing to open ourselves to the lessons that it can provide. What did you learn from your worst job?

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  1. DJ says:

    Absolutely brilliant post Trent. It made me remember when I first started to work for corporate America. I am coming from a culture where we were raised with the idea, if you are a dedicated to the company/selfless worker- no matter you will be successful.

    Unfortunately, I learned early in the game (with similar experiences of sabotage/getting thrown under the bus & ridicule) that the American corporate life is heavily tangled in politics. Learning how to maneuver around that is essential to success in the company.

    “Build strong relationships with all of your coworkers as early as possible” is the best piece of advice ever. I would also add vendors and customers as well.

  2. Johanna says:

    I wonder if another lesson to be learned here might be “Stand up for yourself.” When you had evidence that your work was being sabotaged, did you say something? When you were assigned to work hours that made it impossible for you to get a normal night’s sleep, did you say something? When you were concerned about the danger to your health that might result from cleaning up an unknown chemical, did you express that concern and ask for help in taking the proper safety precautions?

    If you did stand up for yourself in all these cases and were still treated in the way you describe, then maybe the lesson to be learned is “Some people are just plain unreasonable.”

  3. v4us says:

    I had some expiriece that so close to this one! And my “crazy ex” work totally ate all my life.
    It’s hard and sad expirience, but i think it helped me to understend so much in this life

  4. Daria says:

    I would like to add, that parents need to teach their teenage and young adult children who are entering the workforce what situations are exploitive,how and when to stand up for themselves, and to back up their children when their child does stand up for themselves and isn’t heard or successful. All four of my children started out in the fast food industry which is incredibly exploitive of young adults. None of them got fired or received reduced hours for standing up for themselves even when my husband and I had to back them up by confronting their employer also.I even had their female co-workers come to me for advice on handling sexual harrassment situations because their parents didn’t help them which was sad. And sometimes you have to leave a job because you are being subjected to fraud or a dangerous situation which isn’t being rectified. Young people need support from their parents to do that too. Unless you teach them, they might not be aware that they have rights and they should speak up.

  5. Kiran says:

    This reminds of my worst job. One summer I worked for a company on its factory floor. That was great. I was very much appreciated, and I made some minor improvements on how things were done.

    The following summer they needed an intern in the lab. The chemical engineer already on the payroll is a lot easier to keep than finding one.

    It was less intellectually stimulating work than the factory floor. I didn’t get along with my boss. I was bored to tears.

    Taught me two lessons:
    Like the people who interview you.
    Make sure they just don’t need a body with credentials.

    In hindsight, I’m glad I did it. I’ve made better employment decisions since.

  6. AD says:

    I learned not to take my work home with me. I worked for a boss with zero managerial skills (he was a sales rep until he married the owner of the company) who would purposefully antagonize employees. I hardly had the worst of it, but it used to make me so angry, and I’d be driving home angry, taking all of it home with me.

    I learned to put up a wall between a job and my life. Now, I like my job and my boss, but I still hardly think about work when I’m not at work. It just doesn’t benefit me to get too emotionally invested in a job…maybe if I was self-employed, I’d feel differently.

  7. psychsarah says:

    My worst job ever was telemarketing. I describe the experience as soul-sucking. I was in the midst of grad school and out of money for the summer. I worked there because there was nothing else to do in the town I lived. It was sheer misery. All the employees were treated like imbeciles, they had totally unreasonable expectations for quotas, and the system was so bizarre it was impossible to succeed. I’m still trying to figure out what it taught me besides “Stay in school-finish your PhD so you don’t have to do this kind of work ever ever again.”

    However, as I write this, I’m gaining some insight into some lessons I could now glean about how I should treat the people I now supervise. Here’s what just came to mind:

    1) Don’t treat the people “below” you (a term I object to, but you know what I mean) like idiots. Treat them with respect and appreciate what they do-you can’t be successful without them.
    2) Don’t set people up to fail. It’s demoralizing and depressing and serves no one’s interests.
    3) Listen to everyone’s suggestions about how to improve the systems/policies. People with a different perspective than yourself might come up with something you’ve never considered, and solve a problem you didn’t know existed.

    There-now that job wasn’t a total waste of time. Thanks for making me reflect on this. You make a good broader point too. One of my mentors told me once- “Learning experiences are those which you wish you weren’t having at the time”-a mantra I try to repeat during difficult situations.

  8. Michael says:

    I too built a wall between work & life. I’m friendly with coworkers, but I keep my distance. I don’t gossip, and as a result I’m not really in the crowd that hangs out every weekend night. I’m OK with that. I have a pretty outgoing free-flowing personality, and can’t tone it down without being uncomfortable. So, instead, I just don’t socialize as much. There have been situations where coworkers or bosses have taken advantage of knowing too much about me or where I stand on things. It stinks to find yourself left out to dry.

