New year, new job, new boss? Sarah Lang talks to women about toxic bosses – and is somewhat shocked to hear their stories. Plus, why not interview a prospective new boss yourself?
Welcome to our series, The Work Diaries – a space for you to share your experiences, advice, stories about bad bosses, crazy colleagues and wild workplaces. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice about how to navigate tricky waters in the workplace, alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences of failures, successes and difficult situations you’ll still trying to get your head around.
If you have a topic you’d like to discuss, share your thoughts, experience or advice about, drop a line to [email protected].
Aucklander Beth*, now 32, landed her dream job aged 22 – one she never expected to get. Beth doesn’t want to be named or even share her occupation “because the industry is too small”. But she does want to share her story in case it helps others.
A week or so in, Beth realised her boss was a bully. A few weeks in, Beth realised she was way worse than that. Soon, Beth started to feel extremely stressed each day. “My boss kept making comments that undermined me, and made nasty comments about others. I never knew what she’d do next. I felt like I needed eyes in the back of my head to assess what her mood was so I could placate her or alter my behaviour to divert her.”
“I found out things second-hand in dribs and drabs,” Beth adds, “and I saw things happen first-hand. The stories I could tell! Bullying was like a sport to her. She was absolutely a narcissist. I later talked to other employees about whether she was a psychopath or a sociopath. We think probably a psychopath.”
Beth broke out in rashes, had to start taking anti-depressants, and developed a chronic illness. “It seems crazy to me now that I didn’t just leave, but it was my big break.” After two years, Beth left – but the damage had been done. She had to go on the sickness benefit for a year before she was well enough to return to the workplace. “I can’t say my boss definitely caused my ill-health but I’m almost sure it was a contributing factor.”
Did Beth ever complain about her boss to the HR department or the CEO? “It actually never occurred to me to do that. I just thought I had to ‘like it or lump it’. If I lodged a complaint and she found that out, I would be scared shitless.”
Toxic Bosses: More common than you’d think
Toxic bosses fall along a spectrum from mean to bully to sociopath and everything in between. We’re using the term to describe someone higher up in the hierarchy at work who consistently treats you badly. Depending on your position and the organisation’s size, your toxic boss may be a CEO or a manager – usually whoever you’re reporting directly to.
How many of us have had to deal with toxic bosses? It’s more like, how many of us haven’t? While Beth’s story might seem extreme, start talking to women and their stories about toxic bosses come thick and fast. Manipulation, bullying, intimidation, lying, nasty comments, yelling, gaslighting (the latter being when someone manipulates someone else to make them question their own reality). For many women, the experience erodes their self-confidence and, for some, it badly affects their health. It’s not unlike being in a toxic or even abusive personal relationship, except it happens at work not at home.
One woman started having nightmares about her (suspectedly) psychopathic boss and became an alcoholic. One woman’s boss told her off for mislaying a file when actually the boss had it all along, and continued gaslighting her. One woman half-jokes that she had twins to push herself to quit.
Olivia*, a 27-year-old academic, says “my manager has a toxic way of interacting that makes me feel deeply insecure. For the longest time I assumed it was me, but it turns out many people feel weird about him. He does this thing where any question is framed as an insult: ‘Why would you think that’s what needs to happen’?” He mansplains everything, makes drama out of nothing, and makes me feel like things that were actual problems should not be. I’d leave every meeting thinking I was stupid, and often cry later.”
She got support from a women’s group within her workplace. “I initially avoided talking about it because I cry when I’m angry and frustrated. And I did. But they were wonderful and gave me a mantra to think about when I had meetings with him. It sounds silly, but it was ‘I’m a butterfly in a field of lavender’. Plus, I’m glad I learned that other women have had similar experiences with him. It really helps that one of my other senior colleagues is amazing to me, otherwise I would have quit already.”
Has Olivia considered making a complaint? “I wouldn’t really know what to say. There hasn’t been anything specific that was ‘bad enough’ to complain about. But others in the women’s group pointed out that the organisation wants to know even this ‘hard-to-pinpoint’ stuff because it can accumulate and show a pattern.” She hasn’t spoken to the HR department yet. “Maybe I will. It’s tricky. I know I should, for the sake of others and a paper trail. But it sounds like a lot of stress. And it’s already stressful enough.”
Several women noted that some toxic bosses are charming depending on who they’re with, which can detract attention from any bad behaviour. You know, as in other people think they’re great, so what’s the problem? Others note it’s often superficially charming narcissists who can manoeuvre themselves into positions of power.
The Toxic boss: It’s happened to more than half of us
As reported in Newswire, a study by global leadership consulting firm DDI shows 57 percent of employees have quit a job because of their boss. Wowsers. An additional 32 percent have seriously considered leaving because of their boss. “People leave bosses,” the story says. “The research proves the old trope: people leave managers, not companies.”
