I've been with my current company for nearly a year now and I would like to confidently say I've been a complete star. Come 6 months into the job I was given a 30% increase in salary and praised about how good I've been doing. I didn't make a sustantial mistake for 9 months.

After about 10 months I made a mistake. We have a client who several people on our team have made mistakes for, so naturally the boss (company owner) placed everyone on high alert and reminded us to make sure we don't make any more mistakes for this client.

I was tasked to make contact with said client on a specific Saturday. 99 times out of 100 the clients calls me, but in this case the client never called and I forgot to call myself. The next day the client was furious that I did not call because she was expecting me to.

The boss calls me into the office, walks me through the situation, and then tells me I am no longer allowed to wear headphones in the office as punishment. Naturally I am shocked, but I try not to make a big deal out of it given the gravity of the situation.

It's been just a week now and I'm literally dying. In fact, I've considered quitting. I've never in my life been deprived of music when programming and I find the days now feel excruciatingly long AND I'm doing less work on purpose because I feel so much hatred towards my boss.

I know I can't tell my boss that I'm doing less work because of the punishment she handed down but how can I point out that this was not the right form of punishment?

I would like to add I'm not upset about being punished - I don't mind being asked to stay an extra hour for a month, etc. It's just the punishment itself that I believe is unfair and just plain wrong. That's what I'm not sure how to address with my boss.

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    @user3229383: I am baffled. Parents punish their children. Punishment implies a parental or parental-like relationship that's just not there, because your boss is your equal in the eyes of the law. The boss has a right to impose penalties but not punishment on you - Nobody punishes me. In fact, nobody punishes me and walks. The other thing that I am curious about is what were the consequences of your failure to call the client? Did the client suffer some kind of damage, or was the client simply furious on principle because you did not call? Apr 12, 2014 at 11:02
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    comments removed: Comments are intended to help improve a post or seek clarification. Please don't answer the questions in the comments. These can't be easily voted on as the best answers, and they may inadvertently prevent other users from providing real answers. Please see How should I post a useful non-answer if it shouldn't be a comment? for more guidance.
    – jmort253
    Apr 12, 2014 at 16:13
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    @user3229383, I am nearly a professional software engineer as well, perhaps you should also elaborate about how headphones and other distraction prevention devices are essential to productivity in software engineering.
    – daaxix
    Apr 12, 2014 at 18:01
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    @Dukeling, I don't know if you have ever worked in a distracting environment, but not being interrupted or distracted when working on any hard technical problem is essential to productivity...which was the point of my comment.
    – daaxix
    Apr 13, 2014 at 7:42

4 Answers 4


I would suggest setting up a meeting with your boss and reiterating that you're really, really sorry about messing up when you were supposed to contact the customer. You should also ask if there's anything you can do to help smooth things over with the customer.

Then explain that you have been finding it very difficult to work effectively without your headphones. Explain that being able to listen to music while programming increases your productivity. And ask if there's any way you can earn back the right to wear headphones while you work.

I'll add that while you may not be able to work quite as effectively without the headphones, purposely doing less work because you're pissed is extremely unprofessional. Grow up and do your best in a tough situation. That's how you can begin to earn back your boss's trust.

Good luck!


From what I'm seeing here, your boss most likely thinks that because you were wearing headphones, you weren't paying as much attention as you probably should have been to your work duties, and as a result, forgot to call the client. The punishment may be indirect, as obviously the headphone wearing didn't cause you you forget to call the client, but your boss likely thinks that that is one of the causes. Furthermore, it also seems the the punishment's message is actually sinking in, which seems to be the point of the punishment.

Another question you should ask yourself: would I accept the (in reality, petty) headphone punishment over something potentially more severe, such as pay docking or suspension?