    I really do not mean to be offensive, but I think there’s a fine line between teaching your children to stand up for themselves and actually getting involved in their employment issues. It doesn’t teach them anything if mom & dad go talk to the boss. It’s not school, where that’s reasonable..it’s work..which really isn’t a career or even that much fun when you’re entry-level or young enough where you don’t care what you’re doing because it’s just to have money.Parents really shouldn’t get directly involved in their kids work woes. I can’t even imagine how awkward that must be. Though, I’ve heard of parents going on job interviews with their kids!

  9. Gabriel says:

    Good lord. This reminds me of some of my Dad’s stories. When he was in college he took a summer job in a car factory. The union members didn’t appreciate the fact that he did his job correctly (they liked to take turns doing each other’s jobs so that they could take days off and still get paid).

    One night they actually threatened him with assault. He hated that job.

  10. Rubi says:

    I think it’s really tricky to get ALL of your coworkers “ON YOUR SIDE”. How do you do that? Bribe them with candy or baked goods? Also, how do you know who is on your side and who is talking about you behind your back?

    What is your definition of a strong relationship?

    Some work cultures discourage being buddy-buddy too soon. So, one tip is to figure out your work culture. However, that’s easier said than done.

  11. Jade says:

    Worst job I ever had was working for a CPA. I once thought that it was partly because of the pay, which was a result of me not doing my research and really wanting a job so I lowballed myself when asked about salary requirements. But in the end, I realized that enough pay for sitting in that miserable office and punching numbers into a computer all day was more than my boss was making.

    I learned that I’m more of a people person than I thought I was. What I liked about doing taxes was not doing taxes, but it was working with the people. Unfortunately I hardly ever got to meet or talk to clients, I just had a pile of papers dropped in my inbox and numbers to punch into the software. After a while even rental property and small business returns are easy. And if the client was happy and nice I almost never got to see them because my boss would be rushing out of her office to talk to them. But if it was a client she didn’t want to see or if they were mad about something, I got stuck dealing with it, and I wasn’t even getting paid enough to deal with the nice clients, let alone the crazy ones. I suspect that if she had to deal with all of her clients herself, she’d dump half of them because they were jerks or turned her stomach. But with some assistant around, she could just let them deal with the crazy ones and hide in her office and claim to be really busy. Of course once the crazy client left she’d come out and ask if they were gone, and then a nice client would show up and she’d spend forever chatting with them and explaining their return to them, something I was perfectly capable of doing since she was so busy…

    I quit after 4 months, although I still got an end of tax season bonus check right after I gave my 2 weeks notice. Part of me thought that maybe a pay raise might have been in the works in a few more months, but then I realized that no raise would make a difference in how miserable I was.

    So now I’m working on getting my master’s degree, not so I can go become a CPA myself, but so I can teach community college. My other job that is mostly seasonal is treating me like crap as well during tax season, but I get to teach tax classes in the off season and I’m really enjoying it. I suppose that’s the most important thing I learned from doing taxes, not how to do taxes, but that I really am a “people person”

  12. Lee says:

    In high school I worked at Long John Silvers, and my title was “Seaman Apprentice.” (say it, don’t read it.) Nice.

  13. Frugal Dad says:

    I remember shoveling a lot of stuff at my first “real” job, too – and it wasn’t dirt! I was 17 years old and a senior in high school when I finally decided to stand up to my overbearing boss who had us high-schoolers doing far more than minimum wage work (and for far too many hours). He didn’t react well and told me I would be on 1 week unpaid leave, and that at the end of the week I could come back and discuss getting my job back. At the end of the week I went back to turn in all my stuff and told him he could keep the job – I didn’t want it. I did learn a lot from that job, and that boss, about how NOT to treat people, so it wasn’t a total loss.

  14. Mom is Broke says:

    I have also learned that if you do your job well, they just keep dumping more and more work onto you. No, they do not give you a raise to do all the extra work that you don’t have time for, they just expect you to do it. Right now, I am sitting at my desk because I have finished all the work for the day. I once told my manager that I was finished, and she gave me the person next to me’s work. Why should I be punished because I have a brain and can work effeciently? So now I do take some time to read a few blogs, and spread out my work throughout the day. Yes, it is probably wrong to do, but this job is temporary, and I am counting the days until it is over.

  15. I’ve had some bad jobs, and bad bosses. The most recent was the Corporate Controller for a manufacturing company. He was relentless in his demands, and alienated many people. The stress that he generated was almost unbearable, and we had a high turnover in the department. But I learned how to work under pressure, how to stick to deadlines, and to never give up. The harder he made it, the more determined I was to do a good job, even just to spite him.

  16. Des says:

    Regarding parents getting involved in the workplace: I worked in a retail clothing store a few years ago. A father brought his son in to apply, and he went on and on about how perfect his son was for the job and how much experience he had, while the son just stood there. I nodded my head, then promptly threw his application away. You’re not doing your child any favors getting THAT involved. Talk to them, teach them, but stay away from their job. They need to learn to stand up for themselves on their own.

  17. Michael says:

    Good lesson about the ivory tower and their stance against labor exploitation, too.

