Amy Joyce
Life at Work

'Devil' Boss All Too Familiar

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By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006

She called her new assistant by the wrong name but didn't care. Her coffee had to be on her desk first thing -- hot -- or else. She didn't want to hear an excuse, she just wanted it done. No matter what "it" was.

Thus are the traits of the devil boss in the movie "The Devil Wears Prada."

The film sparked just the conversations I expected. Walking out of the theater, there were murmurs and whispers that went something like this: "I had a boss like that. One time he. . . . "

Not a week goes by without e-mails from readers lamenting awful bosses who leave them cowering in a corner, weakened on weekends and wishing for a new job.

We can't escape the boss-as-devil, even if we don't (currently) have one ourselves.

Just think of all the horrid fictional bosses, past and present: Ari Gold in "Entourage," the crass, offensive, demanding agent whose loyal assistant, Lloyd, is beaten down episode after episode. Mr. Dithers, the abusive boss in the comic strip Blondie. We've got Montgomery Burns of "The Simpsons" -- evil as evil can be. Horrendous Scrooge from Dickens's novel. And don't forget Darth Vader. Not only is he an evil boss, he's also a loud breather. Ick.

Just how prevalent are evil bosses? A Monster poll says 70 percent of workers think they have a "toxic boss." Ken Siegel, an organizational consultant and psychologist, said evil bosses keep his profession alive. Siegel typically coaches executives who are finding it difficult to manage people.

"They are extraordinarily well-represented in the managerial ranks," he said. "Most devil bosses are relatively unaware of how they affect the people around them. That provides them with well-grounded excuses of their errant ways."

The most common excuse: Fear can be a motivator. Well, yeah. I'd probably try to get an unpublished copy of the new Harry Potter for my boss if my livelihood depended on it, as beleaguered assistant Andy Sachs does in the movie. But that doesn't mean I'd become a great employee.

Most bosses who are feared by their employees have mastered the art of "managing up," Siegel said. Those are the people who are able to align their beliefs and values with those of their bosses and present themselves as a representative of their people. But they aren't. They are good followers and will do anything to please those above them.

"People don't quit companies. They quit people," Siegel said. And quitting is the easiest and best way to take some power back from a boss, he said.

The AFL-CIO is holding a "My Bad Boss Contest" at http://www.workingamerica.org/badboss . There, people can post their boss horror stories. One entry describes a boss at a dental practice who charged his employees for not coming to work on Sept. 11, 2001, even though the patients all canceled their appointments. Another wrote about a gambling boss whose habit meant he sometimes couldn't pay his employees. One Friday, he presented an employee with slot machine payout slips. The worker had to drive to a casino to cash out.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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