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How to Tell if You Have (or Are) a Bad Boss

I had a student in my office the other day complaining about how his boss was so bad it made him want to change careers. So I asked him to tell me more about the bad boss.

Him: “To start with, he’s sarcastic. ”

Me: “Is he hurtful, cruel or demeaning with his sarcasm?” Him: “No. I just don’t like it, and it seems unprofessional.” Me: “It sounds like you don’t like his communication style, but to be honest, that by itself wouldn’t put him on my ‘bad bosses’ list. “

Him: “But he also doesn’t pay me like he says he will. He said I’d get a $2,000 bonus on every deal I close, but he only gave me $1700.”

Me: “It sounds like he took out taxes.”

Him: “Yeah, that’s what he said, but he didn't give me a detailed pay stub to prove it.”

Me: "Was your last W-2 correct?"

Him: "Yes."

Me: “The kind of boss that gives performance bonuses, keeps your paperwork accurately and makes sure you’re not hit with a surprise tax bill at the end of the year is a lot better than most.”

I’ve been surprised recently by how many young people have been complaining to me about bad managers. Some of them, like this student, simply have no frame of reference, so their expectations are not always realistic. Others have found themselves in situations that are abusive, unethical or even illegal. Sadly, the students in the latter group often endure more than they should, while the ones in the former group often give up on their managers too quickly.

So how can you tell if you really have a bad boss, or if you’re just being too hard on your simply-human boss?

Bad Boss Checklist:

  1. Good bosses are in compliance with federal and state employment laws, including FLSA, OSHA, EEOC, Workman's Comp. and ADA guidelines. Workplaces must be safe, in every sense of the word.

  2. Good bosses set clear expectations about performance, compensation and promotion policies, and they apply them consistently across all employees.

  • Be clear on timelines and expectations for promotions to avoid misunderstandings and disappointment

  • Make sure all employees, including bosses, are held to the same performance policies. “Do as I say, not as I do” bosses will have nothing but short-timers and under-performers working for them.

  1. Good bosses communicate respectfully. I hear horror stories of bosses who scream, berate, curse and humiliate employees. Management by fear only works until employees find their next jobs. Great bosses not only communicate with respect, they also communicate appreciation for good work when possible.

Sometimes bosses can meet all of the above, but you are still dissatisfied with your boss's performance. Below are some common issues that demonstrate that bosses are people too, and while they're seldom perfect, they might still be effective.

Average Boss Checklist:

  1. Human bosses have all sorts of communication styles and personal quirks. Great bosses adjust their communication styles to the needs of their employees, but most bosses are human, so it’s common for workers to adapt to their boss’s styles.

  2. Human bosses make mistakes. Before you assume your boss is an idiot, incompetent, lazy, or out to get you, try to give them the benefit of the doubt before you give up on them. An occasional mistake or oversight is human, and often reflects misunderstanding or over-extension more than a terminal flaw. In the same way you’d want a boss to be patient with an occasional mistake on your part, try to be patient and keep communication lines positive and open with bosses as well. Great bosses have open communication lines to address these things quickly, but merely human bosses are still developing this skill.

  3. Human bosses prioritize profit over people. There is so much in the media about fun and exciting workplace practices, that many have forgotten these were developed because some companies found it could ultimately improve their profitability. Great bosses are extremely focused on the needs and growth of their people, but even they will sometimes ask you to work in a way that is inconvenient or unexciting, because it promotes profitability. In these situations, remember that profitability is what pays your salary, so profit should be your priority as well. Although the great bosses who prioritize their people tend to have great profitability as well, often through their ability to hire and retain the best performers.

Human/average bosses are not "bad" bosses. Bad bosses regularly violate the first checklist descriptions of good bosses. But bosses are people, too. Great bosses mostly transcend the issues described for human bosses, but these people are rare, and the employees who find them don’t often leave to create new openings, so most of us have several average bosses before experiencing great ones.

So the morals of the story are:

If you have a boss who is merely human, don’t give up on them too quickly. Every great boss was once a merely human boss. With a little patience and positive communication, you can help your merely human boss become the boss you dream of!

If you have a bad boss, particularly if they’ve created an unsafe, non-compliant workplace, then there are better bosses out there – go find one!

And if you are a merely human boss (or worse, an actual bad boss!), the moral of the story is that better bosses get better employees which leads to better results, so you'll often get more results from improving your management style than you will from complaining about your employees.

In the end, we all want a positive and productive workplace. I truly believe that most people do not wake up in the morning dreaming of new ways to screw up their jobs and make their coworkers miserable. If you operate with this assumption, then you can often find ways to improve less-than-ideal work situations. But again, if the workplace is downright safe and non-compliant -- get out!

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