  18. Kate says:

    True, getting along with co-workers is very important and can make the job more fun to do.
    However, I was once in a situation where I was selected from a large pool candidates for a newly-created administrative position and one of the unsuccessful candidates was a temp in the small department where I came to work.
    The majority of my co-workers were against me from Day 1 because they felt the temp should have gotten the job. Two years of hostility followed as they tried to get me to quit. No matter what I did for them or how pleasant I tried to be, they simply would not accept me. The temp wouldn’t even speak to me!
    Our manager was a “nice guy” who wanted to be everyone’s friend and was uncomfortable dealing with conflict in any fashion.
    Despite all this, I still tried to do the best job I could for them, even coming to work before 6 a.m. and on weekends to handle my ever-increasing duties.
    My family was concerned and urged me to cut back on my work hours as the stress eventually started taking its toll. I had no energy, no appetite and couldn’t sleep from worrying about work the next day.
    Ultimately, I decided the best solution was to go back to school to expand my career horizons. I really should have left sooner, but part of my personality is that I am not a quitter. I just have to recognize there are some situations I just cannot fix, no matter how hard I try.
    Another lesson learned is that I will be more careful in evaluating future career opportunities.

  19. Battra92 says:

    My worst job was working for the cheapest man in history. It was in the sterling silver online retail market He never gave me a raise even though I took over the jobs of two other people he let go. I would’ve been content with $0.50 an hour more or whatever but “budget cuts” and stuff were always what he’d say.

    Eventually I turned into Wally from Dilbert. I routinely spent many days “working” on watching Utaban episodes on Google Video and YouTube. I listened to music, chatted with friends, drew, made origami and sometimes even did my work. He almost fired me once but he also knew that no one would work for him anymore.

    He finally found someone and I was let go a few weeks before I finished college. He died a year later very rich but friendless and alone. At his funeral it was literally like in A Christmas Carol with everyone wondering the fate of his money as the fate of his soul was sadly pretty much known.

    That job taught me being frugal is great. Being cheap earns you nothing.

  20. SP says:

    You know, I’ve never had a terrible job. I worked in a grocery store, in retail where we stayed and folded clothes until 2 am, a seater/greater at Applebees, a waitress at Olive Garden, an office assistant, a baby-sitter, a lab assistant without enough direction for my tasks, an intern at a tech company…. But I never hated any of them or had problems with them. I guess I got lucky and didn’t have bad coworkers/bosses.

    I also have an easy going personality and really didn’t mind folding clothes for hours with the store closed and the music blaring. Most people would hate it. Obviously it is a teenager type job, but I was a teenager.

    I think it helped, as others mentioned, not to get overly emotionally invested in my jobs. I always did well and was responsible, but school was generally a higher priority (until I started jobs closer to my field)

  21. !wanda says:

    Do you think you really could have resolved the conflict between doing an excellent job and having co-workers that were resentful because of that? I wouldn’t have known this at 19, but when your co-workers start to actively sabotage your work, you should quit. The mis-labeling and hiding supplies happened to my friend as a grad student; it was just the surface symptom of a workplace culture where the professor tacitly encouraged his postdocs and students to screw each other over so they would be used to it when he did the same to them. She left when she noticed that the professor found ways to deny degrees to every single one of his female grad students, even the ones who had been published in Nature.

    @Michael: The foundation of the ivory tower is labor exploitation of grad students and postdocs. The pursuit of learning is supposed to be its own reward; and professorships are supposed to be the prize for many years of under-credited hard work. On a more basic level, the people who head labs have never received training in management and just perpetuate the same amount of exploitation they endured as trainees. (Of course, it is also impossible to get rid of a truly terrible prof, like my friend’s, after tenure.)

  22. Josh N. says:

    Yuck! That job sounds like a regular day in the world of academia. Grad school is worse!

    This reminds me of when I learned the difference in being a quitter and aligning your priorities. I was on a little league baseball team and practice started every day after school. I had a paper route and didn’t realize practice was going to be every day at the same time. I couldn’t do both (I tried) so I had to choose.

    Instead of being passive-aggressive and not show up to practice, I told the coach my decision and then was branded a quitter in front of the whole team. I never participated in any sort of sports team again. (I did individual sports, so it’s not as tragic as it sounds :)

    The world is full of sh*theds. The trick is identifying them before you become too dependent. Trent, I don’t think you could have made strong relationships with the people at that crappy job. If they behave that way to make themselves look/feel good, then they don’t sound like people worth getting to know no matter how you approach it. If they do that to someone else, they’re trash.

  23. Kris says:

    I learned that if you see your boss do something unethical once, you’ll see your boss do something unethical again.

  24. IRG says:

    Trent, making nice with people will not solve the problems you faced with outright unprofessional behavior on the part of your co-workers. Unhappy and frustrated by their situation (and not you, although you just reminded them that nobody has to be miserable), they were more than happy to single you out.

    And as others pointed out, you should have stood up for yourself. You had nothing to lose as these folks were against you anyway. And this wasn’t even about you. Sabotaging work? That’s cause for dismissal. If you can prove it. I suspect you could not and thus did nothing. But they didn’t just sabotage you, they sabotaged work and that is NOT acceptable.

