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Hard times drive some mean bosses over edge

It’s hot. The economy stinks. And many bosses across the country seem to be caving under the pressure.
Kim Carney /

It’s hot. The economy stinks. And many bosses across the country seem to be caving under the pressure.

That’s bad news for workers like Mike, a senior-level employee for a communications company in the Northeast.

Mike, who did not want his real name used for fear of reprimand, says his boss has always been a Machiavellian, arrogant and condescending jerk, but lately he’s 10 times worse.

“He has no problem reminding me or anyone else that the economy is bad, we are losing clients, the job market is awful, hint-hint, and if we don't work our (butts) to the bone, not like we haven't been already, then trouble will begin,” he says. The remarks, he says, are “vague enough to not be accountable, yet specific enough to be threatening and keep everyone on edge.”

Marc Goormastic, the president of an executive search firm in Reno, Nev., tells of a CEO “threatening to throw a sales manager out of a second-story window because he hadn’t made his quota of personal sales calls.”

The behavior, he adds, “was totally unprofessional, and illegal.”

I’ve been hearing lots of hair-raising stories lately about bosses who may have had a tendency to be mean but are now acting like full-blown Darth Vaders. Many workplace experts believe tough economic times and the constant drumbeat to do more with fewer people may be driving managers over to the dark side.

“Employers are definitely getting meaner,” says Will Chen, managing editor of the career and personal finance blog Wise Bread. “I'm getting a lot of letters from readers complaining about negative behavior from their managers.”

Here are recent some examples from Chen:

  • Managers are especially snarky about granting sick leave or holiday pay.
  • Employee reviews are more negative than usual, perhaps due to the fact that managers are paving the way for a justified firing (so they don't have to do a layoff).
  • Employees are forced to do the work of two people without getting additional compensation.

Unfortunately, many workers feel they have to stay and take the abuse because of the economy.

More than one-third of American workers feel pressure to keep working for a bad boss because of the sputtering economy, according to a recent survey from Lake Research.

“There’s a real fear out there that they will not be able to find a new job if they leave their current one, and as a result, they are staying in bad jobs,” says Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the AFL-CIO’s Working America worker network.

Because of that, she adds, employers have a greater sense of impunity.

“During a down economy, and particularly when combined with the foreclosure crisis and rapidly rising energy costs, both managers and employees may be feeling increasing stress,” says Joshua Schwarz, a professor of management at Miami University in Ohio. “Under these circumstances, tempers may be shorter and statements may be interpreted in ways that confirm pre-existing fears. This could easily lead to perceptions that ‘managers are meaner.’”

While there are many people struggling, Schwartz points out that many individuals are worried even if their jobs or homes are not in any danger. He blames a 24-hour news cycle that has bombarded people with stories about the economy’s demise.

But, he admits, the field is slanted against the rank and file. The declining power of labor unions and a weak labor market have shifted bargaining power over to  employers. So, he says, “they have the power to be jerks if they want to.”

That, of course, is likely to be counterproductive. The last thing a manager needs is to have a disgruntled and unproductive work force. But that is just what happens when a manager rides people too hard.

“When (bosses) are mean their teams do not deliver great results, so they become more fearful,” says Sandy Gluckman, author of "Who’s in the Driver’s Seat: Using Spirit to Lead Successfully." “The more fearful they get, the more their ego takes control and the meaner they get. The meaner they get, the more the team shuts down and the less they are able to perform.”

Sometimes manager anxiety is a chain reaction that starts from the very top of an organization, says Matt Eventoff, an executive trainer.

“I recently worked with a team where the manager was perceived as getting ‘colder’ when in fact the director was just pushing for more output but wasn’t messaging it properly,” says Eventoff. “I have also worked with a team where the director was not handling the stresses being placed on him from corporate headquarters well and was in fact not just mismessaging, but being fairly ‘mean.’”

Most managers, Eventoff says, don’t try to see the world through their employees' eyes. Threatening employees with the loss of their jobs will backfire, especially when superstar employees hear that message enough times and hit the road.

The managers who are going to do well in this environment are those who handle stress well,  advises executive search expert Goormastic. That means using stress management tools like  exercise, meditation and time alone — away from the TV and the BlackBerry. “It may sound touchy-feely,” he says, but “the people that become successful leaders are those who can stay calm and cool under fire.”

For workers who are unlucky enough to have a stressed-out and mean boss, there are a host of things you can try.

You can approach your manager and talk to him or her about their behavior. Sometimes people don’t realize how their actions are hurting those around them.

Keep in mind that this can backfire and ignite an even bigger fire under a mean manager. So be sure to be diplomatic when you approach your boss, ask for a private meeting and do it at a time of day when work isn’t crazy and there’s a moment to throttle back a bit.

I’m also an advocate of going over a bad boss’ head if the behavior starts to border on abusive. No one should ever have to take that from anyone.

And finally, there’s always saying goodbye. I know this isn’t the ideal option, especially in this economy, but your mental health sometimes has to trump financial health.