5 dangers in working for a bad boss

Bad managers come in all shapes and sizes – some are jerks, some are passive pushovers, some can’t delegate or give feedback or set clear expectations, and some are simply incompetent. And if you work for one of these bosses, you probably try to minimize the impact of these flaws on your own work – and may have found creative strategies to protect your quality of life. But working for a bad boss can impact you in ways you might not have thought about. Here are five of those less obvious dangers.

1. You will pick up bad habits that can hurt you even after you move on. If you spend too long in a dysfunction workplace or modifying your behavior to accommodate a bad manager, the experience can recalibrate your ideas of “normal” in ways that can hurt you personally. For instance, if you work for a manager who always shoots the messenger and punishes dissent, you might get used to keeping your head down, never speaking up, and even covering up mistakes when they happen. While that behavior might serve you very well in that job, those habits can be enormously damaging in a healthier workplace – and yet can be hard to let go of once they’ve become ingrained.

2. You are less likely to get raises, promotions, good projects, training opportunities, and other benefits that often accompany a good relationship with a manager. Poor managers often neglect to advocate for financial and other rewards for their top performers, or don’t have the political capital to do so. And without a strong track record of performance, they’re less likely to score the best projects and resources for their teams. A more skilled manager, on the other hand, is more likely to attract the types of high-worth projects that make careers – and to ensure her team is recognized in myriad ways for them.

3. You will miss out on the reputation-building that a manager who likes you can do for you — ensuring your work is visible to higher-ups in and outside of your organization, speaking well of you to others, and introducing you to people who can become part of your network, help you professionally, or even hire you in the future. Moreover, if your manager has a bad reputation herself, it can rub off on you; for instance, you might be directed to take actions that reflect poorly on you or simply become known as part of a lackluster team.

4. You won’t get useful feedback to help you develop professionally. Your peers might be able to give you positive feedback now and then, but it usually takes an invested manager to show you where you could be doing things better or differently – and to do it in a way that’s supportive and helps you develop, rather than merely being critical or even punitive. Working for a bad manager could mean giving up years of the sort of growth that comes from thoughtful, targeted feedback.

5. And most of all, bad managers will nearly always harm your peace of mind and self-image. Working for a bad manger can instill in you a defeatist attitude in regard to work, praise, and recognition, train you to value the wrong things, cause you to doubt your own abilities, and just generally make you miserable. And that cause end up harming your work as well.

Great managers are few and far between, so you might be tempted to resign yourself to working for bad managers over your career – but for the reasons above, it’s worth doing everything you can to spot and avoid them when you’re job-hunting and to move on from them quickly if you find yourself working under one.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. Christina*

    God, I’m dealing with every single one of these right now and it’s at the point of affecting me physically. It’s made trying to get a new job 10 times more challenging because I can’t get the training that could make me better at my job (things my boss wants me to do, but won’t listen when I tell her two sessions at an unrelated conference are not sufficient) and make me more marketable, getting shut down on owning my successes and trying to build a network. And yes, unfortunately I can see it affecting my work

    So what’s the solution when you do have a boss like this? I will say at least my bad manager helped me spot red flags in a possible new manager, which turned out to be spot-on.

    1. Just a Reader*

      I think you need to find and propose training yourself. If you sell it right, you might have a good shot at getting it approved since they’re already talking about a conference.

      For the rest…start job hunting. Pump yourself (and your resume) up with your accomplishments. And realized that you are looking at your worth through a very warped lens, and it will take awhile to see things differently, so fake it till you make it.

      I’m 2 years out of a very similar situation and it takes a long time to get over, but getting out helps.

      1. Christina*

        Sorry if this is more than you want to know, I just got turned down for 2 jobs I interviweded for in the past 2 days, so I’m feeling particularly defeated and ranty. I’ve been in this job for 5.5 years, hunting for probably 2 years, intensely for about 8 months. I’ve rewritten my resume to focus on successes (even got Alison’s input during one of her resume review sales), built up some network contacts, done work outside my job to add to my resume. I’ve gotten several interviews (several last rounds too), but just can’t seem to get out.

        On the training suggestion below, I’ve offered to pay for part of the training, I’ve found training targeted to my specific industry, but my manager was more willing to spend $300 on this conference that had 2 marginally relevant sessions.

        Maybe someone here can help me with this part actually–my manager wants me to “learn” social media and come up with reports and a new plan for our accounts. All the free stuff I can find is selling a product or tool and is targetted for people selling a product or service, but my industry is higher ed (not recruiting or fundraising). Does anyone knoiw of good, free or low cost resources that aren’t just hidden pitches?

        1. CTO*

          Would your local council of nonprofits or volunteer resource center have trainings? Mine do, and perhaps their angle would be more relevant to your work than the traditional business/sales angle.

        2. Joey*

          To me, “learn” means do whatever it takes to make it happen. If I were in your shoes I wouldn’t be looking for training I’d be looking how to get it started and learn as I go however I can. That means looking at peers that are doing it, lookin at social media campaigns that are done well that I can pull ideas from, etc. Don’t wait for training, just start doing it and you’ll learn.

          1. Christina*

            I feel like I’m making excuses at this point, but…I’ve done that. I started these accounts a few years ago and regulary post and share content, we have a small following, but now my manager wants something “different” and more “useful” but can’t articulate different or more useful how. I use social media for a blog I run (which is also something I’ve just learned by doing) so I have been trying to learn it that way and make changes but for plans and reports, I’ve created things for her but they weren’t what she wanted, and she can’t articulate what she does want or why what I gave her isn’t what she wants.

            1. Joey*

              You need to find out what “useful” means. Useful to whom, for what so you can discuss with her how to determine how “useful” will be measured.

              You might ask her how will she know when its useful. Is it number of followers, number of posts, number of people who react to your posts, etc. Once you know the metric(s) she will be looking at you can start making goals. Right now you’re just guessing.

              Hint: you should be suggesting what you think are the most useful metrics to determine success.

