Evil at work: bad bosses - Macleans.ca

Evil at work: bad bosses

They’re not just incompetent, they really hate you


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They holler, throw things, scheme, connive, lie, cheat and generally make life miserable for untold millions of workers. They’re bad bosses. And by some estimates, half of all managers fall into that category. But what exactly is it that makes this scourge of the workplace so harmful? As it turns out, it’s in their nature.

For five years, Marilyn Haight, a business consultant in Arizona, studied scores of companies to see what makes lousy bosses tick. She found that truly bad bosses are not just incompetent—they purposefully set out to harm employees. With that in mind, she classified the men and women she studied into bad-boss “types” so employees would know what to look for, and realize who they’re dealing with. Using some of the classifications from Haight’s book, Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Boss?, we took a look at what makes both fictional and real-life managers so awful.

The Bully. When most people think of bad bosses, this is what comes to mind, says Haight. They’re loud, insulting, and frequently threatening. There’s no shortage of candidates who qualify as bullies, but one stands out: Albert “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap became famous for axing tens of thousands of jobs as a corporate downsizer in the 1990s. He ruled by instilling fear in underlings, until he himself got the axe from appliance maker Sunbeam. When asked once if successful managers could be friendly, he reportedly replied, “You want a friend? Buy a dog.”

The Pilferer. Pilferer bosses, as the name implies, funnel company assets into their own pockets, and convince employees to turn a blind eye to their schemes. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco, is a typical example. At one time, he was best-known for his $6,000 shower curtains and a life-sized ice statue of Michelangelo’s David that dispensed vodka at one of his parties. Now he’s serving an eight-year sentence for stealing millions from his own company. He reportedly got away with it for so long because he spread the bounty around to others in the executive suite through million-dollar “relocation perks” and “special bonuses.”

The Suppressor. Haight says this is the most common type of bad boss. “They constantly put down the achievements of other people and don’t want others to look better than them,” she says. These bosses are often ruthless, like Miranda Priestly, the magazine editor who terrorized her employees in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada (the character was ostensibly based on real-life Vogue editor Anna Wintour). Suppressor bosses demand reverence and subservience, says Haight, and working for one often makes you feel invisible.

The Pretender. Michael Scott, the boss played by Steve Carell on the popular TV show The Office, is clearly in over his head. In a recent episode, for example, he held a meeting with his employees to introduce a new office diet plan. He came in the room dressed in a “sumo suit” and proceeded to put up pictures of Jabba the Hutt in an effort to demonstrate the perils of overeating. But to be a truly bad boss, a pretender must also be evil. On that front, there’s no finer example than the Pointy Haired Boss from the Dilbert comic strip. Completely clueless, yet up to speed on the latest useless corporate buzzwords, he’s every employee’s worst nightmare. As Dilbert creator Scott Adams describes him, “He wasn’t born mean and unscrupulous, he worked hard at it.” It’s always a mystery how such bosses climb to their exalted posts, but Haight has a theory. “The more tenure you get, the less you keep your skills up, the less employable you are elsewhere, the more likely you are to be lord to the dark side,” she says.

The Cult Maker. Haight says this is the most insidious type of bad boss. These bosses want to be worshipped and surround themselves with fawning yes-men. Worse still, they gossip and gang up on dissenting employees to make their lives hellish. Think of the cult of personality that surrounded former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. After Sherron Watkins, Enron’s vice-president of corporate development, wrote a scathing internal memo warning the company could implode, she was reportedly made to feel like an outcast.

Some say you can fight bad bosses by taking lots of notes and by keeping a record of everything your supervisor does. But that will likely only delay an inevitable choice: put up with your evil boss, or get out. Whatever you end up doing, it can be a deeply frustrating and lonely experience. “It’s often hard to get anyone, even your friends and family, to believe what you’re telling them about your boss because they can’t understand how someone could become a boss and do things that are bad for the organization,” says Haight. “For these people it can feel like they’re on a little island all by themselves.” But if it’s any consolation, Haight says there’s a surprising number of terrible bosses out there—so you’re definitely not alone.

