bad manager or deliberate saboteur?

A reader writes:

I thought you might find this old OSS/CIA manual from 1944 as interesting examples of bad management. The purpose of the manual was to instruct employees and citizens of enemy states to sabotage the enemy from within.

Some of the sabotage tips sound quite familiar from some of the reader letters. The most relevant tips relevant to your blog can be found near the end of the manual and contain gems such as:

  • Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
  • Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.
  • Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Telephone: At office, hotel and local telephone switchboards, delay putting calls through, give out wrong numbers, cut people off “accidentally,” or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.
  • Transportation: Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Issue two tickets for the same seat on a train in order to set up an “interesting” argument.

Thanks, and I really enjoy your blog. I’m glad you don’t “[g]ive lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned” (tip 12.a).

Ooooh, thank you for this.

So if you have a bad manager, maybe she’s just an incredibly competent saboteur.

{ 125 comments… read them below }

  1. A Non*

    Y’know, my ex-boss was the former IT manager. I was worried for a while that he might do something to sabotage equipment on his way out. Then I realized that would be redundant. I’m now amazed I didn’t find a copy of this handbook when cleaning out his office.

  2. Katrina*

    This is amazing. I’m going to add “pretend boss is a spy” as one of my coping mechanisms when faced with bad management from here on out. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Nobody Here By That Name*

      I’ve sometimes pretended to be a spy to get through a work day. This adds a nice extra element to it!

      1. Bailey Quarters*

        I have pretended to be Margaret Mead, studying an alien culture and trying not to go native. It has worked wonders.

    2. Windchime*

      I like the “pretend boss is a spy” approach. I’ve been going with “pretend boss is a banty rooster” (with all the pecking about and the puffing of the chest feathers), but I like the “spy/saboteur” coping mechanism better. Takes less imagination.

      1. Katrina*

        Yeah, this seems a bit more positive. Plus it adds flare to the quitting fantasy. Jumps from conversation where I pretend to have enjoyed working for you to covert exit strategy.

      2. JaneB*

        I have a bullying and aggressive co-worker who used to flat-out scare me. One day I had this mental image of him as a scruffy tom-cat peeing on the door frame of my office, clawing “his” chair in the tea-room, rubbing his face all over “his” projects (i.e. any project he has any tiny peripheral involvement with, regardless of who is the designated lead), desperate to assert his ownership, and the amusement of that helped me get some perspective. This makes it much easier to react in a calm and bored manner to his outbursts… although I am tempted to bring in a waterpistol sometime soon!

    3. Bunny Purler*

      At my old job, we used to joke that the entire organisation was a front for the espionage activities of two of our more colourful directors. A bit like Universal Export in the James Bond books and films.

    4. Carpe Librarium*

      Thank you for reminding me of this XKCD comic:

      For mobile users, the rollover text that appears when the mouse pointer is held over the image reads, “If you read all vaguebooking/vaguetweeting with the assumption that they’re saying everything they can without revealing classified military information, the internet gets way more exciting.”

  3. LBK*

    Oddly timely – my new manager that just started last week is former CIA. I’ll have to keep an eye out for these tactics!

      1. LBK*

        So far, he actually seems to be pretty awesome, but I’ll be sure to update with any suspected spy maneuvers :)

          1. LBK*

            We went out to lunch on his first day and when we sat down he explained how he’d be trained to always sit with his back to the wall facing the entrance of the restaurant. I asked him if he was actually a plant designed to slowly morph our team into spies by giving us little tips like that every day and he denied it, but you never know…

              1. Erik*

                Yeah, my dad did the exact same thing because of all of his years working in prisons. He just could not eat comfortably without his back to a wall.

            1. Myrin*

              I do the back-to-the-wall thing, too, not only in restaurants but everywhere. I thought that it’s just because I’m more comfortable with being aware of people coming in but now I wonder if maybe I’m a brainwashed spy in sleeper mode or something like that!

              1. Nanc*

                If you are a spy, here’s hoping your trigger phrase isn’t “Hanukkah balls”, “bitch eating crackers”, or “is this legal?”!

            2. LeahS*

              My dad is a truck driver, but I am now convinced he’s actually CIA (ohh, long haul trucker WOULD be a great cover). This is a Huge Thing for him.

            3. Jo*

              I haven’t picked up the back-to-the-wall thing, but another one of these funny side effects to living in a conflict zone is that whenever I enter a building, I immediately look for the back door and plot my escape route. Also I avoid sitting near windows because windows + bombs = very bad things.

      1. Bowserkitty*

        One of my old coworkers is! His sister-in-law is convinced he’s still part of it, actually, and one time he had me help her with a prank involving a secret mission.

