can you reform a tyrant manager?

A reader writes:

I’ve seen several posts from you about how to deal with a boss who is a bully or tyrant. My question for you is how can I, as an HR Director, address an issue like this with the supervisor who is being the tyrant? I’ve spoken with the supervisor about the appropriate behavior that we expect and what needs to change, and I honestly think the supervisor wants to do better but can’t see the behavior and the effect it’s having on employees. Are there coaches out their who do this kind of work? It feels like a fundamental change in a person that is beyond being “teachable” at this stage in life.

By the way, the person’s manager is wholeheartedly on board and pushing for the change, and we are both communicating that there are severe consequences (including possibly termination of employment). We are just trying to figure out how we can support and train this person who seems not self-aware.

You can read my answer to this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. A Teacher*

    To number 1: Please, please, please make sure that employees that vocalize concerns or are straightforward with you will not face repercussions. I’ve seen too many people get burned by trying to be honest when asked by higher ups for feedback about a boss on a PIP. People moved to different departments/buildings; people given awful assignments; and people trash talked. Even in the case where the tyrant boss was canned, she took a lot of decent people out before that happened.

    1. John*

      Exactly what I came here to say. Telling them they won’t face repercussions isn’t the same as take responsibility for ensuring they won’t happen.

      HR and leaders need to realize that these situations will tell employees everything about the integrity of the organization.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Amen. But it does seem like this company did/is doing the right thing from what the letter writer said. I’m impressed they’re taking these actions. More often than not, it seems, bad managers are protected. Due to tribal knowledge, they bring in revenue, they’re related to someone at the top, or some other mysterious unknown reason.

        1. John*

          I do applaud the employer for taking action, but there’s a lot we don’t know to determine if it has actually been handled properly.

          Typically, HR is in a tough spot — in order to illustrate what the bad manager has been doing wrong, they are challenged to give examples. Examples are hard to giving without outing specific employees.

          Frankly, any time I’ve seen a situation where employees are interviewed by HR/higher-ups to learn what a bad manager has been doing to them — “and it will be held completely confidential, I assure you!” — some employees have gotten burned, sometimes irreparably.

          Hopefully, this is a situation in which there exists enough evidence — like others outside the group have witnessed the behavior — so the tyrant’s employees don’t have to take the calculated risk of sharing details.

          1. Koko*

            I agree that privacy should be protected as much as possible, but sometimes as you say they need to say what the behavior is in order to correct the behavior. The most important part though is for HR to make it clear that retaliation is also a violation of the PIP, and that they are looking to see improved cooperative/working relationships with staff.

    2. Hlyssande*

      Yes, this this this! You have to be very careful and thorough in preventing retaliation.

      My mother does transcription for a medical office where the tyrant practice manager is finally leaving…but not before he managed to fire all but one of the people who lodged the supposedly confidential formal complaint to the hospital system’s HR department.

    3. brephacr*

      Interesting, I was just talking to someone yesterday about whether or not something major (like getting fired) could reform a jerk. I’ve met two people in my career who had to have known they were difficult or had to have been told (constructively or by being called a jerk or whatever). Neither person was junior, more mid-career, when I had the displeasure of working with them. Both were eventually fired and I always wondered if that served as a wake up call for either one.

      My friend insists that folks like this would blame others for their firing rather than use it as an opportunity for introspection. I’d like to think that everyone is capable of being honest with himself/herself and eventually come to notice a pattern or take criticism to heart. That being said, I do think it would take a long time to change this about yourself.

      Back to the OP’s question, it doesn’t seem fair to the people that are being managed by this person to have to put up with a jerk for months or years, but maybe, just maybe a highly motivated person can fake it until they’re able to truly get rid of any horrible personality traits.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I once fired a manager for being a bully. He was truly terrible — just awful to people who worked for him. I later heard that afterwards he took management classes and had really reformed.

  2. Jade*

    #3- Also make sure your former employer is not bad mouthing you in references. My dad got fired from a job for refusing to commit insurance fraud. Afterward we found out they were trying to fight his unemployment claim, saying he was fired for other reasons. Luckily UI didn’t believe a word of it and sided with my dad. However, it took my dad a long time to find a new job. It wasn’t until his former company went out of business that he got hired somewhere else. If his ex-bosses were willing to lie to UI, then Lord only knows what they were telling potential new employers. Looking back on it, he should have tried taking measures to find out if they were badmouthing him and get them to stop.

