There is no question that our culture admires those hard-working individuals who go all out to make an honest living and provide for others in the process—and rightfully so.
However, as I’m sure many of us know from firsthand experience, not everything about the business world is always as pure and “honest” as we sometimes imagine it to be. For every honest business leader, there are probably several who will use any underhanded, sneaky, and at times even illegal method so long as it gets dollars and cents closer to their pockets.
Here are 42 examples of some of the worst cases of unethical business practices that people have directly witnessed and shared.
42. Pay On Time
My father did some work on a solicitors' building, and they didn't pay.
My mother noticed after a month they hadn't paid, and went up to have a word.
The receptionist said, "That's fine, I'll get it sorted and we'll post the cheque to you".
My mother said, "I live across the road, I can see my house from here; I'll just take the cheque."
The receptionist said, "I'll need to get the owner to write the check."
My mother said, "I can wait."
The receptionist went back to work.
My mother waited.
The receptionist did nothing further to get the cheque and was talking to clients in the waiting area.
My mother confronted her and said it's cool, she can just go through to the back room and talk to the owner.
The receptionist called the owner in.
[Whole bunch of arguments and bloody haggling for time in front of the clients]
My father got paid.
40. Charity On The Go
"Thanks for shopping at PokéMart, your total is $42.12. Would you like to round up to $43 or donate a full dollar to help out your local PokéShelter for the homeless, 'mon?"
The mart promises that your money will get where it needs to go. They get to hold onto lots of cash tax-free for a while and then write a check for a lump sum when the promo ends. No to mention the adverts they can run for free publicity by wording it like "we HELPED raise $10,000,000 for Homeless Pokémon." People feel all warm and fuzzy about the business even though it was us who gave the money.
Technically you can keep your receipts and deduct the donation, but who is going to keep and deduct 88 cents. Let alone that you have to give up your Standard deduction and itemize your taxes to do that (in the US at least).
38. A Convenient Thing to Forget
No auto-cancel on recurring payments.
Companies could very easily add the feature but won't, hoping you forget and pay them more.
37. Taking the Easy Way Out
My company is extremely non-confrontational and will gently edge employees out instead of firing them when they no longer want them around. Employees usually know they’re getting nudged out and are given months to find a new job while avoiding the “why were you fired?” question from potential employers.
That being said, this is only done when somebody has done something intrinsically fireable in the first place. It’s shady as heck when done to people who could correct their mistake and still be a valuable employee.
36. A Broken System
Emissions testing garages that deliberately fail your car so that they can make money doing needless "repairs" (or recommend a buddy's business for the work).
35. Wrong Priorities
Not hiring people that are "overqualified." Sorry that I've got years of experience and bills to pay, my bad. Hire some dumb idiot instead, go for it. Stress yourself out, lose all your hair, whine about "I hate this job", whatever. Be proud of that poorly paying job, be the king of your own little hill, go for it.
Meanwhile, some people just want a job where they can work their way up. Pretty much everyone promotes from within, I think they just want that promotion for themselves and are afraid to bring people in that actually can do the job better.
34. Sounds Like One Sick Lady
To paint the picture... the supervisor of this particular job would call in sick constantly. And it was a high-stress environment that needed extra bodies around in order to have the slightest chance at running properly. The turnover in my particular position was high.
Got to the point where supervisor constantly shirked her responsibilities onto us (though we were always told we didn’t need to “take on the extra responsibility” etc by her boss and by some other senior employees). This was an impossibility because if certain duties of the supervisor didn’t get done, the department would face SO much legal action it would be mind-boggling…
Cue me taking on her responsibilities (and certainly being paid less than her) to avoid not being able to sleep at night. We had no idea when or if she would come into work. Total nightmare. Made it look like I couldn’t do my job when I was more than capable if provided with the proper support.
Brought this issue up with her boss (the coordinator) but it fell on deaf ears. They ended up laying me off in a meeting we had scheduled for me to (again) bring up the issue with the lack of support in the office. Just laid off instead. Bullet dodged and I know better.
What I have noticed in my case and in the case of my friends in these jobs (early to mid-twenties): corporations and big institutions will do everything in their power to pay you less. If you’re classified as a temporary or casual employee (despite me working over 35+ hours a week), you are screwed by default.