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Evil at work: bad bosses

  1. I’d love to send this article to my old boss. The thing is, bad bosses don’t know how bad they are and no one will ever tell them. They don’t grow, learn or change – and that’s a shame.

  2. I once had a boss who threw things at me continually: paper, a stapler, pencils, whatever was handy on his desk. He would insult me and constantly call me a stupid Christian among many other things. I suffered from panic attacks at work and once was rushed to the hospital as my heart rate rose to 175. I lived in constant fear. When I sent him a letter demanding respect and better renumeration, he fired me.
    By the way, he was an attorney.

  3. I had one bad boss. She was this woman who would always check at what time I got at work, how many times I was spending getting stuffs from my bag when I was about to start my day and would call me to let me know that she didn’t like that. She was always checking out with harshness my clothes.The funny thing about it? She was black and I am also a black woman but she tried to persuade me that it was tough love, in the sense that she was strenghtening me up. Did I mention that this was a short-term contract with no perspective of permanent job? When I decided to apply for a position more in accordance with my credentials in another city, within the same company, she called me and told me: ” I would tell them that you do have the degrees for that position but that I have some reservations regarding your attitude.” The day after, the HR dept sent an email reminding all the bosses that they weren’t allowed to prevent employees from moving to different positions within the organization. She immediately came to see, apologizing: “Oh, I’m sorry but I think that I wasn’t very understanding the other day when you tried to talk to me,” I resigned from that position before the end of the contract. The bitch got promoted because she was the token black of the bank. As soon as she took charge of her new team, half of it asked to be assigned to different teams. I bet she tought it was tough love given to her by her white employees.
    The good thing to this experience, I finally get it why people are against diversity programs within companies.

  4. I had a boss not to long ago, she is the VP of the department I was hired for, yes she hired me. I started my job the day I was supposed to. Two days later she pulled me into a boardroom(They had so many boardrooms at this company, and told me that becuse their system would take a month to train me, that they didnt have the time to train. Oh by the way this woman even called me at the job I was previously working at to come in for a second interview and I did, I did have this gut feeling the week before I started if I was making the right move. So needless to say I was out of a job just like that. This woman is incompatenet and unprofessional and has no morals what so ever. I am a firm believer that what comes around goes around and you should always go with your gut feeling.

  5. I’ve fortunately never had a boss who was intentionally bad or evil. I have seen it a lot with friends and relatives though. What’s saddening is that it is often those lowest down on company ladders in retail, labour, etc. that get the brunt of abuse. These people often don’t have many rights and aren’t aware of the rights they have. They are generally not in advantageous financial positions so can’t ‘just quit.’

  6. What I have been subject too and have seen is that bad management often are rewarded and do more damage than good, but companies continuously lose great employees. Human Resources need to become more involved then removing themselves from the problem. I understand that there is a challenge to develop the paperwork and documentation, but the costs are small versus the costs for recruitment and replacement of these great employees. Never mind the bad publicity via word of mouth. What is funny is when employees do take action against any of these bad bosses via civil action, labour recourse etc… the companies come to these managers aid with all the legal assistance necessary rather than HR seriously look at why so many good people were let go under this manager’s reign. I have witnessed the practice of “Management by Fear, Bullying etc” and what is absolutely hilarious is that these same managers move foward and upcoming and good management are often dismissed under the disguise of Re-Structuring or downsizing. What is ironic is that these same bad bosses are part of the teams that decide the fate of so many of these good employees and more often than not their removal is not because of bad work practices or ethics that are the excuses used most often by these bad managers but they are conceived as threats to the bad manager’s career . There are some Great companies that do perform post mortems or ask employees why they are leaving but so many ex-employees fear the consequences of BAD REFERENCES for speaking out and taking any action. If companies do wish to end this wrongful practice then they must start at the Human Resources level, give them the power, and encourage them to take the necessary actions rather than play albatross and bury their heads in the sand, ignoring it, and wishing it all go away. IT Won’t … but you can jump on board and be part of the new take attitude movement of “Yes We Can”. HR, You have the power and organizational backing – now it is your opportunity to put that power to proper use and educating these bad bosses to learn to be better or simply dismissing them and keeping tomorrow’s leaders. Don’t you love when they always tell you that you cannot see the “Big Picture” .

