The Bad Boss List

Welcome to the workplace from hell. On any given day the boss flies into a screaming tantrum, kicking or hitting staff over minor infractions. She rules with an iron fist, berates and belittles employees in public, hires and fires at whim and refuses references to those who quit in disgust.


Welcome to the workplace from hell. On any given day the boss flies into a screaming tantrum, kicking or hitting staff over minor infractions. She rules with an iron fist, berates and belittles employees in public, hires and fires at whim and refuses references to those who quit in disgust.

Demoralized staffers describe this Lower Mainland business owner as a petty tyrant. She terrorizes her team, leaving them suffering from headaches, sleep deprivation and depression, writes Steve, one of more than two dozen British Columbians who responded to a BCBusiness call for stories about bad bosses. He says hundreds of talented people have revolved through her doors in the past five years, many fired on their first day on the job. (There are less than 20 full-time workers on her company’s payroll.) Current and former employees routinely meet off-site to offer each other moral support and debrief on their treatment in this bizarre and toxic workplace, he adds. “If you want to hear more, just let me know. We could get enough people together to fill a ballroom,” Steve writes. The Jerk We can all be jerks from time to time, so we know one when we see one. It’s the people who behave like jerks all day, every day, that drive us nuts at the office. A jerk’s top priorities are the bottom line and doing whatever it takes to look good in front of his subordinates and superiors. Jerks, whom most of us view as thoughtless, rude and unprofessional, may get their jobs through connections rather than aptitude and will try to hide their incompetence by overloading the rest of us. Full of bluster, they are often technologically challenged but aware of the hottest business trends, even though they rarely understand them. While some jerks take pride in their bad behaviour, others, like Dilbert’s boss, simply lack normal self-awareness and are hopeless at reading people and social situations. Jerks often project well to superiors but foment trouble in the trenches by continually nitpicking, badmouthing certain team members and showing favouritism. These incompetent bosses thrive in companies that don’t believe in supervisory training. They are often introverts, initially drawn to science or technology, and then promoted for their technical savvy. As you’d expect, the high-tech world is full of them. Incompetents have no corporate vision and make lousy leaders. Their workplace is often full of ambiguity, inconsistency, uncertainty and insecurity. Teams are often in a state of chaos because their boss has lousy interpersonal communication and conflict-resolution skills. Axelrod says our fear of confrontation and feelings of powerlessness often prevent us from tackling these bad bosses. We would rather complain about our boss behind his back and put our health at risk, than face him and honestly describe how his management style affects efficiency. “Ninety per cent of the time, if it’s done well, the boss will respond well,” says Axelrod. “People with strong personalities don’t understand or respect passivity. In most cases, your boss wants you to be assertive and challenge him.” The Control Freak Your boss is on a short fuse. She loses her temper when people make mistakes, constantly worries about the department’s performance and hovers over you to make sure you do your job properly, which of course means doing it her way. Control freaks are compulsive workaholics driven by the need for perfection and order. Deep down, these people are terrified of appearing vulnerable and may be under a lot of pressure from their own supervisors. Because they are riddled with anxiety and fear, and are deathly afraid their flaws will be exposed, they are unable to trust or delegate. Control freaks and micromanagers may not recognize their own behaviour, but if you point it out to them in a respectful way, are usually open to working with you to improve efficiency. “Don’t be afraid of the boss,” says Axelrod. “Instead of sitting back judging and criticizing him, lean into the situation by sitting down with him and asking why he feels you need such close supervision. Request an opportunity to complete a task on your own and review what went right and what went wrong. There’s very little risk in doing that. If he knows you want to help him achieve his objectives, he will probably thank you for it.” The Bully Nadia’s boss was nicknamed The Teflon Man. “In the beginning, we got along really well. When I first noticed things going off the rails I approached him and asked him if I had done something wrong. He turned beet red and refused to talk about it,” says Nadia, who contacted us tentatively by email after our request for bad-boss stories appeared on the website She describes how The Teflon Man targeted only competent managers with successful personal lives. After complimenting Nadia on her work (she was a senior administrator in a provincial government agency), he criticized and undermined her to her colleagues. He constantly kept her off guard by changing terms of contracts she was negotiating, excluding her from key meetings, cutting her budget, withholding information she needed to do her job and frequently moving her office. Even though other senior managers were targeted and, like Nadia, experienced