You are also most expendable. It’s harder to fire the supervisor who has been in the system for multiple years and is unionized. And let’s not forget how dangerous it is when an employee has some kind of personal tie to the higher-ups.
33. Above the Law
Worked retail in one of the smallest locations in the state. It was simple to look like our sales were amazing compared to all of the other area stores because our shipments were half the size.
The store manager was a major alcoholic who had dozens of complaints against him from employees and customers. General rudeness, sexual harassment, you name it.
BUT the regional refused to fire him because "his numbers are so good" even though that was the result of the assistant manager, a wonderful person, and the rest of the associates pulling major OT to cover up for the manager's problems, because we knew he was bulletproof within the company for some unknown reason, so any screw up would be on us.
32. Calculated Ethics Pays Well
Literally anything a corporation does that they can be fined for is taken into account as a business expense. If it's cheaper to pay an illegal dumping fine than it is to change the way they process waste nothing will be done to stop the illegal dumping.
31. This is a Problem of Work Ethics and Work Ethic!
I remember looking out the plane window at the luggage handlers (I do not recommend this) in Birmingham (US). They were dropping boxes, kicking things half-heartedly to push them in, acting like junior high kids given chores they don't want to do. Their orange vests hung shoddily from their shoulders as they shuffled around on the tarmac.
Many hours later we arrived in Japan. The luggage handlers had white gloves (seriously), signaled each other in their transport carts, signaled and stopped even when no one seemed near, really took their jobs seriously.
I don't suggest nothing ever gets lost in Japan and I know Japan isn't perfect. But the difference was striking.
30. A Win-Win, or Taking Advantage?
Getting a lot more common in my industry is hiring "interns" all the time. After their few months of "training" they get replaced by the next batch. With the shortage of jobs and the need for experience, many people fresh out of college will happily work for free to gain experience.
29. Sex Clearly Does Sell
There was a post about "things your employer doesn't want the public to know," and I was amazed to see people say how common it was for a woman to be hired (in the tech industry mainly) basically to flirt with potential male business clients.
The aim was to make them nervous or uncomfortable so the company would have the upper hand in negotiations.
Wouldn't exactly call that ethical.
28. A Little Subtlety Never Hurt Anyone
A friend of mine lives out in LA and recently tried to convince me to get a job out there. I work at a dispensary out in Tucson currently, so I hopped onto Craigslist to look at dispensary jobs out in LA, just to see what the options were.
Every single position I found specified looking for female workers."Female budtender wanted," "Female 420 model needed," it was really weird. I work in inventory at my current job and am more knowledgeable about the backend more logistical workings if the company, but none of the jobs seemed to be looking for anyone like that. They just wanted someone cute.
27. If You Aren’t Aware of This One By Now, You Must Be Living Under a Rock
Selling customer data.
26. If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is
Some degree of false advertising. My food never looks like it does on the menu. My internet is never as fast as advertised. The contractor never finishes when he says he will.
25. Temporary Job, Ongoing Annoyance
Holy hell, I did one of those “temporary” positions while going to college and it was the worst. I was getting paid 1/3 of what everyone else was getting for the same work and I had to show up to the temp agency every day at 5 am to get "assigned" to the same job site for work starting at 7 am (like, once I got the post a few times I was pretty sure I'd have that same work for at least a few weeks but they made me essentially apply for the job assignment everyday, with the prospect of being hired for real at some point by the factory).
The absolute worst part for me was that the "temp to hire" fakery was well known among the other workers so no one bothered to get to know me. I ate a packed lunch there every day by myself for two and a half months. I had these stupid steel-toed rubber boots that I "rented" from the temp agency (they took it out of my daily pay) because I couldn't drop the money on my own pair (and why would I, when the work was day-to-day), so all the workers just called me "Ducky" the whole time I was there.
By the end, I was mad at the company and temp agency for sure, but I was also pissed at the other workers who knew what was up, but they were getting theirs so they couldn't be troubled to extend some empathy.
