The Secret Designer: The Abusive Employer

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April 10, 2018
This is a true story. The events described in this article took place at some point in the author’s career. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the clients, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
The Secret Designer: The Abusive Employer.
Before I start, I should clarify that my story isn’t from the perspective of a web designer; it’s from the perspective of someone who managed a web design agency and witnessed some pretty awful things done to the offsite team. Like firing every single one of them…without notice…via email…over Christmas…

Jumping into the Unknown

Prior to taking the job at said firm, I had been a lifelong production manager. I worked at a number of high-profile enterprises—many of whom you’ve heard of—as well as for smaller, boutique businesses that were on the up and up. However, my partner at the time accepted a job across the country, and I was unable to take my office job on the road. Needless to say, when a remote management position opened with Shady Agency [obviously, not their real name], I jumped at it. It wasn’t just that the job was in my area of specialty or that it gave me the freedom to work from wherever I wanted. The owners of Shady Agency made it seem like theirs was the company to work for: High-profile clientele; Esteemed reputation in their industry; And a 100% remote team all dedicated to the mission. What I didn’t know at the time though was that the mission boiled down to the following:
If the clients don’t complain about it, just give them the most half-assed work you can manage.
Obviously, I wasn’t aware of this. I was hired to develop technical documentation and bring order to their web design and content creation workflows. So, for the first few months at this job, my head was down and I was dedicated to enhancing productivity and output. Then one of the owners quit. Up until that point, she had been managing the remote team in isolation. Neither the other owner nor myself had really interacted with them at that point. I knew their names, I knew their roles, I knew that there were occasionally problems in terms of quality, but, beyond that, I had no insights into what was happening on their side of things.

That’s When the Problems Came to Light

With the departure of the managing owner, I was asked to step in and supervise the web design and content marketing teams. I’d had first-hand experience in both fields in the past, so it made sense this would be added to my list of responsibilities. It quickly became clear, however, that there was a reason the previous owner had kept the team from us…

Job Discrepancies

For starters, there were 15 full-time employees living in India and China. They served as our web designers, WordPress developers, social media administrators, and content managers. While the first two roles were easy to define and assign ownership to, the last two weren’t… and none of those employees seemed to know what their title was or what they should be doing. This became evident when I set Shady Agency up with its first ever project workflow within our content management system. I developed a thorough set of documentation and screenshots as well as a system of checklists that would ensure we were hitting all required steps. However, I was unable to assign many of the tasks because no one would step forward to claim ownership of them. I eventually began doling out assignments and just crossing my fingers, hoping they would get done. Even then, I found that the work was greatly imbalanced. Some employees managed entire clients while others only seemed to handle things like blog post optimization or report generation—neither of which took much time at all, and yet they were billing the company for overtime every week.


Then I had my first team call with everyone. One problem I encountered was the fact that I had to hold the call at 11 p.m. my time because they lived on the opposite side of the world. The way our time zones worked out, there was never any overlap between when they worked and when I worked, which meant I could never provide feedback or hold conversations in real-time unless I was willing to work overnight. Another problem I ran into was that I discovered that most of them did not speak English, at least not well enough that they could communicate outside of brief emails. Now, this, in and of itself, is not a problem. I have worked for international companies in the past and was always able to effectively communicate with coworkers despite any language barrier. And, if we weren’t able to speak the same language, it was usually okay as they were hired for a skill that didn’t require it. That was not the case here. Shady Agency served high-profile enterprises in the United States, with a strictly US-based audience. This meant that any design or content we created needed to be in line with US web design standards and the content needed to be fluently written. Neither of these requirements were being met.