severe work-related stress, this bad CEO survived. “He’s since moved on to another organization,” she reports, “and I hear that the same sort of destruction is happening all over again.” Bullying runs from overt threats of violence to subtle and menacing use of words and gestures. While bully bosses are split evenly between the sexes, they generally victimize women. International research – to date mainly from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. – suggests that bullying and general hostility in the workplace is four times more prevalent than discrimination and sexual harassment. While Canadian data on the subject is minimal, Australian researcher Paul McCarthy estimates that, factoring in absenteeism, turnover, stress-induced illness, lost productivity and anxiety-related accidents, workplace bullying costs Canadian companies close to $20,000 per employee, per year. Like their playground counterparts, bully bosses tend to be insecure, with poor or non-existent social skills and little empathy, says Hart. They turn this insecurity outward, finding satisfaction in controlling, attacking and diminishing accomplished members of the team or quiet introverts at the other end of the spectrum. Their weapons of choice are unjustified criticism, humiliation and isolation. Unfortunately, bullies often have supporters in high places and may blacken a victim’s reputation before he plucks up the courage to leapfrog the boss or take legal action. Far too many companies still tolerate and even reward bullying bosses, Hart says. “Bullying is essentially a cowardly behaviour. If you’re a victim, it may help to summon your courage and challenge the bully. Let your boss know the behaviour is unacceptable and that you will not tolerate it. If it continues, you have to decide if it’s worth fighting and risking your health.” If you are a victim of bullying or are witnessing a bullying situation and don’t know what to do, check out, formed in 2003 by two Vancouverites who experienced extensive bullying and psychological harassment at work. The Narcissist In the beginning, John seemed like the perfect new sales manager for a booming technology business in Vancouver’s downtown core. An outside recruiter enthusiastically described him as leadership material: personable, creative, energetic and ambitious, so his senior VP expected great things. However, within months, John’s management style began to raise eyebrows. His personal assistant quit, as did the next one he hired. Without consultation he arbitrarily decided to rid his department of “deadwood,” tried to avoid low-profile corporate assignments, bullied and harangued colleagues and subordinates, withheld information from his boss and created tension throughout the organization. When his VP, frustrated by John’s arrogance, took his concerns to the CEO, he immediately came under fire: everything was his fault. John got there first. Ironically, while narcissism is considered a serious personality disorder, leaders with narcissistic traits are still viewed as a hot commodity by some in the corporate world. Narcissists (named for Narcissus, the mythological Greek figure who fell in love with his own reflection) are personified by the slick, power-hungry Gordon Gekko in the 1987 blockbuster Wall Street. Narcissistic bosses appear motivated and capable, brimming with confidence and charisma. They are often fast-tracked by a mentor, and thrive as salespeople, entrepreneurs, surgeons and politicians. In reality, narcissists are poor team players and often surround themselves with yes-men who do their bidding without question, says Axelrod. They are exploitative, envious and haughty with a strong sense of entitlement. It’s useless trying to befriend or flatter a narcissist: they quickly tire of compliments and people. Also, never, ever confide in them: they will probably use personal information against you. As Gordon Gekko liked to sneer, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” Axelrod and Hart also warn us not to try reasoning with a narcissistic boss because he may fly into a rage when frustrated, contradicted or confronted. Coping with narcissists is a full-time, energy-sucking and emotionally draining job, they say, which can reduce you to an insecure nervous wreck. If you tend to be submissive and have few expectations from your career, you might survive. But most people who stay in such an abusive, traumatic environment wind up sick, or inevitably butt heads with the boss and end up being demoted, reassigned, relocated or fired. The Creepster Your creepster boss thinks he’s a great guy. He loves telling sexually explicit jokes, sends questionable emails to team members and shows no remorse when told his humour leaves people uncomfortable. If you protest, he’ll probably urge you to “lighten up and get a sense of humour.” He may be amused by T-and-A posters in the lunchroom, even if it contravenes company policy. He often has no appreciation of personal space and thinks it’s okay to comment on female body parts or engage in inappropriate touching, such as brushing past women co-workers way too close for comfort. Some lesser-creepsters just don’t realize how bad they are, says Hart, and can be rehabilitated if the organization has the will. However, unrepentant types permit and support an environment where sexism, racism and homophobia can flourish virtually unchecked. Susan’s sexual harassment began slowly. “At first, I thought I’d found a mentor,” she says. “This senior person from head office picked