Mackey used to keep snacks in a cabinet near their desk to share with officemates. Nothing unusual about that except that Mackey recalls it prompted an incident with a supervisor. “They once took a box of them out and shook it directly in my face while making pig-like sounds.” Mackey says this was par for the course with this particular supervisor, “along with the insults, ‘jokes’ and general incompetence.”
This all happened about 10 years ago in a government job, according to Mackey, who initially opted to stay quiet. It wasn’t long before they started hearing from direct reports that they were experiencing the same, or often worse, behavior. “I documented it all and took it to our department supervisor, who ran it up the chain of command,” Mackey says, but ultimately nothing changed.
Mackey resigned after accepting another job offer and moved out of the area. “After I saw that executive management was not taking it seriously and that those who reported the situations were labeled as difficult, I left the organization,” they say.
Mackey, unfortunately, isn’t alone. An oft-cited Gallup study of more than 27 million employees revealed that more than half of American employees have left their jobs because of a bad manager. That means that there is no shortage of bad bosses. So Fast Company asked readers to send in their worst experiences, and the stories rolled in from people in a variety of industries. Several individuals, like Mackey, agreed to let us publish theirs on the condition they remain anonymous, so their names have been changed.
Mona’s story also might sound familiar. A staffer for a public relations agency that served the advertising industry, Mona says that her boss was a racist, sexist, egomaniacal founder “with a severe god complex.” She witnessed employees crying in the hallways after he publicly berated them. Then she says, when he also tried to empower employees by giving them more responsibility, he micromanaged even the most experienced individuals over minutiae like scheduling. “He hated not knowing things,” she explains, “and fired clients when he didn’t know how to work for them and blamed it on said clients or other employees.”
Mona says she tried to implement structural changes through more senior employees who were on board with her ideas. However, with this leader, she says, “everyone eventually got fired for wanting better.”
A similar thing happened to Cherie back in 2012 when she was working for an organization that handled traffic cameras. She describes her boss as a “horrible, abusive, and narcissistic” individual who thrived on belittling his employees in public. “On numerous occasions, he set me and my colleagues up to look inept to our CIO,” she says. But the last straw, according to Cherie was when he mocked her for reporting a bed bug bite to HR. “Our building was infested with them,” she recalls. Cherie eventually reported him to HR, who she says did nothing even though she claims that the turnover rate under his leadership was 200%. “Eventually I quit,” she says.
Bad behavior in leaders often gets excused because we tend to prize the positive characteristics that often come along with this sort of conduct (such as excellent sales skills, confidence, or decisiveness). Reporting it is essential both to HR and on outside platforms says Laura Handrick, career and workplace analyst for FitSmallBusiness.com. She told Fast Company in a previous report that employees can rate their company’s management on Glassdoor, Indeed, and Owler.
“Bad bosses always get exposed,” she said. “If you have an HR department or feel comfortable taking your concerns to your bosses’ boss, do so respectfully. Share how the boss’s dark side is damaging the company, hurting clients, violating policy or values, or affecting your ability to be productive. It may take many voices and examples for them to take notice, but eventually, they will see a pattern.”
Of course, calling out bad actors to HR may not always work in the employee’s favor. As Fast Company’s Liz Segran noted in an earlier article, “The department is meant to advocate on behalf of employees, but it is still subordinate to the company’s leadership. If the leaders of the company are themselves misbehaving or not taking employees who bring up problems seriously, HR departments are probably not going to be empowered to set the company on the right course.”
Sometimes the bad behavior isn’t apparent right away, though. In Mike’s case, his boss started out as friendly and jovial. But things quickly fell apart. Mike had been working for four years at the software company in question when his boss first joined. Mike suspects he got the job because he was buddies with the CEO.
This boss would have Mike put together plans, projects, documents, and schedules that would take hours to complete and never read them. “But he would criticize them in meetings with my peers.” Mike’s job responsibilities were taken away one by one in a very public way, he recalls, but he would still be required to accomplish those same tasks in the background.
“I later learned that he wanted to bring in his friend to do my job,” Mike says, “but I was a highly regarded, top-rated employee, so he had to gradually tear me down.” He also started to do this to one of Mike’s colleagues whom he did not like. “It was an impossible situation,” says Mike, “until they both were fired.”
This is the upside of having employees consistently report bad behavior, according to Jennifer A. Griffith, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire. “We do see examples of what happens when a small number of employees do not engage in toxic or unethical behaviors as anticipated or expected—such as Wells Fargo—the broader organization is often called upon to rethink their policies,” she told Fast Company previously.
Alison, who worked in politics, had a boss who displayed a full complement of despicable traits over the course of six to eight months. He subjected her to inappropriate touching, suggestive comments, and leering, while also frequently dumping his emotional problems on her. “He held several closed-door ‘psychotherapy’ sessions about my ‘moods’ then ignored my contributions at work,” she recalls. When she told him in writing that she’d spoken to his superior about his behavior, he got vindictive, then ignored her completely. “This was fine,” she says, “because I absolutely loathe him and had zero respect for him.”
Alison moved on shortly thereafter. “I am at a much better place now with colleagues who respect one another, and the work is much more meaningful,” she says. It’s important to recognize the signs of stress that can come with working in a toxic environment. Focusing on the positive may help in the short-term, but studies reveal that this can increase your risk of developing heart disease.
Andrea Goeglein, author of Don’t Die With Vacation Time on the Books, says that if nothing else, it’s important to pay attention to how you are dealing with the daily toll through the small decisions you may throughout the day. “It’s easier to grab that candy bar or have a second drink,” Goeglein previously told Fast Company. “It takes conscious awareness to recognize why we are making those choices. . . . You can never control bad bosses, but you can control how you respond.”