Undervaluing of the Team

I don’t want to disparage any of the work the team did; They were each talented individuals in their own right. However, the team setup led to my inability to:
  • Communicate because of the language barrier;
  • Discuss matters in real-time;
  • Meet clients’ expectations repeatedly.
It was all bad for business. Ultimately, I put the blame on the owners who hired the team as they set them up for failure. As was later explained to me:
We pay each of them the equivalent of $2 an hour, so it doesn’t matter if they charge us overtime or do a crappy job since it costs practically nothing to keep them around. We’ll just have to fix their work before it goes to the clients.
As you can imagine, the employees were well aware of this, too. Which is why when I came in with my super controlled workflows, guidelines, time tracking tools, and budgets, it did not go over well as they had been doing whatever they wanted for years: Late on deadlines; Rushed and incoherent copy; Outdated designs; Broken code. Again, I don’t blame them for behaving the way they did. Shady Agency created a toxic and unprofessional environment in which they treated overseas designers and marketers like expendable assets. And they took advantage of their clients’ naivete… until they couldn’t make excuses for why content was late, designs weren’t up to snuff, and developers always seemed to be “unavailable” whenever they wanted to talk about the technical aspects of their websites.

The Mass Firing and Aftermath

After Shady Agency lost five clients in a month (due to consistent quality issues) and about 80% of its recurring revenue along with them, the owner made the decision to let the entire team go. However, it took two months for him to finally pull the trigger. Just before Christmas, he came to the realization that if he didn’t let them go before New Year, he was going to have to a) pay out their annual bonuses, and b) deal with the associated taxes for them in the following year. And, so, he emailed each of them when he knew they were on holiday, informing them that, effective immediately, they no longer had a job. Needless to say, I was shocked and disgusted, and wanted to immediately run away. However, I was about to move across the country again and couldn’t afford to be jobless. So, I returned to work after the new year and met with my boss to discuss the future of the company. (The company being me and him since all other roles had been outsourced and there was no one else left.) In a nutshell, this is what happened afterwards: My boss asked me to step in and manage whatever work remained until we could hire replacements. I had used Dreamweaver to design websites in the way, way distant past, Photoshop to optimize photography, and WordPress to build my blog. But that was the extent of my website-building capabilities. So, I spent the next two weeks teaching myself as much as I could about WordPress, plugins, themes, modern web design techniques, SEO, and so on. That month, I took over the management of our remaining clients’ websites and marketing programs while developing a completely new workflow and policy for pretty much everything. The last thing I wanted to do was bring in a new set of web designers and content marketers, and go through the same thing. So, when I was feeling confident about what I’d done, I began looking for freelancers on websites like LinkedIn, Guru, and Freelancer. I properly vetted each and every one of them, offered the winning candidates paid testing opportunities, and slowly grew our team again. Within six months, Shady Agency was up and running at full steam as the target clientele caught wind of the changes. Not only were we producing a much higher quality of work than ever before, but we had some really amazing talent that fit well with the company’s restructured values and that now actively participated in all relevant discussions with our clients.

The Lesson We Should All Take from This

Obviously, I don’t want to sit here and claim to be some hero. I feel terribly about what happened to the original team and I never followed up with any of them because I was ashamed of how it all went down. I was so new to the company and, to be quite frank, shocked at how poorly everything was managed and how it had gone unnoticed for so long, that I didn’t know what to do. I had managed production pipelines and project workflows before; not people. I also don’t believe I deserve accolades for getting the company back up and running. What happened there is what should happen at companies everywhere. In other words:
  • Properly assess your business plan and make it a viable one… not just “How do we get this done on the cheap and without clients knowing?”
  • Hire the right set of employees from the get go and really give them an opportunity to test you out as much as you test them.
  • And treat everyone well. Your team should be well-supported and given the tools to succeed. Your clients should be treated like partners that enable your business to grow as you help them with theirs.
At the end of the day, the lesson to take away from this is that, as an owner or manager of a design agency, you need to value the employees you have. If you don’t, then you need to take a good hard look at why that is and properly remedy the situation. As a freelance designer or employee, you need to be able to recognize bad opportunities when they come along. I know that’s easier said than done (especially if you’re desperate for work), but there are some really dishonest and unappreciative employers out there. You get stuck in a position like that, and chances are good you will become spiteful and uncaring, your work will suffer, and you’ll give that s****y employer every reason to let go of you in a manner you don’t deserve.

The Secret Designer

The Secret Designer is a regular column in which different designers open up about some of the most shocking, difficult, and confusing times of their careers. Do you have a story that you’d like to tell anonymously? Then get in touch.

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