    Unfortunately, this behavior (or versions of it) is similar all over the workplace, at all levels. Lazy, unhappy, frustrated and/or incompetent or uninvolved “workers” are threatened by those who are involved, interested and doing a good job. And if someone comes in and does good work and gets the “good stuff” from a company, those people in particular become a real target, as you were.

    Alas, these people are very, very good at screwing others on the job. And by the way, you were messed up by co-workers. In many places, it’s YOUR BOSS who is the one who is threatened and who sets you up and takes you down. (Yea. We all know the adage about “hiring up” but many people never really want someone who may in fact be better at what they do than the boss was/is.)

    Worker exploitation is not limited to colleges.
    Although it may be worse since there is the issue of not being able to even get some folks fired.

    Your points about having procedures documented (heck, even hospitals don’t do this with surgeries!) and valuing all work are right on target. And always apply.

    As a friend once told me, ALL work is valuable.

    And the importance of doing “menial” tasks is critical because if a worker can’t do those, he/she is very unlikely to advance to other jobs.

    Reminds me of young junior editor we had at a magazine I worked on. She complained constantly about the “menial” work she had of photocopying and compiling and sending out packets for the contributing writers and editors (from the editor in chief). These packets were critical as they contained background information on issues and specific stories.

    She consistently made errors and as a result, the writers and editors had incomplete and/or inaccurate information.

    when she kept hounding the editor on why she wasn’t promoted (heck, she should have been fired), he explained that if I can’t trust you to get basics correct, because you don’t pay attention, why should I give you even more important work? She just did not get it.

    I’ve worked at tons of temp jobs over the years, from college on. I always tackled the work as if it was as important as my “regular” work. You aren’t generally rewarded with more $ in temping (everyone gets the same rate based on the category, which was annoying to those of us who excelled while others did next to nothing), but I did get the better assignments and always had work, which a lot of temps did not.

    You do a job well, no matter what it is or how much you’re paid, because it reflects on you. When you don’t want to do the job, you leave. (Something those nasty folks should have done instead of venting their frustrations out on you! Again, an all-too common phenomena.)

    You don’t take it out on others.

    By the way, these types continue to get away with stuff because they do drive away the very people a company needs.

  25. Daria says:


    We did not get involved with our children’s employer until after they had already tried working out the problems themselves first in which most times they were successful, and ONLY when it was a dangerous situation and illegal for a person under 18 to be operating certain equipment. Yes, I have heard of people going on interviews with their children and also contacting their children’s professors in college to argue about grades. That is extreme and we did not do that. Did you even read my whole comment where I said it was AFTER they had tried themselves?

  26. Sara says:

    I don’t really know what I learned from my worst job. Maybe you can help me. The job wasn’t particularly terrible. I was hired for a job working for a Christian ministry. They needed someone to help them coordinate a very large event 1 WEEK BEFORE MY WEDDING! I was very young, still in college and this was a summer job. The event required me to go and stay in a hotel to work the event 24 hours around the clock 1 WEEK BEFORE MY WEDDING. Oh…and remember I said it was a Christian ministry…the job paid less than any of the other jobs I’d applied for. And it was far from home in DFW traffic, which meant I was pretty much working for gas money. Two days into the job, another job I’d applied for called and offered me a job. The job paid double what I would be making at the ministry job, did not have any big events the week before my wedding and was 5 minutes from my parents’ house (Remember? I said I was young), so I could easily afford the gas. When I let my boss know I wouldn’t be working for him after all, he hit the roof. He was very angry and chewed me out and made me leave on the spot. Although on paper, I know I made the right choice, I’ve always wondered if I lacked integrity in that decision.

  27. Johnny says:

    My worst job was working as a temp doing tech support for an internet service provider. This was back in the 56K day, so there were a lot of calls. I absolutely hated it until I was fired (which I won’t get into).

    What I did learn was how to deal with people over the phone, not get impatient and solve their problems. Today I’m a freelancer working primarily through the internet and I don’t think I would have the clients I have today if it weren’t for the communication skills I learned doing tech support.

    You really do take something out of every job you have, no matter how much you hated it. Heck, I can still even make one awesome smoothy after working my first job at an Orange Julius.

  28. Verbose says:

    I have discovered the hard way that by the time you realize you have to “stand up for yourself,” your prospects with that employer are basically over. There are a lot of workplaces that allow bullies to flourish, just like in junior high. Once the bullies have you in their aim, get out! If you stand up for yourself, you’ll be fired (like Trent was), demoted, labeled a troublemaker, sent to counseling, reassigned somewhere unpleasant, etc, etc depending on your position and the company policies.

    Any employer or manager who knows that the work schedule they assign to you is interfering substantially with your ability to perform basic human functions like sleeping, eating, dependent care, and maintenance of your own health is on a dangerous power trip. It’s abusive behavior. Unfortunately, it’s also very common.

    I’ve been assigned to work 35 hours a week (while taking 15 credit hours in college) when I specifically said I could only work 20 hours. My husband has been ordered to stay on the job while having a hypoglycemic attack. I’ve seen a manager scream threats at a co-worker who left an after-hours meeting because her kids’ day care center was about to close.