            2. A Non*

              Ugh, bosses who can’t articulate what they want (but still hold you responsible for doing it) are the worst. I like Joey’s suggestion about looking for metrics that other people use to define success and suggesting them to her. Still, that’s a boss I’d get away from in a hurry.

              Good luck on the job hunt! If you’re getting last-round interviews, you’re really close.

        3. James M*

          “Learning Social Media” is a buzz term that should be read “Learning to Sell Through Social Media”. I’d guess this is how your boss thinks of it, with ‘selling’ as a generalized term.

          I’d take up your boss on the task, since you’ll acquire highly marketable skills. As for resources, a google search for “learn social media” (in quotes) yields a few blogs among the salesy chaff. E.g. bigmarketingsmallbusiness.com

        4. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          Hey Christina,

          *Nobody* has metrics on social media figured out and if somebody tells you they do, they are lying.

          The folks who come close are consumer brands. They have a ton of resources pointed at it and due to the nature of their business are more easily able to create engagement than the next person.

          I wouldn’t get hung up on the training part. I don’t think there is much good training about + your boss doesn’t want to pay for it anyway.

          I recommend starting backwards. Blank piece of paper, ask the client (internal or external), “What do you hope to achieve through the use of social media?”

          The answer to that question will direct which platform(s) you use, the amount of resources you devote and the reports you provide. (You’ll select metrics for reports that tie specifically to goal.)

          If the answer is “I don’t know” or something equally as squishy, you need to spend a minimum amount of time on any or all platforms until somebody can give you answer.

          If you just want to look impressive so your boss stops hassling you, grab a social media dashboard (google for one), line up all of the social media accounts in them, schedule posts…you can fool any layperson into being impressed by using the tools and throwing lingo the layperson doesn’t understand into the conversation.

          Agencies do this: All. The. Time.

          Depends on what your personal goals are.

          Best wishes!

          1. Christina*

            Thank you so, so much for your comment.

            This basically bears out the original point of this post: the dangers of having a bad boss What you describe is essentially what I’ve been struggling with. She (and lots of others, including a group I just interviewed with) seem to think there is some magic metrics report that says success. I’m a researcher by nature, I love finding stuff out, and in all my research, I’ve found exactly what you said: no one has social media figured out, it’s pretty much all throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks (especially in smaller industries like mine where social media is treated as “oh hey, we should be on Facebook and Twitter and Pintrest. Go do that.”)

            Yet my boss thinks there is this mystical report (and yes, I’ve tried using dashboards and hootsuite reports, she said they didn’t tell her enough). The last conversation I had with her about this, it was a circular “I want reports so we can show the value of our using social media, so how can we make social media successful so it looks good in the reports. I don’t know how to describe what success looks like, but it’s not this.” I wanted to tear my hair out. The last report I gave her, I created a spreadsheet from scratch that calculated percent changes (mostly increases) over months and quarters, the most successful posts across our accounts, and where these tied into other projects we’re working on, but that wasn’t what she was looking for. I’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel in terms of what I can give her at this point.

            The next meeting I have with her, I’ll try your suggestion though of asking her to clarify what her goal is with this or than just to have it out there.

            1. Ruffingit*

              You must be incredibly frustrated. I know I would be.

              “I don’t know how to describe what success looks like, but it’s not this.”

              That kind of consistent crap over 5.5 years would have turned me into an alcoholic at this point. There’s no way to win there and at some point, it does affect your attitude and what you do because if there’s no way to win, why put in the effort? And then, with that sort of (understandable) attitude, your work begins to suffer because hey, why bother when you know you’ll never be successful in your manager’s eyes because she can’t tell you what success means.

              I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you get a new job ASAP because this kind of crap can bring you down faster than gravity.

              1. Christina*

                Thank you so much, you just hit the nail on the head in all respects.

                Last example and then I’ll stop (but everyone’s responses are so helpful and making me feel like I’m not the crazy one) she wanted me to redesign the intranet and after multiple conversations like the one above, I asked what a successful intranet would look like to her. Her response was “I want, if people outside looked at it, to think ‘I want to work there!'” What do I do with that?

                Final note, if you haven’t figured this out by the social media stuff–this is a communications department.

                1. Ruffingit*

                  The irony…I just can’t even. This person is the MANAGER of a communications department and yet she’s the equivalent of Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan showed up.

                2. Christina*

                  Though to be fair to Helen Keller, she at least had the capacity to learn how to communicate. Not so here.

            2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

              FFS, your boss is an idiot.

              What it sounds like your organization needs is social media accounts as an available resource to your outside users. Various departments deliver the things they would like posted/publicized to you and you post them — new course offerings, deadlines for signups, possibly new hires “thrilled to welcome Dr. Tingle Hingleberry to our science faculty”, etc.

              Couple fresh, current content with a side push to have the social media account availability publicized in other media and what the hell else can you do with it? You aren’t Taco Bell.

              I’m sorry your boss is an idiot.

              For what it’s worth, you sound like the sort of person who would do well with online marketing/communications when you no longer have an idiot boss. It’s a very interesting field for people who are researchers by nature.

              1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

                * by other media I mean internal > external like email signatures, course brochures, etc. I don’t mean trying to get media outside your organization to fawn over your social media accounts because nobody cares.

                1. Christina*

                  OMG I want to tweet about Dr. Tingle Hingleberry so badly now.

                  This was generally my thought as to how to get fresh content, but my manager told me it’s my responsibility to go around to everyone and ask them constantly if they have anything we should tweet or post, and that it shouldn’t be their responsibility to tell me. Ok, up to a point, but I also can’t know everything every department is doing all the time, we have 250 people.

                  And thank you for saying that, my sense of what I’m good at has been completely f-ed up by this whole situation. Online communications is generally the industry I’m trying to be in, but it hasn’t been easy.