If you really want to continue to dispute the punishment, I would, first and foremost, talk with your boss. Sit down with him/her and illustrate just how much music means to you when programming, and then ask when you can expect to be able to wear your headphones again. It may or may not work, and you could face a heavier punishment. If you really want to carry it further, speak with your boss's boss, though I would be wary of carrying an issue like this further on up the chain, as they may see it as a petty dispute that you should deal with on your own.


I know I can't tell my boss that I'm doing less work because of the punishment she handed down but how can I point out that this was not the right form of punishment?

You were specifically tasked with making an important call on a Saturday, with an important client, after being put on high alert - and you somehow forgot to do it. You indicate that the client was furious, and that this was a grave situation. You agree that you should be punished.

The choice of punishment seems silly to me, but your boss obviously chose a punishment that got to you. Somehow, your boss knew that this would get your attention, and it clearly has.

To me, it appears that your boss has lost some confidence in you, and wants to "shock" you back into paying the kind of attention that earned you mistake-free, star quality work for 9 months. In some cases, if your boss didn't think you could be shocked into doing better, you'd have been fired. Perhaps your boss thought you are worth saving.

You earn confidence back by paying more attention and not making mistakes - not by passive-aggressive slowdowns, and certainly not by quitting.

You could complain to your boss about how mean it is to deprive you of your music - but this seems rather immature, and less than professional. Or, you could just gather your wits, accept your punishment, stop your slowdowns, work hard, and let it ride for a while.

After a few weeks, you could talk with your boss, admit your mistake, and based on your recent professional demeanor and continued hard work ask if you can go back to wearing headphones.

I'm guessing after a cooldown period like this, both sides could get back to the prior working relationship.

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    -1, Everyone makes mistakes, it is unprofessional of the supervisor to treat an engineer like a child, and the resulting loss in productivity that it will likely cause...
    – daaxix
    Apr 12, 2014 at 18:04
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    I agree that it is unprofessional to "punish" an employee in the way the this person's boss chose to do. However, that doesn't excuse the employee from being childish and working less hard in response. Apr 12, 2014 at 19:13
  • @daaxix You can see it as "childish". You could also see it as a form of warning shot that did not get onto the permanent employment record and had no further consequences to things people generally value from a job. It seems that, though childish, it actually achieved it's purpose without lasting damage than an official warning would have had.
    – nvoigt
    Aug 6, 2020 at 10:34
  • @daaxix Not all mistakes are equal. A mistake that costs hundreds of lives for example is different from one that causes a 30 minute delay in responding to a question.
    – Cronax
    Aug 10, 2020 at 14:44

I'm doing less work on purpose because I feel so much hatred towards my boss

First things first; deliberately doing less work is unprofessional and not a way to solve the problem.

As a programmer myself, I understand that deep and sustained focus is a necessary part of programming effectively, and that for many developers music is how they attain that focus. If you had said that without the music you're less productive because you can no longer focus as well and/or are constantly distracted by things going on in the background, then fair enough.

But intentionally doing less work will not help your case, and is not an effective way of protesting your employer's directive (if you really want to protest the directive, playing your music over the computer's speakers would be a more meaningful way to do so; if/when your manager complains you can use that to segue into your discussion about the inappropriate nature of your punishment, the importance of music to your productivity, and so on).


That said, your punishment seems both inappropriate and invalid. A firm warning/talking-to would have made more sense, and management really has no grounds for telling programmers that they can/cannot use headphones at a reasonable volume (unless they can demonstrate a causative relationship between headphone usage and reduced developer productivity).

Remember that you're not there to take arbitrary orders from management that have nothing to do with your actual role (and depending upon your location, various laws may prohibit such frivolous directives from carrying any weight). Nor are you there to be treated as a child who loses privileges for being naughty. You are there as an employee to fulfill a specific role and to follow directives that are valid and relevant to that role.

I think you already understand this, which is why the thing about the headphones irks you so severely.


So then what should actually be done? I think first you have to consider why your boss acted as she did. I see two general possibilities:

  1. She cooked up the punishment in the heat of the moment, without really thinking about it, and unintentionally treated you more like a child than an employee.

