What makes a bad boss bad?

On March 28 at 11 a.m., we’ll be talking about bad leadership. You’ve probably had a bad boss at some time. Tell us your story. Both the specifics of what the individual did and the general bad habits that bad bosses share.

I would write some examples from my own work life, but I can’t be anonymous. You can.

Stephanie Curtis, social media host

  • JasonB

    A bad boss is someone you don’t look up to or respect, who doesn’t lead, who fails to even appear as a mentor, or who doesn’t even provide some level of expertise to indicate that he or she deserves their position. In short, they appear to only to be interested in protecting their image and job at the expense of anyone else. They are the antithesis of a leader.

    My past ‘bad boss’ was all these things. He was insecure and his interactions with people were mostly about managing his image. And at times he was almost a caricature of duplicitous behavior.

  • JBL

    The worst bosses I work with are those who are not clear about how they make decisions and their rationale for them.

    Bosses who make it seem like they want input but have no intention of taking it seriously, or have clearly made up their mind before they even ask for feedback are maddening.

    Those who won’t give their rationale for decisions create a space for employees to insert their own ideas. When employees have to guess at why a decision was made, they generally guess pessimistic, personal, or nefarious reasons.

    Both of these situations lead to toxic work environments. I’d rather have a boss let me know right away if I don’t I have a choice or disagree with me to my face over one who tries to hide their true motives.

  • Bruce B

    When I think of true leadership, I think of parenting. As a father, I put my kids first. I work hard to develop them to someday become good parents of their own and be successful and to simply provide value in the lives of others. I dont think there are too many folks I have worked for who I would consider a “good mom and dad” in this analogy. With that said, I believe our leaders need to challenge, not only by their fellow leaders, stakeholders, and board of directors, but by the very people they are governed to lead. Gone are the days where employees should be “seen but not heard”……

  • Betsy

    I don’t even know where to start with my boss from hell, who was so crazy and vindictive I needed to flee the country to be free of her. She was the ultimate micro manager, constantly forcing me to redo tasks if they weren’t exactly the way she would have done them. During my one year review she took me to task for being “too efficient.” she would call and text me at all hours of the early morning, late evening and weekend to think out loud to me. A classic move would be to text me multiple times before 7 a.m. deciding whether she would be in at 9 or 10, and then she’d show up a half hour later than she said she would. Her way of dealing with stress was to get so worked up that she got physically sick, and then she’d disappear for sometimes weeks at a time. Because she was so controlling of the department’s output we would be Absolutely paralyzed on the majority of our projects until her return. The worst was when she found out we watched the same trashy tv show and she would keep me in her office with the door closed for an hour or more after I was supposed to go home so we could discuss it. I could go on and on…

  • JE

    Bad bosses can actually have good leadership qualities that are sabotaged by the poison they inject into the work environment. Specifically, I had a boss that divided the workplace by having favorites (golden girls & boys that could do no wrong), enemies (whipping girls/boys that could do no right) and the rest of the staff that placated the boss so as not to fall into the enemy category. A boss that made unprofessional comments about clients during staff meetings like, “she made me so angry I wanted to tear her face off.” Doesn’t that message translate as, ‘don’t cross me or I will exact my revenge’? Who actively and openly made derogatory remarks about people in our department and in other departments, causing some of those people to quit and move on to other companies. Bad bosses cause added stress to already difficult times, are demoralizing and, I would say, are abusive in their own way. Just like abuse in a family, people are afraid to talk about it.

  • Not My Real Name

    I worked at a private career college teaching graphic design, computer animation, and photography for six awful weeks for the worst boss ever. When I went in to interview for the position of admissions advisor, three people I passed on the way in literally told me to “run”.

    The owner of the college yelled so loud at his employees that his spit hit their faces. He had us tear down and reorganize the admissions booklets daily. He broke into my computer at night to email fraudulent press releases under my name. He directed us to install the his one version of stolen animation software on 250 computers. He directed us to dissuade students in wheelchairs from applying so he wouldn’t have to install ramps. He coached us on how students could lie on their financial aid forms to get the maximum grants, which coincidentally, matched the tuition. He withheld bonuses from women sales people since he assumed their numbers were lies since “girls just aren’t good at sales.”