        5. I Feel Your Pain, Christina*

          I’m in a similar situation that I’ve managed to improve over the past few years. Some of my tactics:
          – Join meetup groups. I’ve focused on content strategy, user experience and social media groups. They regularly have guest speakers and are also a great opportunity to meet others in your line of work. Cost is typically ~ $10 or the price of a few drinks or a snack at a bar.
          – Society for Technical Communication. I haven’t joined, but I regularly attend my local chapter’s monthly sessions, which are only $15 each.
          – American Marketing Association. I haven’t joined them either, but my local chapter has regular meetings. I haven’t been in awhile, but I think they run around $50 and include a meal. They also have free webinars. If nothing else, subscribe to their emails.
          – Public Relations Society of America. See AMA above.
          – Alertbox: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/subscribe/
          – I’d Rather Be Writing: http://idratherbewriting.com/
          – TechWhirl: http://techwhirl.com/
          – MediaBistro: https://www.mediabistro.com/
          – Books. I know, it’s a little wacky to learn about the latest in tech communication via dead trees. However, in my industry, which is similar to higher ed in many ways, the higher ups are more likely to believe something that has been published in a book.

          Actually, it used to be than any source outside of the organization seemed to have greater influence than me. However, over time I have cited many of the things I “learned” at Meetups and STC meetings (that I already knew). People in my company were more willing to accept that advice, and of course, those things worked. I now have much more credibility without having to cite experts–though I still do.

          1. Christina*

            Thank you! I’ll check it out.

            All the amazing and helpful replies are why I love this blog so very much.

    2. Joey*

      Find another way to learn. Whether that means teaching yourself, paying for it yourself or looking for another job where you can get the training.

      1. KellyK*

        As far as paying for it yourself, I would say that only applies if it’s knowledge that you think you’ll find valuable after you leave this job. For a good job, it can definitely be worth covering your own professional development costs, but for one you want to leave anyway, unless you seriously think they’re going to fire you for not mastering it, I wouldn’t be terribly inclined to go out of pocket.

    3. Jen M.*

      It might help to do a personal inventory, when you are at home, in a quiet, safe space, by yourself. What are your true strengths? What kinds of things in your work day make you feel empowered? What kinds of things (by things, I mean tasks/projects) make you feel dragged down. See if you can really sell your personal strengths in your job search, and most importantly, try not to let it bring you down, because YOU are not the problem!

      Good luck! It’s a crappy place to be. :(

  2. Ed*

    I’ve worked for a long time under a bad boss and eventually you stop seeing how dysfunctional the relationship is and accept it as normal (crappy but normal). It was worse because it was my first “real” job so I had little to compare it to. When I finally had enough and left, I honestly felt like I had a minor case of PTSD. I was in shock the first months of next job because I never experienced a professional, respectful office. I had developed some bad habits but luckily I was smart enough to just keep my mouth shut and observe for a while to unlearn them.

    1. HumbleOnion*

      It very likely was PTSD – I’ve experienced that as well. A few weeks after I had escaped to a new job, my manager said “See me when you come in tomorrow. There’s some things we need to talk about.” Totally innocuous statement, right? I totally freaked out that night, worrying about what I was doing wrong. And then it hit me – I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was reacting to the ghost of my horrible boss. Realizing that helped me sleep.

    2. Noelle*

      I had a boss who was so terrible I started going to therapy to cope with it (this was right after the recession so I was also despairing of ever finding a new job). The things my boss would do were so crazy that my friends didn’t even believe me when I told them what my work was like. When I finally left, everyone who saw me said I looked like a completely different person because I was no longer miserable all the time. I also found out that one of my former coworkers felt the same way, about how our boss was so dysfunctional she didn’t even talk about it because people assumed we were lying. Worst job ever.

          1. Ruffingit*

            Third. It’s an unwritten rule here at AAM that you cannot share the tip of the iceberg. It’s all or nothing. TELL! :)

              1. Noelle*

                Well, probably the worst was that my boss was writing a novel, on work time, that he would force me to edit for him. He’d give me a chapter, and then come into my office every five or six minutes until I finished “reviewing” it. I should mention that the book was a war novel, and the main characters were a boss (who had my boss’s initials) and his secretary (who had my initials). There were several sex scenes involved.

                Apart from the novel, the job also required a lot of traveling with my boss. He seemed to have a girlfriend in every city, even though he was married. On one trip he wouldn’t give me per diem unless I ate all my meals with him, and he spent the entire time making weird sexual comments about how the woman who had my job previously liked to sunbathe topless on these types of work trips.

                When he realized I was not impressed with him, he started an active campaign to get me fired. He was constantly going to HR and complaining about me, but HR wouldn’t let him fire me without cause. So then he would write very long, angry “memos” to me, to “document displeasure” with my work. The day I got to leave that job was the best day of my career.

                1. Ruffingit*

                  That is totally ridiculous, all of it. So sorry you were put through that kind of nonsense. I can only imagine the severe happiness the day you got to leave. I can only hope that psycho of a boss got fired.

      1. LaSharron*

        Noelle, I’m so sorry to hear it. You know, our stories are EXACTLY alike. To this day, I’ve only told my therapist everything my old manager said and did to me.

        1. Koko*

          I read a book a while back called “The Sociopath Next Door” that was written by a therapist who became interested in the disorder after she observed that most of the people she was treating had been harmed by people who, based on their behavior, were likely sociopaths who didn’t feel constrained by a sense of empathy. She mentions in one chapter about how sociopaths are able to go undetected is that often the people they victimize think that no one will believe anyone could do those cruel/insane things, so they don’t say anything or warn others. She told of one woman who had lied her way into a psychiatric practice without a degree…eventually she was found out, but everyone involved ended up just letting her leave town without trying to figure out who she really was so they could try to prevent her doing the same thing in another town. (She only heard of the story because one of her patients was a woman who had been antagonized for sport by the fraudulent doctor.)

