Is Attila the Hun Your Boss?

A boss who bullies, belittles and tramples over the personal lives of employees creates a toxic work atmosphere.

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 4, 2015
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“You will have to admit, our lives would be easier if our bosses weren’t alive,” one employee says to another in the movie “Horrible Bosses” as they drunkenly conspire to kill their respective supervisors.

No question, a boss who bullies, belittles, abruptly changes assignments, upends deadlines and tramples over the personal lives of employees creates an unsettling—and often toxic—work atmosphere.

But murder—and kidnapping, as in the movie “9 to 5”—are not viable options. A 2014 AccountTemps survey of 218 U.S. workers found that 27 percent of respondents with an unreasonable boss stayed until they had another job; 11 percent were so miserable they left before finding new employment. Thirty-five percent stayed and tried to work with the boss, and 24 percent “suffered through the torment.” Maybe they blocked the whole ugly experience from their memory, but 3 percent did not respond.

Brad Minor, a manager with Cornerstone OnDemand, tried to hang on to a former job until he could tunnel his way to freedom and away from a boss who routinely yelled at people for trivial things, such as not highlighting text of documents in green. The boss also made others fire employees for him “and generally created an environment of hostility,” Minor said in a SHRM LinkedIn discussion.

The supervisor was a former detective trained in police interrogation techniques, which he used on employees when anything went awry, according to Minor.

“It was horrible, but most of us didn’t have other options at the time,” he said. “I was trying to keep my bills paid long enough to find a way out. For me, the only way out was quitting the job and going back to school.”

Some find other ways to cope.

“I had a ‘come-to-Jesus’ meeting with my old boss, letting her know the tone and disrespect will not be tolerated,” Denise Jenkins-Agurs, an HR manager and career development expert, said in the LinkedIn discussion. “She was surprised that I said anything to her because no one else did. She was an example of an office bully. The atmosphere changed, after she left, to a happier place without her intimidation.”

Taking a Stand

Jenkins-Augurs may be on to something.

Research from Ohio State University published in January 2015 in the academic journal Personnel Psychology found that there are advantages to standing up to a bad boss, including feeling less like a victim.

“Employees felt better about themselves because they didn’t just sit back and take the abuse,” said Bennett J. Tepper, the study’s lead author, in a news release. Tepper is a professor of management and HR at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“It may be that the boss sees you as less of a victim” as well, Tepper told SHRM Online, noting that bullies tend to shy away from people who look like they will stand up for themselves.

Reciprocating doesn’t necessarily mean being confrontational. Employees reported experiencing less distress and higher job satisfaction through passive-aggressive acts such as ignoring or gossiping about the boss, turning a deaf ear to ridicule, or simply not trying as hard, researchers found.

There are also other options, according to Tepper.

“If you have the wherewithal to move on, you should,” he said. But “if you’re stuck [in that job], then you have to find a way to make this work. Failing that, research your organization’s policies regarding bullying … and pursue some remedy within the organization.”

That could include going through HR, connecting with a powerful person in the organization who will take up your cause or insulating yourself by being part of a powerful group, he suggested.

Support from a mentor and documentation worked for Carolyn Trapp, who had a boss that used harassment to motivate employees. The final straw was when her boss forwarded HR an e-mail from Trapp in which the boss manipulated Trapp’s responses to make her look insubordinate.

“Fortunately for me, HR was wise to her tricks,” Trapp said, and the boss’s direct reports started reporting to others. Eventually, the boss was fired.

“The best thing I did was seek advice from my own mentor; having a trusted advisor and outlet to talk to helped me keep my own emotions in check around my boss,” Trapp said. “I also kept a paper trail of everything that was happening. I was protected in the case of the tampered e-mail because I had records to support my side of the story.”

Mike Bowen took more direct action to combat a horrible boss.

Before starting CareerAndJobFairs.com and writing How to Scare the Hell Out of Unemployment (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011), he worked for eight years for a man he describes as “inept and unqualified for his role as vice president.”

Bowen said his boss was a bully who reveled in “setting people up for failure,” such as assigning projects with outrageous expectations. Managers and other staff quit in response.

“I stood up to him and didn’t allow myself to be an easy target. I was never outwardly disrespectful, but I also didn’t hold back in calling him out on his behavior,” Bowen said in an e-mail. “He backed down when someone stood up to him and went after someone weaker.”

Bowen didn’t stop there.

“I also combined that with building alliances with his peers and human resources. Fearing I would ‘tell on him’ or give his peers something to use against him usually kept him in check.”

‘No-Jerks’ Policy

Ohio State’s Tepper warned that there are repercussions for organizations that ignore a boss’s abusive behavior, including undermined morale, absenteeism and turnover.

“By not stepping in, your employees will reciprocate because it’s to their advantage,” he said, but doing so can hurt the organization.

Some employers, like cloud-hosting provider Connectria in St. Louis, promote a “no-jerks” policy to create a culture where everyone is treated with respect.

“There’s too much incivility in the workplace nowadays,” said Rich Waidmann, Connectria's president and CEO. He established the policy when he started the company 18 years ago.

Such a policy, he said, must:

*Apply to everyone and be modeled by those at the top. “If the CEO is a jerk, you’re not going to get anywhere. The company behaves like its leader,” Waidmann said.

*Be communicated companywide and during recruitment and hiring.

*Call for immediate action if there is a violation; do not wait for a performance review to address the behavior.

*Hold the offender accountable, even bosses.

Waidmann recalled making an inappropriate joke during a meeting about someone in attendance. The joke fell flat, and the person raised an eyebrow and noted “nice no-jerk policy.” Abashed, Waidmann apologized on the spot. It was a lesson for others.

Before starting his HR consulting business, Stan C. Kimer had a few horrible bosses who left him “completely demoralized.”

“When I was myself a manager,” he said, “these bad bosses did help teach me what NOT to do.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her at @SHRMwriter.

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