  29. Verbose says:

    I have discovered the hard way that by the time you realize you have to “stand up for yourself,” your prospects with that employer are basically over. There are a lot of workplaces that allow bullies to flourish, just like in junior high. Once the bullies have you in their aim, get out! If you stand up for yourself, you’ll be fired (like Trent was), demoted, labeled a troublemaker, sent to counseling, reassigned somewhere unpleasant, etc, etc depending on your position and the company policies.

    Any employer or manager who knows that the work schedule they assign to you is interfering substantially with your ability to perform basic human functions like sleeping, eating, dependent care, and maintenance of your own health is on a dangerous power trip. It’s abusive behavior. Unfortunately, it’s also very common.

    I’ve been assigned to work 35 hours a week (while taking 15 credit hours in college) when I specifically said I could only work 20 hours. My husband has been ordered to stay on the job while having a hypoglycemic attack. I’ve seen a manager scream threats at a co-worker who left an after-hours meeting because her kids’ day care center was about to close.

  30. Craig says:

    Agree, you can learn so many things. I was let go from my first job and learned a lot about myself and things that interest me. You can learn a lot from bad situations.

  31. dollar bill says:

    I read your articles quite a bit. I think that this article is not one of your better ones.

    I am glad that you learned something from it, but I think that you let your feelings get in the way of doing a job.

    I have learned that although your first impression may have seemed bad to these guys, there was probably something you could have done to fix it.

    Sleeping on the bench, were you one the job?

    “I was essentially working about fifteen hours a day at this point spread out through a twenty four hour day in such a way that I couldn’t get more than two or three hours of sleep.”

    In 9 hours you could only get 2-3 hrs?

    Like I said, you have done much better writing.

  32. Michael says:


    I understand what you’re saying, I just don’t think it’s appropriate. It’s not about ‘trying’ to work things out, and then letting parents step in. Put yourself in the situation, and imagine your own parents getting involved to help resolve a work situation where they’re not even an employee.

    It would be a different circumstance if say, your son or daughter was a fresh-faced college kid or high school student interning during the summer at the same organization as you. In that scenario, you might be familiar with the people who the kid is working with, or the equipment/duties they’re working with. Even then, I don’t think parental involvement helps the overall professional development of someone. Guidance at home, where discussions can be frank, is way more appropriate than stepping into the situation that doesn’t warrant it.

    If it’s dangerous and illegal, then the discussion is very short. Quit.

  33. David says:

    Another important lesson here: surround yourself with intelligent people who have good attitudes and challenge you to do your best.

  34. Molly says:

    That teachers do not get the respect they deserve. They don’t get the pay they deserve. They have the HARDEST job I can imagine, and it is not always recognized.

    Yes, I taught math at an inner-city high school right out of college. I appreciate my current stale dilerty office job immensely because nobody curses at me, and that’s huge.

  35. DB Cooper says:

    I’ve also never had a “worst” job. I’ve been a dishwasher/busboy at Denny’s (2 years), server at Red Lobster (5 years), lab assistant at a small university (1 year), lab tech at Dow Chemical (2 years), financial clerk at a university (5 years), and now a middle school teacher and a coach (10 years). I’ve really loved all my jobs for different reasons, had great supervisors, and always enjoyed my relationships with my colleagues.

    Probably the job I miss most of all is being a server at Red Lobster…dang, those were some good times with some great people!

  36. Candi says:

    I have to agrre with some of the others. When it comes to working hard and being good at what I do, it is never rewarded. Even in my chosen career, I know just how much to do of my work and how much to leave. Everywhere I have ever worked, if I did the job to the very best of my ability, my reward was to have to do the work of other slower less efficient coworkers. Now exactly why would I want to work to the best of my ability? I now balance my workload and never do the work of others unless I am certain I am making a fair trade for my efforts. This does not make me the “best” employee, but it does make me a happy and less stressed employee!

  37. LauraH. says:

    Worst job: serving drinks at a strip club where the dancers were expected to prostitute themselves. The dancers themselves were really sweet and interesting. The customers… ugh! They expected freebies from the waitstaff— not the drink type of freebies, either. I quit after one day. I learned how to spot an undercover cop (he, interestingly enough, was the only person who tipped, even though I *did* serve in a courteous, friendly, and professional manner), how badly botched implants can mess with one’s silhouette (literally painful to look at), and to treat sex workers with respect, because the behavior they must put up with from the customers they typically have… well, it was darn hard work, just not busting some of these terrible and disrespectful persons in the chops. I also learned something about the limits to which I would go for money.