        2. Noelle*

          I feel like some bosses get away with doing crazy things BECAUSE they are so crazy that any normal person wouldn’t believe it. My therapist was great though. He started out giving me advice on how to deal with my boss, but also told me that my boss was a toxic person and I should just avoid him as much as possible. I hope your therapist was able to help, and you escaped too!

          1. Ruffingit*

            Sometimes active avoidance really is the only answer. Managing up just doesn’t work because the boss is too mental/inappropriate/insistent on doing illegal things to be able to do so. You just have to duck and cover and look for a new job. I’m glad you were able to survive that nonsense and I can only hope you’ve moved on to something much better! Well, you’d almost have to have done so since even a shitty job would be an improvement over that kind of crazy!

    3. OriginalYup*

      I had the two worst bosses of my entire career at back-to-back jobs, and I was a twitchy nauseated fearful insomniac wreck for at least a year after the final one. The cumulative effect was no joke.

      My boss after the two disasters was a competent reasonable person who probably thought I was deeply weird because I flinched every time she asked me to step into her office for two years. Although I do remember she was pleasantly surprised by how delighted I was about normal office things like annual reviews and approved PTO requests. It was like Christmas!

  3. KayDee*

    My husband recently had a bad boss who repeatedly threw him under the bus with the higher ups to save his own butt. The higher ups believed this and made the decision to fire both of them, but at the last minute held on to my husband to see if everything was as it seemed. Several months later they are now talking to my husband about a promotion.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      How gratifying! All too often it’s the incompetent idiot the keeps thier job and keeps advancing.

  4. Anne-Cara*

    1. You will pick up bad habits that can hurt you even after you move on.

    True story. At my last job, they changed the time-off policy so that we could only take it in 15min increments, and we always had to round up. So even if we were 4 minutes late, we had to take 15mins PTO. I think they believed it would make us more punctual…but mostly it made is dawdle even more on our way to get as close to 15 (or 30, or 45) minutes as possible. (At a certain point, morale was so low and latenesses were so high that they started bribing us with weekly bonuses for arriving on time the whole week.) It’s been two years and I’m still trying to train myself out of that habit.

    1. Vicki*

      I can just imagine a bunch of people, sitting in their cars, reading Facebook on their phones because “Hey, I’m already one minute lat. MIght as well use the other 14 to good advantage.”

  5. MR*

    I’ve worked for several bad bosses in my young career, and I’ve found all of these traits in all of the bad bosses. The good managers that I have had have been the opposite of these items, or there were obvious things keeping them from being completely outstanding (such as their hands being tied in certain situations).

    The good news, is that I have generally found ways to get out from these bad managers and into a new situation. It’s not always possible to avoid getting a bad manager, but it is always up to you to get out of these situations should you find yourself in them.

  6. Noelle*

    I have a former boss who was a nice person, but I feel like I’ve picked up some very bad habits from him. He was constantly busy and so what he really wanted from me was to stay out of his way. That worked to a point, but sometimes you really need to talk to your boss! It was so bad that on some days I’d just be sitting around doing nothing, and he was fine with that as long as I wasn’t interacting with him. I’m in a new job now and I’m always really nervous about annoying my boss if I ask questions/come up with ideas, etc. because I’m used to my boss ignoring me or being annoyed when I talked to him.

  7. Leah*

    I’ve been struggling a lot with #5. I had both the means and awareness to leave the job without having a new one lined up, despite months of applying for jobs. Becoming overwhelmed with nausea every work day that disappeared on my lunch hour and when I left at the end of the day was the final straw. Since then, it has been tough to sell myself as an awesome employee to potential employers because I hardly feel it myself, even if I know it intellectually. Compounding that is the fact that I’m also changing careers somewhat.

    It bothers me that many people are still stuck with that boss. Some higher-ups know what was going on because they had essentially “kicked the boss upstairs” to stop terrorising a different department.

    I’ve started compiling a “win book” recording past successes in as much detail as I can recall. This has been helpful except when boss found out about them and responded with an eye roll, yelling at me, or taking credit for my work. I think I need a combination therapist-career coach.

    1. Kelly O*

      I relate to #5. You really start believing you’re not up to par, or that no one is going to want the “incompetent” person who can’t even get a month of invoices done properly.

      Your brain may understand all the reasons it’s not so, but sometimes it just gets to be a bit much.

      1. Carrie in Scotland*

        I have started a folder at work called “good things” with compliments from people in it. It does help when you’re feeling a bit blue from work issues.

    2. themmases*

      Same here. I have been thinking a lot lately about a comment Sasha LeTour left on the “anxiety about leaving a bad job” post the other day, that she often feels she could have fixed things if she really tried. I had never thought of it that way before, and can so relate to it.

      I’m rarely as productive here as I used to be or would like to be, and I realized that for a long time I’ve felt lazy and ashamed. I’ve wondered why I’m not as productive as my partner (who is valued by his company and who knows people throughout the organization want to keep and promote him) and if it is something broken about me. The reality is, it’s a lot of effort for me to come here, act professional, and keep major players in my department pacified. I’m the contact but not the decision maker for a process that I know no one likes. People in my department are condescending, demanding, and worst of all, working on projects that I know shouldn’t be published. I usually get the vibe that I am “in trouble” with at least one person. Some people are known to have poor ethics but they won’t be asked to leave and I’m not allowed to stop working with them.

      I found out recently that people outside my department who use this process think I’ve improved it a lot and hope I keep doing it indefinitely. I was shocked and walking on air for two weeks– I honestly had no idea that anyone I worked with thought I was anything more than “fine” unless they liked me personally.

  8. some1*

    As I’m sure most of you know, there are always people who blame others when they drop the ball at work due to their own fault. If you have had a boss who always believes the coworker who tries to throw you under the boss, it can be hard not to get defensive once you have a fair boss.

  9. Just me*

    I love my boss on a personal level, but I know she is holding me back financially by not advocating for a bigger raise. I laid it all on the line and got a 4% raise rather than the company average of 3%. I was lucky enough to find a mentor to facilitate professional growth. I actually coach her more than she coaches me, and do a lot of functional work that should be her responsibility. My teammates are terrified of my finding a new job because I do so much of hers right now.