me out of a crowd of other managers and started complimenting my work. Then he began complimenting me personally, bringing inappropriate gifts, forcing me to work late, then pressuring me to join him for dinner and threatening my job if I didn’t go.” Susan tried doing the right thing; she first approached him directly and when nothing changed, went to his boss. No one helped, she says, except one female manager who caught him trying to stop Susan from getting into her car after she’d been working late in the lab. Soon afterward, her Good Samaritan left the company. Susan tried to become invisible. “I did everything I could to make him stop noticing me. When he’d compliment me on my hairstyle or outfit, I’d never wear it that way again. I became so dowdy that friends and co-workers in other departments barely recognized me.” Eventually, the boss admitted he wanted to “court” her. “When I told him it would never happen, he took out his anger on me and my staff in various ways, including making our jobs impossible by micromanaging.” After two years of harassment, she made an official complaint and threatened to call the police. Her harasser was finally transferred elsewhere in the company. Under the law, men as well as women can be victims of sexual harassment, but in reality it’s women who are harassed in 98 per cent of cases. If you are being sexually harassed, never stay silent hoping it will stop, warns Hart. “If you don’t take a firm, proactive stand the behaviour will only escalate. Call your boss on his actions right away, ask that it stop and warn him that if it happens again, you will report it. If it continues, do just that. Under B.C.’s Human Rights legislation, employers have to take your complaint seriously and investigate.” The Psychopath Is your boss Machiavellian: a pathological liar riddled with superficial charm and insincerity? Is she egocentric, manipulative, exploitative, grandiose, controlling and dictatorial? Does she lack any sort of human empathy or remorse? Does she have zero insight into her behaviour, believing the end always justifies the means? You might just be working for a psychopath. Robert Hare could tell you for sure. The 68-year-old UBC professor emeritus and internationally renowned expert in psychopathy regularly consults with the FBI and is in constant demand by law-enforcement agencies and academics across the globe. He willingly adheres to this punishing schedule to expose what he describes as the “monsters” in our midst. In their recently published book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Hare and Paul Babiak, an industrial-organizational psychologist, paint a chilling picture of the corporate psychopath. Spotting one isn’t easy: like the narcissist, he presents such a perfect picture of an ideal, well-rounded job candidate that even seasoned interviewers can be fooled. In the ’70s, Hare developed what’s known as the psychopathy checklist, which is used as the international standard by police and mental-health professionals to determine who qualifies as a psychopath. He has spent much of his career inside prisons, studying hardcore criminal psychopaths, mostly murderers and serial rapists. In recent years he has shifted focus to the workplace. The goings-on at WorldCom and Enron served as near-perfect examples. He estimates that about one per cent of the general population are psychopaths but in a large, unstable company characterized by acquisitions, takeovers, downsizing and management shifts, that number may go as high as five per cent. “If you are in the jungle and you are a tiger, where do you go? You go to watering holes and feeding grounds. Psychopaths are very intelligent: they’re going where the action is, which includes such fertile environs as the old VSE and the new TSX Venture market.” He feels strongly that people who bilk investors or bring down companies are worse than murderers and rapists, because they do incredible damage to hundreds of people and generally escape punishment because they look good in a suit. Hare says it’s “idiotic” to sit down and try to reason with a psychopathic boss, because they don’t play by the rules. “If you say something or complain, you could be in big trouble. Even if you try and let other people know what’s going on, you’re probably playing against a stacked deck. Psychopaths like to separate people into groups and play them off against each other.” As far as any strategizing goes: “Well, if you’re a religious person, I suppose you could pray, or go see a counsellor or lawyer,” he adds. “If you believe half of what I say about them in my book, you should be terrified.” Bosses today are under pressure from all sides and it’s not surprising that many find it hard to live up to often unrealistic expectations. Axelrod and Hart remind us that it’s hard work, thankless even, and it takes a certain type of person to balance the ever-increasing demands of a modern organization with directing and supporting a diverse group of people. There are responsibilities on both sides, Axelrod adds. “When you become a manager you assume responsibility for the well-being of the people you manage. Many bosses don’t fully appreciate that. On the other hand, employees tend to forget that being a good boss is not always about making you feel good: it’s about helping you succeed. And that’s a very different thing.” Test your BBQ Every bad boss believes he does a great job. So even if you think you’re a dynamic, productive leader, it’s worth taking this one-minute BBQ test. A bad boss:

