Mean Bosses Mean Big Losses

If you’ve heard comments like “I hate my boss!” more than once in your office, your company may be plagued by the serious illness known as Mean Boss Syndrome—a condition potentially fatal to your business. Read on to learn our employment specialist’s 100% effective cure for this workplace malady.

By: Martin Salcedo, Esq.

In 20th Century Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” actress Meryl Streep portrays the quintessential mean boss, one who takes pleasure in her subordinates’ pain. But, while abusive bosses make for good comedy, they are bad for business. Ultimately, you cannot afford to allow abusive supervisors and managers to exert their ill-will over your workforce—and over your company’s bottom line.

The number of employees confronted by mean or abusive bosses is probably higher than you think. Wayne Hochwarter, an associate professor of management at Florida State University’s College of Business, wanted to verify the proposition that “employees don’t leave their job or company, they leave their boss” by surveying more than 700 people working in a variety of jobs on how their supervisors treat them. The numbers reveal serious problems:

  • 31% of respondents reported that their supervisor gave them the “silent treatment” in the past year;
  • 37% reported that their supervisor failed to give credit when due;
  • 39% noted that their supervisor failed to keep promises;
  • 27% noted that their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers;
  • 24% reported that their supervisor invaded their privacy; and
  • 23% indicated that their supervisor blames others to cover up mistakes or to minimize embarrassment.

If these numbers fail to underscore the extent to which bad or abusive bosses infect the workforce, just try typing “bad boss” into your Internet search engine of choice. The results are not only staggering, but they also reveal what some of your workers are doing when they are “on the clock” rather than what you are paying them to do.

The consequences of having abusive bosses in your organization are many. From badly treated employees, you can expect lower productivity; increased mistrust and hostility; increased exhaustion; decreased motivation and happiness; increased job-related tension, nervousness, and depression; and increased job dissatisfaction, to name a few.

But perhaps the costliest side effect of Mean Boss Syndrome is the resultant high employee turnover rate: The Internet abounds with employee advice columns and blogs that urge abused employees to begin looking for new jobs ASAP. And, as you are well aware, a high employee turnover rate can seriously damage your organization’s bottom line.

There may also be some legal consequences to maintaining abusive bosses on your payroll, and although these are not necessarily clear-cut, they should give you pause for concern.

Technically speaking, in the absence of criminal behavior (i.e., assault, battery, etc.), the law does not contain a specific prohibition against “mean” bosses. However, this has not prevented resentful employees from trying to set their hooks in their employers’ wallets.

Aggrieved employees have sued their employers in state court by alleging the tort known as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED). Yet such suits are generally unsuccessful because the level of abuse that an employee needs to prove is extremely high. California and Florida, for example, require intentionally or recklessly extreme and outrageous conduct that results in emotional distress.

Essentially, the outrageous conduct must be so extreme as to exceed all bounds of that usually tolerated in a civilized community—conduct that will lead an average member of the community to exclaim “Outrageous!” Comparatively speaking, this is a difficult standard to prove; hence, there is a relatively low success rate of employee-filed IIED suits.

Aggrieved employees have also tried their hand at suing their employers in federal court under anti-discrimination and harassment statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, case law has made it clear that Title VII is not to be wielded as a general civility code and that in the absence of discrimination or harassment on the basis of a protected classification, Title VII does not apply to “mean” bosses.

While employers may take solace in this reasoning, their comfort should be short-lived. It is not uncommon for abusive individuals to use words laced with sexist or racist undertones during their tirades. You can imagine the impact on jurors when they hear dozens of employees recount under oath how a male supervisor repeatedly used sexual epithets when addressing his female subordinates.

Learn about employment liabilities and prevent workplace-related claims of discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination.

The lesson here is that despite the absence of a specific statutory prohibition against “mean” bosses, such behavior can eventually lead to legal liability.

So what can you do? The good news is that most individuals want to succeed, and, with the proper training, can eventually become the kind of bosses their employees respect and maybe even like.

First, have all of your bosses conduct self-analyses of their managerial styles. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, this self-inventory should include the following questions:

  • Have you ever berated an employee in public?
  • Have you ever taken credit for something an employee did?
  • Are your employees afraid of you?
  • Are you a “no excuses allowed” type?
  • Do you yell or shout at employees?
  • Have you ever tried to belittle or humiliate an employee as punishment?
  • Do you “lean on” or make it more difficult for someone who has displeased you?
  • Do you play favorites?

Don’t just take your supervisory staff’s word on these matters. Check the rank and file’s temperature by asking them the same questions about their supervisors. If one or more of your bosses falls into the mean or abusive category, you should seriously consider taking immediate action to address the problem.

Start by training your managers. Supervisory employees need to be taught how to manage— leadership is not necessarily an innate characteristic. Teach supervisors how to manage effectively and make sure they mend their dictatorial ways. If, despite your best efforts at warning and training these individuals, they fail to improve, you must seriously consider removing supervisory responsibilities from their job function. Of course, be sure to document the entire process.

Phrases like “beatings will continue until employee morale improves” and “succeed, despite your boss” are funny—unless they’re true in your workplace. Make sure these morale-destroying observations are not applicable to your organization by carefully “supervising your supervisors.”

Mean Boss Syndrome is a 100 percent preventable and curable workplace illness; all it requires is the proper dosage of the right medication—effective training.

George Anderson, BCD, LCSW, CEAP

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