    On the surface she is not a bad manager, but she hits everything on this list.

  10. a.n.o.n.*

    I wouldn’t say mine is terrible, but she’s a perfectionist so nothing ever seems good enough. And she can be very condescending. It hasn’t happened to me, yet, but she does it to my coworker and I hate it. She also likes to micromanage a little and doesn’t seem to trust people to do their jobs. I’ve been in this business a long time; I know how to do XYZ without being lead through every step.

  11. Annie O*

    I wouldn’t say I have a “bad boss,” because my boss is great in a lot of ways. But my boss doesn’t know that much about my field, and is unable to suggest professional development opportunities, introduce network connections, or promote my work knowledgeably. This is the first time I’ve had a boss who was strictly a manager without having their own expertise in the area. I’ve been building my own network and seeking out mentors, but I do wish that my boss could help me in these areas.

  12. sophiabrooks*

    This is so true. The one that was very hard for me to let go was hiding when things went wrong. The time I knew I had to leave the job was when I found myself hiding in the bathroom with the accountant, trying to take apart and fix a laminator that our student worker broke by putting the plastic directly in it. We didn’t want him to feel her wrath, nor did we want to feel it. I had to do the same thing with the paper shredder. In retrospect it seems ridiculous, but it took me several years to get over that and just tell my good boss when things went wrong.

    1. themmases*

      I realized the other day that mine is going to comical lengths to avoid people– like a teenager with social anxiety. Yesterday I rode the escalator facing sideways so I could pretend not to see someone, then went and got coffee rather than be going to our offices at the same time. I’ve scheduled meetings, my lunch, and work that has to be done at a different workstation to avoid people who’ve decided to spend the week being unreasonable about something.

      I’ve also developed the terrible belief that most rule or policy changes are the work of one petty person kicking down, will be forgotten when that person moves on, and the best thing to do is nod along with no plans to comply, or while planning to comply only until the person asking forgets. Usually this person will never acknowledge that they wanted the crazy policy later– they’ll just act like it never happened. I hope that by noticing this about myself, I can avoid carrying it forward, because I know it is cynical at best and dishonest at worst other places. Here, it’s normal and the only way to protect your time and sanity.

      1. Mimmy*

        With regard to your first paragraph: My husband was like that with a previous job–at the end of the day, he would go out a different exit, despite not being the most direct way to his car, just so he doesn’t have to encounter his manager, who’d be on his smoke break.

      2. Ruffingit*

        the best thing to do is nod along with no plans to comply, or while planning to comply only until the person asking forgets.

        I did that too at a place where tons of new policies and ideas were put forth and never followed through or up on. It got to the point where actual discussion of the idea and whether it was good or not wasn’t worth it because it wouldn’t be implemented anyway, but we would talk about it like it would be. Nod head, go back to doing what I was doing before. Policy forgotten until next time.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Funny story… well a story at any rate. Without getting too specific- we needed more X to run a particular machine. Since we did not have any X we asked for some. NO, we were told. Well, now this is a problem because the machine is going to stop working without any X.
      So we substituted Y, which although similar was not correct material for the machine. The machine ran for a couple days. And then it did not run any more. And the whole operation went down. It took a bit for management to sort that one out. They saved $10 on our initial request and paid hundreds to repair the problems that followed.
      The sad part is that they never learned and made this same error over and over and over. Nothing in the place worked fully, everything was just limping along. That was a while ago. Even now, I still marvel when machines work OR when a repair person shows up promptly to fix a problem. It’s so simple, yet for some it is sooo very hard. Yes, sometimes you do have to hide in the bathroom to fix something. It’s called self-preservation.

      1. Relatively old reader; relatively new poster*

        Not So NewReader, We must have worked for different divisions of the same company. We could never get new equipment so we had a pile of broken equipment in one room that was about 25 feet long by 30 feet wide with some smaller equipment stacked up on top of each other. Whenever anything broke (almost every day) we had to MacGyver it back together. MacGyver was the official term we used and is based on the Wikipedia description of that character: he solves complex problems with everyday materials he finds at hand, along with his ever-present duct tape and Swiss Army knife.

        We had equipment that was designed for three years usage and we were dangerously using it when it was twelve years old. When something completely broke it would simply go into the pile of broken equipment to be cannibalized for something else. An example is that I recently found a 1980s vintage 10Base2 coax-based Ethernet card. We couldn’t throw it out because it might be needed for a working dinosaur.

        When the pistons under office chairs broke we had to set the chair height and then, using our personal tools and screws, drive a screw through the piston to hold that fixed height forever.

        Need a pen or pencil? Just bring your own? Etc.

        The root cause of this was a bad boss who wanted to show good numbers so we could never purchase anything. Whenever we met with a client I kept thinking of the wizard behind the curtain in the Wizard of OZ: nothing was real, we only made the client feel good about seeing what the boss wanted them to see…at least till they signed the contract.

  13. Mimmy*

    Anyone else having trouble getting to the article? It only loads so far then hoses my browser.

    Probably on my end since others here have apparently read it.

  14. brightstar*

    I recently had a work experience that was so bad I got an article published about it. I hope the link works.

    I’m about to start a new job that not only is in my field, but they actually asked me to apply. But I still have to deal with self-doubt, etc. and am in the process of unlearning bad habits.

    1. Paige Turner*

      Hi Hairpinner :) Congrats on the new job, you certainly deserve it! Sorry to hear about your totally shitty previous job- hope you can publish another article soon about a better situation.

  15. Lia*

    What if you work with the boss everyone hates?