        Maybe I was actually doing CIA work…

        1. Artemesia*

          When I was teaching high school 40+ years ago I had an acquaintance with the CIA in to talk to my American Government class about some policy issue and introduced him as a member of the CIA. He was furious afterwards because that is ‘secret’ apparently.

          1. Elle the new Fed*

            This is true. No one is really supposed to talk about it, but obviously, it comes out sometimes.

            I went to a dinner with a couple of people from the CIA once and they didn’t talk about their jobs a single time in the 3 hours I spent with them. Kind of bizarre what you learn about when when they don’t fall back to work talk.

          2. Chinook*

            “introduced him as a member of the CIA. He was furious afterwards because that is ‘secret’ apparently”

            We had a friend who worked with members of Canada’s version of the special forces in the military and belonging to them is a secret (to protect their families). In their public hr file, they are listed as cook or mechanic who just happened to work at the base where they trained. The running joke was always to treat any extremely fit guy who was just a cook with extreme care.

      2. LBK*

        He and I actually talked about it a little and he said it’s actually really hard to get out because you can’t job hunt like a normal person – a lot of your experience isn’t applicable anywhere else and you can’t give any specifics about the work you did on your resume or in interviews. That’s why a lot of people who go in end up staying there forever or just shifting around to similar government roles.

  4. pope suburban*

    Alternate titles for this excerpt include, “My Boss: Bullet Points Edition.”

    I am well and truly gobsmacked. This describes my workplace to a T. If I thought my boss would ever have read it, I’d wonder– perhaps he mistook it for a how-to career guide?

  5. Not So NewReader*

    Dare I say? I think I know where these people have infiltrated….

    OP, thanks for a great read!

  6. Anonymous Fed*

    Oh gosh, the last three describe my last manager to a T! I thought our team was just dysfunctional, not that I was being sabotaged. Hm, this gives me a much different perspective…. Also, I’m happy to be out of there!

  7. Ama*

    Well, academia is clearly full of spies, if “make a committee for everything” is one of the tactics.

    1. Sascha*

      Indeed, as I found “Committee for Forming Committees” on the list of committees at my university…

      1. Nom d' Pixel*

        That sounds too good to be true. But then I work in a department that has an SOP saying what SOPs are.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Ha. Our university has a “Committee on Committees” with a person in each academic unit assigned to it. Their job is to recruit members of that academic unit to fill university committee vacancies. Our most pompous, self-important professor was on the Committee on Committees and, wow, did he relish that role!

      3. Dr. Speakeasy*

        Yup, pretty much every university and academic organization has a Committee on Committees. Somebody has to assign everybody to all the committees.

    1. Liana*

      YES. Also, I’m so happy to find another fan of the show on here! I just started watching it and I’m hooked. How are more people not talking about it??

    2. So Very Anonymous*

      Ha! I was just coming here to point out that if your manager looks like a tougher version of Felicity and changes her her hairstyle A LOT, you are probably dealing with a skilled saboteur.

      1. Cat*

        Also, if your husband has a bad toupee, shows up like once a week, and is explicitly asking you to spy on your co-workers. FYI.

        1. So Very Anonymous*

          Yes! One of these days he’s going to put on the wrong toupee and she’s going to catch on.

          Or not.

    3. The IT Manager*

      Yes! Love that show. I think it’s back on in March.

      Off topic, I am fan of old spy shows. Remember Scarecrow and Mrs. King – a rather gentle and silly spy show. I like to think these shows take place in the same universe because they are set in the same years but they have such a different level of violence.

  8. A Non*

    My suggestions for additions to the list:

    – Find or invent reasons to be away from your usual workstation. If no-one can find you, they can’t make you do work.
    – Procrastinate on decisions.
    – Then change your mind about them.
    – Then to lower morale further, berate your employees for not being able to meet deadlines.
    – Insist that you can’t complete task A until B, C, and D are done, to the smallest specification.
    – Resist all attempts to optimize. “But we’ve always done it that way” is a good excuse.
    – Spend meeting time attempting to “resolve” petty drama rather than doing what the meeting is supposed to do.

    Y’all are a creative bunch, what would you do?

    1. CM*

      If you are a manager, insist on X even though your subordinates are asking to do Y. Next time the same decision needs to be made, and your subordinates have already made arrangements to do X, insist that X is a terrible decision and Y is the only correct decision.

      1. Emmy Rae*

        Our division head has mastered this technique. No amount of check ins and clarification can sway his course.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Don’t forget to berate the employee for daring to implement X without checking with you. When they say that they thought that doing X in such instances was a departmental decision arrived at during the last meeting, look at them like you think they are absolutely nuts and ask where in the world they got such an idea??!