  2. She's one of those managers who thinks that being a manager means you get to order people to do/not do whatever arbitrary thing you feel like, and has acted as she believed was appropriate.

In the first case, your boss is probably as embarrassed about the situation as you are upset. She would know that she acted unprofessionally, but also feel like there's no way for her to back out of the situation without losing face. Other than perhaps to wait it out, and then rescind the punishment after some time has passed. Though you shouldn't wait for that to happen, as its a tacit acceptance of your punishment; allowing your employer to treat you like a child is just as childish as deliberately doing less work in protest, albeit in a different way.

The second case is more problematic. Your manager holds an incorrect view about what she can and cannot do as a manager, and the situation won't be resolved without disabusing her of it (or deciding that you're happy to play along with it, which doesn't seem to be the case). Which is unlikely to be pleasant, and could easily have a variety of negative repercussions and fallout. In the long run, your firm is better off with managers who do not treat employees like children. But in the short term, getting there may be painful.

You already seem to be in a fair bit of pain over the situation, so that makes the rest a bit more straightforward. You can't simply accept such a petty punishment and work hard so that you have grounds to ask for "permission" to wear headphones again, as other answers suggest. That simply reinforces to your boss that she was right to treat employees like children. Which means she's more likely to keep doing it; and with the resentment you're already harboring it will just be even more upsetting to you the next time she does. So one way or another, this situation needs to be resolved.

To that end you should be prepared to calmly and politely discuss the following points:

  1. You take pride in your work and are sorry that you made a mistake, and it will not happen again.
  2. You are willing to put in some extra time or accept whatever appropriate and relevant disciplinary action is fair to make up for your mistake (verbal/written warning, reduced bonus, paycut, etc.; though honestly in this case I think a stern warning is all that's called for).
  3. The headphones had nothing to do with the mistake that was made, and not having music is detrimental to your productivity as a programmer.
  4. The directive about the headphones is neither appropriate nor relevant, and you have no desire to be treated like a child by your employer.

How you get into that discussion is up to you. On the one hand, you could just go straight to your boss with it. That's nice and direct, but may result in a confrontation even if your boss is embarrassed about the punishment she handed down.

On the other hand, you could simply ignore the punishment and keep using your headphones. If your boss regrets her actions then she'll likely just ignore it as well, and the subtext of "I will not be treated as a child" should be easy enough to read. And if she doesn't then she'll approach you and you can have your chat.

In any case, you should be prepared for all of the possible outcomes of that talk. Perhaps she'll agree that she acted inappropriately and everything will be fine. Or perhaps she'll become even more upset, and try to send you packing (if she has that authority). Or perhaps it will become necessary to get her own boss involved. Just be aware that there's a worst-case scenario there, and be prepared for it.

But it seems like the one thing you cannot do is nothing; based upon your reaction to the situation, either your employer needs to stop treating you like a child or you need to find a different employer who will treat you professionally. Harboring such a high level of resentment/"hatred" is not a sustainable way forward. You need to see if the problem can be fixed. And if it can, you need to be able to let that resentment go, forgive, and forget.

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    I don't think either "playing your music over the computer's speakers" or "ignore the punishment and keep using your headphones" is likely to lead to anything good. And point #4 should be handled with a lot of care - mentioning that your treatment is "neither appropriate nor relevant" and implying / saying that she is treating you like a child is unlikely to go well. But otherwise a decent answer. Apr 13, 2014 at 3:59
  • Fair enough. Though note that I didn't say playing the music out loud was recommended, just that it was a more meaningful form of protest than intentionally doing less work. Which would definitely go over even less well if it were discovered. Committing an act of protest risks controversy by definition. I was just pointing out that as acts of protest go, playing the music audibly while working is more fitting/appropriate than simply not doing work.
    – aroth
    Apr 13, 2014 at 5:21

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