    The worst job I *stuck* with was the one where I worked for a married couple. The husband had a drug problem, and he and his wife would constantly scream at each other in front of the customers and abuse the employees. (I stuck with it even after the abuse became physical; the husband would throw things at me and hit me in a manner that left bruises.) I got a job in the same type of business shortly after; the real lesson came in the contrast between these two places, which was like the difference between heaven and hell. For instance, the difference between inadequate tools and top-of-the-line makes night and day seem a poor comparison, and it’s unbelievably easy to do a good job for a gracious boss who likes what she does…

  38. tightwadfan says:

    I think the people criticizing Trent for “not standing up for himself” are maybe overestimating how much power he had in this situation. First of all, lab scientists do not wnat to get involved in the conflicts between their low-level employees. They don’t want to waste time hearing conflicting accusations and try to figure out who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. If the lab managers had their lab under control in the first place, they wouldn’t have had an atmosphere where employees were sabotaging each other. These employees were wasting god knows how much money in supplies, not to mention wasted research time and effort using sabotaged agars, and the scientists were clueless!!! If Trent had “stood up” for himself, they would only have thought he was lying to cover his ass.

  39. tightwadfan says:

    But Trent, your first lesson – establish good relations with your coworkers – seems to imply that you should have tried to ingratiate yourself with the apathetic slackers so they wouldn’t have sabotaged you. I don’t see why a conscientious employee should have stoop to their level. I think I would have a more cynical lesson instead – learn to read your work atmosphere and be wary of your coworkers while you’re learning the ropes. Sad that it has to be this way but that’s life. Sometimes you get lucky and have a great work atmosphere but you have to be prepared for anything.

  40. TIPS says:

    Totally agree with you that one needs to learn from everything that comes ones way.. be it the most menial jobs in the world.. also relationships when fostered can yeild rich dividends.. thansk for the post.

  41. Denise says:

    The worst job I ever had was cleaning men’s bathrooms in a factory about 15 years ago. I was desperate for money, I had no car and that was the only job available at the time. It taught me that any job can be done with integretey and I did move on when I found another job. I also learned that if I could do that job then I could put up with anything if need be. I am proud of myself for doing that horrible, disgusting job well. I tell my daughter about this so she knows that, when you really need the money that almost any legal work is honorable.

  42. Strick says:

    I learned early the “what” I do in life in less important than the “who” I do it with. My current job would probably not be considered the best by most (and definitely not the most ‘prestigous’ I’ve had), but the vast majority of those that report to me and those that I report to are friendly respectful hard-working people. This alone makes it the best job I’ve ever had.

  43. Chris says:

    #31 Strick: Agree 100%

    How do people feel about the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) Program started by Best Buy? The premise is they hire you to do a certain job, pay you a certain wage, and it doesn’t matter if it takes you 8 minutes or 8 hours. I, for one, think it is totally the way to go. Productive people aren’t punished by having work loaded on them, and you also don’t have to “play the game” by sitting in the office until 5PM playing minesweeper just to look like your doing something.

    Trent – I think a ROWE article may be worth writing about and discussing..

  44. Amy says:

    A couple of hard situations taught me a lot.

    1. Don’t date your coworkers. When I broke up w/my bf/lab peer, he sabotaged my work. We couldn’t prove it but he was asked to resign and did. I also learned a LOT about working with others and dealing with conflict. (And now I giggle every time I see ‘sabotage/horseplay’ as a root cause investigation choice.)

    2. Stand up for yourself, but know where you stand; don’t rock the boat unless it really counts and be careful how you do it. A small family-owned business took away our dental benefits and I complained loudly about this at an offsite, public lunch. I was fired because they didn’t like my attitude and thought it was disrespectful, even though I confirmed they thought I did a great job doing my actual work. I learned to dust myself off and start again, and actually found a much better job through the unemployment office, one which directly led to my AWESOME job at an AWESOME company later, where I finally get paid what I’m worth and am rewarded richly for being an excellent performer. I have bitten my tongue at later jobs after learning that lesson and also learned how to respectfully tell employees about hard decisions instead of just slamming them with bad news.

  45. Danielle says:

    My worst job ever was working in airport security for TSA. It was also my longest, most secure job, and had the most benefits… even if it was kind of a sell your soul to the devil kind of job.

    I made over 3x minimum wage as a college student working some random hours. Granted, more than half of my four years there were working at 0400 (and then 0300 for awhile)… but I didn’t have class before the sun came up, so it worked.

    Management put me through a bunch of crap, especially when I took maternity leave and came back a full-abled, untrained and vested employee who they couldn’t fire, but couldn’t force into remedial training either. Amazing how maternity leave falls into one of those categories where you really aren’t allowed to discriminate…. and their lawyers told them they couldn’t fire me for refusing to work outside of my assigned hours for double the amount of time for a week on 24 hours notice (though they didn’t care at all about my about-to-graduate student status).

    I quit two months after I went back because my husband got a great job and we moved… and I decided to stay home with my daughter. However, I’m glad for the real lessons I learned about people. When I left, several airport employees actually came up to me and said they wished I’d stay because I was the only TSA employee who treated them like a person.

  46. steve says:

    “I have to agrre with some of the others. When it comes to working hard and being good at what I do, it is never rewarded. Even in my chosen career, I know just how much to do of my work and how much to leave.”