  • berates employees in public
  • takes credit for employee achievements
  • wants people to fear him
  • is a ‘no-excuses allowed’ manager
  • expects employees to know what to do without being told
  • yells or shouts at employees
  • belittles or humiliates people as punishment
  • makes life difficult for those who displease him
  • plays favourites
  • discourages input and creativity
  • constantly checks everyone’s work for quality
  • is reluctant to let employees make decisions
  • expects complete, unquestioning obedience

A good boss:

  • istens
  • corrects employees privately
  • gives people full credit for what they do
  • projects a caring image
  • defines job duties and deadlines
  • speaks to employees with respect
  • provides feedback and training
  • has clearly defined sanctions for misconduct
  • treats all employees fairly and equally
  • supervises without being oppressive or suspicious
  • encourages initiative and decision-making
  • expects employees to question decisions and discuss job issues
  • creates an internal conflict-resolution mechanism

If you lean more to the dark side, consider yourself at risk, both at work and in your personal relationships. Your employees probably have little respect for you and unless you own the business, your organization may one day be forced to cut you loose. Luckily, experts say it’s never too late to invest in a little executive coaching to help change your style and improve your leadership skills. Your staff will thank you for it. Source: National Federation of Independent Business Showdown So, you’ve had it with your boss and you’re bursting for a showdown. Here are some tips from our conflict-resolution experts that will help you stay cool and emerge from the experience (relatively) unscathed. Reality check: Find out if others share your perceptions of the boss. If so, ask for their support. Be careful though – never badmouth the boss to your colleagues. How is your attitude and performance? (Have you become hypersensitive? Do you tend to be negative?) Ask your co-workers for feedback, be ready to accept your role and buff up your weak areas. Get clarity: Before asking for a meeting, collect your thoughts. Describe his actions. (Is he being abusive, making unreasonable demands, watching over your shoulder or undermining you in front of others?) Consider the context. (Was it in front of the team yesterday, in a client meeting last week, or at the Christmas party?) Identify the effect of his behaviour. (How does it make you feel? Does it impact your productivity or create problems elsewhere in the office?) Be clear about what you want to change and what you see as your bottom line. Protect yourself: In the meantime, just to be safe, start documenting your interactions – what happened, when and where it occurred and who was present. Take steps to secure your privacy and your property. (Keep personal records at home.) Remain professional in the face of unprofessional behaviour – this protects your credibility. Your boss wins when others see you being disrespectful – even if he’s been pushing your buttons for months. Always do your best and keep a list of your achievements. Negotiate firmly and respectfully: When you meet, reassure your boss that you want to make things better for both of you. Describe his behaviour and its impact, and ask him why he acts that way. Look for common concerns and goals. Then, weigh the possible solutions. And before going on the offensive, consider seeking another job or accumulating a financial cushion. Knowing you can quit is very empowering, especially since there’s no guarantee that your boss will change. Stay cool: Don’t give in to bullying by being aggressive or submissive. If your boss gets angry and you stay calm but resolved, you’ll have control. Know what you will and won’t accept – and ask for it. If your boss is unreceptive, tell him you plan to appeal to his superior and/or human resources – and do it. This should be a last resort as leapfrogging generally ramps up conflict. Make sure that you have a solid case: bad bosses often present well to their own managers. Don’t just go to the top with vague complaints: give specific examples. Describe what you’ve already tried to do and why you need their help. Stay healthy: No matter what happens, stay physically and mentally healthy. Get plenty of rest and exercise. Avoid participating in the negativity by gossiping and increasing the tension with frustrated co-workers. Use your in-house support network and look to family and friends for moral support. If you feel unduly stressed, seek counselling. If you leave work because of stress or are laid off, you might be eligible for EI – if your claim is accompanied by medical proof that your job made you sick.