24. Sounds like Someone Contracted a Negative Experience
OK so this is becoming really common in my neck of the woods. Basically a company needs someone to fill a role. Instead of giving them a job and all the perks like paid holidays, etc, they instead hire you as a contractor. This means you still have to play by their rules as to when they want you in but you get none of the perks besides your wage. No sick days, no holidays nothing.
23. This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us
Companies that stifle competition and innovation by buying smaller companies just to stop what the smaller company is doing.
22. Unfair Advantage
Let’s add to this list: companies who lobby the government in order to create barriers to entry in their industry.
21. Many of Us Can Relate to This One…
Textbooks. Freaking overpriced textbooks. Bonus points if the professor of the class is also the author.
20. Closing the Store, Opening His Mouth
When I worked in retail my boss asked me to clock out and help him finish closing up, so I clocked out and left. He tried to chew me out the next day so I resigned there and then.
He was furious, really thought I'd stand for that. It’s sad that it must be so common he thought that nonsense would fly.
19. My Time Is Money
Posting a job announcement and conducting interviews for a job when you already know who you're going to hire.
18. When Only One Side Benefits…
Cutting people’s hours just enough to not be considered full time so they don't have to give you benefits. Those bosses are true pieces of garbage and I happen to know a few of them.
17. Sounds Like Someone Needs to Get Schooled
I used to work for an unnamed university that made this big deal about how they were gonna pay $15 an hour by a certain year, well before the city minimum wage was going to reach that (high cost of living). Patting themselves on the back. Then there was the fine print. It was only for people HIRED to work 32 hours a week.
So what they'd do was hire people to work one shift a semester, then scheduled them to work 15-38 hours a week (non-students could work more than 20, I was a non-student) but because the contract was only for three hours a semester...
Also, they didn't even pay the city's minimum wage for the first year I worked there. Two bucks under. And when it finally did go up they didn't pay me the same rate as the students, who got the minimum wage raise. The three non student workers had to fight for two months to get the same pay... and the same thing happened the next year. I finally just quit.
16. Selective Education
Student loans in the US have little to no approval process, they just give it. High interest rates. Refuse to settle, can't be discharged in bankruptcy.
They follow people well into their 40s, limiting their buying power for houses, cars, other stuff. 17-18-year-olds have no idea what they are signing because we conveniently provide them with no education on the process up until they have to decide whether to sign or not.
15. A Widget By Any Other Name Smells Just as Rotten
Holding companies and operating companies. So I'm a business called Consolidated Widgets Inc. and I want to open a widget factory in the US. Widget manufacturing is inherently dangerous but that's ok because the people need their widgets.
So I build my factory, hire some workers, install some equipment, procure some raw materials, then I start producing widgets. Invariably one of the workers, Leeroy is injured. Leeroy goes to the hospital and gets fixed but has an ongoing disability for which he sues Consolidated Widgets Inc. but the case is thrown out because Leeroy didn't actually work for Consolidated Widgets Inc., he worked for Flyover Widget Operating company which has substantially fewer assets than the multi-billion dollar Consolidated Widgets Inc.
What happened? When Consolidated Widgets started this process they formed two subsidiary companies, Flyover Widget Operating company and some beach holding company (incorporated in Barbados). Most of the material investment went to the holding company which owns the real estate and likely the equipment and possibly raw materials, basically everything but the people.
Then the operating company leases the facility and equipment from the holding company and now the parent company can ensure that in the event of a lawsuit or government enforcement action their assets are mostly protected.
This is not 100% secure though because if you piss people off enough the government can absolutely come in and say "this is baloney, I don't care about your corporate structure, you're essentially the same company so we'll pierce that corporate veil and take your assets anyway" but generally the government doesn't like to do this because the people in office probably have a vested interest in the continued ability to shield assets in this way.
14. At Least You Got Some Closure
My first job was one step lower than any of this (already terrible) stuff everyone has mentioned so far.
I was working at a printing press shop because I had some experience from working at the one at my high school.
Get fired eight weeks in, given some weird excuse about me not being good enough (even though I found and corrected more errors than the pressman I was working under).
Then the lady at the front desk that I had befriended bumped into me outside of work a few days later and explained that they fire that position every nine weeks so they get a full time worker, but never have to pay benefits or unemployment.