    My boss came on board 3 years ago to lead a team of people that had previously been under 2 different directors (the departments were merged as a result of the hire). EVERYONE seems to undermine boss, whether it is by foot-dragging on projects, complaining, or whatever. I am the new person (and the only one hired by boss: everyone else was hired by the previous regime) and to be completely honest, I think Boss is doing a good job, but it is hard to please the C-class staff, whose desires change sometimes hourly. The problem is, the other staff is constantly griping about “old bosses wouldn’t have…” or “Boss doesn’t know how to xyz…’ (it is Boss’ first managerial role, although previous roles required a lot of similar skills).

    I just keep my head down and do my work. It is not great to listen to nonstop complaining, though.

    1. A Non*

      You might be in a position to put in a good word for your boss when you hear complaints. Either straight disagreeing with the complaints (“Really? I’ve always found them to be punctual about that”) or giving some background (“Yes, that didn’t go well. I think they’re planning to do ____ next time.”). At the very least it might prompt people to stop complaining in front of you!

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I had a job a while ago, where the boss was probably one of my top three favorite bosses of my lifetime.
      Like you are saying, he was not liked by the crew.
      Tread softly- advocate for both “sides” to win. Encourage people to talk to the boss. Encourage the boss to do more x or y or z that the crew does respond positively to.
      Make sure you are seen telling the boss how helpful Jane was or how impressed you were with Sue’s solution to Monday’s problem. The key is to be seen as talking positively about both the coworkers and the boss.
      If you just talk up the boss, that could leave you isolated as everyone assumes you are “sucking up to the boss”. Keep the comments open and inclusive. Treat everyone in a similar manner. If you would not gush when Cindy holds the door for you, then don’t carry on about the gesture just because the boss did it. People see right through that. Keep it real, keep it sincere and keep it even with everyone.

    3. a.n.o.n.*

      I’m in this situation now. Everyone hates my boss and employees won’t apply internally to work in our department, because they don’t want to work for her.

      I’m always getting the question, “How do you like working for Jane?” I can read between the lines. What they really want to know is, “How can you stand that bitch??”

      She’s a perfectionist, has sometimes impossibly high standards, and can be condescending and nit-picky. Grammar geek on steroids. And she’s the one who has to enforce policies, so that’s another reason people don’t like her. She’s not really a total nightmare boss; she is good at sharing her knowledge, creating learning opportunities, and is fair. It’s just tough to deal with her sometimes.

      I sometimes fear that people see me as an extension of her in a bad way. People talk to me, but not usually until I talk to them first.

    4. Cassie*

      I’ve worked for a few different bosses – one was disliked by just about everyone. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he could be / was moody. If he trusted you and liked you, you were set. If you insulted him (even by accident) or made a mistake, you were in the doghouse for eternity. To be honest, even though he liked me, I still tried to limit my interactions with him because I just didn’t like dealing with the possible moodiness. I’d batch things together so I’d only bother him once a day or once every couple of days.

      I also had to be the conduit between him and other staff; that was a little tiring and sometimes I wished they would just be grown-ups and learn to interact, but for the most part – I was okay with it because it helped things work more smoothly.

      On the other hand, I’ve had a boss who was the perennial nice guy. Everyone thought he was great and agreeable. Some people may not have loved him, but I don’t think anyone outright hated him – he was just always such a nice guy.

      Unfortunately, being nice is not always the best policy – sometimes you have to make tough decisions. You have to confront problem employees or come up with an unpopular solution to mitigate a disaster. I had the hardest time reading him because he was just always so “up”.

  16. HigherEdFundraiser*

    My worst bosses were in higher ed. I was so upset by the first one that I’d stop and inhale someone else’s cigarette smoke during my lunch walk (I’d quit smoking 10 years before). Five people working under her before me had quit in less than a year; I held the record for longevity at two years. In my performance review, she recommended that I take anger management classes … based on ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
    Another boss regularly “worked” from her “cottage,” encouraged me to lie about time off and used office resources to print her wedding invitations. Yet another bad boss told me I “wasn’t meeting expectations,” despite my documented successes. I asked for specifics and he told me to come back the following week with what I thought the expectations should be. The expectations that he said I wasn’t meeting. Argh.
    All of those managers were relieved of their management duties within a year or two of me working with them.
    Sure makes me grateful for the wonderful bosses I have had.

  17. BritCred*

    Yep. 5+ years later and I’m still working around a few things left over from prior bosses:
    – reaching to mute a phone call when the boss walks into the office (one loved to bellow inappropriately no matter what time of day it was when he arrived).
    – Cringing every time I hear “can I have a moment in my office please?” (code with one boss for ‘I’ll have someone pack your desk up, you are fired).
    – Working way too much and not taking breaks or leaving on time (Boss was a workaholic and loved giving you 4hr projects to be done at the end of the day in 2hrs….)
    – Turning ears off when two bosses are in the same open plan office (Some loved to discuss private personnel matters at their desks… in the office we all worked in instead of the conference room where it would be private).
    – Expecting a few days of ‘blame throwing’ on an email thread which we have found a problem and suggested a solution (yep, blame has its place but a week later there would still be no action on the solution and everyone would be annoyed. Solution first priority. Blame and reassessment of procedures second!)

    1. BritCred*

      Oh, and getting raked over the coals for one minor mistake when the manager made a worse mistake and didn’t even get a slap on the wrist…. Basically her mistakes became my fault!

  18. Cajun2core*

    Bad bosses will drive you drink.

    I also had one boss that anytime I made a small mistake and I realized it, I almost had a full blown panic attack. I had to get on Xanax. The boss has left and I am off of the Xanax.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This continues to mystify me. Why do companies not see that their toxic managers/impossible deadlines/etc are driving up their own health care costs? How come they do not get that correlation?

      1. Joey*

        Because it’s not causation. Does that mean if I have a really sick employee with high healthcare costs I’m a bad manager? Maybe I have all older workers? Or no young and healthy that aren’t having kids?

  19. bullyfree*

    How can you find out and/or know for sure you are not going to end up with a bad boss BEFORE you accept the job ?