    1. Turtle Candle*

      I think this is one big reason why it’s good to answer with something honest like Alison suggested. If I was hiring and someone said “I was let go for doing [unethical/illegal thing],” I would know to take any reference from that former employer with a grain of salt (if I indeed contacted them at all, which I probably would not).

  3. JMegan*

    #2 – the scripted list of interview questions – is SOP in government. I agree that it’s ridiculous, but I guess somebody somewhere has decided that this is the only way to make the hiring process fair and transparent.

    I find I can tell a lot about a manager by the way they respond to the interview process itself. Often the script includes a little introduction that explains that they’re asking the same questions of each candidate, there will be no followup questions, etc. Watch the manager closely to see how they deliver this message – tone of voice, body language, etc. I have interviewed with managers who seemed to be 100% on board with this process, and with managers that rolled their eyes and gave the impression that they were only doing it this way because they had to. In all cases, their behaviour in the interview was indicative of their behaviour as a manager. I know for sure which kind of manager I prefer to work for – the key is to learn to watch their body language and figure it out!

      1. Artemesia*

        I have done a lot of hiring in Academia of both professionals and staff; we usually ran the interview screens by committee or 3 or so and agreed on a loose interview protocol around half a dozen questions but then were totally flexible about following up and did of course follow up on different subjects with different people because that is what follow up means. Perhaps in state schools the pro forma interview is done.

        1. Cordelia Naismith*

          Yes, my experience is with a public, state university. It’s also a large research university; that might make a difference, too. Smaller schools might be more flexible.

          1. Artemesia*

            I hired for a large research university — good grief, if hiring research people you particularly need to personalize and follow up. If ever there was a field where subtle differences and individuality are critical that would be it. Maybe not for hiring the AA or the test tube washer — but for research associates and of course faculty.

    1. the gold digger*

      A friend was coaching her friend, Shavon, about a job interview. Shavon was a temp employee at a public university and had been working there for months. She applied for the permanent position – the position she was already doing – and they had to interview her.

      She sat outside the office of the hiring manager (who, of course, was also Shavon’s current manager). The hiring manager said, “We have to do a phone interview with you. So I have to go into my office and call you.”

      Which is what she did. For the person who was sitting just outside of her office.

  4. Naomi*

    Presumably #3 (the person fired for refusing to break the law) has some legal recourse? Obviously there are numerous reasons they might choose not to sue their former employer, but this sounds like a case where “wrongful termination” actually applies.

    1. fposte*

      Maybe, but they can’t really use the term until it’s proven in a court, and proving it and winning compensation are tough.

    2. SerfinUSA*

      I know someone who was fired for refusing to break a number of laws who ended up anonymously sharing some verifiable info about fraudulent invoices and horrible namecalling with the employer’s biggest customers (think red carpet fashion industry) which eventually resulted in the tyrant going out of business.

  5. NotAnotherManager!*

    I actually had a discussion with someone (who works for a city government) about the interview process described in question #2! They defended it (as well as scribing, WORD FOR WORD, everything each candidate said) as the only way to ensure parity in the hiring process and to cover the interviewers’ asses in case a decision was questioned. Granted, I have spent my entire career in the private sector, but that is insane. How can you listen to someone and connect with them if you are writing/typing the whole time they are talking? Just have them respond to the questions in a computer-based application and have them take it onsite to ensure that there is no “cheating” and that they are the ones answering the questions. Just because you roll through a list of questions verbally, that doesn’t constitute an “interview”. That’s people talking AT one another.

    I hire a lot of people, and the intangibles — ability to behave professionally, develop rapport, have a back-and-forth conversation, and make eye contact — is very important in my industry. I have had a lot of very successful hires who didn’t meet the job description to the letter but were eager to learn and strong problem-solvers who excelled with some training, coaching, and elbow grease. I’ve had people who were exceptional on paper but a nightmare to deal with in person.

    1. Observer*

      CYA – Definitely.

      And, scribing makes sense in these types of panels. Of course, the person doing the writing / typing should not be one of the interviewers.

      But, if you ask me her talk of parity and transparency is also CYA – it’s meant to hide the fact that this atrocious practice is about self defense not choosing the best candidate.