    I wondered how he could avoid consequences from such blatently abusive behavior. By hiring very young employees and his four codependent ex-wives, he consciously picked employees who wouldn’t fight back.

    Well, his method wasn’t foolproof. Two of us notified the Department of Education and the FBI. The feds swooped in one day with guns, told everyone to back away from their computers, and found all the stolen software and charged the school full market value for all of it on the spot. The DOE took away their eligibility for financial aid. That put them out of business.

    As awful as the experience was, it was almost worth it to take a bad boss down.

    Sadly, in the meantime, the owner racked up another ex-wife who got him into a mail house business. So watch out, he’s still out there.

    The takeaway is take action against an abusive bosses – not just for yourself, but for everyone that person affects. And if you on the way into the interview someone tells you to run, do it.

  • Stephanie

    I am pretty sure that Betsy and I had the same boss.

    These are great. Thanks everyone. I’ll be reading from these on the show on Wednesday.

  • David

    Unclear and unreasonable expectations coupled with poor communication and a lack of leadership make for an exceedingly poor boss. Not treating your employees like human beings is also a poor trait.

    Several years ago I was working as an adminsitrative assistant in the admissions department of a recording art school. My supervisor there decided to take her end-of-the-year vacation several days after I started working there, so it was already not a good situation. My co-workers were absolutely fantastic and supportive in getting me up to speed during that first week. They were the only reason I stayed: Because I didn’t want to leave them high and dry.

    After the 90-day introductory period, my supervisor’s approach was basically to pile work on me and then demand to know why it wasn’t being accomplished in the freakish timescale she expected it to be (even though I was also expected to cover the busy main front desk, answer the main phone in my own office, and basically do whatever else needed to be done around the office at a moment’s notice). Her demeanor towards me also changed. Once I was “in,” unless she was giving me work to do, she actively ignored me (it was rare for her to even give me a glance when she arrived in the morning, à la Miranda Priestly) and would actually talk about me in the third person with her peers (i.e., other managers) in front of me. I was expected to be frantically busy at all times, and my desk was right outside her office so she would come out to yell at me if someone was talking to me (even if it was another co-worker), even though she had long personal conversations with her friends in the office. I was unable to take vacations or even personal days unlike my other co-workers, who were aware of my situation but didn’t want to say anything for fear of retaliation. Once I was talking to a co-worker about how I’d really like to just take a week off and go somewhere, and he said, “Just do it.” When I said that I really couldn’t do that, he glanced around and said, “Yeah, I know who you work for.”

    An odd combination of aloof micromanager, my boss wanted constant status updates of where the numerous projects were that she would dump on my desk, which meant that I was in the middle of a mental hurricane for 8 hours a day. As far as recourse went, I had none. My boss was friendly with the president of the school (to the point where everyone called her his “Golden Girl” who could do no wrong), and was chummy with all the managers of the various departments, so there was no one to bring grievances to without word getting back to her and life becoming more of a hell for me. This was around the time that the economy had taken a downturn, and she often took the opportunity to point out in our “meetings” how lucky any of us were to have jobs (“any of us” meaning me). That was the only reason why I stayed, though everyone outside of work was telling me to quit, and in my final few months there I was actively looking for other employment, though towards the end of my time there my health was suffering from the stress of a hostile work environment, and eventually she had me fired for “failing to meet expectations” (which apparently had happened to every administrative assistant there before me). My only regret is not quitting sooner.

  • K Nelson

    I read the Washington Post article on bad bosses and the first thing it made me think of was the relationship between teachers (public employees in general) and the elected officials (i.e., their bosses) who seem bent on micromanaging, degrading the work that they do, introducing incredible uncertainty into their lives, and otherwise making it impossible for these professionals to do the jobs they were educated and trained to do. Not a huge mystery as to why it is difficult to attract and retain people here.

  • Amy Hoover

    At one of my first assignments in the Navy, I was stationed overseas, and there was a mixture of US Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force personnel working together on the western coast of Wales. We frequently socialized together, so it wasn’t unusual for me to bring a British Army officer to the annual US Navy Birthday Ball.

    What WAS unusual was when my boss went home with my date. 🙁

  • Jen

    I was a young, graduate assistant and moved to this college 1200 miles away just for this position. My boss was horribly moody, inconsistent, rude and demanded from me things she wouldn’t do herself.