There are all sorts of reasons why people may stay in a job with a toxic boss. Most significantly, many people can’t quit because they need the money and there might not be as good a job, if any job at all, that they can get – especially if it’s a small industry, or they live in a rural area. Some people don’t have the confidence to leave, because their confidence has been eroded. Some people blame themselves. Many hang in there hoping something will change, trying everything to help improve the dynamic.
To complain or not to?
First, although it might be really daunting, have a conversation with your boss somewhere private where you won’t be interrupted. If your boss recognises that at least some of what you express is valid, as opposed to denying it or turning it around on you, that’s a start. If they agree to try and change the dynamic, even better.
Unfortunately power dynamics are hard to break and it’s hard for people to change ingrained behaviours. If you really don’t think your boss’s bad behaviour toward you will change, your options are put up with it, complain or quit.
Putting up with it? Maybe okay in the short term, but it may take an ongoing toll on your health. Sometimes it’s only after you leave that you realise the extent of that.
Complaints? Processes differ from organisation to organisation. We’re definitely not experts, so look this topic up elsewhere, starting with Employment NZ’s webpages on this.
But here are a few possible initial steps. If there’s an HR person, talk to them, asking that your concerns are kept private, initially at least. Find out what the complaint protocol is and start the process; for instance, writing a memo detailing specific incidents. Sometimes a pile of complaints and/or HR exit interviews can build a case to get rid of the toxic person, and yours might help that happen. If there’s no HR person, approach someone higher in the hierarchy that you trust for advice. If there’s a union, consider contacting them.
Something mentioned by multiple women is that it’s hard to demonstrate that all sorts of ‘little’ (for instance, manipulative, or passive-aggressive) things can add up to a big problem. It’s easier to make a complaint when there’s something specific, apparent to others and thus more easily actionable – for instance, if someone heard your boss call you a terrible name. But in case it helps later, keep notes about what happened and when.
Many women question whether it’s worth complaining at all. Nicki, in her mid-40s, who works in a central-government agency, once quit a job because of a toxic boss. So yeah, it happens in the public sector too. “I’ve never yet seen a good outcome, when someone else tries to raise concerns. Almost every time, the organisation closes ranks, ignores it, hopes the issue goes away. For example, a senior manager that everyone knew had behavioural challenges… bad enough that people quit, but it was tolerated due to upwards [hierarchical] relationships.” “I used to get worked up about unfairness, but I’ve given up entirely now.” In her experience, good bosses stay good and bad ones stay bad. “It’s hard to change behaviours as an adult. I find it’s far easier to smile, say very little, and move on. I’m very aware, though, that some people can easily find new work, while others have less ability to just walk. Keep this all absolutely anonymous please – it’s a career risk to speak out!”
Could we interview them too?
When we’re at job interviews, it’s about us impressing them, right? Yes. But it’s also about finding out whether the job is a good fit for us – and a big part of that comes down to who, and how, your prospective boss is. You might not want to say during the interview ‘hey, let’s switch so I can interview you instead,’ but you can ask careful questions.
Yes, this may feel uncomfortable or even counter-intuitive if you worry they’ll think it’s inappropriate or over-the-top, but a) they may actually appreciate you asking the questions and b) if they don’t appreciate it, you’ve learned a lot about them from just that. Plus, there’s a tight job market right now.
You can also do some ‘pre-scoping’. Ally*, a Dunedin teacher aged 48, says that when she’s interested in a job, she asks to come into the school, to observe and talk to other staff members and the principal – to see if their values and ways of working align with hers. Ally does this before applying. She reckons it helps that they have a (usually good) impression of her before deciding who to interview.
Another woman asked if, after being offered a job, she could visit for a week to see if she gelled with her potential boss and colleagues. She decided not to proceed. “
The blog post ‘How To Interview Your Next Boss’ by the American Society of Administrative Professionals offers excellent suggestions. As it states, “research has shown most people who leave their jobs, don’t leave the organisation; they leave the person whom they directly report to. Isn’t this person the biggest indicator of how successful you will be in your new work? Before you accept that new job, we suggest that you find out as much as you can about the person that can make or break your work life. We’re not suggesting you interrogate or aggressively question him or her, but a tactful conversation is in order. Before the interview, find out as much about the person as you can online and from social media.”
Before the interview, “think about what is important to you in a boss and the work environment as you develop your questions.” For example, ‘What type of person do you work best with?’ ‘How do you typically handle mistakes or errors by your staff?’.”
When at the interview, watch as well as ask. “Observe body language. You’ll want to look for signs that show whether the person is open or closed. Can he or she laugh at himself/herself? Are they able to admit mistakes or flaws? Do they exhibit empathy and values that you can support?”
No? Well, that might be a no thanks.