Bosses From Hell.And What You Can Learn From Them

You may hate your old bosses like Lucifer, but you can learn from them. Just don't join their minions.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the February 2001 issue of . Subscribe »

Cam Marston didn't want to look at the face across the desk. He didn't like his latest assignment, but what could he do? His boss had ordered him to fire this employee, a nice guy who may not have been a brilliant worker but was coming along. However, the company was pretty successful: "I figured my boss knew what he was doing," explains Marston. And so if this had been a movie western instead of an average day in 1996, here's the part where the then-26-year-old Marston would have cocked his pistol-and fired.

The employee went down, pale and frightened. And then he pleaded, "But why . . . ?"
"It's just a management decision, based on the way you fit in here," said Marston, who actually had no clue why this poor schmuck was getting the ax. "I thought this was going to be the one," the employee gasped, shell-shocked, rubbing his hands through his hair. "I really like it here. I liked the product." Then he started to cry.
"I'm sorry," Marston wheezed. "I'm really sorry." Eyes red, hair a mess, the employee slunk back to his desk and gathered his photos of his wife and children. He clutched his coffee cup and some pencils, and he started the long, miserable trek out of the office. His shoulders were stooped, and though tall, he looked very small. But just before he reached the exit, Marston's boss emerged. He was, Marston swears, a beady-eyed man with veins popping out of his neck. "Wait a minute," the boss said. "Cam just fired you, right?"
"Y-y-yes. What's going on?"
"Well, you're not let go," the boss announced cheerfully. "I just wanted to see if Cam was able to fire you. I didn't think he had the strength to do that. You're not fired; get back on the phones. Cam, good job! Come into my office."

The Boss From Hell. Most of us have worked for one. He or she is the employer who, no doubt about it, was sent from Satan below to make our lives miserable. The one who wields power like a Third World dictator with a nuclear bomb. The one who may be the big cheese, and this cheese is rancid. And you, with your meager benefits and opportunities, stayed with that molding cheese, like a starving mouse with nowhere else to go. Until you finally made your escape. So it's a good chance to ask yourself: What did I learn from my boss from hell? Am I a better boss for having worked for somebody who made Jack the Ripper seem like a stand-up guy? Or, like your dad and his inexplicable love for polka music and your surprising appreciation for the genre, does the apple fall not far from the tree?

Geoff Williams once had a boss from hell, or at least heck. She would frown at him as he was leaving work on a Friday, and he would worry about it until Monday morning, when he could then gauge whether she had actually been angry at him or had just been constipated.

Are You A Jerk?

If you've morphed into a boss from hell, you're going to lose more than a popularity contest. Mean or devious bosses will "experience low productivity, employees who will not make decisions, high turnover and the inability to recruit a quality staff," predicts Toni Talbot, owner of Human Resource Management Services in Williamston, Michigan. "Bosses from hell will eventually end up taking the company to hell because no company can survive that kind of management style. Not today, not in this economy." If you had a wretched boss who treated you like a galley slave, relax (a little): Chances are, you've already sworn never to treat your own employees that way. But if you worked for a tyrant and stayed on his or her good side, you may have subconsciously decided the tyrant's tirades weren't a bad way to go.

As with watching the gazelles on a National Geographic special, there are signs that can clue you in that the animals are upset. (By the way, tip No. 1: Never refer to your employees as "animals.") Few people likely aspire to be the boss from hell. Sharon Jordan-Evans, co-author of Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay, suggests three warning signs of unhappy employees:

1. Avoidance behavior. "If this person doesn't ever seek you out, chat with you, share information readily with you, those are clues that the employee isn't comfortable with you. It doesn't mean you're a jerk; it might be you're just not very approachable."

2. Visible drop in productivity and morale; increased absenteeism. "If people don't seem very enthused, it's time to look in the mirror because very often it has to do with the boss."

3. Heavy turnover. "If you had a revolving door, wouldn't you get the idea that you have something to do with that? But I can't tell you how many bosses don't get it. They say 'Yup, that's just our industry.' And they don't even check. Or they blame it on the age group: 'Well, they just change jobs all the time.' They find other excuses."

What They Learned

Kevin S. Grangier is president of CarryOn Communication, a publicity firm in Beverly Hills, California, that opened in 1998. But before that, he worked for a multitude of employers. Some were good; some were not-like the boss who would often tell Grangier to fight the heavy traffic and bring her paperwork to her house because she didn't want to do it herself. "It was a one-hour drive-each way," he sighs.

That same boss once told Grangier that if he wanted to leave the office early to catch a flight for Thanksgiving weekend, it would have to come out of his vacation time. So he offered to work on the airplane, which the boss readily agreed to, as long as Grangier didn't want to be paid for that time. But she did expect him to bill the client (at $275 an hour) for the period spent working on the airplane.

"I quit a few months after that," reports Grangier, who says his own company is the antithesis of most of the companies he worked for in the past. "My philosophy is that if you create an environment that's fun to work in and respect your employees, they'll be happy," he says. "If they're happy, they'll do good work, and if they do good work, of course, the client will be happy."

Grangier readily admits it isn't easy keeping employees in good spirits, especially when you're experiencing rapid growth. In a recent span of nine months, Grangier went from five employees to 32, and his firm, which brought in $5 million in 2000, expects $9 million this year. "It's easy to lose that comfortable atmosphere. It can happen overnight if you allow it to," says Grangier, who says he's passed on some big accounts simply because he knew it would tax his staff. "[But] I don't want employees dropping off like flies. Why would I want to do anything to jeopardize something I've spent so much time on?"

Heaven can appear through the clouds after working for the boss from hell. In Marston's case, he quit a few weeks after being forced to fire his colleague, and in 1996, he and his mother, Judy Marston, started Marston Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina. And now Cam's life's work is to consult with employers who have trouble relating to their under-35 employees. In short, Marston Communications' goal is to forever rid the world of bosses from hell.

And just how do you do that? It's not hard. At least, not on paper. "Be absolutely honest," says Marston. "Don't try to deceive: You can never get away with it. And no one is an experiment. This is not a laboratory for you to see what would happen if-these are people's lives you're dealing with."

Then Marston reveals what is probably the best lesson any employer can learn: "People aren't loyal to companies; they're loyal to people they like."


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