“You Work For Me” – The Tell and how to respond

From time to time, anybody who works in government and deals with members of the public will encounter a member of said public, usually a person who is riled up for some reason, who unleashes the imperious statement “You work for me”.

This is a Tell, on several different levels.

Firstly, it is a clear attempt to establish dominance in the encounter. It is a form of bullying. The subtext of “You work for me” is “you will do what I want”. This is a variation of the other classic dominance gambit used by angry customers – “Do You Know Who I am?”

Secondly, it is an attempt to link taxpayer funding of government to the need for government to be responsive and deferential to the taxpayers that fund it.

The problem with the second line of reasoning is that it is defective on two grounds:

  1. The taxpayer yelling “you work for me” is probably, when you do the math, contributing, at most, a few cents of the salary of the person that they are yelling at
  2. The person they are yelling at works for a leader in the organization that controls what they do and how they do it. Not the yelling member of the public.

The big question in all of this is how the government employee should react to the demanding, possibly yelling customer.

Well, leaving aside obvious push-backs such as “shut the f**k up and sit down”, no matter how tempting those might be, here is my suggested answer.

“You help to fund this organization, but I report to a leader who controls what I do and how I do it, so no, I do not work for you.”

Crisp, correct, and hopefully not too inflammatory.

Ultimately, the primary thing to remember is that a person using this line is trying to bully a government employee to get what they want. You cannot negotiate with a bully. They regard attempts to negotiate as a sign of weakness, a signal that they can bully you some more. So meek acceptance or attempts to placate this kind of verbal abuse are not likely to be effective. Firm, authoritative push-back, sending the message “I will not be bullied, so try something else” is required.



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