        1. Windchime*

          Yes, and then by all means DO NOT RESPOND when the confused employee sends you the email/memo where you said everyone should do X.

    2. Cat like that*

      — Ask your employee to organize a project proposal. Do not give any specifications, just “what you think is best”. Reject every piece of the proposal and ask them to re-do it. Repeat 3x. Then accept all terms and order the project carried out. Two days before the project deadline, declare that you want to change everything about the project. Insist the original deadline still MUST be met. After project has been completed (on time), berate employee for not being more organized in the beginning.

      1. Anonymous Fed*

        Use your network of spies to delay their part of the project and give conflicting instruction along the way. Wait until immediately after the employee has a major life event (marriage, baby, close family member in the hospital) until telling them they did it all wrong. Continually bring it up as an example of their failure in every future review.

        This whole comment section is giving me flashbacks.

      2. Cautionary tail*

        I have been the victim of this.

        Boss: Prepare a disaster recover proposal to solve, oh I don’t know, how about X.

        Me: What are my budgetary constraints? Let’s develop requirements.

        Boss: You just develop several scanarios and I’ll review them.

        Me: (works feverishly for. Several weeks laying out options from microscopic X for microscopic budget to solve microscopic issues, up to billboad sized X with billboard sized budget to solve billboard sized issues. Submits options along with summaries and recommendations.) Here ya go boss.

        Boss: (after a week) All these cost money. What disaster recover plan can we do for no money and no time invested?

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Boss: (after a week) All these cost money. What disaster recover plan can we do for no money and no time invested?

          *Hands boss piece of paper with the header “Cost-free, No-Time-Investment Disaster Recovery Options”, totaly blank except for the title.*

          1. Cautionary tail*

            That’s pretty much what happened. All those that cost anything over zero were crossed off leaving the paper blank….and that was the end of disaster recovery.

    3. LizB*

      Feign ignorance whenever an employee asks a question or updates you on a project they’re working on. Even if you’ve spoken with them fifteen times on the same topic, require them to walk you through the context and their progress in excruciating detail every single time they bring it up, even (especially) for the smallest questions. If your supervisor asks a question about this topic, express your frustration that your employee never updates you on their progress.

      Require one-on-one meetings to follow a script that is only tangentially related to your employees’ job duties. Make sure that going through the script takes so much time that they have no opportunity to ask important questions.

      If a one-word explanation would suffice, use 50. Say the same thing at least four ways.

      1. Crissy from HR*

        Not 100% sure if the last one is my last boss or my future MIL. Either way, I’m irritated just thinking about it.

      2. Michele*

        And when you use the 50 words, make sure that they have as many syllables as possible and that several of the words are misused.

      3. Mallory Janis Ian*

        If a person seeks clarification of a small detail regarding an advanced point in the project, start your explanation with a history lesson that begins with the original inception of your company, and ends at the present, but never answers the actual question. If the employee attempts to rephrase the question to get a more satisfying answer, go back to the beginning. Be like Sheldon when he was teaching Penny physics: “It was a warm evening in ancient Greece . . . “

      4. Amber*

        After a long meeting, find 1 random team member who didn’t bring paper to the meeting and tell them to send out the meeting notes to the team.

    4. JoJo*

      Be helpful, very helpful. Volunteer to ‘help’ your co-workers, then interrupt them every 90 seconds, ask them 20 million questions, and screw up whatever you’re given to do. When criticized, give them a pained look and say, “I was only trying to help.”

      1. college employee*

        And don’t worry about asking your co-workers if they need or want your “help.” They will appreciate your initiative, unless they are “mean.”

    5. Emmy Rae*

      When you issue an instruction and an employee asks a question about it, rather than acknowledge the question simply rephrase the instruction in the most condescending terms possible. When the employee asks the question again, stop responding to their emails.

    6. Artemesia*

      At one point I had three offices, one in an administrative area, one in a department and one in a research center. I can’t tell you how convenient that is.

      1. Nom d' Pixel*

        My lab is on a separate floor from my office. The computers in the lab are dedicated to running equipment and don’t even have Office installed on them or internet access. If I am in the lab and need to check an SOP (because don’t you dare do anything against an SOP), I have to go downstairs and down the hallway to my office, log in down there and check it. Also, we are not allowed to print the SOPs, so I can’t just take the commonly used ones up to the lab.

        I swear every word of that is true.

    7. Nom d' Pixel*

      Five years after they do something according to policy, hold them accountable for not doing it the way the policy was modified to 6 months ago.