    2. Mike C.*

      It is rather insane, but having a father work for city government, you’d be shocked at the insane standards they’re held up to, lest someone from the public believe they see something and complain. Transparency is a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but there are folks out there who believe that the government is the cause of every bad thing that happens out there.

      1. Marty Gentillon*

        As for scribing, the practicality depends entirely on how good you are at shorthand. If you are good there is no reason that it would negatively affect the interview. After all, transcribing interviews was standard practice for journalists before dictaphones, and is still commonly used. In fact, if you are good at shorthand, I would agree that you should transcribe the interview. It makes it really easy to review.

    1. Kay*

      Right-click on the link, select “Open link in new tab” or “Open link in new window.”

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Can you do that on an iPhone? I’ve been wondering about this too but someone told me it’s the way the site is programmed.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Ha! I’m embarrassed to say how long I’ve had this phone and didn’t know if I held my finger down on the link, I get those options! Problem solved.

        2. Liza*

          Or on a three-button mouse, clicking with the middle button (or scroll wheel–many scroll wheels are also buttons in disguise) usually opens the link in a new tab.

      1. Andrea*

        Or middle click, if your mouse’s scroll wheel is a button, to automatically open a link in a new browser window.

    2. Marcela*

      No, no. Please no. You can open your link in a new window if you want, but if links are set to do open in new windows, I can not “undo” that and open them in the same window.

    3. Miles*

      Hold down the control (ctrl) or command (clover icon) key when you click on the link and it will automatically open in a new tab in the most common browsers (Chrome, firefox, safari, etc.).

  6. Student*

    OP #1 – You might need some training yourself on how to handle problem employees. When you say, “I honestly think the supervisor wants to do better but can’t see the behavior and the effect it’s having on employees,” it sounds to me more like you’re falling victim to a classic manipulation technique.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I didn’t get that comment to mean that’s something that the “tyrant” said, but that’s how they are viewing the situation. Our division head was fired a few months ago for being a bully, and I guarantee he did not realize how he came across to us. He thought he was everyone’s favorite dude ever. And believe me, he had no ability to manipulate people; he’s just not wired that way. He was a charismatic guy with a temper problem and he had a disconnect between how he and others viewed his tone of voice. He just could not see how what he was doing was upsetting people. And I know he felt awful about it once he was told how disliked he was- he was pretty decent 90% of the time.

    2. TootsNYC*

      yep, that’s “supervisor wants but can’t”–compound predicate.

      Not a compound sentence (which would be “supervisor wants but I can’t”).

      This is why grammar is important–because doing it wrong means someone like Student can’t trust the meaning of a properly crafted sentence, because they’ve seen so many incorrectly crafted ones.

  7. Serin*

    I have to admit, I have very serious doubts that a boss whose own director calls them a “tyrant” can ever improve.

    Bullies bully because they’re getting something out of it — not like work that gets done better but like a rush of pleasurable emotion or a shoring up of their shaky self-image or a release of anxiety.

    I can see a person losing a good job for being a bully, taking that as a wake-up call, getting counseling, and really working on their issues over the long haul. But I can’t see a person giving up whatever they’re gaining from their behavior just because they’re threatened with firing.

    1. John*

      Agreed. A bully boss might play along with HR — “I’m shocked, shocked, I say, that anyone thinks I’m being the least bit mean and I will move heaven and earth to ensure it never happens again!” — but they will revert to form and they will target anyone they think has reported them. Seen it too many times.

      That said, I think Allison’s response is the right one, and applaud OP’s desire to exhaust possible avenues for resolving the problem.

      1. kckckc*

        Disagree. Bullying should never be tolerated. It affects morale and creates an “us vs. them” atmosphere. I’ve worked for a bully who would scream at people in her office when she didn’t get her way. Multiple people, from varying levels of the organization, went to HR about her, and she was “coached” but continued her vile behavior. Over the course of eleven months, seven of the ten people on her team left the company (half quit, half were fired). And, yes, she is still there.

        Bully bosses are a plague and, at least in my experience, human resources was only there to protect the boss and not the victims.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Not sure what you’re disagreeing with. it sounds like you all agree–bullies are not likely to change due to pressure from the company, and that changing would take a heck of a lot more than coaching from an external person.

