Evil at work: bad bosses

They’re not just incompetent, they really hate you

Related Content
A Maclean’s special report: Canada’s Top 100 Employers
The Top 100
‘The worst job I ever had’
Why you won’t get daycare
Diversity or death

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.