    8. Nom d' Pixel*

      Deny any requests for equipment upgrades, requiring everyone to struggle with antiquated equipment that doesn’t meet industry standards. Then spend lavishly on your own perks.

      1. Fish Microwaver*

        Make people struggle with inadequate servers and unstable, inefficient programs. Ignore requests for upgrades and streamlining of processes. Berate people for slowness and mistakes directly attributable to the crappy technology and process. Assume people come to work to screw up.

      2. Carpe Librarium*

        Sabotage smarter, not harder by rejecting all software security upgrades and accepting all spam; conveniently allowing hackers and viruses to do the hard work for you.

  9. jaxon*

    I’m honestly curious how such a manual would have been used. Are they assuming that the “enemy territory” has a large number of dissatisfied citizens who want to bring the regime down from the inside? Why would such a group of citizens, who may or may not have been organized in any way, have needed a manual from the CIA to figure out what to do? Why would they have followed the CIA’s advice, as opposed to any other advice? How would they have gotten this manual in the first place? Would it have been used by Americans in some way? Is it meant to train American spies/operatives who would then be expected to train foreign agents?

    1. Ghost Umbrella*

      The latter. The target audience for this advice would be OSS operatives who would pass it to civilians in Axis-controlled territories in WWII.

      1. Artemesia*

        The Nazis occupied many countries during WWII e.g. Netherlands, Denmark, France — this sort of thing would have come in very handy and it is hard to counter people who are diligently ‘following the rules and procedures’ and doing so politely and obsequiously.

      2. Cath in Canada*

        “The Moon is Down” by John Steinbeck is an amazing play (but also very readable as a novel) about Norwegian citizens undermining the Nazi occupiers with sabotage tactics of varying subtlety. Cannot recommend highly enough.

    2. Nanc*

      Read The Spy Wore Red, by Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones. She was recruited into the OSS and worked in Spain during WWII. It’s fascinating how she was trained and how she set up her network of Spanish civilians.

  10. Snarkus Aurelius*

    My former boss was a big offender of coddling underperformers and yelling at the top performers. I figured it was because we’d always produce good work so it was easier to yell than get an underperformer to shape up. If she couldn’t get the crappy people to change, then she was ineffective.

    Honestly I don’t even think she was aware of her behavior anyway.

    1. pope suburban*

      This is my boss’s…well, I can’t say it’s his biggest problem, but it’s easily the one that has cost us the most. He has paid out who knows how much money to people who have fudged their time cards, knowingly. He has allowed underperforming workers to have more PTO than they really ought to have (based on our PTO policy). He has refused to discipline underperforming workers, to the point that it has taken me, our HR person, and our shop supervisor a year to fire someone who shouldn’t have been hired in the first place.

      Meanwhile, all our professional, high-performing, overqualified inside staff get dismissed, criticized, insulted, and occasionally actually yelled at. It’s easier for him, I guess, to make us do everything, but it’s terrible for morale and it may well end up getting him in hot water, depending on how far he takes it.

      1. Fish Microwaver*

        Yep, I have one of these. Yesterday she allowed a very unstable and passive aggressive coworker to dump most of her work and I had to stay back to finish it. That’s why I am job seeking.

  11. The Cosmic Avenger*

    1) Insist on approving every little decision, then reply “I’m swamped, I can’t think about that now! Ask me tomorrow!”
    2) After the delay creates a crisis, yell at the employee for “pestering” you about every decision and not “taking initiative”.
    3) Continue to micromanage.

    1. Artemesia*

      I worked for a micromanager whose office was known as the ‘black hole’ because nothing that went in came out. It was so frustrating to wait, wait, wait, wait then have a crisis rush when he finally got around to the think that was due tomorrow.

  12. JoJo*

    Never give feedback. Let the hapless employee think that he or she is doing a decent job, then blindside them with a negative review.

    Don’t give any instructions about how to do a project, tell them about deadlines, or better yet, don’t tell them about the project, then berate them for not reading your mind.

    1. Nom d' Pixel*

      If there is a problem with their project, don’t tell them in any way that could allow them to correct the problem or prevent it from reoccurring. Wait several months then lay into them about it in a meeting with several other people.

  13. Adam*

    I wonder if I should re-frame all crazy behavior by my co-workers/higher-ups as necessary while conducting espionage. It would make the work day so much more entertaining.

  14. JoJo*

    Constantly criticize the employee, blow tiny mistakes out of proportion, but be sure to hoard compliments.

  15. Rebecca*

    Wow, this explains a lot. Protect the employee who uses company time to take care of their personal email, surf the net, shop, play cards, etc. while others are struggling, then pile more work on everyone else. Oh, as an aside, your plot is working.

