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Can they be fixed?
Tina arrived at work early as always and turned on the lights and computers to get ready for her day as a recently hired medical assistant in a busy cardiologists’ office in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
However, her peaceful morning and professional demeanor were shaken when her manager arrived an hour later—in a foul mood. In a loud voice, the manager demanded to know why patients were sitting in the waiting room. Tina, a soft-spoken woman whose name has been changed for this article because she feared she would lose her job, explained that there were only two medical assistants on duty that morning to check in patients.
That was enough to set off the manager, who saw the explanation as a criticism of her scheduling skills. Instead of pitching in to help, the manager towered over the short assistant in an intimidating fashion, shouting insults at Tina in front of the waiting patients.
“I was in shock,” Tina says. “I was scared. I was so shaken I went home for the rest of the day.” She dreaded going back to the office the next morning, but she needed the paycheck.
“I have lost my ability to concentrate,” says Tina, who was still upset weeks later. “The quality of my work has suffered because I’m so stressed all the time.”
She says she is trying to stay out of the manager’s way until she can land a new job.
Nearly everyone has a story about a bad boss. The emotions that bad managers generate can take a significant toll. A bad boss can cause employee stress, low morale, anger and long-term health problems, all of which in turn can cost the company in higher absences, increased turnover and lower productivity. In fact, in 2008 a 10-year Swedish study concluded that men with the worst bosses suffered more heart attacks than those with the best ones.
Given the negative impact that problem managers can have on the workforce, we asked experts to identify five common types of bad bosses and suggest ways to improve their behavior.
The Bully Boss
Tina’s boss is a classic bully boss. Bully bosses use intimidation and public humiliation to keep their employees on task, not realizing that their behavior often has the opposite effect.
“An outright bad manager is someone who, in my opinion, abuses his or her power and authority and intimidates employees,” says Ronald Pilenzo, SPHR, president of The Global HR Consultancy, who has worked in five major U.S. corporations over his 50-year career in HR. He is a past president of the Society for Human Resource Management.
Pilenzo recalls a manager in a Washington, D.C., office who frequently used foul language and shouted at his employees in public.
“His outbursts were heard throughout the office, and he was also known to hammer his fists on tables and walls when berating his staff,” Pilenzo recalls. “Under normal circumstances, he would have been terminated.”
But the manager was key to the company’s government services division, and company leaders feared that his departure would deal a serious financial blow.
Over six months, an HR professional met with the manager and tried unsuccessfully to find out why he was erupting in this hostile manner. Senior management also talked with him. Pilenzo, as an outside HR consultant, suggested hiring a psychologist to work with the individual.
“HR should be the catalyst for solving problems but be wise enough to learn when to ask for help,” he advises.
Ultimately, the manager didn’t change his behavior and was let go.
At other companies, removing an abusive manager can be next to impossible. Leili Eghbal, HR director for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Chrysalis, which helps low-income and homeless people find work, says one employee frequently comes to her in tears because of the way her manager treats her.
Eghbal informed the manager’s boss, but nothing was done because the manager is considered too valuable to the business. “I think it sends a very bad message,” Eghbal says. “It sends a message that we don’t value our people.”
To those managers who are open to improving, online assessments and 360-degree evaluations can help pinpoint weaknesses in their management style, says Ron Lippock, who heads the management community of practice at the Association for Talent Development (formerly the American Society for Training & Development).
“Oftentimes, the manager doesn’t have any idea how they are coming across,” Lippock says.
HR professionals can be helpful in describing to managers why they will benefit from training in areas they need help with, explaining that “if your employees leave or are less productive, it’s going to reflect poorly on you,” he says. Good managers are willing to work on their weaknesses for the sake of their employees and their organizations, he says.
The Micromanager Boss
No matter how talented the team, the micromanager boss hovers to ensure that every detail is done the way he or she would do it, which can be demoralizing.
