Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
In the 15 years I’ve been writing the workplace advice column Ask a Manager, I’ve heard about some really bad bosses. There was the boss who crashed an employee’s wedding (and then wrote her up for having him escorted out!), the boss who told bizarre lies about all her employees, and even the boss whose negligence killed someone’s horse. But the bosses who stand out are the ones who are openly abusive to the people they manage.
There are all kinds of bad bosses: micromanagers, absentee managers, wimps who never deal with problems, bosses who don’t train people or advocate for them or give useful feedback, and on and on. But abusive bosses—managers who yell, insult, berate, and rule by fear—are in a special category of the very worst. For example, here’s what one person working for such a boss wrote to me:
I recently left a large internet company to join a well-established yet small creative agency. … The issue is the level of verbal abuse that I have since found out is a feature of the work environment. The cool radio station playing in the background wasn’t because the office was hip—it was to cover up the screaming coming from the executive office for even the smallest offenses. Late 10 minutes? Well, you are going to get yelled at for a half hour and have every other fault or perceived flaw flung at you along with a litany of questioning of your professionalism and dedication. Didn’t convey the exact message that the founder force fed you before a client meeting? Well, that is good for at least an hour.
I have tried everything from being calm and reasonable, to trying to get a word in edgewise, to confronting him and telling him behavior is unprofessional and damaging, to just flat out ending the conversation and walking out. Unfortunately, because I am not willing to sit through these tirades with my hands folded and head down like all of the other executive team, I am being froze out of key meetings and now enduring work which is totally not in my job description suddenly becoming my responsibility (i.e., I am a producer and suddenly I am being told that site QA, customer research and architecture work is also part of my duties). … This is taking a toll on my health and I dread stepping foot in this place.
The year before I started law school, I worked for a lawyer who was a solo practitioner. I was a legal assistant. Highlights: She threw binders at me and the other assistant (they always landed next to us, but still), screamed and yelled constantly, belittled us personally, screamed at us in front of other lawyers, asked inappropriate personal questions (“do you prefer circumcised or uncircumcised penises?”), and invaded personal space (she used to lean over my shoulder, yell, and pound her fist on my desk when she was angry). … My first week, I went to file something with a clerk in a judge’s office, and when she saw my boss’s name she said, “Oh honey, you’re the new one? If you ever need to talk, you just come see me.” The judge heard her and agreed. I started having multiple panic attacks each day.
One of the most outrageous stories I’ve heard was about a manager who taped people’s mouths shut if she didn’t like their contributions at a meeting:
We have strategy meetings every morning for about 30-45 minutes. My boss is REALLY intolerant of bad ideas. She keeps a tape dispenser on the table by her chair and whenever someone suggests something that she thinks is dumb, she will peel off a piece of masking tape and pass it to them, at which point they are required to put it over their mouths so they cannot contribute any more “bad” ideas for the rest of the meeting.
Needless to say, the first time I saw this, I was shocked! But my co-workers don’t seem too bothered by it. Or maybe they just don’t want to complain, I’m not sure.
While that’s obviously an extreme case, there are plenty of more garden-variety abusive managers who get away with behavior that should be unacceptable, which raises the question: How? Why do companies—and employees themselves—tolerate this?
Part of the answer is that abusive managers are often good at hiding their worst behavior from those above them, and their employees are afraid of repercussions if they speak up. It might seem obvious that people should leave jobs where they’re treated this way, but sometimes working in this kind of environment can wear people down so much that they feel helpless to escape, especially if they’re less experienced in the work world. And abusive managers can be skilled at using fear as a tactic to keep people in line. For example, the legal assistant quoted above offered this about why she and her colleagues stayed:
She was able to get away with all this because she almost exclusively hired people like me: fresh out of college, no legal experience, applying to law school. Everyone who worked for her was nervous to quit a job too soon and mess up their applications. Also, when you take the bar exam, they write to all your employers to get references, and legal employers are said to carry more weight. We were afraid that if we did anything about her behavior, she’d write nasty things about us to the bar. We also feared getting fired (she threatened to fire people on a regular basis).
In a case like that, where the abusive boss was running her own firm, there’s not much recourse for employees other than to leave. But larger companies, with layers of management, should be more actively seeking out management problems and addressing them—for basic humanitarian and ethical reasons, of course, but also because manager quality has a direct impact on their bottom line and their ability to attract and retain strong employees. Bad managers drive away good people and hold teams back from achieving what they otherwise could, and abusive managers perhaps most of all. Very few people working for abusive bosses will be willing to take a risk, suggest new ideas, or critique bad ones, for example.
That means companies should be providing opportunities for employees to offer feedback on their managers in confidence and—crucially—creating a culture where people feel safe giving that feedback. The latter is generally the snag; employees often have good reason to worry they’ll experience blowback if they complain about a manager. It also means companies need to invest more in training and supporting managers in learning how to achieve results without yelling or throwing things, as well as observing and evaluating them on management specifically, not just on the work their team produces. Without those things, there will continue to be too little accountability for how managers treat the people they have power over.