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How to handle a bad boss (without killing them)

Do disgruntled workers really want to do in their bad managers, or is this just Hollywood hype? Here’s how you can deal with a horrible boss.
The new movie ‘Horrible Bosses’ tells the tale of three disgruntled employees who seek vengeance on their manager. John P. Johnson / Warner Bros

Imagine managers so bad that workers want to actually kill them.

That’s the premise of “Horrible Bosses,” which hits theaters this week and tells the tale of three disgruntled employees who seek vengeance. It’s not the first time such a story line has been used in the movies. The 1980s film “9 to 5” was also about employees wanting to bump off a jerky boss.

Do disgruntled workers really want to do in their managers, or is this just Hollywood hype? Turns out, most employees don’t resort to violence, but they do daydream about harm coming to their horrible bosses, and many find not-so-brutal ways to get revenge.

Craig G. from Des Moines, Iowa, escaped his “worst boss” in January. Even though he’s now unemployed following a mass layoff, Craig doesn’t miss his manager’s bad behavior, which included lying, stealing his ideas, constant F-bombs and threatening comments.

“Once he told me, and I quote: ‘What you’re doing is good, but you've got to do ten times more or the sales team will filet you,’” recalled Craig, 47, who did not want his full name used in this column for fear of jeopardizing his prospects for a new job.

Even though he said he’s not a vindictive man, Craig said his boss drove him so crazy he wouldn’t mind some payback.

“I really hope the karma fairy poops on his doorstep someday, and he slips and breaks that bad hip he has,” he said.

A bad boss can drive even the most rational employee to become irrational, and in tough economic times problems with crummy managers have become more pronounced because so many people feel trapped in their jobs.

“Now more than ever, employees feel held captive by their bosses, primarily because the economy is so bad,” explained Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, a company that trains managers at a host of Fortune 500 companies.

“As a result, I think some people legitimately hate their bosses,” he continued. “It’s a powerful relationship, reminiscent of an abusive relationship sometimes.”

Indeed, a survey released Tuesday by staffing company OfficeTeam finds that 46 percent of those polled reported having worked for an “unreasonable boss.” Of those respondents to the survey, nearly 60 percent said they stayed in their job, compared to 11 percent who left right away and 27 percent who left eventually when they were able to secure another position.

Interestingly, the movies “9 to 5” and “Horrible Bosses” both debuted during tough economic times. Even so, hiring a hit man to knock off your boss isn’t at the top of the list of how employees deal with a jerky supervisor.

According to Christine Porath, assistant professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” while 94 percent of people do get even with managers or colleagues that exhibit bad behavior, “they choose a less violent route.”

Only about 1 percent of employees react by physically attacking the instigator, she found in her research; 17 percent resort to yelling and 6 percent reported they verbally threatened the culprit.

Most employees, however, find more underhanded ways to retaliate, Porath continued. In her survey of about 1,000 employees and managers from a cross section of industries she found that bad behavior resulted in the following:

  • 48 percent intentionally decreased work effort.
  • 47 percent intentionally decreased time at work.
  • 38 percent intentionally decreased work quality.
  • 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63 percent lost time avoiding the offender.
  • 66 percent said their performance declined.
  • 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined.
  • And 12 percent said they exited the organization as a result of their uncivil treatment.

The cost to organizations from poor managers can be big. While some bad bosses think their behavior shows they’re tough and in control, she said, it ends up coming back to “bite them in the butt” in loss of productivity and high turnover.

Indeed, Michael, 25, who works for a consumer products company in Georgia (but didn’t want his full name used in this story in case his constantly condescending boss identifies him) has found himself slacking at work, and he’s sending out resumes every day.

“I think this guy is manic depressive,” he explained. “He switches gears quickly from telling us ‘you guys are doing great’ to telling us what we do is absolutely crap in the span of 30 seconds.”

While Michael hates to admit it, he said the off-the-wall actions of his boss have impacted his work and the work of his colleagues who also despise the boss.

“Most of us just take his instruction with a grain of salt now, knowing he’ll either change it, hate it or forget about it,” he said. “I won’t say we do the bare minimum, but we work only hard enough to please his ego and not for what would be best for our product and the company.”

Of course, it’s never a good idea to let your work falter, even if your boss is driving you crazy. Karsh suggests workers first approach the bad boss and try to discuss their concerns.

“Many times employees are so intimidated they won’t have a discussion,” he noted. “I call that the playground bully phenomenon, but the bully won’t stop until someone stands up to them.”

He suggests saying something like, “Let’s sit down and talk about how we might be able to work better together,” or, “When you do this, it makes me feel like this.”

If speaking with your boss doesn’t work, he added, you have to go above his or her head to either a higher-level manager or human resources. And finally, if speaking with a more senior manager or human resources doesn’t work, it’s time to start sending out resumes.

For those who can’t find a new gig, you may find comfort in the fact that sometimes the worst bosses teach us a lot.

“I call it ‘the Prada Effect,’ as in ‘The Devil Wears,’” said Seth Rabinowitz, a partner at management consulting firm Silicon Associates, referring to the movie about a fashion magazine editor who browbeats her employees.

“Less cynical and thicker-skinned employees, if they can tolerate abrasiveness, can learn a tremendous amount,” he said. “Eccentric bosses, frequently founders of a company for example, are often seen as terrible managers, and they often are, but it’s how they communicate that can be isolated as the problem, with an enormous contrast with the efficacy of what they demand which can be Mozart-esque perfection.”

Brina Bujkovsky, 37, had a horrible boss named Dave when she was in her twenties and working in software development. He would blame her for his mistakes and make inappropriate comments, showing her — and other women in the office — off to customers saying, “Look at all the pretty girls that work for me,” she said. “It was really sick and weird.”

But in the end, she said, she learned from the experience, and is now her own boss running The Younique Boutique, a website that specializes in custom gifts and is based in San Marcos, Calif.

“I learned to be respectful of my employees and always accept as much blame as I personally can because ultimately, as the leader, my employees failures are ultimately my own fault,” she said.

As for wanting to kill her ex-boss?

“I’m not a violent person,” Bujkovsky said. “Looking back, I would have told a younger me to find another job.”