Debbie Mencke, administration manager at Old Republic National Title Insurance Co. in Akron, Ohio, said she hired a talented employee who complained that his last boss made him feel that he wasn’t to be trusted.
“His boss would be constantly on his back, telling him what to do and when to do it,” Mencke says.
The employee said he felt like he was back in college, working his first job.
A good manager should be like a first-base coach in baseball, the employee told her. “If the coach stands in the way, you’ll never be able to get to first base. But he also needs to guide you and inform you of situations because without him you wouldn’t know if you should run to second base or stay on first,” she recalls him saying.
While working in HR for a large auto company, Pilenzo once challenged a manager after discovering him working on an engineering problem. “We pay you to supervise and manage a large department of expensive engineering personnel” and not to duplicate their work, Pilenzo chided him. He further joked that the company should deduct the time and pay from the manager’s paycheck. “He laughed but got the point,” he says.
In such circumstances, it helps for HR to have a positive relationship with managers before such occasions arise so managers will be more open to suggestions. Such a relationship allowed Pilenzo to remind the manager at the auto company that his employees could feel insecure and offended when their boss takes over a project that was assigned to them.
“Managers also have the responsibility to develop their subordinates. If they over-manage, employees cannot and will not grow personally and professionally,” he says.
Role-playing exercises led by or set up by HR might help a micromanager understand the impact of his or her actions on subordinates, Lippock says.
However, HR may not always be able to achieve lasting change.
“Managers and executives who continually become involved in the day-to-day duties of their employees are unconsciously or otherwise trying to prove to their subordinates and others that they ‘still have it’ and that they are as good as or better than their staffs,” Pilenzo says.
“This need is sometimes reinforced by upper management, who also may be micromanaging or expect that all senior managers be ‘involved’ in the areas of their assignment,” he says. “In short, unless the bosses of the problem boss hold their subordinates responsible for managing and not doing, HR will lose this struggle every time.”
The Workaholic Boss
Workaholic bosses are the ones who e-mail their staff at 3 a.m. and expect an immediate response. They frequently dole out last-minute assignments and expect staff to drop everything and stay late to complete them.
When Michael Esposito, SPHR, employee relations director for Novelis North America, an aluminum manufacturer based in Atlanta, received complaints about a senior executive who e-mailed his staff late at night, he had a conversation with the individual and found out he’s a night owl. The executive said it was easier for him to send an e-mail late at night after the kids were in bed, and he wanted to get it done before he forgot. Esposito advised him to communicate that to his staff, telling them, “I don’t expect a response. If I really need you, I’ll call you.”
“The challenge is the people on the receiving end,” Esposito explains. “Do they really believe it’s OK to not respond?”
In most cases, if a manager regularly requires staff to work around the clock, “that would be wildly inappropriate,” Esposito says. “Then you need an intervention at some time, a conversation laying down the ground rules.”
Helping Managers to Help Themselves
When an HR professional tells a manager what to do, the manager often gets defensive and stubbornly resists change.
So HR professionals at some companies are taking a more indirect approach to addressing bad managerial behaviors. Instead of delivering lectures, they raise questions to encourage managers to discover how others interpret their actions. HR professionals or outside consultants help managers understand the impact they have on others.
“You learn a whole lot more when you uncover something rather than when someone tells you something,” says Brian Kropp, executive director for the Corporate Executive Board’s HR practice. “When you discover it for yourself, a light bulb goes off and you behave differently.”
In another self-discovery approach, Michael Esposito, SPHR, employee relations director for Novelis North America, suggests celebrating positive leader behaviors.
“In your journey to find the right buttons to press that might help the challenged leader improve, consider shouting out to those leaders who get it,” he says. “Most leaders are competitive and will do whatever they need to do to win. If someone else is getting the Core values Leadership Award, and the award is considered something special, that may do the trick.”
Communication is key to capturing a problem manager’s attention and being taken seriously. An indirect, nonconfrontational approach works best, says psychiatrist Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, 2009).
