Career and Executive Recruiting Advice
It's About Your Manager
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CERA - career and recruiting success

A costly source of company troubles, attrition and low morale is workplace hostility in the form of the abusive, bad or poor boss or manager.

You're the recruiter. You're visiting a prospective client's office. There's this undefinable but very present atmosphere that's like a dark cloud in a March sky.

After meeting with the prospect for a few minutes, one of their staff contacts them. Some issue needs their attention and it can't wait. The prospect gives instructions after grimacing, making some rough statement to you about how they have to handle this interruption, and then growling some terse comments to the staffer.

Your meeting goes pretty smoothly after that. You learn that your contact has been in their position for the past twelve years. They were promoted to this position from an interesting series of events. The two of you do a tour of the office. You see little things that are a bit peculiar but say nothing. Morale seems tepid, at best. The visit ends.

You can't tell on a first visit, but it could be that this is an office with an abusive manager. The situation is taking its toll on the staff, the atmosphere and the office's bottom line -- its workforce and its profits.

Steve Gerardi, a writer for Health Tips from Army Medicine advises four military directives should guide a lower officer or enlisted on how to handle the abusive superior officer:

  • Respect others
  • Do your job
  • Do what is right morally and legally
  • Be brave in the face of compelling circumstances
Steve also gives pointers on how to not confront but discuss the matter with the abusive superior and what to do next. His advice applies to both the military and nonmilitary situation, career and domestic.

Dr. Steven Berglas explains the dynamics that the bad manager or boss can have on the office and what happens to the victim co-workers and staff in his "The Ties that Blind." His comparison of the situation to that of domestic abuse is extremely accurate. The relationship and environment go through the same three cycles of abuse -- honeymoon, dependency development, battering in the form of verbal or emotional attacks.

In "Bad bosses bash bottom line," Anita Bruzzese takes aim and firmly plants the arrow of fault on a number of domestic violence-similar traits in her interview with Alexander Hiam, a corporate consultant and trainer. Although she cites Hiam as attributing bad boss syndrome to overconfidence, I would posit that the problem stems from lack of confidence, jealousy, lack of training and an acute awareness of shortcomings coupled with a lack of knowledge or skill in knowing where and how to get the corrections needed in addition to an unwillingness to make needed changes, to name a few issues.

Hiam enumerates traits of an abusive boss so that the manager can do a self assessment. Briefly, they are:

  • Belittling language
  • Creating Isolation
  • Judging and criticizing
  • Belittling (e.g., missed employee appointments, dismissing a subject before it is resolved)
  • Accusing and blaming
Interesting how these traits are on all fours with the domestic violence batterer/abuser. A few of the domestic violence classics that are missing are threats (implied and overt), economic control, circular arguments, illogical deduction, making statements and attributing them to the target. One could speculate on whether this person is also an abuser/batterer at home.

Hiam's and Berglas's recommendations for change are good -- recommendations for both the abusive boss and for those who work for one. Hiam focuses primarily on the boss who wants to change.

The problem with his remedies, however, is the assumption that the abusive manager or boss actually recognizes that they are the source of the problem and then seeks some sort of remedy. Chances are higher that they are oblivious to their issues and will need some intervention put directly in front of them before they actually see the mirror before them.

That intervening mirror usually comes from HR's having some form of consultant or change agent. Sometimes the recruiter fills that need as part of their consulting services to the client. These agents can have quite a healing effect on the organization that is amenable to healthy change and does not want to rely on living the life of perpetual victim with an excuse. "Bad-tempered bosses can breed dysfunctional offices" aptly describes several types of change agents.

One of the ways to avoid needing such agents, however, is to properly train your managers as you groom them for their position or conduct good screening and selection processes when you are recruiting and hiring.

Still, "Why managing pain is good business" is a sensible thing to do -- manage the dysfunction to avoid the burnout, dropout, potential lawsuits and overall costs. And the responsibility can reach further than HR. It can and should come from the community as well. "When Bosses Are Brutal," provides reasons for and examples of the community involvement in curing the illness.

We still have another dimension to this picture of the abusive work environment -- the hostile or violent co-worker or nonemployee.

Originally published August 14, 2001