The business is now closed, though probably due to the shrinking business of printing things, instead of just their lousy business practices.
13. Still Fresh in Your Mind
I just got fired, essentially because I had been working at a company for so long that my pay was $3 higher than the starting wage. Payroll got to be an issue and they seemingly let me go so they could pay someone less money to do the same quantity of work that I do.
12. False Advertising?
"It’s a GREAT opportunity to learn"
Learn what? The meaning of slavery?
You work like someone that is hired, but for a shorter period.
They don’t bother to "Teach" you anything cause "You will pick up as you go."
Even better when you don’t even work in the area you wanted to get the internship.
"Hey... you studying the law right? I have a great opportunity for you to work as my secretary."
11. Think for the Long Term, Folks
Quantity vs quality. People spend as little as possible on something and wonder why it breaks quickly or easily. When spending even a small amount of money more on the same item (or similar) will yield much more life out of the item, saving money in the long run. Unfortunately, it will still take several decades for the "Walmart" mindset to be replaced for most people.
10. ‘Nuff Said
9. Talk is Cheap … Or Is It?
About 15 years ago, I worked for a company that absolutely forbade people talking about how much they were paid; it was considered a fireable offense, and you had to sign paperwork when you were hired stating you agreed that you could be fired for disclosing your salary.
About six months after I started working there, the HR manager printed out an Excel spreadsheet listing everyone's salary, and forgot it was on a community printer. Someone found it, made about 20 copies, and just left copies lying around the place.
Jesus, the drama…
8. Favoritism Much?
The company in my case was privately owned, and it got leaked that the owner/CEO paid people for the same position who shared his political and religious views more than others, and that got ugly fast.
Certain people were paid bonuses (it was indicated on the sheet) and others were not, even though everyone else knew who the real producers were, and the people that not only got a higher salary for the same position, but shared his views, also got larger year-end bonuses even though we were all supposedly on a profit-sharing plan.
Some people stormed into his office and demanded raises, some demanded back pay, others up and quit, there was just turmoil for like a month. The HR manager did not get fired; they were one of the owner's favorites. Lots of fingers being pointed, more than one "work friendship" ended because of it.
I was in a two-man department, and I was the manager, so I knew what I made and what the guy who worked for me made, so luckily there was no drama for us—but the same cannot be said for the rest of our colleagues.
7. A Problem That’s Actually Being Dealt With
Sexual harassment definitely happens often, but fortunately, in the business world, accusations -> lawsuits -> settlements have been happening for a couple decades now. Most companies are pretty reactive to this sort of thing when they find out.
A few jobs ago, I worked for a gov't contractor. One day, completely out of the blue, my boss, a director, got fired without warning. Like, literally, the Sr. VPs from out of state showed up without warning and fired the guy in 20 minutes. We were all irate, but around nine months later, we found out he was sleeping with one of the women who worked for him.
Turns out, this company had settled a harassment lawsuit a few years prior, so as soon as they got wind of this affair, they canned him without remorse. Of course, they didn't tell any of us this, we had to figure it out on our own based on rumors heard through the grapevine.
I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but that in the business world, things are at least a step and a half in the right direction. It's so difficult in entertainment because, like, who are you going to run to if a famous comedian asks to engage in inappropriate behavior in front of you? There's no Global Comedy HR Department or no company you can really sue to try to curb this kind of behavior.
6. Planning for the Future
Planned obsolescence. Basically, products are designed by manufacturers to "wear out" after a certain period of time or amount of use. This is done to force consumers to re-purchase products or purchase new versions of products.
There are a few types of planned obsolescence. First is contrived durability, which means a product is designed to deteriorate quickly. A great example is how disposable razor blades wear out so quickly.
The second type is the prevention of repairs, which means a product is designed in such a way that it is either made to be a single-use item (like disposable cameras), or in a way that uses proprietary hardware to prevent repairs and even damage the products if repairs are attempted. Apple is guilty of this with the majority of their product line-up, even seeking legislation to make it illegal to provide the difficult repairs.
