terrible bosses

‘My Boss’s Incompetence Fills Me With Rage!’

Photo-Illustration: Marcus Peabody/Getty

What makes a boss truly terrible — and how should you deal with it? Advice columnist Alison Green addresses the stories of your worst bosses ever, as part of a weeklong series about what makes a bad boss, and why we’re so tortured by them.

Dear Boss,

My boss was super nice. Really charming. Everyone thought she was lovely. But she was also really bad at her job. She’d usually get an assignment from the CEO — like, “This juice company is asking for a proposal; put this together” — and she would draw something up and send it to me and ask me to look it over. I’d open it and it’d be a fucking disaster. It looked like Microsoft paint, all different fonts, things off the page. I’d put aside time to completely redo this whole thing for her and it was usually so awful that I’d have to scrap the whole thing and redo it. I could have said, “I think you missed the mark. Give it another try.” But it’s awkward telling your boss that their work is really bad. 

She started to rely on me to help with the other aspects of her job. Meanwhile, she’s getting bigger accounts and resentment is bubbling within me because I know what’s happening behind the scenes. I would just have to step out once every hour and smoke a cigarette to calm myself down. It was 24/7 rage. She would send me an email or make an off-hand comment and I would just see red. I got pulled aside a couple of times by my CEO and COO, being like “Hey, your attitude sucks and you’re not getting along with your superior and she’s your manager and you need to shape up.” I’d get knocked down a peg and we’d improve a little but then it would always revert back. I got a formal warning: “If you don’t stop acting up, we’re going to fire you.” I mouthed off again and they were like, “That’s it, you’re done. You’re not respecting managerial/subordinate boundaries,” and I was like, yeah, I get it. I wasn’t even shocked at that point. I think in the moment I was almost a little grateful. It sucks to get fired but I was completely stuck and so frustrated and I didn’t know how to cope.

There’s a point where you’re so frustrated by a work situation that you’ve got to decide whether you can accept the job as it is or whether it’s time for you to go. You’ve got to tell yourself, “Okay, this is part of the package with this job and it’s not going to change anytime soon. Knowing that reality, can I find a way to be okay with it or do I need to start actively looking to leave?”

If you don’t do that — if you instead let yourself stay mired in aggravation and resentment — you can end up doing things that make the situation worse and ultimately hurt you. It sounds like you learned that the hard way!

It feels trite to say that sometimes getting fired can be a blessing … but sometimes it can get you out of a bad situation that for whatever reason you hadn’t left on your own.

Dear Boss,

I’d graduated from a business school where all of my friends had jobs waiting for them after they’d graduated. I wasn’t in finance and didn’t have an accounting degree so I quickly searched for a job in communications and found an opportunity in Florida. I was 22, and when I started to work there, I very quickly realized that it was different from how I thought work would be. My boss, who was 36, micromanaged in a way which I now understand causes people to make mistakes. My first week, and I will never forget this, she asked me to go find a book that she wanted to include in a new business presentation and I had to drive all over two counties to find it and then deliver it to her house at 9 p.m. I misspelled something in an email and she called me to yell at me and then of course I spelled something else wrong in my next email so she made every email I ever wrote get checked over by somebody, for four months. As you can imagine, I developed an incredible insecurity. Any email that I wrote had to be checked. Period. To clients. To partners. To vendors. When she “checked” them she ripped them apart and a lot of it was stylistic — it wasn’t necessary to make all the edits she’d suggest. She also approached it in a very nasty way; not like, “Good job; see some suggestions below.” It was like, “I have lots of edits; please make these before sending.” Or, “Rewrite and send back.” Very nasty. I constantly feared for my job. She was constantly threatening to fire me. 

She created a rotating scheduling of employees who had to clean the bathroom. She didn’t have toilet paper in the bathroom. I had to bring toilet paper in from home because there was never toilet paper and the bathroom was never cleaned and this was a corporate office and we were on our hands and knees cleaning the bathroom with Lysol and bleach.

I think, knowing what I know, I would still go through it because it made me stronger. It made me appreciate a good boss and it toughened me up. I’m now in charge of three large teams and no matter who’s underneath me, I say “thank you,” because I remember how hard it was to get a “thank you,” ever. I know you need to hear “thank you” to do a good job. Because I didn’t have that motivation back then. I no longer need it. I don’t get motivated by “thank you”s. I have found other ways to motivate myself but I know how good it feels. 

When you’re 22, it can be hard to recognize a terrible situation. There’s a reason a lot of terribly run companies like to hire mostly young people — they’re more likely to put up with things that people with more experience won’t.

I’m guessing that if your boss had you and your coworkers cleaning bathrooms on your hands and knees, this probably wasn’t a large company and there might not have been anyone above her who you could have talked to about this. Small companies can be really tough in that regard — they don’t have as many checks and balances as larger companies have, there are fewer people in their management structures, and if there are serious problems, there often isn’t anyone you can escalate them to.

As a general rule, though, if a manager is constantly threatening to fire you, it’s not a good situation and you should probably get out. If your work really were so bad that it deserved that response, a good manager would part ways with you — and would treat you with respect and dignity while doing it. Someone who just threatens you over and over is someone who doesn’t know how to manage, is abusive, and over time will destroy your confidence. You don’t need to put up with that.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

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‘My Boss’s Incompetence Fills Me With Rage!’