“Um, yeah, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday to work on those TPS reports…”
Bill Lumbergh, the infuriatingly low-key taskmaster in the movie “Office Space” is actually one of the more benign manifestations of the Boss from Hell. But whether it’s a hot-headed screamer, a back-stabbing manipulator, or the clueless boss that makes more demands with less reason than the pointy-haired manager of Dilbert, we’ve all seen or heard of bosses who make workers’ lives miserable.
And increasingly, companies are beginning to realize it’s not just the worker who is hurt by a manager’s bad behavior — their bottom lines are also suffering.
Case story: the consulting firm
Brad M. was an employee at a consulting firm in Milwaukee (names and professions have been changed slightly in this story by request). He had heard rumors that his new boss was temperamental and quick to criticize, and he learned to keep his head down.
“One of his favorite things to do was to berate an employee in the open-plan office, then call over his partner to witness further berating,” Brad says. “Many people only lasted a couple of days in the office before leaving.”
The boss was also known for eccentric and rude behavior with clients, such as sitting in on a meeting, and then leaving without a word. Brad and other employees were left to cover for the unprofessional behavior.
Brad finally left the firm to start his own business; he said one of the main consequences for the boss’ bad behavior is that it was hard to recruit talent for the firm.
“A colleague called to ask what I thought about an offer [to work for the firm],” he said. “I told him to ask for a very high salary … ‘for that much money, it MIGHT be worth it,’” he told his friend.
Brad’s experience points to one of the most glaring downsides to managers who make their employees miserable — an unpleasant work environment can cripple a company in the vital areas of recruitment and retention.
Cam Marston, author and founder of Generational Insights, who once had his own experience with a boss from hell, says younger workers especially can sense when there’s a conflict between employees and management.
“The biggest problem that a company should recognize is the impact on recruiting,” he says. “An interviewee, if they have time to spend with employees, they may sense that something’s wrong.”
Some recruitment firms recommend that job seekers research their potential bosses as they go through the application process. They say it’s wise to see if a company has had trouble filling positions — or if the same positions need to be filled on a regular basis. Sites like Glassdoor.com or LinkedIn can also help job seekers get information on potential bosses.
According to Frank Mulcahy, manager of business development oat the Workplace Bullying Institute, the impact on retention can also be significant.
“When the people start to say, ‘The workplace doesn’t care about me; it doesn’t care about my co-worker, it’s not doing anything about this,’ that’s when a worker starts to think about moving on,” he says. “When a company doesn’t have a plan in place to recognize this and correct it, that’s the beginning of the deterioration of the workplace.”
Case story: the legal practice
Dave H. is a dedicated employee who has been with his Minneapolis-based company for more than a decade. He has always been a conscientious worker and a team player. But one day his boss screamed at him over a minor problem.
“The whole office froze,” he says. “It affected everyone; the atmosphere was tense for a long while after.” His relationship with his boss has never recovered, he says.
Dave said he made a mistake in how he handled the problem — he sought support from co-workers via an email, a move that was not received well by management.
But this points to a second major issue in management/employee relations that experts increasingly say is a crucial factor: the difference in expectations depending on the age of the worker.
A generational chasm
Marston, whose company works with clients on generational issues, notes that a significant number of “Gen-X” managers have an approach to working that is significantly at odds with how both younger and older employees like to work.
“A typical Generation X boss has a very hands-off style,” he says. “They choose to give goals and set expectations like a typical boss, but they then disengage from the team, saying, ‘here’s your job, I’m not going to bother you.” According to Marston, this is a behavior learned by a generation of latchkey kids who tended to get things done on their own with little supervision.
Baby boomers and millennials, on the other hand, are all about personal interaction and teamwork, Marston says.
“They’ve been taught that eye contact, collegiality, having everyone online for a conference call, is a key to having well-functioning teams. Then they are managed by a Gen-X boss, who says, ‘I’m going to leave you alone, we’re going to eliminate all this team-building stuff, the company parties, everyone just go away and do your jobs.”
The resulting clash of work styles leads to hard feelings and stress, Marston says.
“The workers don’t feel like they’re on the same page. They don’t feel like the boss is there for them; and at the same time, the Gen-X boss is sitting in his office saying, ‘they love me here because I never bother them.’”
The result can be a dysfunctional and stressful workplace, but the underlying problem is a correctable one. What’s tougher for employees is when a corporate culture ignores bullying behavior and neglects to set policies to deal with such problems.
Bullies as rainmakers
According to Mulcahy, the worst-case bullying scenario is when an abusive manager is a high-earner or is close to top executives. In those cases, workers may feel they simply have no place to go in reporting bad behavior. He noted that in nearly 80 percent of cases of bullying, it is the victim who leaves, is fired, or is reassigned.
“Most people do not want to come forward because the company does not have a policy against it,” he says, adding that surveys conducted by his company show a general lack of trust by employees. “Fifty percent of people fear retaliation; 40 percent feel that nothing will be done,” he says.
WBI has research that clearly shows employee turnover when a bullying situation exists in a company, Mulcahy says. Furthermore, symptoms of gastrointestinal disease, cardiovascular issues, depression, and even suicidal thoughts are linked to bullying in the workplace. With severe cases, companies will suffer costs associated with absenteeism and presenteeism, as distracted and distressed workers struggle with their work duties.
A legislative solution
Mulcahy said his institute is working with individual companies to develop policies and do assessments to recognize problems that may exist. But he adds that the Institute believes that anti-bullying legislation, similar to laws against sexual harassment or discriminatory practices, will be needed to really address the boss-from-hell issue. He notes that close to 30 states have seen some sort of anti-bullying legislation proposed.
The legislative solution will result in companies realizing they can no longer ignore the problem, Mulcahy says.
“If we have a law, we have policies, if we have policies, we have enforcement, and if we have enforcement, we have prevention and correction.”