HR View of “Horrible Bosses”

How to Handle “Horrible Bosses”

You may have seen the trailer for the upcoming big movie release “Horrible Bosses.” It features quite an all-star cast – Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jason Bateman, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and the list goes on – for a topic that hits home for many the average Joe. The movie takes things to an extreme – a plot to kill these so-called horrible bosses, but the frustration and dissatisfaction are feelings that all too many people can understand. As HR professionals, isn’t it our dream to live in a world where way less people can relate to this movie?

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The “horrible bosses” in the movie engage in all kinds of inappropriate behavior, such a sexual harassment, lying and deceit, cruel manipulation, and blatant prejudice. On the promotional poster for the movie it labels the three horrible bosses as Psycho, Man-Eater, and Tool.

What Is a Horrible Boss?

I think there are two general categories of bad bosses. Those that engage in behaviors and actions that are prohibited by law (and/or reprehensible), and those that never actually cross that line but fail to give you what need or don’t share your same values.

The first case, while much more serious, should have a much clearer course of action. There are clear rules and, if they are broken, offenders should be made known and receive appropriate consequences. In other words, employees in these situations need to report their problems.

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The latter category is greyer. There is a difference between a boss that you don’t like and a boss that doesn’t have the necessary management skills to do that part of their job well. Often the two go hand in hand, but not always.

Effect on Employees

The number one reason people leave companies is their relationship with their manager. It’s been proven over and over again in dozens of studies. Yes, compensation is important and usually one of the top five reasons, but it’s not number one. It’s in everyone’s best interests to try to get ahead of this problem and prevent unnecessary turnover.

How to Handle Complaints

Over the years, when employees have (often) come to me and said “I hate my boss” or “He/She is a terrible manager,” I usually start by asking them to really clarify what they mean. Do you think your boss is a bad person? Or, are you not getting what you need? Or, are you so different that you don’t understand each other? Asking these questions will provide a much clearer picture of what’s going on and whether or not it is can be improved.

I also often ask employees who they think is responsible for their happiness at work and for their relationships with others. Too often, employees expect their managers to read their minds, have all the answers, be perfect, and be solely focused on their individual happiness. While I’ll be the first one to say that some people just should not be responsible for managing others, it’s a two way street.

Employees Must Manage Up

Employees need to be accountable for their part by clarifying what they want and need from their boss, asking for it, and then speaking up if they don’t get it. Not everyone is very comfortable with this, so I used to use a “cheat sheet about me” that I would give them to fill out and share with each other, usually when it was a new reporting relationship. It was a simple index card that had questions like:

  1. One thing about this job that gets me up in the morning is ______________.
  2. One thing that really gets under my skin about people at work is ____________.
  3. For a job well done, I would rather (a) get an email from the CEO, (b) go out to lunch with the team or (c) get a gift or gift card and be left alone.

Managers Must Set the Tone

It’s also very important for a manager to set the tone for what it’s like to work with them and what they expect. Communication preferences are a huge area that often don’t get discussed in advance and can cause a lot of anxiety. Does your manager want to receive a ton of details as things happen or rather you save it all up for a meeting? If you need a question answered fairly quickly, would they rather you email them, call them, or pop by their office?

Knowing all of these things about each other can go a long way in laying the foundation for your relationship. By no means will this ensure that you enjoy everything about working with the person and it’s still often the case that it’s just not a good fit, but both parties should take the time to learn these things about each other upfront.

Employees and managers both depend on each other and that should be acknowledged up front, as it’s in both parties interests to help make each other successful. This type of dependency, especially when there is a lot at stake, requires a lot of trust and communication. Laying the ground rules and learning about each other’s styles upfront can go a long way in building a great relationship.


Eliza Polly
Solutions Consultant
PayScale, Inc.

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