Good Riddance to Bad Bosses

Thu, June 30, 2005

CIO — Are you a bad boss? Do you bully employees, rely on intimidation to get things done, and “kiss up and kick down”? Or do you work for a bad boss—an egotist who thinks his every thought is golden and can’t abide dissent?

The work world is full of bad bosses, to judge from the number of books, articles and websites devoted to getting out from under a tyrant (for instance, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey), getting even (When You Work for a Bully: Assessing Your Options and Taking Action), and complaining/commiserating (the discussion forum on No doubt the offices of CIOs hold their share of bad bosses. (Disclaimer: The great majority of CIOs I speak with are polite and personable—but then, I don’t work for them.)

What is a bad boss, fundamentally? Is he a confrontational jerk who delights in making subordinates squirm? Does she push people too hard—sometimes all the way out the door? Is it his way or the highway? These definitions aren’t satisfactory. Some staffers need to be pushed if they’re to get anything done. Some employees are toxic to an organization; a boss who tolerates their abysmal attitude is a poor manager. Some situations, such as turnarounds, call for a tough guy at the top.

Indeed, the only type of boss more loathed than the bad boss is the incompetent boss. Personally, if I had to choose between two evils, I’d rather work for a tough taskmaster than a Dilbertesque Pointy-Haired Boss. Can a boss really be that bad if she gets good things done?

This is not to forgive all bad boss behavior, however. There’s a line beyond which behavior is not acceptable, even if that line is sometimes a little hard to draw. If John Bolton, the White House’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, really is a “serial abuser” who threw office supplies at an underling and made nasty cracks about her weight and sexual orientation, and who tried more than once to get people fired for the sin of disagreeing with him, then he is a bona fide bad boss and a jerk—no matter how good he is at getting things done.

What’s more, bad workplace behavior can be illegal. Insults, threats, sexual harassment, discrimination and firing without cause are actionable. Verbal harassment lawsuits have resulted in major awards for aggrieved workers.

But most employees won’t go to court over a bad boss. They’ll just leave. And it won’t only be the shoddy workers who go; the best employees, who know they have options, are least likely to put up with abuse.

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