          1. kckckc*

            Sorry, I should have clarified the part I was disagreeing with. It was the statement, “I think Allison’s response is the right one, and applaud OP’s desire to exhaust possible avenues for resolving the problem.” I agree with most everything else. I feel that companies invest too much into covering for bad bosses.

            1. Whippers*

              Yeah, I think that companies will invest a lot of resources in “training” a bad manager, wheras if an employee lower down the ladder has even slight performance issues they will just get rid.

        2. Mike C.*

          Wasn’t there an article as to the cost of a bully or asshole at work? I can’t remember which terminology they used, but it was something like 1.5 to 2x as expensive as it was to fire them.

          1. Sunshine*

            “The Exact Cost of a Toxic Employee”. It was an Inc. article Alison linked a while back. “Firing your worst employee is worth more than twice as much as hiring a superstar.”

    2. Mike C.*

      Maybe tie in some counseling through the company EAP to the threats of firing, but yeah I generally agree with you.

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      I have a friend, who’s not a bully at all, just a bit too frank for some peoples liking is how I would describe it. Several years ago, he was in a job that hit a plateau and really did have plenty to be angry about, but when a coworker would piss him off, he’d simply quietly get up and leave the meeting, for example, instead of blowing up. They didn’t like that at all. Eventually a coworker that was trying to cover her own incompetent behind accused him of throwing something at her (total lie) to try and shift the focus off her. So company sent him to mandatory anger management. The therapist agreed he had no anger issues, per se, but did end up teaching him some valuable things and ways he could handle things differently so he didn’t get into those situations any more and could change people’s perception of him. In his case it really was an eye opener or wake up call.

      1. JM in England*

        The way I see it, isn’t getting up & walking away a more mature response than blowing up?

    4. cleo*

      There’s at least one case study of this being done successfully in The No Asshole Rule (my favorite business book – about workplace bullying) so it is possible. IIRC the key was to get the bully to see his behavior from the point of view of his reports. Once he accepted what a jerk he was acting like, he was able to change.

  8. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    I honestly think the supervisor wants to do better but can’t see the behavior and the effect it’s having on employees

    Any other Captain Awkward junkies here thinking “There’s good in him, I’ve felt it”?

  9. Grace*

    I have read Bob Sutton’s work, including his book The No Asshole Rule.
    One company handled a high-ranking bully by sitting him down, explaining the costs (turnover etc) that he was costing the company, and that they would be deducting it from his lucrative yearly bonus.

    While not all companies can do what that company did, they did drive home their point and said executive became a model of professional behavior.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Bob Sutton’s book is the No Asshole Rule; that link is to his website. I don’t know how many articles/posts he has on his site, but there’s a lot of good stuff there. I would give that book as an anonymous gift to a former boss, but that person is highly unlikely to recognize him/herself in its pages.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          ” . . . that person is highly unlikely to recognize him/herself in its pages.”

          You could highlight relevant passages and write in the margins, “Look, Former Boss — it’s you!”

          /wishful advice

        1. LeRainDrop*

          That’s a great link. About a year-and-a-half into being bullied by one of my supervising partners, when I felt at the very bottom of a deep pit, I found the website for the Workplace Bullying Institute and bought the book “The Bully at Work” by Gary and Ruth Namie. It was absolutely eye-opening to finally have the name for what was happening to me at work. It made me realize that I was not crazy and that what was going on was very wrong. It also gave me some tools for navigating with upper management to make my complaints heard. Even though I (and others) greatly suffered at my bully’s hands, my reputation and compensation was impacted, and her boss made excuses and justifications for her poor behavior, I think my finally speaking up was an important part of protecting my already fragile mental health. The process of complaining was taxing, repetitive, and slow to move along. My bully did not reform, but she did resign while in the thick of the investigation of my complaints. I can’t be sure, but I think part of it had to do with my employer beginning to address my complaints with her and the reports by other co-workers.

          1. JM in England*

            There is a similar title here in the UK called “Bully In Sight”, written by the late Tim Field. It draws on his personal experiences of workplace bullying and was a great eye opener for myself.

      2. cleo*

        I mentioned this upthread too, before I saw this comment.

        In The No Asshole Rule (in chap 4), Sutton cites the work of executive coaches Kate Ludemond and Eddie Erlandson with alpha males. Two of their most famous clients were the founder and CEO (respectively) of Dell Computers. Their key strategy is to gather information about how their client is viewed by customers, employees, etc – once their clients realize how destructive their behavior is, then they can work on changing it.

