(An expanded piece has been published here that provides some additional thoughts from my sources.)
Whether you fire everyone on a group Zoom call or dump someone’s last paycheck on their lawn in oily pennies, there are lots of ways to be a jerk boss. What has happened thanks to Covid is that the tables are slowly turning and employees’ tolerance for the jerkiness is dropping quickly. This could be one reason why we have so many job openings. A recent NY Times article describes the situation.
Over my career, I’ve had two exceptionally jerky bosses. One who fired me and one where I eventually quit. Let’s call them Boss A and Boss B. Both were men with oversize egos that you couldn’t help but trip over in your daily tasks. This resulted in a lot of “walking on eggshells” in the office so as not to set them off. Both had poor leadership skills, meaning that they didn’t understand how to motivate their employees other than giving them direct orders, often at high volumes. Neither could build a consensus – indeed often they tore them down, with one exception: Both were good at getting their staffs to rally around a common enemy – the jerk boss himself. Both men couldn’t tolerate a different point of view than their own and wouldn’t pass up a moment to intimidate where they could.
Boss A hired me and moved me across country to take my job, and then proceeded to give me all the responsibility and almost no authority to do it. It didn’t help that one of my direct reports was really working for Boss A as a spy: meaning he was telling my boss what I was doing wrong and other comments that I had about the boss. Eventually, he couldn’t tolerate my independence and fired me one day as I arrived in the office. Effective immediately. At least, I was fired face-to-face and not over the phone or some video conference.
Boss B didn’t respect any of his employees, and probably was one of the worst bosses that I have ever worked for. He would harangue them in public at ear-splitting volume. He would give two of his staff assignments that would guarantee one would come into conflict with the other, just to see who would reign supreme in an office version of “Iron Chef” or some other reality show. He had just one important skill: how to manage up, so that his superiors kept him running the operation even though his staff would come and go. Those of us who quit became “dead to him,” as he would say to our faces when we offered our resignations. One time, he was running a conference in St. Louis and I wanted to stop by and see some of my former colleagues. He proceeded to shout at me and told me that I wasn’t welcome to walk around the conference venue and made everyone feel uncomfortable. This was years after I had quit.
The Times article doesn’t touch on my own circumstances with one of my jerk bosses: leaving to work for my own business. I was surprised that this situation wasn’t even mentioned in the sources interviewed, and that disgruntled staffers took other corporate jobs – hopefully for non-jerky bosses.
I asked my friend Ximena Veliz, who is an emotional coach and mentor to people all over the world, about her clientele. She told me that by the time they come to her, all of them have decided to leave their current jobs thanks to jerk bosses, and she tries to help frame their circumstances, so they don’t make the same mistakes in the next job. The worst combination is women who work for women bosses, and that Covid has made things a lot worse, especially when companies are trying to switch back to in-person offices who have been operating remotely. “No one wants to go back to an office, no matter where they work.” Europeans are even more polarized about Covid, she told me: their population seems to be split down the middle with people who believe Covid isn’t real or not as much of a threat with people who do. That can make for some stressful workplace dynamics, to be sure.
What we need is a personality test to determine the jerky level of your boss to guide your own decision-making – and perhaps for those few jerks that are willing to reform their ways.
- Is there a mismatch of authority and responsibility? Rate the percentage of time that this happens, and to score in points divide this by ten. (0-10 points)
- How often does your boss take credit for your ideas? Give a 10 for always, 5 for only half of the time, or 0 for never.
- Is the volume knob permanently set at 11? Score 20 points for yes, 10 for more than half the time, or 1 for rarely.
- When you get together with your colleagues at breaks or lunch, how long does it take someone to start the gripe session about the jerk boss? Score 10 points for almost always or fewer points otherwise.
- Where do you get most of your motivation to do your job?
- From your own internal satisfaction (10)
- From your colleagues or people that report to you (7)
- From both a and b equally (5)
- Never have any direct praise from your boss (0)
If you scored 40 points or higher, leave that job now. Start thinking about your own business or where you want to live and work. In the 30s, time to brush up your LinkedIn profile and get a few recommendations. In the 20s, tough it out for now but keep your eyes open. Less than 10 points: you are blessed!