    I think you might be missing an important piece. Not only do you have to do an excellent job, you have to communicate with your boss about it. Give them an update about what you have done for them and bring them any questions you have about what else you could do. If you do that, you will be recognized individually. You will also likely begin to gain leverage to gain more interesting responsibilities or otherwise give you leverage in your workplace. When you own the results and associate them to yourself by giving updates to your boss, you will very likely get better results for yourself than by just doing “the letter of the law” quietly.

  47. steve says:

    “They would glare at me when I asked questions (even though the scientists were usually very happy to answer them) and make comments like “Why do you care?”

    When you do your jobs in a new job position, immediately after doing them it’s a good idea to touch base with your bosses and go over what you did. It prevents them having to expend energy “supervising” you and gives you an opportunity to learn more and do a better job, while increasing your credibility with them.

    When your batches went bad, the thing to do was express honest remorse and concern for the loss of resources and loss of time for their work (even if you think it wasn’t your fault–sometimes you have to express remorse, even when it seems it’s not really your fault.. Then ask if they would be willing to go over the process you used to make the batches, and step them step by step exactly through what you did. In doing so, if there is a lack of standard procedure, you become a partner in helping them address it, instead of the “unreliable employee”. By your care and attention to detail, it will defuse their ire. Then incite their curiousity by wondering out loud, “I’m wondering how this could have happened, since we’ve gone over the entire procedure and it seems to be correct. Maybe what we’re assuming the ingredients are is incorrect. Could there be the wrong stuff in some of these marked containers?”

    don’t let the shlubs (co-workers) get you down, at least make them work for it.

    If you’ve communicated with the bosses as above, and you suspect that you are being sabotaged, schedule a meeting with your bosses to “discuss something with them”. And go over your concerns about the workplace environment.

    As to the “co-workers”, there is nothing wrong with telling them directly how pathetic their negative attitude toward their work is.

    Admittedly, that’s a lot for a 19 year old to deal with.

  48. Johanna says:

    @tightwadfan: When I was in grad school, I knew a woman whose work was being sabotaged. When she brought her concerns to her advisor, he took them seriously, and eventually they caught the person (as in Amy’s case, the guilty party was an ex-bf) and kicked him out.

    In my experience, there are a lot of scientists who do their best to be reasonable and fair, but who don’t have very good people skills or management skills. So they may be oblivious to a problem that seems obvious to you, but if you point it out, they might be willing to help.

    Of course, there are other scientists who are just abusive bullies, and with them, there’s not much you can do. But unless you’re absolutely sure that an abusive bully is what you’re up against, you’re usually better off pointing out that there’s a problem than just assuming that the boss doesn’t care.

  49. steve says:

    How about this one

    “It seems like you’re glaring at me. Is there some reason for that?” (looking them straight in the eyes and not breaking eye contact)

  50. Stephan F- says:

    I have a gapping void where the memory of my worst job was. It was so bad that coming home I often couldn’t tell you want I had done all day. I only stayed there for 100 days. That day I was looking in the bathroom mirror and I was looking yellow. Bad sign, possible infectious disease, I went to a supervisor and she said I looked fine, she failed that test, I left anyway and went to the nearby clinic. It turned out to be gallstones but the clinic took a bright yellow person very seriously. Never went back.

    Learned a lot. People are more important then jobs. Design for the grunts as they are the biggest sink of money in an operation but play to the suits. If you employ 1000+ people to watch for a dozen “bad apples” within your own company you need to redesign your business. If there is a big gap between most workers and your top producers do something good for you top producers they may even stay a bit longer.

  51. Jessica says:

    My worst job only lasted for approximately 3-5 days. My family had just moved to another town about 25 minutes away from our original location. I decided to try to find a job in this new town, but had the hardest time. Finally I was able to get hired as a cashier at Burger King. I was 16 so I took what I could get so I could have some gas money.

    Unfortunately, the other workers were all older high school guys and a manager who was maybe 19 (female, although oblivious). The job itself was terrible, but I could deal with it until I found something better. That is, until the “hazing” started. Two of the guys who worked there thought it would be funny to lock me in the freezer, spray me with the hose, and other stupid things. Finally, they got the bright idea to climb up on the roof and dump a bucket of water on me when I was leaving one night. It was somewhat cold outside and I was wearing a white undershirt since the uniform smelled awful. So I was soaked, in a white tee, and completely humiliated when the guys pointed out that you could see through it and laughed hysterically. The manager saw it and also laughed. She didnt’ to anythign to help me cover myself or dry off. I got in my car and drove home crying. When I got home my mom called the manager and asked what had happened b/c I was too ashamed to tell her. The corporate office did an investigation regarding sexual harrassment, but I never went back there again.

    I’m not sure what I learned… Don’t work with immature people? Don’t expect a manager to take care of you b/c they are in a position of authority? There are mean people in the world who do cruel things to others for their own entertainment? I’m just glad I was smart enough not to go back and sumbit to more torture.