He often begins with flattery: “When someone has a gift like you do, you owe it to yourself not to do anything that distracts from it.” Then he suggests how the manager could achieve even more.
Too often, HR professionals are cut out of decisions about what to do with problem managers, or they’re brought in only during the termination process to ensure that legal requirements are met, says Ronald Pilenzo, SPHR, president of The Global HR Consultancy.
HR can get in front of the problem by bringing hard facts and data on the costs of poor managers to business leaders.
“The more HR can teach other people, the better the organization is going to be,” Pilenzo says.
That’s the kind of positive change every business can profit from.
Lippock advises explaining to managers that “the more they try to pull out of their employees, the less effective they’ll be in the long run because they’ll burn out and become disengaged.” Managers may be too focused on the next quarter’s results to pay much attention to staff needs. But HR professionals might gain traction when they show such managers how much it costs to recruit, interview and train new employees because of the department’s high turnover rate.
The By-the-Numbers Boss
The opposite of a micromanager, the numbers-focused boss sits behind closed doors poring over reports and analytics while his or her staff drifts without direction.
This detached manager might try to be a good boss but doesn’t have the people skills to motivate and lead the team, says Don Johnson, who conducts training and staff development programs for the Washoe Tribe Native TANF Program of Nevada and California.
“While this method might be OK for top performers who need minimal coaching, it won’t be good for those who need the most support,” Johnson says.
Often, such a boss relinquishes power because of his or her inability to connect with subordinates. Others on the team take on informal leadership roles, which can generate resentment, Johnson notes.
Such managers may be introverts or insecure in their leadership skills, so they focus on the numbers because that’s what they feel comfortable with.
In a previous job, Erin Huett, SPHR, HR generalist for the City of Richmond Heights, Mo., encountered such a manager in a branch office where turnover was high. She pulled out black-and-white reports to show him how much the turnover was costing.
“It was enough to make him understand how much of an impact the soft skills he was lacking was costing his branch,” Huett says.
Training this type of boss is only effective if the manager practices his or her new knowledge in the workplace. “Unfortunately, the personality of the numbers manager is very cerebral,” Johnson says, “and it may be very hard for him to apply what he’s learned.”
Also, frequently, “those who need the training most are the ones who don’t go,” Johnson notes.
Esposito says that, without course correction, the numbers-focused manager’s team will deteriorate.
In an effort to prevent this, the HR team can search for an outside consultant, coach or mentor who can help round out the individual’s management skills. Whether the company pays for the coach depends on how much the manager is valued by the organization, Esposito says.
The numbers-focused manager might also be called “the reluctant manager,” Pilenzo says.
He recounts how a former employer spent a significant amount of money to send a senior financial expert to a weeklong leadership development program after the manager’s staff complained that his office door was always closed and that they were shut off from communicating with him.
In the program, he was assessed by organizational psychologists and given a two-year plan designed to prepare him for advancement. Soon after, he resigned to take a job elsewhere.
Lesson learned: Talk to managers to find out whether their desires mesh with senior executives’ plans for the future.
The Divisive Boss
The divisive boss plays favorites. “Divide and conquer” describes his or her management style.
If this manager was promoted from within the team, he or she still goes out to lunch with old friends on the team, excluding others.
Unfortunately, the divisive manager appears to be all too common.
Playing favorites is a top employee complaint about bosses, according to a 2011 survey conducted for CareerBuilder.com.
“It’s really a personality thing. You know that person in high school who was very cliquish, who wanted to be part of the ‘in’ crowd?” asks Brian Kropp, executive director for the Corporate Executive Board’s HR practice. “They don’t change their behaviors when they become a manager of a team.”
The best way to resolve the problem is to assign the manager to lead another team, preferably one he or she wasn’t a part of before, Kropp says.
Dori Meinert is a senior writer for HR Magazine.
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