    1. Sharm*

      I was just coming in to ask this. I’ve been so lucky in my career thus far — I’ve had really good managers who would never mistreat their employees. I’ve always had a gut instinct I’d like the person. But if that was true for everyone, no one would work for an obvious psycho, right? I feel like some of these crazy bosses are sociopathic enough to “fool” you in an interview by seeming fair and competent and even charming. Who on earth is going to say they will micromanage you, after all?

      I imagine the only way to know this is to already have an “in” at the company who can vouch for them completely off the record. But how often does that happen? Especially if you’re trying to break in to an industry or organization, or are just starting out.

      I’d love to hear thoughts on this too, though!

    2. Christina*

      I picked up on things I know about my current boss and look for those, also how they answer (or don’t) certain questions. For instance, I just interviewed internally with a director who described herself as a “middle manager with no power to change things,” couldn’t tell me 3 qualities she was looking for in the person in this role (until I rephrased the question as “what qualities made the last person good at this job?” which she still struggled with), and couldn’t tell me what the next steps would be in the interview process (not the timeline, just whether or not the would be more rounds of interviews).

      Yesterday I got a call from a recruiter I’ve never spoken to in HR who said the director didn’t want me to get an impersonal email telling me she went with someone else, but she really appreciated my time, and I was a great candidate. But she didn’t want the rejection to be impersonal (the director had my email address, she sent me an email after our interview). I don’t think the HR rep got the irony, but I was amused and at least it confirmed my red flags.

    3. Ruffingit*

      I don’t think there’s any way to really know for sure. All you can do is trust your own instincts and ask specific questions about management styles and company cultures. You can also surf LinkedIn or Glassdoor or other such places for people who have worked at the company and ask them about it.

      Really though, at the end of the day, I think it’s mostly just a combination of due diligence and a lot of luck to end up being able to ferret out the bad bosses before you work for one. It’s just one of those things that, like the dream job concept, you can’t really know until you are there.

    4. Graciosa*

      If you ask me about my management style, I’m going to say it’s flexible – which is true, but not very helpful. One reason is that I can and do change my approach to encourage the best performance from each individual team member (or address problems) but this probably doesn’t tell you what I’m like to work for. Also, saying you have a “flexible” management style is the “right” answer when interviewing for certain positions in our company, so lots of people are going to say that regardless of its validity.

      I think better questions are focused around what my goals are for the department, what success looks like, what is most important to me, or what our team’s biggest challenges are. I can answer any of these instantly (be very wary of a manager who can’t) and the answers will give you a pretty clear picture of what I care about. My answers are going to be performance-based, but thinking about how managers you want to avoid would answer should give you some insight into what would be a red flag for you.

      Asking about a manager’s development activities for team members (some examples, or a “how do you approach this” type question) could also be revealing, although I’ve never had anyone ask. I’m going to tell you that you’re responsible for your own development (which is true, by the way – you are fundamentally responsible for your own career) but I can also talk about a lot of things I do to help (we have a good mentor program, I give clear and prompt feedback, plus monthly individual meetings, regular meetings with my boss and her boss, lots of good project work and stretch assignments available once you’re past the initial onboarding phase and are doing your regular job well, etc.). I can give specific examples of any of these, and you probably passed the recognition wall on the way to my office. Managers who don’t pay attention to this stuff are going to have a harder time answering the question.

      People who report to me are on the initial interview panel – you won’t always have this opportunity, but take it if you do. Ask them what they like most and least about me as a boss. Ask what is the best and worst thing I’ve done that impacted their jobs. Ask what processes are the most helpful and what needs to be changed. Ask what they find most rewarding – and most frustrating – about the role.

      Actually, the fact that they’re on the first panel (without me) should tell you quite a bit. They know what’s going on in the department and what I care about. They are involved in major decisions that impact their work, and I trust their judgment.

      I was once on a panel selecting a supplier for a construction project, and we insisted that the actual job foreman had to be a part of the team presenting to our company. It was incredibly revealing. The top team acted like a team – all wearing company polo shirts, clearly very comfortable with each other and all of whom could speak to any of our questions. The worst team had a clear division – the bosses wore suits and eyed the job foreman (clearly just off the site) very warily as if he were a bomb of unknown type and origin which could go off at any time. They were obviously terrified that he might speak and he was clearly much too frightened to do so.

      If you haven’t talked to your possible coworkers before you accept a job offer, you should ask to do so. Is your potential boss comfortable with your having these conversations, and are your future coworkers comfortable speaking with you about the boss?

      As a manager, I don’t want to hire someone who isn’t a good fit, and I know that this works both ways. You need to be comfortable and happy to be productive on my team. Asking these types of questions or wanting to speak with your future coworkers as you consider an offer is a good sign in my mind – but I can see that there are other bosses (like the ones in the losing construction company) who would be very uncomfortable with this. A boss who doesn’t want you talking to your future colleagues before accepting the job would be a huge red flag, so maybe asking and getting turned down pretty much answers that question.

      This isn’t foolproof, and Ruffingit is right that it requires a combination of diligence and luck, but I hope this helps increase your odds. Good luck.

  20. Jeanne*

    I guess for me it’s that my bosses were so bad and the company kept rewarding them for it that at this point I don’t believe there are any good managers. All I’ve seen is they will screw you over and get promoted for it. One boss bullied me so badly. Everything I did was wrong but she said it wasn’t her job to tell me what she wanted. When I finally proved she was lying about me, she was promoted to separate us. One boss treated the women like slaves but promoted one man every time he got his wife pregnant. Another one did no work at all. Sat in the open and read three newspapers a day. The rest of the time he stared into the air. No one cared. There’s more. And this was before the recession. I think that companies support bad managers because they don’t want us to think for ourselves. They want us to feel bullied, to feel stress and anxiety. I spent years in therapy talking about work problems every week so I could make it til the next week.

  21. Sissa*

    Oh, and sometimes you have that boss that some people worship and you just can’t stand.

    My previous manager used to pull people aside to a separate office just to scream at them. And in a normal conversation she could also be incredibly loud and condescending.

