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The High Cost of the Bad Boss


Last updated 8/5/2010

Most people who have been in the workforce for a while have suffered at least one bad boss. The tales about such managers can become the stuff of legend or satire. But those tales can also mask the real costs of bad bosses to individual employees and the organization as a whole.

Bad bosses range from the extreme cases of terrible bullies and actual psychopaths (Deutschman 2005) to garden-variety disorganized or demotivating supervisors. Likewise, their effects can be wide-ranging.

At one extreme, the actions of poor managers have been known to lead to employee suicide or workplace violence (Neuman 2007; Workplace 2007).

Less drastic, but still serious, are the depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by employees who are subjected to a bad boss over a long period of time (Mezger, 2004). Other workers simply quit and find a more congenial workplace.

The costs in such cases are relatively straightforward: increased use of sick leave, loss in productivity and high employee turnover (Mezger 2004). Then there are the costs that are not so easy to quantify.

"When employees feel they're mistreated, they get even," said Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Florida who led a 2006 study of the effect of bad managers on job satisfaction. Worker revenge includes everything from griping and gossiping to actually stealing time, money or other resources from the company. "If your supervisor is mean or rude to you, it increases your workplace deviance because it makes you angry and frustrated," Judge said (Keen 2006).

Silence is another cost that's hard to measure. "How do you capture things that might have been or weren't?" asked Joel H. Neuman, Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Management and associate professor of management and organizational behavior at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He added, "For example, if a disgruntled employee comes up with an idea that can generate tremendous revenues for his/her company, do you really think that this employee will share this idea with management? Hardly!" (Neuman 2007).

Unfortunately, bad and even abusive bosses seem to be commonplace in the workforce. Results from a poll of 1,000 U.S. adults in March 2007 by the Employment Law Alliance (ELA) found that "44% of American workers have worked for a supervisor or employer who they consider abusive" (Employment  2007).

Among the instances of abuse the ELA poll's respondents had witnessed or experienced at the hands of a supervisor or employer were sarcastic jokes (60%), public criticism of job performance (59%), "interrupting ... in a rude manner" (58%), yelling or raising one's voice (55%) and "ignoring you/co-worker as if you/he/she was invisible" (54%) (Employment  2007).

Some bosses go beyond bad and become bullies. These kinds of managers and supervisors are also in large supply, according to findings from the U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey conducted by Zogby International for the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a nonprofit think tank. The survey was the largest of its kind, with 7,740 online interviews.

The WBI/Zogby survey reports that 37% of U.S. workers say they have been bullied at work. That's about 54 million people. Most of them—57%—are women. Women are also more prone to bullying other women than they are to trying to push men around. The most-cited types of bullying were verbal abuse and "threatening, intimidating, humiliating, hostile, offensive and inappropriately cruel conduct" in private or in public. The verbal abuse included "shouting, swearing, name calling [and] malicious sarcasm" (Workplace 2007, pp. 1, 12).

It's unclear where all these bad bosses come from and how they got that way. Few studies have been done examining bad leaders (Academy of Management, 2007). A recent one by Anthony Don Erickson, Ben Shaw and Zha Agabe of Bond University in Australia indicates that bad bosses often start out as bad people. Reasons given for good people who developed into bad bosses were such things as "skills mismatch," "too much pressure and too much deviousness," or "bullying for the purpose of furthering their careers" (Academy of Management 2007).

John Hoover, author of How to Work for an Idiot: Survive and Thrive Without Killing Your Boss, agrees that a mismatch of skills and job contributes to the phenomenon. Hoover posits that many people become bullies when they are promoted out of their competency zone. Such a promotion creates insecurity and defensiveness, he said (Flander  2007).

Lack of training could be another factor that contributes to the development of bad bosses. An August 2007 survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) in conjunction with HR.com found that almost half—about 47%—of the 338 organizations surveyed have no training programs for new supervisors. And the majority of organizations that do provide such training do not measure its effectiveness.

Such studies point to potential ways of preventing the problem before it arises. Employers can, for example, provide formal training programs that include follow-up procedures and a way to measure success. They can also look for ways other than promotion to reward workers (Flander, 2007).

Companies can also establish rules and etiquette. Lars Dalgaard, chief executive of software firm SuccessFactors, came up with "Rules of Engagement" after an employee burst into tears because of his gruff manner. The rules are posted throughout the office. They set forth standards of behavior. Not only has the atmosphere in the office improved, the rules have become "a terrific recruiting tool," said Stacy Epstein, company spokeswoman. "It's amazing how, in an interview, so many people will say, ‘Gosh, I really want to work in this environment,'" Epstein said (Selvin  2007).

Such examples highlight the fact that good management usually results in a more attractive and productive workplace. Virtue may be its own reward, but it's nice to know there are other bottom-line benefits as well.

Documents referenced in this TrendWatcher include the following:

Academy of Management. "What Happens to Bad Leaders? Mostly They Get Promoted or Rewarded, New Study Finds." August 2007.

Deutschman, Alan. "Is Your Boss a Psychopath?" Fast Company, July 2005, pp. 44–51.

Flander, Scott. "When Bosses Go Bad—And Get Rewarded." Human Resource Executive Online, August 20, 2007.

Employment Law Alliance. "New Employment Law Alliance Poll: Nearly 45% Of U.S.
Workers Say They've Worked For An Abusive Boss." March 21, 2007.

Institute for Corporate Productivity. New Supervisor Training Program Practitioner Consensus Survey. August 2007.

Keen, Cathy. "UF Study: Even Good Employees Act Up if Supervisors Mistreat Them." University of Florida News. Press release. April 6, 2006.

Mezger, Roger. "Battling the Workplace Bully." Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 26, 2004.

Neuman, Joel H. "Measuring the Costs Associated with Stress, Injustice and Bullying." Workplace Bullying Institute. Obtained September 4, 2007.

Selvin, Molly. "The Devil You Know: Sometimes It's Your Boss." Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2007.

Workplace Bullying Institute. "U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey." September 2007.