You Think Your Boss Is Bad?

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By Tara Swords
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Maybe your co-workers are friendly and caring. Maybe your company's mission stirs your passions. Maybe you bring home a fat paycheck for a predictable 40 hours a week. Still, it can take just one sour ingredient to turn your occupational utopia into a recurring nightmare: a jerk for a boss.

Bad bosses run the gamut from meek and uninspiring to unethical and even psychologically abusive. But all bad bosses have one thing in common, says Steve Miranda of the Alexandria-based Society for Human Resource Management.

"Bad bosses are energy vampires," he says. "When employees interact with them, they literally come away from that interaction feeling more drained, worse and less energized."

The No. 1 reason people leave jobs is because they work for bosses they don't respect and who don't inspire employees to reach their potential, says Miranda, who serves as chief human resource, strategic planning and diversity officer for the society.

For most people, job success partly defines self-worth. So a boss who disparages instead of encourages not only damages productivity, Miranda says, but also casts a long, dark shadow on morale.

"A friend of mine called it the shame spiral," says Katy, a 36-year-old Rockville resident who found herself in a work environment she describes as filled with interoffice affairs, racist comments and other inappropriate behavior, often condoned, if not spearheaded, by the boss. "You start thinking, 'I must have done something. How is this happening to me?' "

We asked four people to share their experiences with bad bosses. We have identified them by their first names only so that they could speak freely about the problems they faced.

Some of these situations took place several years ago, but the memories are still painful. Nevertheless, the four agreed to dredge up their recollections in hopes that others might find some nugget of wisdom about dealing with their own energy vampires -- and how to know when it's time to cut and run from a jerk.

The Boss's Way or the Highway

Maybe the boss isn't Dr. Evil, but he does want an army of Mini-Mes. He wants things done his way, and he doesn't trust employees to do it their way.

"Some people are great at delegating details but not authority," says Mo Fathelbab, president of Alexandria-based Forum Resources Network and author of "Forum: The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders." Letting go of authority and trusting employees, Fathelbab says, is a big challenge because the boss is no longer in control. "And when they're not in control, they're not comfortable in their own skin."

When Tammy took a public relations job at a D.C. hospitality business, she tried to be proactive by suggesting fresh ideas. But the boss criticized her way of working, yelled at her, accused her of negativity and faulted her for her 8-to-6 schedule.

"He was nitpicking every single thing I was doing," says Tammy, who's now 39 and lives in Alexandria. She knew he clearly wanted things done his way, but he was also vague about what his way entailed. She tried consulting with him. "I went back and said, 'I just want to make sure I have this right.' But if I didn't, that would fire him up."

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