  52. Robin says:

    My worst job ever was in a DVD factory in Tennessee. I worked there one summer between semesters of college, and gosh was it awful. Not only was the work mind-numbingly dull (put the DVD on the conveyor belt… 12 hours a day…) but the heat inside the giant aluminum box of a factory was downright unbearable. I had to drive enormous amounts of water just to stay on my feet all day, and as I result I had to have several frank discussions with my boss about my frequent trips to the bathroom. There was no one to talk to, no music to listen to, just the dull thud of the machine that received the dvds when I put them on the conveyor belt.
    It was the worst job, ever. It actually limited my reasoning skills for several months even after I had left it, because it required that little thinking.

  53. Bob says:

    I am currently in the worst job of my life. I have been working for family friends (husband and wife duo law firm) for about a year while I finished law school. They were both excited for me to be done and I really cut corners studying for the bar exam to “keep my seat warm” at the office. So to much fanfare I started my first full day on the job, and the husband calls me into his office, all pumped, and offers me a salary that is $1000 more per year than an assistant manager at starbucks (I checked). I tried to take it in stride, but I’m finding that the only reason I was sticking with the firm was because I was promised how lucrative it was for us… apparently the “us” only included the husband and wife.

    Then, I get a nastygram email from the wife asking for me to fill out my health insurance form ASAP. I noted that the enrollment form was photocopied, and the signature line clearly stated, “I have read and understand the conditions on the reverse side of this form.” So I made the mistake of asking for the reverse side of the form… I mean, I’m a lawyer, I should know better than to blindly sign things (and we also represent credit card companies, so it’s doubly true). The enrollment form did not come with any benefits guide, or even the “benefits at a glance” sheet. So I asked for one of those as well.

    The email I received stated, “I hope you are as thorough when doing your work here & that I won’t have to follow up with you again on anything I ask of you in the future.” Apparently, my interest in my personal well-being and benefits at a job is not the most important thing? I immediately started applying for other positions; we’ll see how long I have to stay.

  54. kaitlyn says:

    My worst job (hostessing at an upscale restaurant) taught me that if I really, really hate going to work every day, then I should quit. I got fired from that job about three months after I should have quit. Those were some miserable months. The reason I know when I should have quit? It was the day a customer attacked me, I fainted, and my managers apologized to them. They woke me up to send me home. No “are you okay? should we call an ambulance?” just, here are your car keys and go home.

    I agree with everyone else re: doing well just means more work. I did amazingly at my entry level position, so I got moved somewhere harder. Did well there, and I got a real promotion. Well, I picked those two jobs up so quickly, I became the go-to person for helping out whichever department is busiest.

    The nice part is that I have learned more in two years than any of my co-workers. The downside is I am ALWAYS busy. Month after month of 10-12 hr shifts, 7 days a week, etc. My paychecks are lovely, but I want sleep!

  55. BettyBoop says:

    Yep, I work at a small town law firm, but am starting over as an over-educated legal secretary after a divorce from my ex-husband (whom I put through law school in our younger years). The lawyers make big bucks yet spend vast amounts of work time on their personal business instead of working, while the lowly-paid people that actually do the majority of the work and make the firm function are told we are lucky we have jobs there. Because of the “economy” we did not get any end of year bonus (they rewarded themselves, however) and no cost-of-living increase this year after the huge jumps in the prices of everything. Very discouraging, but I can’t say it is my worst job ever… it’s yet another job where you are conscientious and work hard, doing the best job you can and there is no monetary appreciation or chance to make a living wage.

  56. “Build strong relationships with all of your coworkers as early as possible.’

    Sure, that’s important. But I doubt it would have helped in your case.

    The resentment was not that you were a favorite, but because you were excited about the job and did a good job. By working more diligently and with enthusiasm, you made the others look bad. There is no personal relationship you can establish with workers who think like that.

    Had you been cozier with them, I’d wager that would have told you to do less work and not make them look bad in comparison.

  57. littlepitcher says:

    Ah, my bad jobs…a book or blog in there somewhere!
    Coworkers harass when they can run an employee out and get overtime, when one of their kids wants your job, or if someone’s stealing and you’re honest and intelligent. I’ve been fired for reporting sabotage, for standing up and defending myself, and for reporting dishonesty. Probably I will be on near-minimum wage for the rest of my life.

    But–the company who fired me for reporting sabotage is bankrupt. The place where they harassed me out to get a kid the job, has lost most of its university contracts. The boss who liked to pitch screaming fits after lunch is in prison for ten years, and the dishonest company was put out of business in two major cities.

    Yes, I had something to do with all of it. I’m still trying to fight the bunch who ran me out to get the overtime, and so are some of their other ex-employees. Don’t ever let the sob’s get away with it, if it takes you 20 years.

  58. 24intexas says:

    My Worst:

    Telemarketer selling Credit Card Insurance for Citibank. The product was a scam. The credit cards customers slammed the phone on you. The management was dumb and rude. All of my co-workers were miserable. Lasted about a month.

  59. Steve Jobs says:

    My worst job ever was a couple of weeks at Silo (the old consumer electronics store) during the Christmas holidays. I was making ends meet during the early days of consulting. Those sales reps were vultures. A nice guy like me didn’t have a chance.

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