        Here’s the article Sutton cites –

        And here’s more about Sutton’s book –

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      That works out well – if upper management is willing to do that.

      In most instances, they will back a manager up indefinitely. And attribute bullyism to “a different management style.”

  10. kckckc*

    Bully bosses need to go. They are bad for business and bad for morale. Would you spend resources trying to coach a bully low-level employee? If the answer is no, then why would you do it for any employee?

    1. Whippers*

      Ha, I just responded to your post above with basically the exact same comment you made here!
      I also think that a lot of the time managers who bully aren’t actually good at the other aspects of their job, which is why they bully others. So really, that makes them doubly pointless in investing in.

  11. I'm a Little Teapot*

    Maybe a bully can change, but it’s not his victims’ job to change him and shouldn’t be their responsibility to keep working with him during that process. I think the only way to be fair to the employees with the tyrant boss is to fire him with abundant explanation of why. He can learn to be a decent person while he doesn’t have authority over others.

  12. Minion*

    That last one!
    “My friend John, with whom I conduct seances in his mother’s basement on Friday nights, suggested I get in touch with you regarding your open position. Of course, we consulted the Ouija board and since the spirit with whom we were communicating did not indicate any reservations with my submitting myself for consideration, I am writing to express my sincere enthusiasm at the opportunity to work with your company. I think you’ll find my direct link with the dark arts to be a unique asset for this position as I currently have additional spirits residing within my body. Their differing points of view often allow me to see difficult situations from various vantage points which positions me to make the best decision in any given situation, providing that I remain strong enough to overcome the overtly evil spirit that I can’t seem to get rid of. He’s a very subversive little bastard and difficult to dislodge once he’s taken hold. I admit, I admire his tenacious work ethic.”

  13. Elle*

    Do you have an EAP? If so, many of them have a “management referral” option that was created for situations such as these. Usually the EAP will assist HR and the problem employee’s supervisor in determining what level of intervention might be appropriate to resolve the identified performance issue. There are different strategies, and they work with you to determine which one will work best for your situation, and they can be formal or informal. They can be very effective, and have the added plus of giving weight to previous discussions (i.e. we are willing to move this forward).

  14. Cathie from Canada*

    Quick question to Ask A Manager — when you are making a post at Inc, I see you using this same phrase week after week: “where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).”
    I am wondering why these letter writers had to wait so long to get a reply to their question. And would it perhaps be useful for the Inc readers to see some recent questions instead of just old ones?

    1. Turtle Candle*

      Actually, the posts were answered here–it isn’t that she’s going through her email archives, it’s that she’s going through the Ask A Manager blog archives, reposting old letters that have already been answered but that people might not have seen (or have forgotten) and sometimes updating the answers too. For instance, the “dealing with a tyrant boss” letter was answered back in 2012. My understanding is that these posts are a way to call attention to good advice that was already given years ago.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The letters were answered here years ago.

      Inc. is reprinting old posts that were previously published here (although occasionally I will edit my answer a bit, depending on whether I feel I want to add to whatever I said previously).

      Inc. is fine with it being older letters, because most of their readers didn’t see them when they were originally printed here.

      But to speak to the broader issue, yeah, plenty of letter-writers have to wait to get answers to their questions or don’t get answered at all because, well, I am not a robot who answers questions 24/7.

      1. Carpe Librarium*

        I wish I could build my own AAM-bot to drink tea with me at my desk and spout glorious truths throughout my workday.

      2. Miko*

        I often quite appreciate seeing the reposted letters. As someone who uses the Surprise Me and related posts links often I end up reading a lot of older posts, and the older ones have very few comments since they were made before the site got popular. I really appreciate the incredible comments section on this blog so letting those older letters get a second showing with more comments is great.

  15. Jen*

    #4: they do t have to, but many companies do anyway. Mine makes all sales people, plus ma y other roles leave immediately, but they are paid for the full 2 weeks notice period.

    Sometimes people get upset but I’ve found its because they don’t realize they will be paid! Are you sure you won’t be?

  16. steve*

    from reading stories on this site companies in the USA sound like they are from hell.
    im sure most are okay but the conditions dont sound very good.
    if your used to it it may seem good though compared to the third world.

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