    However nasty, I sighed with relief when she was let go. It certainly didn’t come as a surprise to me, but some of my coworkers were sad for a long time.


    Hey, Allison, why don’t you start a blog or a section of your website calling out bad managers, where they work and the things that they do. This will help everyone else who searches for a potential employer and hiring manager to avoid these people. This would also make them accountable to themselves and to their employers!

    Not sure if this is legal, ethical, or otherwise, but I try to ask the right questions and spot the wrong behaviors but nevertheless, I find myself being employed by one bully-boss after another (sigh).

  23. Suze*

    This is a great article, but it’s sad to read it, because I think a significant proportion of the workforce probably has lousy bosses. Changing jobs can be stressful and challenging, and I totally understand why some people have a hard time moving on even when they are suffering every day.

    My first boss was totally passive. He rarely communicated important information to our department, would tell us one thing but mean another, and would not address problems or advocate for us. I stopped trying to improve things or offer solutions, because it was clear he was uncomfortable pushing through changes of any kind.

    My second boss almost never spoke to me except during our weekly meetings. I generated tremendous results (drastically increasing our social media engagement), but she never once congratulated me or acknowledged my work. She had her teenage daughter start our company instagram feed, without talking to me about it, even though I directed our social media accounts. Her daughter promptly started posting things riddled with grammatical errors. My boss had very poor judgment sometimes. The day I left the company, she didn’t even stop by my desk to say goodbye (which was truly strange, because it’s not like we had a contentious relationship. We were friendly with each other)!

    My boss now is assertive, smart, and does advocate for me and give me feedback, which I appreciate. I’m like, wow! You actually care about my performance! The only problem is that she is a moaner and groaner who throws tantrums and freaks out at people. She literally talks all day long too, so it’s hard to concentrate on my work. For now, I think the benefits outweigh the cons, though.

  24. I Feel Your Pain, Christina*

    @ Christina re “Ok, up to a point, but I also can’t know everything every department is doing all the time, we have 250 people.”

    This is a constant struggle at my job. Our latest tactic has been to send an email asking people what they’re up to in the coming month. They can either respond directly or add the info to a shared spreadsheet. We’ve also gotten buy in from some of the VPs, so they remind their staff at department meetings.

    It’s better than nothing, but by no means complete information. Our worst offender is the CEO.

    1. Christina*

      It’s sad and reassuring that there are so many of us in this awful, awful boat (which seems to be springing leaks left and right). At least we are trying to bail each other out!

      1. I Feel Your Pain, Christina*

        I occasionally have to remind myself that as crummy as my work situation can be, I have learned *so much*. When I’m ready to look for another job, I’ll have plenty of knowledge and experience under my belt.

        1. Christina*

          Yep, same. I try to remind myself of that often, especially as this role got me out of the admin track and into what I actually want to do.

  25. JM in England*

    I have been in the double-bind of working for bad bosses whilst doing temporary/contract jobs. To give some context, I graduated during the last big recession of the early 90s and it took until 1999 to land my first permanent role. Consequently, I found myself in a somewhat precarious position, knowing that the slightest error/mis-step could be used against me as grounds for firing whereas the same blunder would have had little to no impact on the position of a permanent employee. The bad bosses knew this and used it as an excuse to treat me differently/badly. As a result, I developed a head-down, don’t-rock-the-boat attitude which, despite having had long-term permanent jobs since then, still invades my thinking to this day. Another impact of this period has been being used to having a boss that does not fight my corner or presents me with opportunities to develop. On a happier note, this spurred me to get training on a particular piece of laboratory equipment (my field is scientific) at my own expense when OldJob refused to train me; this paid off because when I left OldJob (with one of the aforementioned bad bosses), the next one had a salary bump of three times the course fee, thus providing a superb return on my investment plus then lots more experience in this piece of equipment to boot!

  26. Vicki*

    My personal bad habit is to not trust the manager when he asks, for example “How’s everything going?” (Why do you want to know?).

    Or fearing the 1:1 because I’ve had too many managers who can’t be trusted, so I don’t want to say anything that could possibly come across as Not Upbeat And Positive! (It’s like walking on egg shells.)

    When you’ve worked with several people you can;t trust and can’t talk to honestly, you begin to believe that all managers are that way. It’s a twitchy way to work.

  27. Middle Name Jane*

    I’m going through this now, and it’s horrible. My female boss is just a common bully, and it doesn’t matter how many people have privately approached me and told me that it’s not just me, she treats everyone horribly, I FEEL like it’s personal and that she hates me for some unknown reason.

    I was the victim of a sexual crime nearly three years ago and have been in therapy since it happened–but I’ve basically spent the past year talking about work and getting coping strategies for dealing with my boss instead of working through what happened to me.

    I hate that this woman lives rent-free in my head and that I’ve had to go on medication to deal with the anxiety attacks I get every week. I have to deal with this woman 5 days a week, and I resent dealing with her in therapy too.

  28. Middle Name Jane*

    I should note, too, that I have had the same pattern happen with every job that I’ve had since college:

    1. I get hired by a great person, and I have a really positive relationship with that manager for 2-3 years.

    2. Great Boss gets promoted, transfers to another department, or leaves the company for a new job.

    3. Great Boss gets replaced by Psycho Boss, and then I’m stuck until I can get out. So I end up leaving jobs after 3-4 years because I always wind up with some form of a horrible boss, and I can’t take it.

    Every. Time. Why do great managers get followed by psycho ones?

  29. Jen M.*

    Thank you for writing this article. Back in December, I FINALLY got out of a company where this is absolutely ENDEMIC. In my 12 1/2 years with this company, I worked for THREE horrible managers, and yes–I am suffering for it now, not so much in my job search as in my self-image.

    It can take YEARS to get such toxicity out of your system.

    I’m hoping that, with all of the articles coming out about workplace bullying and stuff like this, that maybe–MAYBE–something will start to be done about it. I’d love to see more worker protections.

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