6 harsh workplace lessons from the 'world's grumpiest boss'

Aneri Pattani, special to CNBC.com
Former oil baron Edward Mike Davis will long be remembered for his harsh wisdom.
Ed Maker | The Denver Post | Getty Images

"Don't take advantage of me, because I am going to be looking down your throat," Houston oil and gas magnate Edward Mike Davis wrote to his employees on Jan. 13, 1978. "You need the job — I don't!"

Davis — a former chauffeur with true grit, who launched his business with money from a divorce settlement — was not one to sugarcoat his advice. Office memos from his time as CEO of Tiger Oil Co. were blunt, to say the least, earning him the unofficial title of World's Grumpiest Boss.

On Sept. 26 The New York Times reported that Davis died at 85 in his Las Vegas home on Sept. 18 from complications of prostate cancer, yet he will be long remembered for his harsh "wisdom."

Although his company filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s when the U.S. oil sector crashed amid a global oil glut, his memos gained attention decades later when they were published on a blog called Letters of Note. The memos also appear (with Davis' blessing) in a recently published book by the blog's founder, Shaun Usher.

While Davis was not one for office cheer or the open door policy, his memos include many tips that still apply to the workplace — and employee-employee relationships — today. Whether you have a grumpy boss or not, it wouldn't hurt to keep these tips in mind if you want to be a boss one day.

1. Efficient communication is key.

"This is a business office. All correspondence and other things pertaining to this office will be typewritten. Handwriting takes much longer than a typewriter. You're wasting your time, but more importantly, you're wasting my time. If you don't know how to type, you'd better learn."

Takeaway: If you're not up to date on the latest communication technology, then you're holding yourself and your company behind. That means ditch email and start learning Slack, Convo or another team-based business-chat app.

2. Don't stink (literally or figuratively).

"Anyone who lets their hair grow below their ears to where I can't see their ears means they don't wash. If they don't wash, they stink. And if they stink, I don't want the son-of-a-bitch around me."

Takeaway: Cleanliness is next to godliness. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The reason there are so many cliched statements about appearance is because it matters. Get people to notice you for the right reasons (aka not the stinky hair) by maintaining good personal hygiene and dressing appropriately for your job.

3. Your office is not your living room.

"The furniture in this office is expensive. DO NOT PUT YOUR FEET ON IT!! I am paying you to work — not slouch in your chair with your feet up on a desk or table."

Takeaway: Whether you're using a chair, a standing desk or a balance ball, try to look like you're in work mode. Don't let anyone wonder if the fact that you're laying back with headphones means you're binging on Netflix.

4. Work time is for ... work.

"I suggest that you people buy enough cigarettes to keep here for yourselves to smoke because, by God, you will not go and buy them on my time."

Takeaway: Smoking is prohibited in most offices today, but the point Davis makes is to use your work time to work and not to run personal errands. While it makes sense to take a break every now and then — studies show working til you drop without a break is counterproductive — shopping til you drop and coming back to the office with three Macy's or Target bags isn't a good idea, either. And to bring the World's Grumpiest Boss fully into the 21st century, spending an hour to load up an Amazon.com shopping cart is no better.

5. Don't swear, even if everyone else does.

"I swear, but since I am the owner of this company, that is my privilege, and this privilege is not to be interpreted as the same for any employee. That differentiates me from you, and I want to keep it that way. There will be absolutely no swearing, by any employee, male or female, in this office, ever."

Takeaway: Swearing is unprofessional. And much like your mother told you when you were a child, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't mean it's okay. Be mindful of your language in the office. You never know when a higher-up will overhear.

6. No excuses.

"I do not want any excuses from anyone. I am not paying people for excuses, I am paying you for results. If you cannot do a job the way we want it done, get another job, because we know what it takes to make the wheel turn."

Takeaway: Be proactive. Be persistent. Be positive. If you encounter a problem, try to find solutions on your own rather than turning to someone else to fix it. Employers value those who can take charge and problem-solve. And if you can do that without complaining, they'll value you even more.

— By Aneri Pattani, special to CNBC.com