    Bad communication skills, a sense of entitlement and self-grandure are the worst qualities a boss can have.

  • EB

    I was a graduate assistant for a horrible boss at the University of Minnesota. When she unexpectedly decided not to renew my contract the last week before the fall semester I was left high and dry to pay the full cost of tuition. Her bad behavior made me greatful she ended my employment since the benefits made it foolish to quit despite suffering from anxiety and depression under her employment. She was also an aloof micro-manager who didn’t care about you for weeks until she had her own deadline to fulfill and then was a complete B. Complaints about her bad behavior (acknowledged by others and previous employees) resulted in being told that the University only has affirmational policies for their employees behaviors. No one would do a thing.

  • Nancy

    In many ways, bad bosses are like abusive spouses. They belittle you in front of others. They tell you how worthless you are. They tell you that you couldn’t find anyone else, and you’re lucky to have them. They make unreasonable demands, and punish anything you do to try and take back power. In short, they rule your life until you DO take back your power, and walk away.

    I worked at the U, and I reported to three different bosses. All three of them were “reassigned,” demoted or forced into early retirement. I’m confident that it’s still just a big game of Chinese democracy. The new boss comes in, and it’s all going to be so different, except that it isn’t.

    My first boss was a “hands off” manager. She definitely had her favorite, and made it clear that I was NOT that favorite, but dangled the carrot in front of me that if I worked hard, maybe some day I would be promoted or become the favorite. I picked up extra work. Meanwhile, the boss and the favorite went on extended (like two hours) lunches on a regular basis, and the favorite came and went as she pleased. We hired another person in our department, and the favorite got to pick that employee, who also ended up being a golden child with similar work habits. She also had a very high paying job, yet none of us could actually explain what she actually did. She made a big show of coming in late so that she could drop her kids off at school, and basically used taxpayer dollars to coordinate all of the PTA stuff at her school. She worked A LONG time before this was even questioned, and one day, the locks on her office were changed, and she was “transferred” to another department. The U doesn’t really fire managers, they just reassign them to another department.

    The next manager was someone who had experience solving technical problems, and who promised things would be “different.” She said she valued hard work and attitude, yet, here again the golden boy and girl were allowed to take extended trips to the coffee shop and do as little work as they could get away with. I was doing my work plus their work, and the quality of my work suffered. Instead of addressing this issue, I was berated for 2 hours about my problems, ending up with this manager crying in front of me. She was mad that I wasn’t reacting enough to her diatribe. I now work in mental health, and frankly, if one of our residents started doing what she did, we’d be calling the crisis unit at the hospital or administering some serious medication.

    This manager was actually promoted, for now, and the next manager took over her position. I really liked this person, and thought things would be better. To a point, they were. I had someone to confide in. Yet, if I confided in her, she would tell HER boss, my old boss, and it would be held against me in performance reviews. My old boss circled my desk, because despite the fact that I was putting out far more work than anyone else, I was suspected of writing papers at work. I did write papers at work; during my lunch break, and sometimes after work before class. Yet they were SURE I was stealing company time. Meanwhile, one of the favorites was busy planning an extravagant wedding in her cubicle and not even being coy about it, and then shopping for a house and furniture, and yes, her work did drop off (not that you could tell). This boss got flack from the mentally unstable boss, and she would grab the nearest victim (me) and take it out on me. I went to see a psychologist who basically said “run, Bambi, run” when I asked what was wrong with me. My time away from my desk was monitored. I was scrutinized for being 10 minutes late when the guy on the other side of the wall was ROUTINELY 1 hour late every day, and left one half hour early. And when I brought this up, I was threatened with a “letter” about the fact that I noticed. I wasn’t allowed to notice, but I sure as h*ll was forced to do his work when he was behind, which was every two weeks.

    The last time I got yelled at for something, I went home to my husband and I told him that I wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore. The benefits were great, but it wasn’t worth it. We practiced living on one salary for a month, and when it was clear we weren’t going to starve, I turned in my notice. I finished my bachelor’s degree, and now I’m going to nursing school in the fall. The best part is that I LOVE my current job. Even better is the fact that I’ve been nominated for employee of the month MULTIPLE TIMES for my “cheerful attitude, attention to detail, accuracy.” In short, all of the things that the U claimed I could not do. I feel like a new person, and my only regret is that I didn’t quit sooner.