  7. People who’ve had bad bosses should remember that when they become bosses. Quite often, they don’t.

  8. I was hired by an actuarial company as an accounting technician. The woman who intervieweed me turned out to be my boss. For the first year, I thought that I couldn’t have had a better job or a better boss. She was so nice to me, my job review went really well, I was rewarded with a nice increase – things were going great. And then, she turned into Mr. Hyde!! She begun not speaking to me, and when she did speak, it was to chastise me for not doing my job right, when I asked a question, and I had many because she had no consitency on how she wanted things done, the answer was “you should know this by now”. When I went to her with completed projects she said that she didn’t believe I got them done – and on the list goes. Her behaviour was a bit subtle, and it was very difficult to put in a formal complaint. But I did, with HR twice. Nothing changed and I decided to leave. Well, now I would like to send her a thank you note. I started my own business and could not be happier. My clients love me, and I KNOW I am doing a great job!!!

  9. I had two in a row and it led me to a nervous breakdown.
    First experience: I interviewed for a position in Quebec (I lived in Ontario at the time), was hired, packed my bags and moved. On my very first day, I found out that the man who had hired me was gone. She was replaced by this bitch who didn’t take to me very well. For starters, I stayed in my office for 6 months, doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, waiting on them to basically fire me so I could get full unemployment. I would come to her every day and ask if there was work and she would tell me that I’ll be notified when work comes in. So I read books all day. Furthermore, whenever there was a staff meeting, she would invariably start off with a ”I’m not racist but…” sentence (I’m black). Often, the second part of her sentence would be fairly unrelated to race, so I’m not sure I quite understood her thought process but anyhow… Finally, after 6 months of twirling my thumbs, they finally fired me. I refused to quit to the very end, I wanted her to look me in the eye and do her dirt, and I walked out with my head held high. But it cost me in ways I hadn’t imagined.

    Fast forward to my current job. After 6 months of unemployment, I finally find something in my field. First year, I work my ass off, go well above and beyond the call of duty. For starters, I’m grateful to have been given a chance. Secondly, this is a new young manager who seems in over her head and the work load is extreme. And thirdly, I’m the one and only minority there. No asians, no blacks, no latinos, nothing. An all white office.
    Initially, I’m actually trying to take a load of her shoulders out of sympathy and because I’m grateful that someone finally hired me. I get great evaluations and I’m praised for my work but, about a year into it, I find myself working evenings and weekends at home on my computer. The work load is that crazy. I finally put my foot down and tell her that I will not take on that kind of load anymore (that was after I pulled an all-nighter to finish a project!) From then on, it was hell on earth. She went out of her way to harass me. Crazy deadlines, sarcastic remarks, bad evaluations, verbal put-downs in front of colleagues, you name it. I cracked and ended up on sick leave for several months. Just came back full time. In the end, the company paid because I happen to know how bad things got while I was away. The workload was still crazy and some people had left. I’m still at that company but hoping to switch soon. I’m still bitter about the way I was treated and how it affected my health. Tried to find out what recourse I had through the company channels for a situation like this (before and during my leave) and found out there was none. It’s ‘ the same old ”talk to human resources and expect them to do nothing crap.” I really believe that ”human resources” needs to start doing their job. In most companies, they put a stamp of approval on that kind of behaviour by refusing to support the employee who is being harassed.

  10. Evil is not a term that should be used for people who are incrediably selfish, some to that 1/100 level of sociopaths. Evil suggests that if they find Jesus and redeem themselves they can be good as the child they once were. They will be born again. I suggest, with no proof, that they are good for the species in times of famines. In famines they survive, howerver they wak up every single monrning knowing they are in a famine, and they must take what they do not deserve. They are only about 10% (or 1 in 12 if you are a born again Christain). In the knowledge economy they are a risk, because of their ability to destroy trust, needed for colloboration (diferrent from co-operation). Colloboration that comes with fairness that leads to trust is what gives our species a competative advantage. The selfish who take will not be scared of by rules, they will infact rules for their advantage. They have to be found out and focused on something useful, cannon fodder or something like that.
    Donnie McLeod