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Building a System Where Employees are Treated Better

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Damilare Dosunmu‘s essay for TechCabal stirred up a conversation on Twitter about how toxic many workplaces are in Nigeria. With the hashtag #HorribleBosses, people are calling out their (former) places of work, their (former) employees, and sharing their terrible workplace experiences on social media. 

From people talking about how they are not allowed to go on leave, to unpaid salaries, to being forced to work overtime, to being sent on errands like going to buy ewa agoyin), to people being fired for little things like laughing too much at work, or not singing happy birthday, and even those whose bosses allegedly take their names to spiritual leaders to know if the employees’ destinies align with the organisation or not, there is something we can all agree with: a lot of Nigerians work in very toxic environments.

Although some of these bosses have come out to defend themselves, stating that they were trying to push their employees to do better, we cannot rule out the fact that a lot of Nigerians work under the most horrendous work environment, and are too scared or scarred to leave. One cannot blame them.

In a 2020 report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the country’s unemployment rate increased from 27.1 percent in the second quarter of 2020, to 33.5 percent in the fourth quarter of the same year – the highest unemployment rate in 13 years. What this means is that of the 122,049,400 people in the economically active or working age demographic (15-64 years old), 40,886,549 people (33.5%) are unemployed. What this also means is that 1 in every 3 (economically active) Nigerian has no job. More than 60% of Nigeria’s working-age population is younger than 34. Unemployment for people aged 15 to 24 stood at 53.4% in the fourth quarter, and at 37.2% for people aged 25 to 34. 

These are incredibly bleak figures and one cannot blame employees for sticking with a company even when they are toxic. A dysfunctional work system – like we currently have – also gives room for people to exploit workers because they are fully aware that many of these workers have very limited choices. A country so ravaged by poverty, corruption, insecurity and unemployment creates a system where employers become overlords and employees feel so lucky to have a job that they’d put up with mistreatment.

But it is not enough to call out horrible bosses or let conversations like this end on social media. The crux of the matter is, what do we do? The first step is recognising why toxicity in workplaces is a widespread, nationwide problem. Do we have good labour laws that protect employees, whether public or private? Are these laws being upheld? Do employees have any rights according to the law? Who can they report to when these rights are violated?

The Nigerian Labour Act

The Nigerian labour law provides a framework through which employees’ rights should be protected. As an employer, it is important to read the constitution to ensure that your practices align with the law. For instance, it is common for employers to deduct salaries from their workers for things like lateness, eating at the office, missing a deadline, missing a meeting, and many more ridiculous ones like chewing gum or talking too much in the office. But what does the Nigerian Labour Act say about this? The law says that employers are not allowed to deduct employee’s wages for any reason unless for loss caused for the employer by the employee. So if that lateness, or laughter, or eating in the office, and so on,  does not bring in any tangible loss or damage to the employer, it is illegal to deduct salaries for that.

It is also common for people to work in organisations where written agreements are not done – that is, letters of employment are not given. But according to the Nigerian Labour Act, this is also illegal; a letter of employment must be given within 3 months of resumption.

It is also illegal for employers to pay employees with anything other than money, so no, all the small chops and beverages bought by companies does not count and must not be deducted out of salaries. Forced labour, except during emergencies or calamities (of which it won’t be counted as forced labour) is also illegal.

When employees and employers begin to read about these laws, we’d realise that many employees are being exploited because we are ignorant of the law. 

However, it is not enough to write down the labour act, how is it enacted? Unfortunately, like many other laws in Nigeria, we have a terrible culture of not enacting these laws. For instance, employees reading this now know it is illegal for their salaries to be deducted, but who do they file a complaint to if such happens at their workplaces? Who do Nigerians working in horrendous workplaces file their complaints to? Who’s protecting factory workers in  big companies who are receiving 450 naira daily as their salaries? Who is protecting Nigerians working in Lebanese and Chinese companies, and are crying out about the mistreatment they face? 

There will continually be bad bosses if the system does not protect the rights of employees. There will also be unfair workplaces if employers know that they have ultimate power and employees can do nothing about it? Laws will always be broken if there are no consequences for it, and that is why it is important to not just review the law, but to also enforce it. 

Doing Better

Like many other ‘crises’ in Nigeria, we cannot wait for the government to step in at all times or rely on the Minister of Labour to fight our battles. Remember Chris Ngige once told doctors airing their grievances to leave the country if they want to because “we have surplus doctors”? 

Sometimes, all we need to do is to be better people. Better employers, better employees. We must break a culture where we view our employees – or people lower than us in ranks, age, or status – as people to be trampled upon. Being a tyrant doesn’t start in one day, it builds up slowly – from talking to that gateman anyhow, to insulting that intern who makes a mistake, to being rude to junior colleagues, and then becoming a fully mature tyrant when you set up your company. At all times, it is important to check ourselves and ensure that we are not creating a hostile environment for people who surround us, whether at work, or at home.

There’s a rule to not being a toxic boss: treat others the way you want to be treated. If you call your employee a low-life nobody, ask yourself if you’ll enjoy being talked to that way. 

But it is not always this simple, that is why it is important to hire an HR professional to handle affairs with the staff and check the excesses of overbearing managers. Request for feedback from your staff and take their comments and suggestions in good faith – don’t use their statements against them. Listen to your employees and communicate with empathy. Write down the values of the organisation and remind yourself and your staff what the company stands for at all times. Above all, do some self-reflection, attend leadership trainings, and go for therapy. 

Toxicity in the workplace is a cycle – an abused employee will most likely become an abusive employer. It’s thus important to break the cycle now.

Love and light to all survivors.




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