  16. SG*

    When I first saw that on Open Culture I read it out loud to my boss who was deeply amused as we’re pretty sure most of the people at our company are following this manifesto.

  17. AndersonDarling*

    Thanks so much for sharing! I was reading the full list and I loved “C.) Act stupid.”
    If you think about it, it would only take a few spies following these guidelines to stall an entire organization. Or, it could take just a few incompetent employees, who happen to fall into these categories, to take down an organization.

  18. Mike C.*

    Yeah, I brought this into a meeting a few weeks ago and it was really fun how often we could pick out things that we do to ourselves.

    It’s also a really interesting look into how you keep up the morale of an occupied people. Sure, one individual isn’t going to turn the war around but the ability to do small things that have a real effect will certainly help you cope with the stress of being in a bad situation.

    1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      I sent this to some of my colleagues and leaders calling out the same thing – look at how many of these items are everyday practice today.

  19. Artemesia*

    This is totally fabulous and ought to be the first thing handed out in management training for new supervisors. It makes utterly concrete the consequences of bad management.

  20. Tommy*

    Delay every single proposal that comes across your desk, claiming that corporate has to approve it. Your underlings won’t want to get in trouble by going over your head, so you have very little chance of ever getting found out. You can claim to the higher ups that you have a bunch of incompetent workers and that they should all be replaced, which would slow things down even more!

  21. eplawyer*

    First, I cracked up at the “keep the line open” on the telephone one. Some of you are probably too young to remember how that was a problem.

    Second of all, reading the comments make me very very very very very glad I am self-employed. And if I ever become an employer I will do my best to do none of these behaviors.

  22. HRinAus*

    I saw this manual for the first time on the Evil HR Lady site about 2 months ago. It cracked me up then and it cracks me up now :)

  23. De Minimis*

    I think my manager may be a spy.

    Then again, when I have to cover the phones, I may also be a spy.

  24. hnl123*

    Also add to the list:
    -throw everyone and anyone under the bus. Do not, under any circumstance accept any accountability. Extra points if you throw someone under the bus who implemented a plan you insisted upon.

  25. peanut butter kisses*

    Add ‘get your dates and times mixed up constantly’. I have a part time job where they began letting in ticket holders to an event a half hour after it started. They also told people to show up for another event at six pm when that event started at noon and ended mid-afternoon.

  26. matcha123*

    I work in Japan and when this was posted to a forum I visit, most of us agreed that the Japanese workplace is like the CIA manual posted above.
    Just this past week I was consulted no less than five times regarding the “correct” Japanese translation of a number of English words. One being “crown.” As in, “The raspberry tea pots will represent the crowning of our glorious chocolate love.”
    “Crown means what?”
    “They are trying to say that after a series of events, a wonderful relationship will be formed. They probably used ‘crown’ because it sounds cool. You can write this in a way that fits best in Japanese.”
    “Yes, but why crown? It’s hard to translate into Japanese.”
    “So, you don’t need it.”
    [30 minutes later boss comes over]
    “Tanaka-san asked you about the word ‘crown,’ and I’ve printed a copy of ‘crown’ from the thesaurus. Which word is closest?”
    “So, they are not talking about literal crowns. They just want the reader to think they are taking the relationship seriously.”


  27. Polka dot bird*

    Ask for a presentation explaining something. When reviewing the presentation, claim not to understand and ask for the information to be represented in a completely different format. Give no direction on what that fornat should be.

  28. college employee*

    I have one simple way that is guaranteed to destroy morale. Conduct an anonymous survey on the pretext of improving the workplace. Encourage employees to be honest and make suggestions.

    And then after you read the comments, hold a meeting with your employees. Scream at your employees and demand to know which employees made negative comments. Tell them that they are cowards and that if they are so unhappy, they should quit. Tell a group of skilled technical workers that they are like monkeys and easily replaced.

    Act shocked when said monkeys and you their resignations. And have the remaining employees contact the monkeys in question whenever you have a problem because you couldn’t find anyone to replace them.

  29. SRB*

    Hah. “When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.”

    Then add to it “yell at any employees who ask clarifying questions”, “determine that anything you get back is wrong, no matter if it was what you really wanted” and “yell at any workers who get it wrong, which is all of them”. Bonus points if the thing you yell at them for is something that would have been clarified if you had answered their earlier questions and/or if it’s something you specifically told them to do. Then you’d have my first boss. Glad I’m not in that place anymore.

    Starting to finally manage people, my biggest resolution is to *always* do my best to explain exactly what I want and *why*, and to always ask if the instructions make sense to them.

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