The third is perceived obsolescence, which means a manufacturer frequently releases new "versions" of a product to make consumers feel as if the old product is far inferior. This is incredibly common, and in the grand scheme of things, fairly harmless. This type of planned obsolescence doesn't force a consumer to purchase a new product, but rather coerces them to, as do many other marketing campaigns. Common examples include new cars, phones, televisions, apparel, etc. for which new versions are released frequently.
Fourth is systemic obsolescence, which is when a manufacturer deliberately attempts to make a product obsolete by altering the system to make regular use difficult. Many people, including myself, accuse Apple of this when they release a new iPhone. Many people find that their old iPhone begins to run slowly after the latest iOS update following the release of the new iPhone model.
Last is programmed obsolescence, which is when a product contains a mechanical or electrical system that limits the amount of uses the product has. One notable example is printer cartridges which use software to limit the amount of pages they will print, regardless of the actual ink level. Hewlett Packard was sued on allegations that their ink cartridges would "expire" on a certain date.
Altogether, these practices create an abundance of waste and unethically force consumers to buy more "stuff." This is a great way to make money hand-over-fist, and it is far more common than most people may think. People often complain that "things just don't last as long as they used to," which, excluding survivorship bias, is true because they are built not to.
5. Add This One Onto the List
Oh god, I used to work in retail and this was something my boss and managers always insisted that we do. I was a cashier and I was explicitly instructed to have a sticker or a keychain or some other low-cost item on hand so I could "add on" that item to the customer's items without the customer noticing.
The intent was to artificially increase the average IPS (items per sale) which boosted our store's sales stats relative to the other branches in the area. A lot of customers didn't notice, and if they did, we were instructed to be all "Oops, sorry, I thought that item was yours, let me remove it from your bill." I hated it.
That was just the tip of the iceberg with them. They also made us sign up customers for a stupid rewards program without their knowledge or consent by getting their phone numbers or email addresses. If anyone ordered online from our store, we automatically grabbed their information and added them to our rewards program database to (again) artificially increase our stats. It was slimy as hell and after a while, I refused to do it. Best job I ever quit.
4. Looks Like They Made You Walk the Plank
My boss basically wanted me to "acquire" some extremely expensive data. It was like >$100k. I told him it was readily available, but I'd need a LOT of money to purchase it. Every day he would tell me that if I looked hard enough online I could find it for free instead of $150k.
When I flat out refused to pirate the data for the company and asked to be put on a different assignment, they let me go for not being able to perform the tasks assigned to me.
I also realized after being let go that he had fired all the women in the office except the pregnant girl (his very jealous and controlling girlfriend worked for the company, I do not think this was a coincidence). If the company hadn't gone out of business not too long after that I may have pursued some legal action.
3. Never Do Business With Friends
I used to work for a company that would literally bully people out of their positions. It was a small company so there was no HR or union or anything. The middle management team was three young women and two of them were best friends (we’ll call them A and B).
They pushed the other one (we’ll call her C) out by declaring A in charge of delegating and then completing most of C’s big tasks before giving them to her. After a few months they had a whole stack of evidence that she wasn’t carrying her weight and she had no way to prove otherwise.
Instead of firing her, they gave her the “opportunity” to be demoted to basically the bottom of the ladder and she was so upset that she quit. A and B weren’t exactly quiet about what they did and it’s pretty well known through the company that they pulled this stunt.
2. Short-Term Gain for a Long Term Loss
Many years ago, I worked an hourly job at a not-quite fast food restaurant. A few years after I quit, I heard from a former coworker that he had discovered that the manager was not reporting all of our time. He found out because he began to copy his time-card and compared it to his actual paycheck.
He found that she was not reporting or paying him about five hours a week. He sued and found out that he wasn't the only one she was doing this to. Of course, I found out after the business went under...
1. Preventative Measures
Many of the places looking to hire new employees put 3+ years experience required in their ads even for entry-level positions, so they can filter out certain people applying before it even happens. One of my first jobs was as a bartender, for which the ad said needed 3+ years experience in a fast-paced environment, etc.
Applied, got the interview and asked him about my lack of experience, and they said quite openly that they would interview whoever, just that the line filtered 90% of the idiots that apply without any serious intention for the job.